History of Africa

The following is an outline of African history, followed by a list of articles about the history of particular places in Africa.



Evolution of hominids and Homo sapiens in Africa

Main article: Human evolution

Africa was the birthplace of both the hominin subfamily and the genus Homo, including eight species of which only Homo sapiens remains.

According to the latest paleontological and archaeological evidence, hominids were already in existence at least five million years ago. These animals were still very much like their close cousins, the great African apes, but had adopted a bipedal form of locomotion, giving them a crucial advantage in the struggle for survival, as this enabled them to live in both forested areas and on the open savanna, at a time when Africa was drying up, with savannah encroaching on forested areas.

By 3 million years ago several australopithecine hominid species had developed throughout southern, eastern and central Africa.

The next major evolutionary step occurred approximately 2 million years ago, with the advent of Homo habilis, the first species of hominid capable of making tools. This enabled H. habilis to begin eating meat, using his stone tools to scavenge kills made by other predators, and harvest cadavers for their bones and marrow. In hunting, H. habilis was probably not capable of competing with large predators, and was still more prey than hunter, although he probably did steal eggs from nests, and may have been able to catch small game, and weakened larger prey (cubs and older animals).

Around one million years ago Homo erectus had evolved. With his relatively large brain (1,000 cc), he mastered the African plains, fabricating a variety of stone tools that enabled him to become a hunter equal to the top predators. In addition Homo erectus mastered the art of making fire, and was the first hominid to leave Africa, colonizing the entire Old World, and later giving rise to Homo floresiensis.

The fossil record shows Homo sapiens living in southern and eastern Africa between 100,000-150,000 years ago. The earliest human exodus out of Africa and within the continent is indicated by linguistic and cultural evidence, and increasingly by computer-analyzed genetic evidence (see also Cavalli-Sforza).

Neolithic prehistoric cultures

North Africa

Main article: History of the Sahara

Neolithic rock engravings, or 'petroglyphs' and the megaliths in the Sahara desert of Libya attest to early hunter-gatherer culture in the dry grasslands of North Africa during the glacial age. The region of the present Sahara was an early site for the practice of agriculture (Wavy-line ceramics). However, after the desertification of the Sahara, settlement in North Africa became concentrated in the valley of the Nile, where the pre-literate Nomes of Egypt laid a base for the culture of ancient Egypt. Archeological findings show that primitive tribes lived along the Nile long before the dynastic history of the pharaohs began. By 6000 B.C., organized agriculture had appeared.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Linguistic evidence suggests the Bantu people (e.g. Xhosa and Zulu) have emigrated southwestward into former Khoisan ranges and displaced them. Bantu populations used a distinct suite of crops suited to tropical Africa, including cassava and yams. This farming culture is able to support more persons per unit area than hunter-gatherers. The traditional Bantu range goes from the northern deserts right down to the temperate regions of the south, in which the Bantu crop suite fails from frost. Their primary weapons historically were bows and stabbing spears with shields.

Ethiopia had a distinct, ancient culture with an intermittent history of contact with Eurasia after the diaspora of hominids out of Africa. It preserved a unique language, culture and crop system. The crop system is adapted to the dry northern highlands and does not partake of any other area's crops. The most famous member of this crop system is coffee, but one of the more useful plants is sorghum, a dry-land grain.

Ancient cultures also existed all along the Nile, and in modern-day Ghana .

History of North Africa (3500 B.C. - 1500 A.D.)

Ancient Egypt

Main articles: History of Ancient Egypt, Kush

Written history originated in Ancient Egypt, and the Egyptian calendar is still used as the standard for dating bronze age and iron age cultures throughout the region.

In about 3100 B.C., Egypt was united under a ruler known as Mena, or Menes, who inaugurated the first of the 30 dynasties into which Egypt's ancient history is divided: the Old, Middle Kingdoms and the New Kingdom. The pyramids at Giza (near Cairo), which were built in the Fourth dynasty, testify to the power of the pharaonic religion and state. The Great Pyramid, the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops), is the only surviving monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ancient Egypt reached the peak of its power, wealth, and territorial extent in the period called the New Empire (1567-1085 B.C.).

