European Imperialism in Africa during the Nineteenth Century

Tylar Orion Davidson for History 110 with Dr. Harney

            European interest in Africa began in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when Portuguese and Spanish traders sailed down the west coast of the continent in an effort to establish trading posts on their sea routes to India, in order to evade the Ottoman monopoly on trade with India. These interests remained purely economic throughout the first half of the fifteenth century, when the British began sending traders to Africa to acquire slaves for use on English sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The slave trade in Africa continued for centuries until the British effectively banned the slave trade in the nineteenth century, but the economic interest in Africa never waned. The economic interest eventually gave rise to a fascination with the interior of the continent, which led men like David Livingston and Henry Morgan Stanley to explore the most isolated parts of Africa. The exploration of these men opened the eyes of the Europeans to the vast economic opportunities that were available, and this led to a new wave of imperialism that washed over Africa. The wave of imperialism eventually led to competition between the European powers, which led to the Berlin Conference in 1885, in which Africa was carved into pieces for the European powers to exploit. European powers set up administrative systems in their new territories that enriched the Europeans but left the native populations in poverty. This exploitation of African labor is the premise for Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, in which he examines the role of the Europeans in Africa through the lens of the exploitation of Africa that had occurred for the century prior to his writing of the novel.

            European involvement in Africa was a common occurrence by the turn of the nineteenth century, when Joseph Conrad was writing Heart of Darkness, but the motivations for European involvement on the continent had drastically changed since European involvement began in the fifteenth century. European imperial interests were largely influenced by a desire for economic expansion and territorial gain that was largely influenced by the view that countries deserved their “places in the sun.”[1] This view stated that the Europeans were technologically superior to their African counterparts, and it was the job of the Europeans to “take up the white man’s burden,”[2] and civilize the world. It is this view that Conrad seeks to criticize in Heart of Darkness, for Conrad hints at the atrocities that where committed by the civilizing force of Europe. The view of “the white man’s burden” was the culmination of some four centuries of interaction with Africa, and these four centuries saw the relationship between the Africans and Europeans evolve from one based on trade, to one based on imperial exploitation, and this change in relationship was what led Conrad to criticize Imperialism in Heart of Darkness.

            European interest in Africa began in the fifteenth century, as a way to combat the Ottoman monopoly on the spice trade, which was exacerbated via the conflict that the Mediterranean was experiencing at the time. John Hatch states that “Portuguese attacks on Egypt were countered by the Turks…and the Turkish seizure of Egypt led to a disruption of trade along the north-east routes.”[3] The Europeans sought to find different ways to circumnavigate the Ottoman monopoly because “ [Europeans] were unwilling to accept Moslem control of international trade with Asia and [the] African States…This was based on the rise of the merchant classes in Europe.”[4] This shows that the initial European interest in Africa was propelled due to the desires to gain wealth for their own nations, which followed the policy of mercantilism that dominated Europe at the time.  European powers began by establishing trade routes on the western coast of Africa, where they began trading with the natives of Africa, in a method that was based upon “mutual commercial interest…confirmed with an alliance with an African ruler.”[5] This statement shows that the initial European interest was far from what it would evolve into during the later centuries, but this interest in mutual trade would not last for long, for European powers were constantly seeking to break the monopolies that each one held on trade, and the desires for labor on sugar plantations in the Caribbean led the British to enter the slave trade in an effort to undermine the monopolies held by the Portuguese and Spanish. However, John Hatch argues, in his book The History of Britain in Africa, that the British took advantage of a preexisting African system when they entered the slave trade in Africa, in which he says “the European slave trade appeared to them [the Africans] to be nothing more than an extension of their normal commercial practices.”[6] The view that the African rulers held on the slave trade is the reason why it was able to expand so quickly, for those rulers seemed to benefit greatly from previous European trade prior to their involvement in the slave trade, and many African rulers saw the introduction of the Europeans into the slave trade as a way to become enriched.

