British Empire—Colonial Africa

1770 to 1910
Discovery of Blue Nile to Union of South Africa

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Colonial Africa

British Influence in Africa: An Overview—Substantial British Influence in Africa was not established until the 19th century, and was confined to several regions which have separate histories. By the turn of the 20th century, British holdings included Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) and Nigeria in West Africa; the region now composed of South Africa, Botswana, Zambezi, and Zambia in the south; and Uganda and Kenya in the East. In addition, British forces controlled the regions of Egypt and Sudan, although nominally these were still part of the Ottoman Empire. Although British traders, including slave traders, had operated off the west coast of Africas for several hundred years, they confined their operations mainly to a few coastal trading ports and islands, since the African interior was thought to be uninhabitable by Europeans. Britain did not actually gain control of Capetown in South Africa until around 1800, and did not acquire her other colonial holdings until the late 19th century. British colonization of Africa therefore occurred nearly 100 years after its colonial expansion in Asia, and over 200 years since its colonization of North America.

The first seventy years of British colonization South Africa proceeded more slowly and hesitantly than that of Asia. On both continents trading companies played an important role in colonization, but in Asia, commerce was already well established, and the climate was reasonably safe for Europeans. The development of profitable trade with much of Africa was far more difficult, and companies looking for quick profits had difficulties, especially after slavery was abolished in all British colonies.

Missionaries and humanitarians, as well as imperialists and trading companies had much influence on African colonization, but even among the humanitarians there was little consensus about what could or should be done about such native practices as domestic slavery, witchcraft, and inter-tribal warfare. Because of the difficulties with native populations, an unhealthy climate and uncertain commercial opportunities, there was much reluctance and controversy regarding what Britain's objectives should be in the region. Control of the British government changed parties frequently and no consistent African colonial policy was pursued from above. For this reason, committed individuals who were willing to work over the long term were often influential in establishing colonial policies. Some examples of this were Charles Gordon in the Sudan, George Goldie in Nigeria, Harry Smith and George Grey in South Africa, and David Livingstone in Central Africa.

Once gold and diamonds were discovered in the 1870s and 1880s, however, South Africa was over-run by fortune seekers, bankers, and traders. From that point on, the 'Scramble for Africa' by ruthless financial, commercial, and imperial interests was in full swing. It was, in fact, the the financial backers of the Diamond Baron and Cecil Rhodes that formed companies to develop colonies in Western and Eastern Africa. British influence over the Ottoman Empire and over Egypt in particular increased after the Crimean War, but Egypt did not become a protectorate of Britain unitl the 1880s. By the turn of the century, however, Egypt, Sudan, and the entire Nile valley, was firmly under the sway of the British Empire.

Exploration of the African Continent—The geography of the African interior was almost completely unknown well into the 19th century, but when exploration was finally undertaken most of the adventurers were British Scots. One of the earliest explorers of Africa was James Bruce who discovered the source of the Blue Nile in 1770. Soon after Mungo Park discovered the Niger river by traveling across land, but never determined its source or mouth. Several other British explorers, including Hugh Clapperton and the Landers brothers continued to explore this region over the next few decades. They determined the course and the outlet of the Niger, but not much was done to follow up their efforts because of the extreme danger of traveling inland in this region. The source of the White Nile and Lake Victoria, were not discovered until 1856 by John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton, and David Livingstone, the most famous of African Explorers, did not undertake his first expedition to cross the southern horn of the continent until 1852, and by his death in 1873, much of the interior of the continent was still unknown. It was left to H. M. Stanley, yet another Scotsman, to cross the continent east to west, and in 1874 discover the route of the Congo river. Even after these discoveries were made further development was proceeded very slowly, and large swaths of the continent lay unexplored.

West Africa—In West Africa, France was the major colonial power in the region, and British traders held only a few outposts, and even held these half-heartedly at times, since it was difficult to retain governors. The climate was deadly for white men, and few ventured into the interior. The coast possessed some honest traders, and mission stations, but the overall character of many of the Europeans who did venture into the regions was poor—pirates and slavers abounded, and even many philanthropic ventures that were naively attempted ended in disaster. During the 19th century, British traders established several additional outposts in the Gold Coast region, and made alliances with the Fanti, who were the dominant coastal tribes at the time. During the same period, the interior Ashanti tribe was becoming more powerful, and sought to displace the Fanti and take over the coastal trade. The first Ashanti War occurred when the Ashanti's made several raids into the coastal settlements protected by the British and burned Fanti villages. Since the area was under their protection, the British made several raids into Ashanti territory between 1826 and 1874 in order to punish the incursions. A final uprising in 1896 resulted in the declaration of the territory as the Crown Colony of the Gold Coast.