The Egyptians reached Crete around 2000 BC and were invaded by Indo-Europeans and Hyksos Semites. They defeated the invaders around 1570 BC and expanded into the Aegean, Sudan, Libya, and much of southwest Asia, as far as the Euphrates.

The importance of Ancient Egypt to the development of Africa has been disputed. The earlier generation of Western Africanists generally saw Egypt as a Mediterranean civilization with little impact Egyptian on the rest of Africa. The more recent historians based in Africa take a very different view seeing Egypt as important to the development of African civilization as Greece was to the development of European. It has been demonstrated that Egypt had considerable contact with Ethiopia and the upper Nile valley, south of the cataracts of the Nile in Nubian Kush. Links and connections to the Sahel and West Africa have been proposed, but are as of yet unproven.

Phoenician, Greek and Roman colonization

Separated by the 'sea of sand', the Sahara, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa been linked by fluctuating trans-Saharan trade routes. Phoenician, Greek and Roman history of North Africa can be followed in entries for the Roman Empire and for its individual provinces in the Maghreb, such as Mauretania, Africa, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, Aegyptus etc.

In Northern Africa Ethiopia has been the only state which throughout historic times has (except for a brief period during World War II) maintained its independence. Countries bordering the Mediterranean were colonised and settled by the Phoenicians before 1000 BC. Carthage, founded about 814 BC, speedily grew into a city without rival in the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians subdued the Berber tribes who, then as now, formed the bulk of the population, and became masters of all the habitable region of North Africa west of the Great Syrtis, and found in commerce a source of immense prosperity.

Greeks founded the city of Cyrene in Libya around 631 BC. Cyrenaica became a flourishing colony, though being hemmed in on all sides by absolute desert it had little or no influence on inner Africa. The Greeks, however, exerted a powerful influence in Egypt. To Alexander the Great the city of Alexandria owes its foundation (332 BC), and under the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies attempts were made to penetrate southward, and in this way was obtained some knowledge of Ethiopia.

The three powers of Cyrenaica, Egypt and Carthage were eventually supplanted by the Romans. After centuries of rivalry with Rome, Carthage finally fell in 146 BC. Within little more than a century Egypt and Cyrene had become incorporated in the Roman empire. Under Rome the settled portions of the country were very prosperous, and a Latin strain was introduced into the land. Though Fezzan was occupied by them, the Romans elsewhere found the Sahara an impassable barrier. Nubia and Ethiopia were reached, but an expedition sent by the emperor Nero to discover the source of the Nile ended in failure. The utmost extent of mediterranean geographical knowledge of the continent is shown in the writings of Ptolemy (2nd century), who knew of or guessed the existence of the great lake reservoirs of the Nile, of trading posts along the shores of the Indian Ocean as far south as Rhapta in modern Tanzania, and had heard of the river Niger.

Interaction between Asia, Europe and North Africa during this period was significant, major effects include the spread of classical culture around the shores of the Mediterranean; the continual struggle between Rome and the Berber tribes; the introduction of Christianity throughout the region, and the cultural effects of the churches in Tunisia, Egypt and Ethiopia.

Dark Age

The classical era drew to a close with the invasion and conquest of Rome's African provinces by the Vandals in the 5th century; although power passed back briefly in the following century to the Byzantine Empire. All of these topics are expounded upon in their respective articles.


In the 7th century occurred an event destined to have a permanent influence on the whole continent. Beginning with an invasion of Egypt, a host of Arabs, believers in the new faith of Islam, conquered the whole of North Africa from the Red Sea to the Atlantic and continued into Spain. Throughout North Africa Christianity nearly disappeared, save in Egypt (where the Coptic Church was allowed to continue), and Upper Nubia and Ethiopia, which were not subdued by the Muslims.

