Divide and Rule: The Partition of Africa, 1880–1914, by H.L. Wesseling, translated by Arnold Pomerans, Praeger, 1996, 446 pp., $29.95 (soft cover)
The colonization of Africa was one of the most colorful chapters in the history of European expansion. It is common to think of it as a period of greed tempered by occasional flashes of Christian idealism, but it was a great deal more than that. Just how much more is recounted clearly and divertingly in this excellent history originally published in Dutch, in 1991. Prof. H.L. Wesseling of the University of Leiden presents the crucial 35 years of African partition in a way that is both accessible to the layman and entertaining to the specialist. Divide and Rule is an ideal introduction to a geopolitical adventure that dates from the high-water mark of European self-confidence, but that sowed the seeds for the massive immigration of ex-subjects that now plagues the former colonizers.
As Unknown as the Moon
As Prof. Wesseling points out, Europeans had been colonizing America, Asia, and the antipodes for centuries before they set their sights on Africa. This was because the continent was so disease-ridden, and because the only useful things it produced–ivory and slaves–could be had by trade. Until the mid-nineteenth century the interior was as unknown to Europeans as the surface of the moon. With better medicine it became possible for at least a few hardy white men to tramp the jungle and survive, and once Europe began to take an interest in Africa it carved the whole continent into colonies and protectorates in a matter of a few decades.
What started the scramble? Prof. Wesseling suggests that it was a combination of French ambition and British reluctance to be left out. Once the rush was on, though, everyone else seemed to think he had to have part of Africa, too.
For the French, defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 was an important catalyst. Having lost Alsace and Lorraine to the Germans, they hoped to rebuild national prestige through overseas exertion; some politicians even dreamed of getting back the lost provinces by offering chunks of Africa to the Germans. Also, after the socialist uprising of the Paris Commune immediately after the war, French politicians thought distant bits of empire would be useful whenever it was necessary to banish trouble-makers. There was also much public enthusiasm for empire, so France had both a clear strategic purpose in Africa and the will to carry it out.
The British were more restrained. No one in government thought African colonies would be anything but a financial drain and administrative headache, and for years, Britain turned colonies away. For example, Prof. Wesseling reports that Lovett Cameron was the first explorer to cross the continent from East to West. He spent two years at it, staggering out to the mouth of the Congo in 1875. In the process, he claimed everything he saw for the queen but the queen wasn’t interested. The Foreign Office explained that Britain had no need for “more jungles and more savages.”
In 1882, when a British consul in West Africa argued for a protectorate, the secretary for the colonies turned him down with the laconic explanation: “The coast is pestilential; the natives numerous and unmanageable.” The previous year, Zanzibar had asked Britain to make it a protectorate, but the Foreign Office declined.
The British Prime Minister for most of the time between 1885 and 1902, when much of the partition took place, was Lord Salisbury. Prof. Wesseling credits his diplomatic skill with preventing serious disputes among the Europeans. Salisbury thought of himself as born to govern–his ancestors had been running the country for centuries–and he viewed foreign affairs with humor and detachment. “British policy is to drift lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a boat-hook to avoid a collision,” he once explained. He thought Africa was a sideshow and joked about the horsetrading that went into drawing colonial borders: “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, hindered only by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” He also complained that “constant study of maps is apt to disturb a man’s reasoning powers.”
The British hated having to manage natives, but did not want to be left without influence. As one consul put it, “so long as we keep other European nations out we need not be in a hurry to go in.” It was the ambitions of the pesky French that made it necessary to “go in.” As Percy Anderson of the Foreign Office complained in 1883, West Africa was “a question between British Protectorates, which would be unwelcome, and French Protectorates, which would be fatal.” However, by 1887, the new Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (father of Neville) was an ardent imperialist, who loved to plant the flag as much as the French did.
One of the principles of colonization was that of the “hinterland,” the idea that settling the coast entitled a European power to inland territory. Some countries were more ardent hinterlanders than others. As one British undersecretary complained, “If the French or Germans have a strip of coast they claim, and claim successfully, everything behind it to the North Pole.”
For the French in West Africa, though, it was the natives who were the main problem, not the British. The areas France was after had been penetrated by Islam, which brought with it strong government and anti-infidel fervor. There may have been little choice in the matter, but the men on the ground tended to think all problems had military solutions.
One of France’s toughest problems was Samory Touré, West Africa’s most talented military organizer and empire builder. He fought the French off and on for 17 years before he was finally captured and exiled to Gabon. The king of Dahomey also put up a stiff fight, with the help of his famous troop of Amazons. These women were wives of the king and were not allowed to have relations with other men; Prof. Wesseling reports that enforced chastity was said to explain their ferocity.