The man most responsible for the establishment of Nigeria as a British colony was George Goldie, who for twenty years worked to establish a functioning government to Nigeria. Unable to get Britain to commit, he raised funds privately, and founded a government chartered development company. He essentially governed the region himself for twenty years, until "selling-out" to Britain in 1900. Like most people of the his age, he did not think the natives were capable of governing themselves humanely, and saw his role both as promoting commerce and civilization.


South Africa—The Cape Town region of South Africa was originally settled by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, and by the time the colony fell into British hands, around 1800, much of the population had been established in the area for over 150 years. The Native Dutch, also called Boers, or Afrikaners, were fiercely independent slave-owners, and they resented the British interference. When the British government decided to abolish slavery in all of its colonies, many of the Boers decided to pack up their belongings and move out of the sphere of British influence. They first settled in Natal, on the east side of the peninsula, eventually moved across the Vaal river, into a desolate wilderness, inhabited by Zulu tribes. After using their usual methods of slaughter and diplomacy to bring the native tribes to bay, the Boers settled and formed two republics in the region, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal Republic.

Meanwhile, Cape Town, Natal, and several other towns in the south grew under Britain's protection. In 1867 however, diamonds were found in a remote area of Kimberly, claimed by both Britain and the Transvaal. The commerce and industry minded English were in a far better position to exploit the discoveries and so took over government of the area. Within ten years of the discovery of South African Diamonds, Cecil Rhodes, with the help of the Rothchild banking conglomerate, had built a diamond-mining empire that eventually became a multi-million dollar cartel. Once his fortune was established, Rhodes entered politics threw his entire energies and much of his wealth into the project of unifying the colonies of South Africa under a single government, within the British commonwealth. With this goal in mind, he negotiated with native tribes for mineral rights, formed colonial companies, and established British claims to Botswana, Zambia, and Zambezi. His efforts to unify South Africa, however, were hotly resisted by the Dutch Boers, who hated British rule and loved their independence.

The efforts to unite South Africa under British rule extended to native regions as well as the Boer Republics, so a pretext was found for war with the Zulus, and a British regiment was sent to Zululand to put down Cetewayo. But the over-confident British were caught off guard and the entire troop was slaughtered in one of the worst massacres in British history. It took the British a year to regroup, but they eventually prevailed against the Zulu's and against great opposition, annexed the independent Boer Republics. Once the Boers decided to resist the British usurpation, however, the conflect want very badly for Britain and the Prime minister was happy to make peace with the Boers and regrant them their independence.

Yet the situation was far from settled. In 1885, an enormous vein of gold was discovered in the Transvaal. The Boers themselves were agricultural and only wanted to be left alone but could do nothing to prevent the enormous influx of foreigners into their territory. They did however, tax the miners, but did not allow the outlanders to have a say in government. Since many of the new arrivals were British, insisting on the "rights" of foreigners became a pretext for re-opening conflict with the Boers. In 1896 an outlander "revolt" was arranged by imperialist conspirators, which ended in disaster and led directly to the second Boer War. The Boers fought valiently and the conflict lasted until 1902, but ultimately, the far stronger British defeated the republic and forced submission to British government. It took ten more years to integrate the South African colonies into a union, and neither the imperialist Cecil Rhodes who had pressed for the Union nor his Boer nemesis Paul Kruger lived a United South Africa.

Egypt-Sudan—Even before the Crimean War, during which Britain allied itself with the Ottoman Turks, British banking and commercial interests hand developed relationships the Egyptian dictator Mehemet Ali, who had come to power in the region following the Napoleonic Wars. He allowed the British to run a transportation line (P.& O.) from Alexandria to the Red Sea, to facilitate travel to India, and developed industries and commercial monopolies with the help of European financiers. Mehemet's successors continued to rely on Britain and other European powers to provide expertise for modernization, and to bail them out of financial trouble. The Suez canal was begun with the aid of the French, but through diplomacy and other shenanigans, Britain ended up controlling a minority share. Soon after the opening of the canal, Britain was called upon to help put down Arabi's Rebellion against the Egyptian government, and at the Battle of Tel-el-kebir drove the rebel leader into exile. By this time Britain was no longer merely "advising" the Egyptian government, but had essentially assumed control of both the finances and the military. Though the Khedive was still nominally in power, British financiers ruled the entire government.

