By the 19th century, European powers confined their imperial ambitions in Africa to the odd coastal outpost from which they could exert their economic and military influence. Europeans activities on the West African coast was centred around the lucrative slave trade.
But between 1562 and 1807, when the slave trade was abolished, European ships took more than 11 million people into slavery from the West African coast, and European traders grew rich on the profits while the population of Africa’s west coast was plundered and severely devastated.
As late as the 1870s, only 10% of the continent was under direct European control, with Cape Colony and Natal (both in modern South Africa) by Britain, Angola by Portugal. And yet by 1900, European nations had. Forcefully added almost 10 million square miles of Africa one-fifth of the land mass of the globe to their overseas colonial possessions. Europeans ruled more than 90% of the African continent.
One of the guise justifications for the so-called scramble for Africa was a desire to stamp out slavery once and for all. Shortly before his death in May 1873 at Ilala in central Africa, the celebrated missionary-explorer David Livingstone had called for a worldwide crusade to defeat the slave trade controlled by Arabs in East Africa, that was laying waste the heart of the continent.
The only way to liberate Africa, believed Livingstone, was to introduce the ‘three Cs’ fallaciously: commerce, Christianity and civilization.
This was a period in human history when Europeans profess their innate superiority over the ‘lesser’ races of the world whom they and Arabs regarded as Africans.
The theory that all the peoples of Europe belonged to one white race which originated in the Caucasus hence the term ‘Caucasian’ was first postulated at the turn of the 19th century by a German professor of ethnology called Johann Blumenbach.
Blumenbach’s colour-coded classification of races – white, brown, yellow, black and red – was later refined by a French ethnologist, Joseph-Arthur Gobineau, to include a complete racial hierarchy with white-skinned people of European origin at the top. Such pseudo-scientific theories were widely accepted at the time and motivated Europeans like Livingstone to feel they had a right to ‘lord’ and a duty to ‘civilize’ Africa.
The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, convened by Otto von Bismarck to discuss the future and benefit of Africa, had the guised stamping out slavery high on the agenda. The Berlin Act of 1885, signed by the 13 European powers attending the conference, included a resolution to help in suppressing slavery.
In a strategic hoax, the economic objectives of the European colonial powers, such as protecting old markets and exploiting new ones, were far more important.
The Berlin Conference began the process of carving up Africa without the consent of Africa’s tribal chiefs/leaders, paying no attention to local culture or ethnic groups, and leaving people from the same tribe on separate sides of European imposed borders.
Britain for instance was primarily concerned with maintaining its lines of communication with India, hence its interest in Egypt and South Africa. But once these two areas were secure, imperialist adventurers like Cecil Rhodes encouraged the forceful acquisition of further territory with the intention of establishing a Cape-to-Cairo railway solely for British interest aims towards conveying stolen Africa’s human and natural resources to Europe.
Britain interest in the commercial potential of mineral-rich territories like the Transvaal, where gold was discovered in the mid-1880s, and in preventing other European powers, particularly Germany and France, from muscling into areas they considered within their ‘sphere of influence’.As a result, during the last 20 years of the 19th century, Britain annexed Egypt, the Sudan, British East Africa (Kenya and Uganda), British Somaliland, Southern and Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe and Zambia), Bechuanaland (Botswana), Orange Free State and the Transvaal (South Africa), Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, British Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nyasaland (Malawi). These countries accounted for more than 50% of Africa’s population.
The other chief colonizers were France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain.
Germany had only been unified in 1871 and so was a late starter in imperial terms. Its first acquisition in 1884 was German South-West Africa (Namibia), which at the time was peopled by two semi-nomadic tribes, the Herero of the arid central plateau and the Nama of the still more arid steppes to the south.
When the two tribes went to war over cattle grazing, German traders and missionaries persuaded their government to intervene and fill the political vacuum.
A later Herero rebellion in 1904, provoked by the brutality of the German settlers, was put down by General Lothar von Trotha with savage efficiency, and tens of thousands of Herero men, women and children fell victim to his famous ‘Vernichtungsbefehl’ (extermination order).
However European quest to stamp out Slavery was entirely hollowed. Once it became known that slavery was alive and well in the Congo, which was run as a personal fiefdom of Leopold, King of Belgium, an international anti-slavery conference was held in Brussels in 1889-1890. The man who exposed the existence of slavery in Leopold’s Congo was a French missionary to Africa called Cardinal Charles Lavigerie. During a sermon at St Sulpice in Paris in 1888, Lavigerie told his audience and describing the horrors of the Congo slave trade: villages surrounded and burnt; men captured and yoked together; women and children penned like cattle in the slave markets.
The upshot of the Brussels conference was that Leopold cynically agreed to stamp out Arab slavery in return for the right to tax imports. He thereby overturned one of the key resolutions of the Act of Berlin, which had guaranteed free trade for the region.
But while Leopold made all the right noises, his agents in the Congo used forced labour (slaves in all but name) to extract rubber, his single most profitable export. By 1902, rubber sales had risen 15 times in eight years, and were valued at 41 million francs (£1.64 million).
By taking the women of Congolese villages hostage, Leopold had turned the men into forced labourers. The system was inhumane and harsh. Many hostages were starved to death and many male forced labourers were worked to death.
More people were killed as rebellions were brutally crushed. Demographers today estimate that the population of the Congo fell roughly by half over the 40-year period beginning in around 1880.
The truth behind the Congo’s rubber trade legalized robbery enforced by violence was finally exposed by Edmond Morel, an Anglo-French ex-shipping clerk, who wrote a series of accusatory articles in ‘The Speaker’ in 1900.
By arguing that Leopold’s illegal state monopoly was robbing other European merchants, Morel was able to enlist the support of businessmen. A British consul, Roger Casement, was sent to investigate, and the publication of his damning report in 1904 was, for Leopold, the beginning of the end.
In 1908, in return for £3.8 million, Leopold handed over control of the Congo to the Belgian state. But even then, the forced labour system continued. It took a different form during World War One, when tens of thousands of Congolese were conscripted as porters for the Belgian army.
The forced labour system significantly changed only in the early 1920s, when Belgian colonial authorities realized the population was dropping so rapidly that they soon might have no labour force left.
The signatories of the General Act of the Brussels Conference of 1889-1890 had no intention to put an end to the traffic of African slaves. But by the Convention of St-Germain-en-Laye in 1919, they agreed towards the complete suppression of slavery in all its forms and of the slave trade by land and sea. In September 1926, the International Slavery Convention was signed at Geneva under the auspices of the League of Nations ‘to find a means of giving practical effect throughout the world to such intentions’.
It defined a slave as a ‘person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised’, and undertook ‘to bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms’.
But this was never applied against the practice of forced labour in colonial Africa, for example, requiring a village to provide men to work on roads and other public works. Under all the colonial powers, forced labour of one kind or another remained in place into the 1940s, and the imposition of taxes forced people into low-paid mining, industry or agribusiness jobs when they might otherwise have remained farmers.
The first practical consequence of the convention was that Ethiopia became the last African state to abolish slavery in 1932. All colonial regimes had long since done the same. Yet even today slavery is not unknown in Africa, particularly in countries such as the Sudan and Mauritania where law and order are often absent due to Arab and islamic Influence nor have the colonists ever really gone away. White(euro/arab) owned businesses still dominate the mining of Africa’s most valuable natural resources particularly gold, diamonds, oil and gas and in the eyes of many the continent has never stopped being plundered through different forms of guise.
-Pan African researcher, writer and founder of Pan African Liberation Movement[PALM].