In the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries the Arabs in Africa were numerically weak, holding the countries they had conquered only by military superiority; but in the 11th century there was a great Arab immigration, resulting in a large absorption of Berber culture. Even before this the Berbers had very generally adopted the speech and religion of their conquerors. Arab influence and the Islamic religion thus became indelibly stamped on northern Africa. Together they spread southward across the Sahara. They also became firmly established along the eastern seaboard, where Arabs, Persians and Indians planted flourishing colonies, such as Mombasa, Malindi and Sofala, playing a role, maritime and commercial, analogous to that filled in earlier centuries by the Carthaginians on the northern seaboard. Until the 14th century, Europe and the Arabs of North Africa were both ignorant of these eastern cities and states.

The first Arab invaders had recognized the authority of the caliphs of Baghdad, and the Aghlabite dynasty—founded by Aghlab, one of Haroun al-Raschid's generals, at the close of the 8th century—ruled as vassals of the caliphate. However, early in the 10th century the Fatimid dynasty established itself in Egypt, where Cairo had been founded AD 968, and from there ruled as far west as the Atlantic. Later still arose other dynasties such as the Almoravides and Almohades. Eventually the Turks, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453, and had seized Egypt in 1517, established the regencies of Algeria, Tunisia and Tripoli (between 1519 and 1551), Morocco remaining an independent Arabized Berber state under the Sharifan dynasty, which had its beginnings at the end of the 13th century.

Under the earlier dynasties Arabian or Moorish culture had attained a high degree of excellence, while the spirit of adventure and the proselytizing zeal of the followers of Islam led to a considerable extension of the knowledge of the continent. This was rendered more easy by their use of the camel (first introduced into Africa by the Persian conquerors of Egypt), which enabled the Arabs to traverse the desert. In this way Senegambia and the middle Niger regions fell under the influence of the Arabs and Berbers, but it was not until 1591 that Timbuktu—a city founded in the 11th century—became Muslim. That city had been reached in 1352 by the great Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, whose journey to Mombasa and Quiloa (Kilwa) provided the first accurate knowledge of those flourishing Muslim cities on the east African seaboards. Except along this seaboard, which was colonized directly from Asia, Arab progress southward was stopped by the broad belt of dense forest, stretching almost across the continent somewhat south of 10 North latitude, which barred their advance much as the Sahara had proved an obstacle to their predecessors. The rainforest cut them off from knowledge of the Guinea coast and of all Africa beyond. One of the regions which was the last to come under Arab rule was that of Nubia, which had been controlled by Christians up to the 14th century.

For a time the Muslim conquests in South Europe had virtually made of the Mediterranean an Arab lake, but the expulsion in the 11th century of the Saracens from Sicily and southern Italy by the Normans was followed by descents of the conquerors on Tunisia and Tripoli. Somewhat later a busy trade with the African coastlands, and especially with Egypt, was developed by Venice, Pisa, Genoa and other cities of North Italy. By the end of the 15th century Spain had completely removed the Muslims, but even while the Moors were still in Granada, Portugal was strong enough to carry the war into Africa. In 1415 a Portuguese force captured the citadel of Ceuta on the Moorish coast. From that time onward Portugal repeatedly interfered in the affairs of Morocco, while Spain acquired many ports in Algeria and Tunisia.

Portugal, however, suffered a crushing defeat in 1578 at al Kasr al Kebir, the Moors being led by Abd el Malek I of the then recently established Sharifan dynasty. By that time the Spaniards had lost almost all their African possessions. The Barbary states, primarily from the example of the Moors expelled from Spain, degenerated into mere communities of pirates, and under Turkish influence civilization and commerce declined. The story of these states from the beginning of the 16th century to the third decade of the 19th century is largely made up of piratical exploits on the one hand and of ineffectual reprisals on the other. In Algiers, Tunis and other cities were thousands of Christian slaves.

History of Sub-Saharan Africa until 1500 A.D.

Medieval empires

There were many great empires in Sub-saharan africa over the past few millennia. These were mostly concentrated in West Africa where important trade routes and good agricultural land allowed extensive states to develop. These included the Mali, Oba of Benin, the Kanem-Bornu Empire, the Fulani Empire, the Dahomey, the Ashanti Empire, and the Songhay.

Also common in this region were loose federations of city states such as those of the Yoruba and Hausa.