Meanwhile the British military hero Charles Gordon, who had already distinguished himself by his valiant service in China was appointed Governor of Sudan, a region where slavery was still rife, and the natives were oppressed by warlords and bandits. Gordon worked ceaselessly for five years to improve the condition of the natives, and returned to Britain in 1879, exhausted. Shortly Thereafter a rebellion broke out, lead by the Mahdi, a fanatical Moslem warlord. Within a few years he controlled much of Sudan, and murdered and enslaved those who opposed him. In 1884, when Gordon heard that Khartoum was threatened, he returned to Sudan to help defend the city and urged the British government to send a relief party. But the relief party was delayed. It arrived too late, Gordon was killed, and Khartoum fell to the Mahdists. Thirteen years later, this disgrace was avenged at the Battle of Omdurman and the murderous Mahdists were finally driven out of Sudan. Egypt and Sudan continued under British protection until after the Great War.

Characters—Colonial Africa

Character/Date Short Biography


Edward Bruce
Declared himself king of Ireland and led a rebellion against the English governors of Ireland.
Mungo Park
Explorer of the Niger river area in Africa.
Hugh Clapperton
Explored Sub-Saharan Africa. Discovered Lake Chad.
John Hanning Speke
Explored, with Burton, the Great lakes region of Africa.
David Livingstone
As a medical missionary, he explored uncharted regions of the interior of Africa.
Richard Burton
Explored, with Speke, the Great lakes region of Africa. Also translated Arabian Nights.
H. M. Stanley
Met Livingstone in African, then continued his explorations. Followed the Congo river to the sea.
Paul du Chaillu
Adventurer who explored equatorial Africa for six years, and tried to cross the continent.

Dutch/Boer Heroes

Jan van Riebeck
Founder and first Governor of the Dutch settlement at Cape Town, South Africa.
Simon van der Stel
First Governor-General of Dutch East India company's colony at Cape town.
Pieter Retief
Leader of Boers during the Great Trek. Murdered by Dingaan during negotiations.
Andries Pretorius
Leader of Boers who avenged death of Piet Retief, and formed the Transvaal Republic.
Paul Kruger
Boer leader who resisted British rule, and was president of the Transvaal Republic.
Louis Botha
Boer Hero during the Second Boer War. First Prime Minister of South Africa.

British Heroes

Harry Smith
Notable British military commander who served in the Peninsular War and afterward India and South Africa.
George Goldie
British administrator who created a trading company to secure Britain's claim to Nigeria.
George Grey
Governor of South Australia, Cape Colony, and New Zealand.
Cecil Rhodes
Power broker in South Africa, tried to turn all provinces into a British Colony.
Robert Baden-Powell
British general who defended city of Mafeking during the Boer War. Later founded the Boy Scout movement.
Dr. Jameson
South African statemen responsible for the failed 'Jameson Raid' on the Dutch Republic.
Horatio Kitchener
Military hero of the late 19th century, first in Sudan, and later in the Boer Wars

Native Heroes

Chieftain who oversaw the Zulu's rise to power, and domination over a large region of S. Africa.
Ruled Zulus after assassinating Shaka. Murdered Boer leaders leading to Zulu-Boer War.
Leader of the Zulus during the Anglo-Zulu War.


Mehemet Ali
Albanian officer in the Turkish army who overthrew the Mamelukes in Egypt. Established his own dynasty. Cooperated with the British.
Arabi Pasha
Leader of an insurrectionary movement in Egypt in 1882
Raised an army of Rebel Muslim Sudanese. Caused widespread carnage. Besieged Khartoum.
The Khalifa
Succeeded as leader of the Mahdists on the death of Mahdi. Fought Kitchener at Omdurman.
Charles Gordon
General who defeated the Tai-pings in China, served as governor in Soudan and resisted the Mahdi in Khartoum.

