“Saving” Africa, Saving the Colonies

In 1994, South Africa rejoiced the induction of a new president, marking end of the apartheid. While the election of legendary Nelson Mandela pronounced a key moment in South African history, the country and continent as a whole had too long awaited the end of social, racial, political, religious, and economic discrimination. Moving back a century, the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 signed the transformative commencement of European colonialism in Africa, which befell victim to Western maltreatment and alteration of native life. Under the premise of “saving” Africa, Europeans essentially focused upon the three C’s of colonialism—civilization, Christianity, commerce—to exploit African peoples and resources for the purposes of imperialist empowerment.

Perceiving Africa as a brew of savagery, Europeans stripped indigenous peoples of their cultures under the pretense of “saving” them through civilization. In some respect, not every output of colonialism negatively affected African society. Yet initiatives like increased public health resources in the 1930s arose in efforts to maintain healthy bodies for economic and administrative purposes. Civilization in the African context also constituted political reform propped by ethnic and cultural racism. British and French rule characterized these forms of racism, respectively, but also created other alterations to African politics. Under British indirect rule, African chiefs maintained a figurehead status so long as they followed supervision by colonial officials, who frequently called for changes to traditional law. On the other hand, the French led a centralized rule under direct administration of colonial leaders with help from local chiefs. In both cases, states underwent a politically westernized adjustment that disrupted the nature of African society.

Additionally, because education and literacy have long been associated with the western definition of civilization, Africans were encouraged to attain education through schooling institutions, not limited to those set up by missionaries. Education for a number of Africans aimed in the direction of attaining bureaucratic employment, and many, including Nigerian Nnamdi Azikiwe, chose to travel as far as the U.S. or Europe in scholarly pursuits. But while these schools propagated the western society as colonials desired, higher education of Africans frightened Europeans who feared the spread of radical ideas of resistance and thence caused escalated discrimination in Euro-African relations.

Westerners considered the exploration of Africa as a time to spread their faith; wielding Christianity as an imperialistic weapon to conform African societies to western ideals of civilization, spouting affectations of morality.  Waruhiu Itote, a Kenyan who fought alongside the allies during WWII, remembers an African-American man of that time who reflects, “Right now you’re being baptized as Christians generation after generation…won’t this make it easy for the white man to keep on ruling you?” Certainly, conversion did serve as a means to “westernize” Africans. European administration constructed patriarchal African family units in the Christian image, one that glorified the vision of a Victorian woman contained to the household. Colonial religion, as such, stripped African females of power in nearly all sectors of society. The idea of a strong female that was indigenous to African culture no longer survived.

Ironically, colonialist nations like England and France fought in World War II to protect citizens’ rights and independence. The inherent hypocrisy between European theology and practice influenced the separation of African churches as Africans increasingly used Christianity to criticize colonialism. However, the resistance to Western Christianity, as instigated by community leaders like John Chilembwe, angered Europeans and prompted harsh sanctions which fundamentally contradicted the preached Christian morality.

Africa yielded an economic expansion during the post-slave trade years of informal colonialism, when legitimate commerce reactivated Western interest in Africa with exploration into the interior of the continent. Initially headed by France, these expeditions formed the backbone of the “Scramble for Africa” as state ambitions drove countries to quickly follow suit to begin the imperialistic race. The Industrial Revolution further ignited the demand for natural resources in western countries and nations increasingly turned to Africa to provide. While Africans initially embraced new crops and expanded development of trade-appealing resources, like gold, Europeans dug deeper and deeper into the interior. The economic upsurge of both groups may appear a positive, but before long Europeans began resorting to extreme labor to produce output.

Some scholars argue that colonialism, despite its introduction of alien economic and administrative institutions, did not necessarily prevent the advancement of African establishments. Whereas parts of Africa educationally advanced with the escalation in schooling institutions, indigenous culture significantly regressed both commercially and socially. New taxes imposed on African farmers ultimately led to either labor conscription or African migration to avoid wage labor. These taxes introduced new infrastructure, namely railways that connected Afro-European trade routes. However, Africans remained the prime constructors of these roads, built under the European premise that railways facilitate all trade, and African laborers worked under gruesome conditions that too often ended in sickness or death. This new infrastructure also abolished long-standing native routes and thus persisted African dependency on international exchanges. States like Mali in French West Africa, for instance, lost access to vital trades once larger colonies broke up. Even if these routes still existed, surplus production in Europe flooded into African states with low prices and consequently drove out local industries.

The African men who employed infrastructure and maintained production for imperial powers, as a means to earn European currency, left their homes for long periods of time burdening their wives with all the familial responsibilities. Families broke apart as women ventured out in search of work as some of their husbands never even returned. Bantu wives, for example,  were frequently “forced by circumstances to consort with men in order to provide shelter for their families” or in other cases left with crime as their only means of survival. The consequences of parental breakup affected more than just the parents. Children, now abandoned, grew up uncared for and often also turned to crime.

To illustrate a black-and-white portrait of evil colonialists and victim natives would to some point misrepresent the events during African colonization. Not all Africans stood as bystanders to the ongoing situations, and in many cases, the indigenous people served crucial roles in the misfortunes of the time. Nationalism was a fundamental western ideal. They identify by nation, not continent–Englishmen and Italians, not Europeans. Accordingly, when an African man (or woman) was taken from his home and relocated as a civil servant to a completely different state with a different culture, he did not view those under his jurisdiction as fellow Africans, but as a foreign people. Promises by colonial administrators to individual African states also pulled apart potential for collective resistance since most states acted in personal interest. The South African War represents this notion of mixed allegiances as Afrikaners, who opposed colonial rule, fought against British-recruited Africans, who worked towards their own interests despite supporting a Western power. Upon other occasions, as in World War II, Africans were either persuaded to join ally forces with promise of retirement benefits or forced into serving. Though only a few examples of African involvement, the point remains that in contrast to the umbrella term of “African,” each person had his or her own incentive to participating but not without European incitement and situational conception in the first place.

Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” synthesized the time’s popular misconceptions of African peoples not as a diverse collective of individuals but as a savage race. As Europe gained technological superiority over Africa, Westerners sped at the opportunity to reap the fruits of unexplored land. African society thenceforth underwent dramatic alterations in the name of civilization, christianity, and commerce. Although European rule in Africa has come to an end, racial discrimination in all facets of society still plagues the lives of millions. How can we, then, actually use the knowledge of our world’s history to combat issues of current injustices?



Laumann, Dennis. Colonial Africa 1884-1994. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Robert, Dana Lee. Converting Colonialism: Visions and Realities in Mission History, 1706-1914.

          Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008. Print.

Settles, Joshua Dwayne, “The Impact of Colonialism on African Economic Development”

          (1996). University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects.


Tuncok, Nilay. “The Rape of Africa – The 1884 Berlin Conference.” Operation Black Vote, 4

          Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2017. <http://www.obv.org.uk/news-blogs/rape-africa-1884-


Worger, William H., Nancy L. Clark, and Edward A. Alpers. Africa and the West: A

          Documentary History. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

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