            The slave trade continued throughout the centuries but had largely began to decline during the eighteenth century, but the legacy of the slave trade still lingered through African cultural, political, and economic development. Hatch goes on to state that “the slave trade retarded orderly progress and development in West Africa. Concentration on the profitable nature of the trade discouraged the development of agriculture and industry.[7] Many African rulers found it incredibly easy to trade slaves, acquired through conquest, for manufactured goods from Europe. This led the African kingdoms to fall short in terms of development, which was exaggerated by the population loss to the slave trade. Seeing that most slaves that the African kings traded came from conquest, it should come as no surprise that one of the largest imports from Europe were firearms. This led to an increased amount of warfare on the African coasts, which contributed to the hinderance on economic and industrial development that began as a result of the slave trade. The Europeans also began to develop a mindset that showed the African natives as inferior to the Europeans. This view is expressed by a Dutch firearm merchant, when he stated that “they handle their weapons so cleverly, shooting them off in several ways, one man sitting, another creeping along the ground…it is surprising that they do not hurt each other.”[8] This view shows that some Europeans found it incredibly impressive that the Africans were able to use firearms to the effects that they did. The surprise that they did not harm each other with their use of firearms shows that some Europeans viewed the African natives as unable to comprehend the use of European military technology in a manner similar to that of the Europeans. This view evolved over the centuries and eventually led the Europeans to view themselves as racially superior to the Africans. This view of racial superiority is found throughout Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and is shown when Marlow states that “The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us- who could tell?”[9] When Marlow calls the African a “prehistoric” man, this shows what the views of men like that Dutch merchant eventually evolved into, which saw the Europeans view the Africans as inferior, and this view was only furthered through the continuation of European imperialism in Africa.

            Initial European interest in Africa was spurred on by the exploration of men such as David Livingston and Henry Stanley, who were heavily involved in the exploration of the African interior. Livingston was notoriously lost in Africa and Stanley was sent to find him, and upon doing so the following exchange occurred when Stanley found Livingston camped by Lake Tanganyika in west Africa, upon which Stanley uttered “Dr. Livingston, I presume?’ to which Livingston replied ‘Yes’ with a gentle smile.”[10] This story was famous throughout Europe and this led many more explorers to travel to the continent in order to explore it. The governments of European powers also took vast interest in exploring the continent, and many countries sponsored expeditions into the interior of Africa. Robinson and Gallagher state that “King Leopold II of the Belgians…launched Stanley on another mission to open communications between the navigable Congo and Stanley Pool in the interior.”[11] This initial interest the exploration of the interior of the African continent was done solely to scope out possible territorial gains and economic investitures. The need to connect communications between the Congo river and the Stanley Pool would allow for a rise in the economic activity to occur in the region, and the navigability of the Congo river meant that there was a natural route to bring natural resources back to Europe. The economic interest of the Belgians was placed under the control of “a philanthropic and scientific organization called the International Association,”[12] and it was this organization that prompted Belgian economic exploitation of the Congo, and other associations of this type were prevalent throughout Europe, all in an effort to enrich the investors of these European nations. The British initially began their interest in Africa with a solely economic purpose, and the policy was described by Vandervort as “the imperialism of free trade.”[13] The British had largely maintained relationships based solely on trade with Africa because they were gaining colonial holding elsewhere in the world, most notably in India. Imperialism of free trade was based upon the success of trade treaties which favored the European nations, in an effort to give these nations an upper hand in commercial activity in the region. After these monopolies were abolished, the European nations used their leverage in trade for “liberalizing the traditional political, legal, and fiscal institutions of a nation to make elbowroom for their ‘productive’ classes in commercial collaboration with Europe, to take over power.”[14] The initial European financial interest in Africa that had existed from the sixteenth century had persisted throughout the centuries of European industrialization, and this led the Europeans to overtake any market that they came into contact with, meaning that they could bend the wills of the native governments, effectively incorporating these African nations into their spheres of influence without any direct action.

            As the economic domination of Africa continued, many nations saw that they needed to take necessary steps to take control of the country. The British abandoned their policy of economic domination “as a response to challenges to the security of her lifeline to India.”[15] The protection of the so-called crown jewel of the empire was what led to the “1882 occupation of Egypt… the 1898 conquest of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and the Boer war in 1899.”[16] This trend was observed by many other European nations, as many took to expanding their territory in an effort to protect their commercial interests overseas. Many nations, such as the newly founded German Empire, sought not only to protect their economic interests, but many saw territorial expansion as a right of a powerful European nation. This view is highlighted in the following speech by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, in which he stated that “In spite of the fact that we have no such fleet as we should have, we have conquered for ourselves a place in the sun. It will now be my task to see to it that this place in the sun shall remain our undisputed possession.”[17] This expresses a view that was shared by many European nations at the time, in which they believed that it was their right to conquer ‘less civilized’ persons. Germany was a relatively new nation during the time of African colonization and was late to the scene in terms of gaining overseas imperial possessions, and this led the Germans to embrace the mindset that they were entitled to build an overseas empire. Germany’s main rival in Europe after the defeat of the French in 1871 was Great Britain, therefore, Germany desperately desired to be able to compete with them on equal footing. Taylor states that “many Germans demanded a colonial empire simply because other great powers had colonial empires…Many writers at this time failed to grasp that the success of the British empire came from commercial and industrial enterprise.”[18] The German desire for this colonial empire was not coupled with commercial enterprise and industrialization, but this did not stop the Germans from building this colonial empire. German involvement in the colonization of Africa was propelled by the policy of Otto Von Bismarck, for he had “growing concern that the failure to stake out a German claim in the colonial world might have grave economic consequences.”[19] Here one can see that the desires for colonial empires still held some economic bearing, but now it had been coupled with a direct desire to gain territory, and in turn, led to the development of a mindset of superiority over the native African populations.