Further south empires were less common, but there were exceptions, most notably Great Zimbabwe. One region that did see considerable state formation due to its high population and agricultural surplus was the Great Lakes region where states such as Rwanda, Burundi, and Buganda became strongly centralized.

Ethiopia, closely linked with North Africa and the Middle East also had centralized rule for many millennia and the Axumite Kingdom which developed there has created a powerful regional trading empire (with trade routes going as far as India).

European exploration and conquest


With the Battle of Ceuta Africa had ceased to belong solely to the Mediterranean world. Among those who fought there was one, Prince Henry "the Navigator," son of King John I, who was fired with the ambition to acquire for Portugal the unknown parts of Africa. Under his inspiration and direction was begun that series of voyages of exploration which resulted in the circumnavigation of Africa and the establishment of Portuguese sovereignty over large areas of the coastlands.

Portuguese ships rounded Cape Bojador in 1434, Cape Verde in 1445, and by 1480 the whole Guinea coast was known. In 1482 Diogo Co discovered the mouth of the Congo, the Cape of Good Hope was rounded by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, and in 1498 Vasco da Gama, after having rounded the Cape, sailed up the east coast, touched at Sofala and Malindi, and went thence to India. Over all the countries discovered by their navigators Portugal claimed sovereign rights, but these were not exercised in the extreme south of the continent.

The Guinea coast, as the first discovered and the nearest to Europe, was first exploited. Numerous forts and trading stations were established, the earliest being Sao Jorge da Mina (Elmina), begun in 1482. The chief commodities dealt in were slaves, gold, ivory and spices. The discovery of America (1492) was followed by a great development of the slave trade, which, before the Portuguese era, had been an overland trade almost exclusively confined to Muslim Africa. The lucrative nature of this trade and the large quantities of alluvial gold obtained by the Portuguese drew other nations to the Guinea coast. English mariners went there as early as 1553, and they were followed by Spaniards, Dutch, French, Danish and other adventurers. Much of Senegambia was made known as a result of quests during the 16th century for the "hills of gold" in Bambuk and the fabled wealth of Timbuktu, but the middle Niger was not reached. The supremacy along the coast passed in the 17th century from Portugal to the Netherlands and from the Dutch in the 18th and 19th centuries to France and Britain. The whole coast from Senegal to Lagos was dotted with forts and "factories" of rival powers, and this international patchwork persisted into the 20th century though all the hinterland had become either French or British territory.

Southward from the mouth of the Congo to the inhospitable region of Damaraland (in what is present-day Namibia), the Portuguese, from 1491 onward, acquired influence over the Bantu inhabitants, and in the early part of the 16th century through their efforts Christianity was largely adopted in the Kongo Empire. An incursion of cannibalistic tribes from the interior later in the same century broke the power of this semi-Christian state, and Portuguese activity was transferred to a great extent farther south, Sao Paulo de Loanda (present-day Luanda) being founded in 1576. Before Angolan independence, the sovereignty of Portugal over this coast region, except for the mouth of the Congo, had been once only challenged by a European power, and that was in 1640-1648, when the Dutch held the seaports.

Neglecting the comparatively poor and thinly inhabited regions of South Africa, the Portuguese no sooner discovered than they coveted the flourishing cities held by Arabized peoples between Sofala and Cape Guardafui. By 1520 all these Muslim sultanates had been seized by Portugal, Moambique being chosen as the chief city of her East African possessions. Nor was Portuguese activity confined to the coastlands. The lower and middle Zambezi valley was explored (16th and 17th centuries), and here the Portuguese found semi-assimilated Bantu tribes, who had been for many years in contact with the coast Arabs. Strenuous efforts were made to obtain possession of the country (modern Zimbabwe) known to them as the kingdom or empire of Monomotapa, where gold had been worked by the natives from about the 12th century AD, and whence the Arabs, whom the Portuguese dispossessed, were still obtaining supplies in the 16th century. Several expeditions were despatched inland from 1569 onward and considerable quantities of gold were obtained. Portugal's hold on the interior, never very effective, weakened during the 17th century, and in the middle of the 18th century ceased with the abandonment of the forts in the Manica district.

