Why did European countries compete for colonies in Central Africa and East Africa?

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Dec 3, 2016


There was little competition for Central Africa. As for East Africa, the stakes were extremely high.


Colonization, in Africa and elsewhere, started with trade counters on the coast and, specifically, since the first explorers were Portuguese whose home is on the Atlantic, with its West Coast.

France and Spain shared the western bulge of the continent, and the Southern part of the gulf if Guinee was mostly Portuguese with a sprinkling of French, Spanish and English trade counters. The Cape was held by the Dutch (at least until they had to give it up to the Brits at the Congress of Vienna).

The inland movement by the French and the Belgians towards Central Africa was comparatively an easy stride. Paris mobilised in 1898 and, pointing North-East from Gabon, reached Southern Sudan without encumbrance. There, at the oasis of Fashoda, Colonel Marchand was defeated by Earl Kitchener (the hero of Khartoum) and France backtracked to her coastal and Sahara dominions a lot faster than she had advanced.

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The heart of Africa (the vast Congo pluvial basin) became personal property of the King of the Belgians by a stroke of his sceptre. He had heavily invested in Stanley's rescue voyage to locate Livingstone and, upon his success, he simply annexed the huge territory with its undiscovered riches and that was it.

The fact of the matter is that no one was particularly interested in a thickly wooded territory impossible to explore and inhabited by wild beasts and ferocious pigmy. Leopold wanted it? He could have it. What he could do with it remained to be seen.

The story of East Africa is a very different one. It started, as to be expected, with a strong Islamic imprint with the exception of the Northern part of Ethiopia that, for reason still discussed by historians, was frankly Christian and Christian is still today.
One likely reason is that Arabs were traders, they occupied and cultured their conquered territories wherever they could and deemed it necessary. They did not colonise in the way we understand colonization. Therefore, when the region, that no one had wanted for its impervious mountains and lack of rivers, suddenly became relevant with the opening of the Suez Canal, the Horn of Africa was still "Terra Nullius" (literally, and rather presumptuously put, "it belonged to no one"). Hence, everyone jumped to the occasion trying to secure a harbour, a base or at least a foothold on the Red Sea and on the new shortcut route to India and to Australia.

We are in the 1870s by now, and the newly made Germans had joined the haunting party, and so had the newly made Italians. Therefore, on the Red Sea Coast soon there was nothing left for the hopeful imperial powers for an easy take.

The Italians moved west from their bases in Assab and Massaua to a total disaster (1896). The Germans occupied Mozambique, the French Djibouti... On their account, Westminster attempted to outsmart everyone with a pharaonic project that, had it worked, it would have cut everyone else from further advances.

While Cecil Rhodes Moved North from the Cape, and Kitchener South from Cairo, British engineers followed their military advances with railroad tracks. The idea being of joining the two ends of a gigantic stretch of British territory from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope. Once completed, Africa West of the Nile, of the Lakes and of the Rift Valley would have been Off Bound for any non-British adventurer.

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If the European Powers did not come to logger heads over the Horn of Africa on this issue it was because the project did not work, and because the Ethiopians and the Bantus did the job for them. The death of Napoleon's III nephew in South Africa (1879) and the defeat of the Italian Army at Adwa had been lessons for everyone. Fighting a conventional war in a heavy forested plateau more than 3,000 meter high in order to conquer a rough land, a irksome people (already Christian to top it all) was definitely not worth the effort.

The French hung to their postage stamp in Djibouti and the Italians to their narrow Eritrean coastal strip. The English retired to Aden and left to the Egyptians the charge of running their affairs in the Sudan.

The Horn of Africa remained under African rule because nobody cared for it in the beginning but, afterwards, because nobody could tame its peoples and its splendid wilderness

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