Actually, the greatest killer of the French was disease. When soldiers could actually find their enemies, Western fire-power usually won the day. The French also discovered that natives could be turned into useful soldiers, and Senegalese infantry won many battles for them. All in all, French imperialism was a martial sort of business, and many of the famous names on the French side of the First World War first saw action in West Africa.
It was in East Africa, though, at the face-down at Fashoda in 1898, that France nearly came to blows with England. One of the few things Britain really cared about in all of Africa was control of the Nile, and the French thought they could steal a march and claim the headwaters in the Sudan. Jean-Baptiste Marchand had been raising French flags along the White Nile when Lord Kitchener marched into town and told him to clear out. Kitchener was fresh from a victory in Khartoum, where he had killed 11,000 rebellious Sudanese (Kipling’s “fuzzy-wuzzies”) at a loss of only 48 of his own men. Marchand, badly outgunned, took down his flags and went home. This was mortification for the French, who even considered declaring war. Prof. Wesseling tells the famous story–as he does so many others–with just the right combination of economy and piquant detail.
Colonization was not, of course, without its catastrophes for the British, and it was one of the these that had brought Kitchener to the Sudan in the first place. Britain had stumbled into control of Egypt in 1882, at a point when Egypt had just taken over the Sudan. The Sudanese were not keen on either the British or the Egyptians, and the fuzzy-wuzzies (properly known as the mahdists) were making trouble. Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, the copy-book model of the eminent Victorian, went to Khartoum in 1885 to restore order but was killed in a siege. Gordon’s death was a tremendous shock; it was hardly assuaged when the leader of the victorious mahdists later wrote to Queen Victoria, inviting her to come to the Sudan, submit to him, and convert to Islam. It took the British 14 years to avenge the death of Gordon, but they took care of the French on the same trip.
One of the most amazing of the many amazing adventures Prof. Wesseling recounts is the establishment of the Belgian Congo. This was the doing of a single man, King Leopold II who was, in the professor’s words, “the constitutional ruler of a small but respected country which wanted no part of colonies, and at the same time a colonial conquistador in his private capacity and before long sole ruler over a gigantic colony.”
Leopold was a huge man with huge appetites, who toured the capitals of Europe looking for good food and underage women. He was also the sort who gave colonialism a bad name. He thought colonies were good for one thing–exploitation–and before he sank his hooks into Africa, he looked all over the world for prey. At one time he wanted to buy the Philippines and he even considered a pirate rate on the Japanese treasury.
However, he knew enough to drape his avarice with talk of philanthropy, and by the time he got serious about Africa, he was full of pieties about missionary work and putting down the slave trade. The king fell in with another man who was, in his own way, just as colorful: Henry Morton Stanley. Together, they founded an African empire that was several times the size of Europe.
Stanley, Prof. Wesseling tells us, was born in Wales to unmarried parents, sent to a workhouse, escaped to America, fought on both sides in the War Between the States, and finally found his niche as a war correspondent. The New York Herald packed him off to Africa to find David Livingstone. Finding Livingstone ensured Stanley’s fame and gave him a taste for Africa. He was exceptionally healthy, and was often the only white man to survive an expedition. He did not believe in roughing it, though, and always traveled with a portable bed, a silver toilet set, and plenty of champagne.
He was all set to claim great chunks of Africa for his native England, but ran into two obstacles. Queen Victoria didn’t like him–she called him “a determined, ugly, little man”–and the Foreign Office still wasn’t interested in more jungle and savages. Desperate to claim the Congo for someone, Stanley went to work for Leopold. The Belgian government did not want the bother of running colonies, so the king set about acquiring Europe’s only privately-held empire.
Treaties With Chiefs
One of the great curiosities of African colonization was its sham legalism. Stanley could not simply wander around staking claims for Leopold. He had to find some local chief, get him to sign over sovereignty, and get the treaty recognized by the European powers. Stanley went back to Africa with sheafs of pre-printed treaties with blanks for chiefs to make their marks. All told, he and his men brought home three or four hundred of them. At the time, Pierre de Brazza was trying to sign up some of the same territory for France, so the years 1879 and 1880 saw a great deal of crashing through the jungle and looking for chiefs.
As Prof. Wesseling points out, one can well wonder what the Africans thought about this. Some chiefs were apparently coerced into signing but many were glad to make a mark in return for a few bottles of gin or a snappy uniform. Back in Europe there was much skepticism about treaties signed with people who could not read. Bismarck once pointed out that it was suspiciously easy “to come by a piece of paper with a lot of Negro crosses at the bottom.” Nevertheless, since all the colonizing powers were collecting treaties, no one scrutinized anyone else’s too closely for fear his own might be found to be worthless.
In the end, King Leopold got the Congo, but at a price. Empire bled King Leopold white. He sold the livery off his servants’ backs, skimped on meals, and eventually had to borrow money from the Belgian government to keep the colony going. In 1908 Belgium had to take over despite its reluctance to manage natives.