            European nations met in 1885 in order to discuss diplomatic ways to gain control over the African continent. The conference of Berlin in 1885 sought to resolve these issues of imperial competition and diverged away from the economic reasons that many nations held for imperializing Africa. Lowe states that “Bismarck rejected the exaggerated claims to east Africa…on the grounds that they would upset diplomatic relationships in Europe.”[20] This desire by European leaders, such as Bismarck, to control the scramble for Africa based upon European diplomatic reasons was a wise move, because the diplomatic tensions that existed between European powers could be played out on a continent, that many Europeans saw as theirs for the taking. These power grabs by European powers were seen as a way for a European country to gain not only economic wealth, but also political power. This is supported by a claim by Lowe, in which he states that “evidence of British military weakness, coinciding with a decline in naval strength…suggested to Bismarck that Britain’s ill-defined claims were…vulnerable to concerted pressure.”[21] Therefore one can see that the scramble for Africa was defined by European attempts to consolidate their power over the European continent, and the best avenue for this was to contest territorial claims in Africa, for European sovereignty was easier to contest in their overseas territories. This scramble for Africa created the backdrop for Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, in which Conrad discusses the exploitation of natives of the Congo at the hands of the Belgians, but before this exploitation could occur, the Europeans had to set up commercial bases in their recently acquired African territories.

            The Belgians are perhaps the most infamous example of economic exploitation in Africa. The Congo Free State was made the private property of Belgian king Leopold II, and he sought to enrich himself and his country through the exploitation of the Congolese wilderness and population. This economic exploitation began with two primary decrees, that read:

“First was the appropriation of land by the state; and second, the enactment of a set of laws providing for the mobilizing the labor force. The two measures tended to compliment and reinforce each other.”[22]

The appropriation of land by the Belgian government essentially made it so all land in the Congo was a piece of property owned by Leopold, meaning that he could do whatever he pleased with it, and he sought to utilize every resource on that land. The mobilizing of a work force meant that there was a permanent source of labor that could harvest these resources that the Europeans sought out, and the Europeans viewed many African natives as a resource as well, and that view is responsible for the appalling treatment that many natives received at the hands of the Belgian government. This treatment is shown in Heart of Darkness upon Marlow’s arrival at the large, central station for the ivory trade in that sector. Marlow states that:

“six black men advanced in file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins…I could see every rib and …each had an iron collar around his neck.”[23]

This description by Marlow shows the extent that the Belgian government went to in order to force the natives into harvesting the natural resources for their colonial overlords. The Belgians hardly fed their workers, which explains their malnourished appearance, and the workers were chained together in order to prevent them from running off. If the workers were caught running off, many faced dismemberment or execution for their failure to obey the Belgians. This mistreatment of the Africans was a direct result of the European mindset that Africa was theirs for the taking, and that the native inhabitants in Africa were inferior to the Europeans, because the Europeans benefitted from a vast technological advantage over their African counterparts. Peemans goes on to say, on the topic of Belgian economic exploitation, that “the administration of the Congo Free State required the indigenous male adult population to collect marketable products and to deliver them to state agents.”[24] The state agents worked the indigenous population near to death before releasing them from their service, and this is reflected on by Marlow when he states that “Black shapes sat between the trees leaning against trunks…in all the attitudes of pain…this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.”[25] This blatant mistreatment was the premise for much criticism by other European powers at the time, and this mistreatment eventually appalled the Belgian government so much that the Congo Free State was made a colony of Belgium in 1907.