At the period of her greatest power Portugal exercised a strong influence in Ethiopia also. In the ruler of Ethiopia (to whose dominions a Portuguese traveller had penetrated before Vasco da Gama's memorable voyage) the Portuguese imagined they had found the legendary Christian king, Prester John, and when the complete overthrow of the native dynasty and the Christian religion was imminent by the victories of the sultan Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi, the exploits of a band of 400 Portuguese under Christopher da Gama during 1541-1543 turned the scale in favor of Ethiopia and had thus an enduring result on the future of North-East Africa. After da Gama's time Portuguese Jesuits travelled to Ethiopia. While they failed in their efforts to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism they acquired an extensive knowledge of the country. Pedro Paez in 1615, and, ten years later, Jeronimo Lobo, both visited the sources of the Blue Nile. In 1663 the Portuguese, who had outstayed their welcome, were expelled from the Ethiopian dominions. At this time Portuguese influence on the Zanzibar coast faded before the power of the Arabs of Muscat, and by 1730 no point on the east coast north of Cape Delgado was held by Portugal.

It has been seen that Portugal took no steps to acquire the southern part of the continent. To the Portuguese the Cape of Good Hope was simply a landmark on the road to India, and mariners of other nations who followed in their wake used Table Bay only as a convenient spot wherein to refit on their voyage to the East. By the beginning of the 17th century the bay was much resorted to for this purpose, chiefly by British and Dutch vessels.

In 1620, with the object of forestalling the Dutch, two officers of the East India Company, on their own initiative, took possession of Table Bay in the name of King James, fearing otherwise that British ships would be "frustrated of watering but by license." Their action was not approved in London and the proclamation they issued remained without effect. The Netherlands profited by the apathy of the British. On the advice of sailors who had been shipwrecked in Table Bay the Netherlands East India Company, in 1651, sent out a fleet of three small vessels under Jan van Riebeeck which reached Table Bay on the April 6, 1652 when, 164 years after its discovery, the first permanent white settlement was made in South Africa. The Portuguese, whose power in Africa was already waning, were not in a position to interfere with the Dutch plans, and Britain was content to seize the island of Saint Helena as her half-way house to the East. Until the Dutch landed, the southern tip of Africa was inhabited by a sparse Khoisan speaking culture including both Bushmen (hunter-gatherers) and Khoi (herders). The Khoi have in the past been referred to by Europeans "Hottentots". Bushmen have at times been called "San," but this term is generally considered offensive as it is Khoikhoi word meaning "outsider." Europeans found it a paradise for their temperate crop suites.

In its inception the settlement at the Cape was not intended to become an African colony, but was regarded as the most westerly outpost of the Dutch East Indies. Nevertheless, despite the paucity of ports and the absence of navigable rivers, the Dutch colonists, including Huguenots who had fled France, gradually spread northward, stamping their language, law and religion indelibly upon South Africa. This process, however, was exceedingly slow.

During the 18th century the slave trade reached its highest development, the trade in gold, ivory, gum and spices being small in comparison.

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An 1812 map of Africa by Arrowsmith and Lewis

19th Century European explorers

See also: Colonization of Africa, Scramble for Africa

Although the Napoleonic Wars distracted the attention of Europe from exploratory work in Africa, those wars nevertheless exercised great influence on the future of the continent, both in Egypt and South Africa. The occupation of Egypt (1798-1803) first by France and then by Great Britain resulted in an effort by Turkey to regain direct control over that country, followed in 1811 by the establishment under Mehemet Ali of an almost independent state, and the extension of Egyptian rule over the eastern Sudan (from 1820 onward). In South Africa the struggle with Napoleon caused the United Kingdom to take possession of the Dutch settlements at the Cape, and in 1814 Cape Colony, which had been continuously occupied by British troops since 1806, was formally ceded to the British crown.