Another less-than-enthusiastic colonizer was Germany. After the Franco-Prussian War, it found itself a great power at a time when great powers were acquiring colonies. Bismarck was not convinced colonies were worth the trouble, but the people were clamoring for them. “That whole colonial business is a sham,” he once said, “but we need it for the elections.”
Germany was more or less pushed into empire. Carl Peters, for example, was a private citizen who defied the opposition of the German government and set off for East Africa with a bundle of treaties. In 1884 he went on a signing jag, picking up in about a month 55,000 square miles of what is now mostly Tanzania. His methods, as Prof. Wesseling describes them, were pretty typical: “The signing ceremony was usually preceded by a merry-making session, during which guns were fired, German songs sung, schnapps was drunk. . . .”
Bismarck, still deeply skeptical, was determined to run colonies without spending money. He appointed “chartered companies” and gave them commercial monopolies in return for governing the colonies. Empire on the cheap didn’t work. Chartered companies floundered and the Reich had to take over; Bismarck cursed the very idea of Africa.
Interestingly, the British tried chartered companies and failed, too. Only the French, who were serious about empire, never fooled themselves into thinking it would be cheap or could be left to businessmen.
There is no denying that European expansion was sometimes unpleasant for Africans, and it is certainly true that Europeans sometimes treated Africans more ruthlessly than they would have treated each other. For example, the French Voulet-Chanoine mission of 1899, which was supposed to march to Lake Chad, requisitioned supplies from the natives in a most bloodthirsty manner. However, this caused a huge scandal in France, and the government was relieved to learn that Paul Voulet and Julien Chanoine had managed to get themselves shot. Nevertheless, it could well be argued that the worst colonial excesses were committed against a white population–the Boers.
As Prof. Wesseling points out, what the Dutch-descended Boers cared about most was freedom. They set out on the Great Trek in 1835 to escape from British rule, find an uninhabited part of the continent, and build a country. They built two–the Transvaal and the Orange Free State–but freedom did not last long. The British were feeling expansive and wouldn’t leave the Afrikaners alone. The result was a brisk little war, which the Boers surprised everyone by winning. In 1881, Britain recognized the independence of the two Boer states.
All might have been well had not gold been discovered in the Transvaal. The British appear to have been willing to let their defeat go unavenged, but they could not bear to let unmannerly Afrikaners get all that gold. In 1899, on the pretext that Boer authorities were mistreating Englishmen in the Transvaal, Britain started the second Boer War. This was a hard slog, which took three years and half a million British soldiers to win. The entire Boer population was armed and hostile, and the British resorted to terror tactics and concentration camps. By war’s end, 30,000 Boers had died in camps, 20,000 of them children under age sixteen. All of Europe was revolted by British tactics, but no one was willing to fight England to save the Boers. It would be hard to think of another major war that was fought for so purely mercenary reasons.
By the end, therefore, Britain was as resolutely imperialist as the French. Although the cost of acquiring each additional British subject had been about 15 pence a head elsewhere in Africa, each Boer cost about £1,000 to subjugate.
Lessons of Empire
Colonization was full of drama and adventure–much of Divide and Rule reads like a novel–but, as Prof. Wesseling points out, it all ended with a fizzle. Although at the turn of the century Britain was willing to kill thousands of white men for gold and country, only 60 years later virtually all of Africa was independent. In Prof. Wesseling’s words it “reverted to what it had been before the partition: a continent of little importance to Europe.”
Blunt assessment of this kind is one of the book’s great strengths. Prof. Wesseling tells us the story–and tells it well–but does not moralize. To be sure, not everything he describes redounds to the glory of Europe, but he has no illusions about the sweetness of African folkways either. He notes that many Europeans devoted their lives to fighting slavery, cannibalism, child sacrifice, illiteracy, and witchcraft.
Aside from the liveliness of the subject and of Prof. Wesseling’s style, this is an extraordinary record of a mentality that is today almost impossible to imagine. The West was supremely confident, and no European disputed the white man’s right, even duty, to rule the world. It was also a time of deep patriotism. Many Europeans risked leaving their bones in Africa because they believed they were doing something great and noble for their countries.
Today the left criticizes imperialism on moral grounds while nationalists criticize it because it gave rise to reverse colonization. Nevertheless, it is a mistake not to recognize in it the exuberance of a strong and dynamic people. In its deepest origins it was no different from the voyages of discovery, the establishment of science, and the industrial revolution. If today Europe is paying a high price for empire, it is because of the across-the-board loss of nerve of which decolonization–and subsequent Third-World immigration–was only a part. Whatever the cost of empire, Europe with colonies was far healthier than Europe without them.