            Heart of Darkness was written to criticize the European imperialization of Africa. Conrad, like many other Europeans at the time, was vehemently appalled at the mistreatment that many Africans had experienced at the hands of their European colonizers. However, this mistreatment of the Africans was made prevalent after the Berlin conference of 1885, when the scramble for Africa began. The relationship between the Africans and Europeans began based on mutual trade, and both sides benefitted greatly from this trade, and many African kingdoms were enriched greatly through this trade. However, this relationship soon moved from the trading of goods to the trading of people in the sixteenth century. The Atlantic slave trade greatly inhibited the development of the agriculture and industry of these regions, and this left many African kingdoms open to foreign influence. The slave trade also led many kingdoms to fight with each other, armed with new European firearms, for territory and slaves, which further weakened the kingdoms, leading to more susceptibility to foreign influence. The British were extremely keen on taking advantage of the European’s superior position in an effort to coerce the African kingdoms to bend to their will, and they began gaining territorial possessions to protect their powerful trading positions. While Africa was just beginning to be colonized, European leaders such as Otto Von Bismarck were trying to find ways to maintain European balance, and this culminated in the Berlin Conference of 1885. This conference was the starting point for the scramble for Africa, and this led many European nations, most notably Belgium, to exploit their new territories for their natural resources. This exploitation led to the appalment of many Europeans and created the backdrop of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Word Count: 3091

[1] Kaiser Wilhelm II. A Place in the Sun. 1901.

[2] Rudyard Kipling. The White Man’s Burden. 1899.

[3] John Hatch. The History of Britain in Africa: From the Fifteenth Century to the Present. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger). 42.

[4] Hatch. The History of Britain in Africa. 42-43.

[5] Hatch. The History of Britain in Africa. 43.

[6] Hatch. The History of Britain in Africa. 44.

[7] Hatch. The History of the British in Africa. 71.

[8] Hatch. The History of the British in Africa. 73.

[9] Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. (New York: Random House). 44.

[10] Sir Henry Morgan Stanley. How I Found Livingston. 1871

[11] Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher. “Egypt and the Partition of Africa” in Historical Problems of Imperialist Africa. (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers). 13.

[12] Bruce Vandervort. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa: 1830-1914. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). 34.

[13] Vandervort. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa. 30.

[14] Vandervort. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa. 30.

[15] Vandervort. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa. 31.

[16] Vandervort. Wars of Imperial Conquest. 31.

[17] Kaiser Wilhelm II. A Place in the Sun. 1901.

[18] A.J.P. Taylor. “Germany’s First Bid for African Colonies” in Historical Problems of Imperial Africa. (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers). 31.

[19] Henry. A. Turner. “Bismarck Changes his Mind” in Historical Problems of Imperial Africa. (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers). 34.

[20] John Lowe. The Great Powers, Imperialism, and the German Problem:1865-1925. (London: Routledge). 83.

[21] Lowe.  The Great Powers, Imperialism, and the German Problem. 84.

[22] Jean-Philipe Peemans. “Capital Accumulation in the Congo Under Colonialism: The Role of the State” in Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960: The Economics of Colonialism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 169.

[23] Conrad. Heart of Darkness. 18.

[24] Peemans. “Capital Accumulation in the Congo Under Colonialism: The Role of the State”. 170.

[25] Conrad. Heart of Darkness. 19-20.


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness & Selections from the Congo Diary. New York: Random House., 1993.

Hatch, John. The History of the British in Africa: From the Fifteenth Century to the Present. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers., 1969.

Kipling, Rudyard. The White Man’s Burden in The Fordham Primary Source Book. 1997.

Lowe, John. The Great Powers, Imperialism and the German Problem:1865-1925. London: Routledge., 1994.

Peemans, Jean-Philippe. “Capital Accumulation in the Congo Under Colonialism: The Role of the State” in Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960: The Economics of Colonialism, Edited by Peter Duignan and L.H. Gann. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1975.

Robinson, Ronald and Gallagher, John. “Egypt and the Partition of Africa” in Historical Problems of Imperial Africa, Edited by Robert. O. Collins, James McDonald Burns, and Erik Kristofer Ching. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.,1993.

Stanley, Henry Morgan. “How I Found Livingston” in The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Edited by Eva March Tappan. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin., 1914.

Taylor, A.J.P. “Germany’s First Bid for African Colonies” in Historical Problems of Imperial Africa, Edited by Robert. O. Collins, James McDonald Burns, and Erik Kristofer Ching. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.,1993.

Turner, Henry. A. “Bismarck Changes his Mind” in Historical Problems of Imperial Africa, Edited by Robert. O. Collins, James McDonald Burns, and Erik Kristofer Ching. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers.,1993.

Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest on Africa:1830-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press., 1998.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. “A Place in the Sun” in The German Kaiser as Shown in His Public Utterances, Edited by C. Gauss. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons., 1915.



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