Meantime considerable changes had been made in other parts of the continent, the most notable being the occupation of Algiers by France in 1830, an end being thereby put to the piratical proceedings of the Barbary states; the continued expansion southward of Egyptian authority with the consequent additions to the knowledge of the Nile. The city of Zanzibar, on the island of that name, founded in 1832 by Seyyid Said of Muscat, rapidly attained importance. Accounts of a vast inland sea, and the discovery in 1840-1848, by the missionaries Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johann Rebmann, of the snow-clad mountains of Kilimanjaro and Kenya, stimulated in Europe the desire for further knowledge.

At this period, the middle of the 19th century, Protestant missions were carrying on active propaganda on the Guinea coast, in South Africa and in the Zanzibar dominions. Their work, largely beneficent, was being conducted in regions and among peoples little known, and in many instances missionaries turned explorers and became pioneers of trade and empire. One of the first to attempt to fill up the remaining blank spaces in the map was David Livingstone, who had been engaged since 1840 in missionary work north of the Orange. In 1849 Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert from south to north and reached Lake Ngami, and between 1851 and 1856 he traversed the continent from west to east, making known the great waterways of the upper Zambezi. During these journeyings Livingstone discovered, November 1855, the famous Victoria Falls, so named after the Queen of the United Kingdom. In 1858-1864 the lower Zambezi, the Shire and Lake Nyasa were explored by Livingstone, Nyasa having been first reached by the confidential slave of Antonio da Silva Porto, a Portuguese trader established at Bihe in Angola, who crossed Africa during 1853-1856 from Benguella to the mouth of the Rovuma.

Also in 1855, Hassa Kailu consolidated his rule in what is known today as Ethiopia.

Henry Morton Stanley, who had in 1871 succeeded in finding and succouring Livingstone, started again for Zanzibar in 1874, and in one of the most memorable of all exploring expeditions in Africa circumnavigated Victoria Nyanza and Tanganyika, and, striking farther inland to the Lualaba, followed that river down to the Atlantic Ocean—reached in August 1877 -- and proved it to be the Congo.

While the great mystery of Central Africa was being solved explorers were also active in other parts of the continent. Southern Morocco, the Sahara and the Sudan were traversed in many directions between 1860 and 1875 by Gerhard Rohlfs, Georg Schweinfurth and Gustav Nachtigal. These travellers not only added considerably to geographical knowledge, but obtained invaluable information concerning the people, languages and natural history of the countries in which they sojourned. Among the discoveries of Schweinfurth was one that confirmed the Greek legends of the existence beyond Egypt of a "pygmy race". But the first discoverer of the dwarf races of Central Africa was Paul du Chaillu, who found them in the Ogowe district of the west coast in 1865, five years before Schweinfurth's first meeting with them; du Chaillu having previously, as the result of journeys in the Gabon region between 1855 and 1859, made popular in Europe the knowledge of the existence of the gorilla, perhaps the gigantic ape seen by Hanno the Carthaginian, and whose existence, up to the middle of the 19th century, was thought to be as legendary as that of the Pygmies of Aristotle.

Partition among European Powers

For details, see the main article Scramble for Africa

In the last quarter of the 19th century the map of Africa was transformed. After the discovery of the Congo the story of exploration takes second place; the continent becomes the theatre of European expansion. Lines of partition, drawn often through trackless wildernesses, marked out the possessions of Germany, France, Britain and other powers. Railways penetrated the interior, vast areas were opened up to Western occupation, and from Egypt to the Zambezi the continent was startled into new life.

The causes which led to the partition of Africa may now be considered. They are to be found in the economic and political state of western Europe at the time. Germany, strong and united as the result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, was seeking new outlets for her energies—new markets for her growing industries, and with the markets, colonies.

Yet the idea of colonial expansion slow to gain favour in Germany, and when Prince Bismarck at length acted Africa was the only field left to exploit, South America being protected from interference by the known determination of the United States to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, while Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain already held most of the other regions of the world where colonization was possible.

Part of the reason Germany began to expand into the colonial sphere at this time, despite Bismarck's lack of enthusiasm for the idea, was a shift in the world view of the Prussian governing elite. Indeed, European elites as a whole began to view the world as a finite place, one in which only the strong would predominate. The influence of social-darwinism was deep, encouraging a view of the world as essentially characterized by zero-sum relationships.