Timeline—Colonial Africa

AD YearEvent

Dutch South Africa

1652 Dutch East India company establishes colony at Cape Town under Jan van Riebeck.
1691 Simon van der Stel appointe first Dutch governor of Cape Colony.

British South Africa

1795 British gain control of Cape Colony during French Revolutionary Wars.
1815-35 The Zulus, under Chaka, become the predominant tribe in Southeast Africa.
1833 Slavery prohibited in English colonies. Boers forced to give up slaves.
1835-45 Great Boer Trek, from Cape Colony to Natal; then to the Transvaal.
1837 Zulus, under Dingan, murders 400 Boers; later defeated at the Battle of Blood River.
1843 British annexes Natal, makes Boer settlement of Pietermaritzburg their capital.
1867 Discovery of diamond mines in Kimberly, disputed territory between Boers and British.
1879 After suffering a horrendous massacre at Isandhlwana, Britain subdues the Zulus.
1880 First Boer War ends in victory for the Boers after Battle of Majuba hill.
1880 Cecil Rhodes opens De Beers mining company and corners the diamond market.
1885 Discovery of gold in the Boer Republic; Johannesburg grows around mines.
1885 Rhodes establishes a British Protectorate for Bechuanaland.
1895 Jameson raid on Johannesburg fails to incite an anti-Boer uprising.
1899-1902 Second Boer War—hard fought struggle ends in a British victory and loss of the Boer republics.
1910 Union of South Africa.

Egypt/Sudan Protectorate

1805 Mehemet Ali becomes general-governor of Egypt, initiates Western Reforms.
1811 Massacre of the Mamluk leaders of Egypt at the Cairo Citadel.
1822 Egypt establishes cotton as cash crop for profitable trade with Britain.
1840 British merchants establish overland passenger and mail route to Orient over Suez.
1859 Construction of Suez canal begins under dirction of French engineers.
1863 British influence increases as Khedive borrows money for infrastructure and military.
1873 Charles Gordon accepts service with the Khedive, made governor-general of Sudan.
1879 Arabi Revolt against Western interference put down by Britain;
1882 Egypt becomes a British protectorate. British financiers take control of government finances.
1885 Charles Gordon killed during siege of Khartoum during Mahdist Rebellion.
1898 Britain defeats Mahdist rebels at the Battle of Omdurman, retakes control of Sudan.

Exploration of Central Africa

1770 James Bruce discovers the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
1796 Mungo Park discovers the of Niger, and explores the Niger basin.
1852 Dr. Livingstone's first Journey across southern Africa
1855 Paul du Chaillu embarks on his first independent journey into Gabon and Congo.
1858 John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton discover Lake Victoria
1859 Livingstone's Zambezi expedition, discovery of Victoria Falls.
1874 H. M. Stanley starts his expedition down the Congo River.

British West Africa

1864 Third Anglo-Ashanti War, fought for control of trade in the Gold Coast.
1896 Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War.

Recommended Reading—Colonial Africa

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Marshall - Our Empire Story   Part IV—South Africa to War and Peace (20)
Synge - The Reign of Queen Victoria   Colonists in South Africa to Questions (8)

South Africa

Synge - Growth of the British Empire   The Great Boer Trek to The Story of Natal (2)
Synge - Growth of the British Empire   The Dream of Cecil Rhodes to Livingstone's Discoveries (3)
Synge - Growth of the British Empire   Gordon—Hero of Khartum to British South Africa (6)
Hillegas - Oom Paul's People    entire book
Hillegas - With the Boer Forces    entire book
Colvin - South Africa    entire book
Colvin - Cecil Rhodes    entire book
Wood - The Boy's Book of Battles   Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift (1)
Wood - The Boy's Book of Battles   Kassassin and Tel-el-Kebir to Omdurman (2)


Synge - A Book of Discovery   Bruce in Abyssinia to Dates of Chief Events (2)
Synge - A Book of Discovery   David Livingstone to Through the Dark Continent (7)
Synge - The Struggle for Sea Power   Adventures of Mungo Park to James Bruce and the Nile (2)
Lang - The Land of the Golden Trade    entire book

Easy Reading Selections

Lang - The Story of General Gordon    entire book
Golding - The Story of David Livingstone    entire book
Golding - The Story of H. M. Stanley    entire book
du Chaillu - Stories of the Gorilla Country    entire book
du Chaillu - Wild Life Under the Equator    entire book