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To what extent were humanitarian and missionary motives the most important reason for British expansion into Africa between 1868 and 1902?
Although there had been British presence in Africa from the start of the 19th Century, with British areas of control including Cape Colony, Orange Free State and areas along the West coast, prior to 1880 Britain had in reality very few possessions in Africa. Only when the ‘Scramble for Africa’ was triggered did Britain, along with many other European great powers, begin its campaign for territorial acquisition. The fundamental motives for British expansion into Africa were essentially the economic interest Africa held for Britain and its entrepreneurs, the rivalry Africa created between the Great European Powers, its strategic value and what was commonly presented to the British public as being the most important motive, humanitarian purposes.
For many, including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, it was believed that Britain had a moral obligation to bring civilization and Christianity to the native population who were considered to be ‘uncivilized’ and racially inferior. Moreover, the Church strongly promoted the idea of missionary work in Africa; the Church encouraged the notion that a fundamental element of imperial occupation was the extension of Christianity which therefore was a motive behind imperialism in Africa. Many missionary societies were created such as the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel which conducted fund-raising activities and lectures.
An example of a well known missionary was Mary Slessor who went to carry out her mission in Africa. Particularly concerned with tribal customs viewed as ‘un-Christian’, she set out to end human sacrifice, slavery and other forms of brutality. However, in reality humanitarian motives were of very limited significance in motivating British expansion into Africa; Britain was not simply guided by altruism and a quest to help the native populations, but instead was largely led by the economic and strategic interests the continent represented for it. Ultimately, it is likely that missionary incentives were simply conveyed as significant in order to win over public opinion and support, particularly through the media and popular entertainment.
Of considerably greater significance to Britain was the strategic value that Africa held. Africa had always been strategically vital for Britain’s trade route to the Jewel of its Empire, India. Although Britain had few possessions in Africa before 1880, the few it did have included Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast and Cape Colony, all of which were deliberately very strategically situated along the coast. This provided Britain with stopping points and allowed it to ensure the security of its position along the long trade route to India.
After the construction of the Suez Canal in 1969 Africa, and in particular Egypt, became of even greater strategic importance as the canal provided a quick route to India. As a result the canal attracted considerable British investment in Egypt and in the canal itself. This was illustrated when Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 in response to nationalist riots. British intervention demonstrated how Britain recognized the need to protect the financial investments in Egypt, and most importantly secure the route to India, despite Gladstone’s own personal policy of non-intervention. Moreover, it demonstrates how strategic considerations were ultimately only significant in order to protect Britain’s trade routes and its economic interests in Africa.
However, the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 resulted in a turning point in European attitudes towards Africa. It was after this occupation that the ‘Scramble for Africa’ by European powers began, thus creating the issue of extreme rivalry between the Great powers, something which was very important in motivating formal British control in Africa. Until the 1880’s Britain felt no real need to establish formal territorial control, instead it relied on an ‘informal empire’ in which they had established a purely economic influence. Britain had not wished for territorial control in Africa which they recognized absorbed time, people and money but rather economic exploitation at minimum cost. Yet British seizure of Egypt meant that other European nations began to show expansionist interest in the region which in turn threatened Britain’s informal arrangement, particularly in West and Southern Africa.
For example, Britain had an interest in Nigeria but a danger was that important trade along the River Niger would be under threat from French expansion in the area. Similar pressure came when Germany seized Togoland and the Cameroons in 1884 and the Belgians set up the Congo Free State in 1885. As a result the government granted a Royal Charter to the Niger Company, out of which eventually emerged the colony of Nigeria. It is unlikely that the government would have regarded the interests of the Niger traders very sympathetically had it not been for its determination not to allow France, Belgium and Germany from grabbing land which would threaten British trade, something which was of foremost importance to Britain and it would not allow to be compromised.
The scramble in West Africa had also resulted in Berlin West Africa Conference which laid down rules for future annexation of territory. The treaty stated that in order to gain land a nation had to prove that they were in ‘effective occupation’. This meant that before taking formal control, an economic influence had to be established in the region by private investors and entrepreneurs. For example, a noted ‘man on the spot’ was Cecil Rhodes. At the age of seventeen Rhodes went to Arica and became a multimillionaire through diamond and gold mining enterprises.
In 1889 he founded the British South Africa Company and used this organization to push British control northwards from Cape Colony to establish Rhodesia, a colony named after himself. The role of the individual itself was of limited importance in driving or furthering British expansion into Africa as few entrepreneurs managed o push forward territory as Rhodes had. However, it was ultimately motivated by economic interests and it allowed the British government to most significantly protect British influence in an area by proving ‘effective occupation’ which therefore allowed Britain to compete in the scramble with other nations and thereby protect its trade and economic interests in Africa.
Finally, of foremost importance in motivating British expansion into Africa was the economic interest the continent held for Britain. Firstly Britain’s colonies along the west coast had always been strategically important for the vital trade route to India and later North Africa became equally as vital in Britain’s route to India via the Suez Canal. However, beyond this Britain was extremely keen to exploit the continents abundance of natural materials and extremely valuable minerals. This is evident as Britain was clearly only interested in seizing colonies that, if not strategically important, were rich in materials to exploit. For example, Egypt was seized by Britain due to its vast economic importance as it provided the quick route to India and additionally produced high quality cotton which was much sought after by British textile manufacturers.
Furthermore the attraction to the British of Nigeria lay in the palm oil trade as palm oil was used in the manufacture of soap and candles and as an industrial lubricant. Britain also saw great potential for trade in East Africa; Zanzibar imported significant quantities of manufactured goods from Britain and India. It was a major trading point from which came ivory and leather goods and into which went textiles, brass and steel from Britain. Britain’s primary interest was trade and economic gain. Without any economic potential in an area Britain was not interested in colonization, in contrast if a region held great economic investments, for example Egypt, Britain was quick to occupy the area despite its reluctance to extend formal control which it viewed as consuming time, people and money.
In summary, Africa’s economic potential was clearly the primary reason for British expansion into Africa 1868-1902. Britain was not a solely altruistic nation which became involved in the continent purely to help the people, instead it was driven by its own gains. It is true that rivalry from other great European powers was vital in turning British control in Africa from informal into solid occupation, however essentially Britain’s determination not to allow other nations to grab land was to avoid threat to its trade and economic interests in a region. Moreover, Africa’s strategic importance was also highly valued by Britain, yet once again its ultimate value lay in its path along the crucial route to India and therefore the protection of Britain’s economic interest.