For different reasons the war of 1870 was also the starting-point for France in the building up of a new colonial empire. In her endeavour to regain the position lost in that war France had to look beyond Europe. To the two causes mentioned must be added others. Britain and Portugal, when they found their interests threatened, bestirred themselves, while Italy also conceived it necessary to become an African power. Britain awoke to the need for action too late to secure predominance in all the regions where formerly hers was the only European influence. She had to contend not only with the economic forces which urged her rivals to action, but had also to combat the jealous opposition of almost every European nation to the further growth of British power. Italy alone acted throughout in cordial co-operation with Britain.

It was not, however, the action of any of the great powers of Europe which precipitated the struggle. This was brought about by the ambitious projects of Leopold II, king of the Belgians. The discoveries of Livingstone, Stanley and others had aroused especial interest among two classes of men in western Europe, one the manufacturing and trading class, which saw in Central Africa possibilities of commercial development, the other the philanthropic and missionary class, which beheld in the newly discovered lands millions of "savages" to Christianize and "civilize". The possibility of utilizing both these classes in the creation of a vast state, of which he should be the chief, formed itself in the mind of Leopold II even before Stanley had navigated the Congo. The king's action was immediate; it proved successful; but no sooner was the nature of his project understood in Europe than it provoked the rivalry of France and Germany, and thus the international struggle was begun.

Conflicting ambitions of the European powers

In 1873, Zanzibar, the busiest slave market in Africa, closed.

The part of the continent to which King Leopold directed his energies was the equatorial region. In September 1876 he took what may be described as the first definite step in the modern partition of the continent. He summoned to a conference at Brussels representatives of Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia, to deliberate on the best methods to be adopted for the exploration and Westernization of Africa, and the opening up of the interior of the continent to commerce and industry. The conference was entirely unofficial. The delegates who attended neither represented nor pledged their respective governments. Their deliberations lasted three days and resulted in the foundation of "The International African Association," with its headquarters at Brussels. It was further resolved to establish national committees in the various countries represented, which should collect funds and appoint delegates to the International Association. The central idea appears to have been to put the exploration and development of Africa upon an international footing. But it quickly became apparent that this was an unattainable ideal. The national committees were soon working independently of the International Association, and the Association itself passed through a succession of stages until it became purely Belgian in character, and at last developed into the Congo Free State, under the personal sovereignty of King Leopold.

For some time before 1884 there had been growing up a general conviction that it would be desirable for the powers who were interesting themselves in Africa to come to some agreement as to "the rules of the game," and to define their respective interests so far as that was practicable. Lord Granville's ill-fated treaty brought this sentiment to a head, and it was agreed to hold an international conference on African affairs.

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Map of Africa 1890

The Berlin Conference of 1884-85

Main article: Berlin Conference

From 1885 the scramble among the powers went on with renewed vigour, and in the fifteen years that remained of the century the work of partition, so far as international agreements were concerned, was practically completed.

1900s. The Boer War, conflict between the UK and Dutch settlers.
Relationship to "Victorian Era" in the UK.

Soldiers of King Menelik II fended off the Italians, keeping Ethiopia independent from European colonialization.

20th Century: 1900-1945

Africa at the start of the 20th century

Map of Africa just before World War I (larger image (456 kB))
Map of Africa just before World War I (larger image (456 kB))

All of the continent claimed by European powers, except for Ethiopia ("Abyssinia") and Liberia.

The European powers set up a variety of different administrations in Africa at this time, with different ambitions and degrees of power. In some areas, parts of British West Africa for example, colonial control was tenuous and intended for simple economic extraction, strategic power, or as part of a long term development plan.

In other areas Europeans were encouraged to settle, creating settler states in which a European minority came to dominate society. Settlers only came to a few colonies in sufficient numbers to have a strong impact. British settler colonies included British East Africa, now Kenya, North and South Rhodesia, later Zambia and Zimbabwe, and South Africa, which already had a significant population of European settlers, the Boers. The Boers who had already set up their own Republics, resisted British colonisation in the Anglo Boer Wars.

France planned to settle Algeria and eventually incorporate it into the French state as an equal to the European provinces. Its proximity across the Meditterranean allowed plans of this scale.

In most areas colonial administrations did not have the manpower or resources to fully administer the territory and had to rely on local power structures to help them. Various factions and groups within the societies exploited this European requirement for their own purposes, attempting to gain a position of power within their own communities by cooperating with Europeans. One aspect of this struggle included what Terrence Ranger has termed the "invention of tradition." In order to legitimize their own claims to power in the eyes of both the colonial administrators, and their own people, people would essentially manufacture "traditional" claims to power, or ceremonies. As a result many societies were thrown into disarray by the new order.

During World War I, there were several battles between the United Kingdom and Germany, the most notable being the Battle of Tanga, and a sustained guerrilla campaign by the German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.


After World War I, the formerly German colonies in Africa were taken over by France and the United Kingdom.

During this era a sense of local patriotism or nationalism took deeper root among African intellectuals and politicians. Some of the inspiration for this movement came from the First World War in which European countries had relied on colonial troops for their own defence. Many in Africa realized their own strength with regard to the colonizer for the first time. At the same time, some of the mystique of the "invincible" European was shattered by the barbarities of the war. However, in most areas European control remained relatively strong during this period.

In 1935 Benito Mussolini had Italian troops invade Ethiopia, the last African nation not dominated by a foreign power.

World War II

1940s. Pre-WW2 and World War II in Africa.

North African campaign. Deutsches Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel. Definitive defeat of the Germans in the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Importance of Egypt to the UK.
US invasion of Algeria.

20th Century: 1945-1990


Main articles: Decolonization, Decolonization of Africa

The Decolonization in Africa started with Libya in 1951. Many countries followed in the 50s and 60s, with a peak in 1960 with independence of a large part of French West Africa. Because many cities were founded, enlarged and renamed by the Europeans, after the independence many place names (for example Stanleyville, Leopoldville, Rhodesia) were renamed: see historical African place names for these.

Postcolonial Relationship with Europe

development help
weapon deliveries

The Cold War in Africa

U.S. policy of supporting certain regimes (for instance Mobutu)
Soviet interests in Africa


Main article: Pan-Africanism

Central Africa

See also: Central Africa

East Africa

See also: East Africa

In 1952, the Mau Mau Rebellion started in Kenya. This would lead to that country's independence. Jomo Kenyatta became the first president of independent Kenya.

The early 1990s also signaled the start of major clashes between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi. In 1994 this resulted in the Rwandan Genocide, a conflict in which thousands died.

North Africa

See also: North Africa

In 1954 a government came to power in Egypt that was opposed to the United States. The same occurred in Libya in 1969. Egypt was under Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Libya under Moammar al-Qadhafi. As of 2004, al-Qadhafi is still in power.

Egypt was involved several wars against Israel, and was allied with other Arab countries. The first was right after the Israel was founded, in 1947. Egypt went to war again in 1967 and lost the Sinai Peninsula to Israel. They went to war yet again in 1973. In 1979, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords, which gave back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for the recognition of Israel. The accords are still in effect today. In 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist for signing the accords.

Southern Africa

See also: Southern Africa

In 1948, the Apartheid laws were started in South Africa by the dominant party.

Conflict between Afrikaans-speakers and English-speakers.
Establishment of "homelands".
South African military efforts in Angola.
International trade sanctions.
Conflict between ANC and Zulu factions.
End of Apartheid and establishment of new constitution.

In 1994, the Apartheid had ended in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela of the ANC was elected president of South Africa in the country's first multiracial elections.

West Africa

See also: West Africa

In 1983, Thomas Sankara came to power in Upper Volta later renamed Burkina Faso and started what he and his supporters saw as an African revolution.

History of African Nations

Central Africa

Eastern Africa

Northern Africa

Southern Africa

Western Africa

See also

Template:Africafooter Template:History by continent footerde:Geschichte Afrikas es:Historia de frica fr:Histoire de l'Afrique sw:Historia ya Afrika nl:Geschiedenis van Afrika pl:Historia Afryki pt:Histria da frica sr:Историја Африке zh:非洲史


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