European scramble for African territories in the late 19th Century

European scramble for African territories in the late 19th Century

European scramble for African territories in the late 19th Century


The scramble for Africa refers to the struggle or competition between and amongst European nations for the occupation and control of African territories in the last quarter of the 19th Century for economic, social and political benefits. The scramble for Africa began in 1879 and the principal European powers involved in the scramble included Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium. These European powers partitioned the African continent amongst themselves and by 1900 they had successfully accomplished this task and brought African territories under their control but for Liberia and Ethiopia. Even though economic factors contributed enormously to European scramble for territories in Africa, yet social and political factors also contributed.


One of the economic factor that pushed European powers to Africa was the spread of the industrial revolution in European. The revolution that started in Britain later spread to countries like Germany, Italy and France. Therefore these industrialized nations started producing more goods than they could consume at home. As a result of this, they needed extended markets. To solve this problem of excess production, they started looking for market where they could sell their excess manufactured goods.

The search for raw materials was another economic motive, the European industrialized nations needed raw materials to feed their expanding industries. Since Europe could not meet the increasing demand for the much needed materials either because they were exhausted or did not exist, they were bound to come to Africa where these raw materials were in abundance. European nations or industries needed raw materials such as rubber, ivory, gold, copper diamond.

European nations and their merchants had accumulated much profit from their industrial undertaken and from the slave trade. As such they needed areas where they could invest their surplus capital and make more profits.

European merchants and traders put pressure on their home government to colonies large section Africa. In addition there were some interest groups such as investors, industrialist and banker. For example, in Germany, the German colonial league formed by German traders and explorers put pressure on Otto von Bismarck to join the race for colonies in Africa. Trading companies like the Liverpool merchants and the royal Niger companies also put pressure on the British governor to occupy colonies in Africa to give them protection.

In 1886, large quantity of gold was discovered in the rand in South Africa. In 1870 diamond was equally discovered in the region of Kimberley. This discovery provoked wild rumours of the existence of similar deposits of copper in Katanga and other minerals in various parts of Africa. European powers therefore scrambled for African territories so as to be able to carve out large sections of the untapped mineral resources.

The invention of the steam ship in 1875 shortened the distance between Europe and Africa and also hastened penetration into the interior. With the steam, movement from Africa to European became easier.

European needed African territories as coaling stations. Coal was needed as a source of energy in Europe. The existing coal in Europe was inadequate while some were already exhausted. Therefore the scramble was also motivated by the search for coal mines in Africa.


Apart from the economic motives there were also other factors that contributed to the scramble as examine below;

Politically, by 1850, some great African empires collapsed. These empires included Mali, Songhai and Ghana. Their collapse created a power vacuum which the European powers quickly exploited. The decline of these empires was due to civil wars such as the asante-fante wars and the Yoruba civil wars. These wars threatened the political stability of African states thereby giving the European imperialist an easy assesses to Africa.

To maintain the balance of power in Europe by 1880, a sort of balance of power had been maintained in Europe. It was an old European principle which was to ensure that no European power should either become too strong or too weak. Hence, it was difficult for any European power to acquire territories in European to prove her greatness. This could only be achieved by moving to other less resistance areas out of Europe. As a result of this European imperialist like Britain, France and Portugal rushed to balance of power that existed before.

The dignity or greatness, grandeur of a European power was measured by the number of colonies it had or the size of her colonial empire. This meant that the more colonies a nation had the more great it was seen in the eyes of others. It was for this reason that after the humiliating defeat of France in the Franco-Prussia war of 1870-1871 and with the lost of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, France turned her attention to Africa to prove to the world that she was still a great nation. Also, it was due to Frances and Germany’s entry into the scramble that forced Britain who was already in Africa to intensify her colonial activities in west and east Africa.

The unification of Italy and Germany, also cause the scramble, before 1800, Italy and Germany were already unified in Europe. To prove their greatness and equality in Europe with other European states, these countries turned to Africa for the acquisition of territories. For example Bismarck declared that “Germany needed a place in the sun “. Therefore, the unification of Italy and Germany also led to the scramble for African territories,

The Berlin West African conference (1884-1885), also influenced the scramble. The conference gave legal and international recognition to the European occupation of African territories by laying down modalities to facilitate such occupation. Therefore, the conference gave legal recognition to what has already existed.

The British occupation of Egypt in 1882  in other to safeguard the control of the Suez Canal route leading to her colonies of Australia and New Zealand. This occupation accelerated the scramble because it was a blow to France who until 1882 considered Egypt as her territory. It also threatened the trading interest of other European powers like Belgium and Germany along the Nile and also hastened German entry into the scramble race.

The activities of king Leopold II in the Congo basin was also a cause as  he created an international African association known as I.A.A with the intention of grabbing territories in Africa for himself. Through this association, he monopolized the Congo basin and deprived other European powers from trading in the area. This action of Leopold frightened other countries like Portugal and France who had also nursed interest in the Congo basin. The scramble over the Congo between these nations sparked off the scramble because it encouraged other European nations like Germany to join the race.

 In the social aspect, social conditions in Europe resulting from the growth of industrialization also caused the scramble for Africa. The introduction of manufacturing industries displaced many people who became unemployed. The industrial revolution also led to a massive increase in population because of the high leaving standards and the low death rates. European was faced with the problem of unemployment because of surplus population in countries like France, Germany, Italy, Britain and Portugal. Thus, the scramble for African territories was meant to settle this excess population.

Racial factors by the 19th century, also contributed to the scramble as  a feeling of white superiority gained ground in Europe. The idea that the white race was destined to rule and bring civilization to the rest of the world especially Africa whom they considered primitive also led to the scramble for territories in Africa.

Also humanitarian reasons also led to the scramble for Africa. Humanitarians as well as religious leaders and bodies urged their home government to occupy section in Africa so as to put an end to disorder and inter-tribal wars. Reports from explorers and missionaries showed that slave trade, slavery and other forms of inhuman practices were still common in Africa interior. The European therefore took it as a divine mission to scramble for African territories so as to bring European civilization and education to the Dark Continent.

Pressure from the missionaries also contributed to the scramble in the 19th century, many European missionaries had opened mission stations and schools in Africa. In other to protect their investments in Africa which were to win souls, they put pressure on their home government to colonies Africa in order that their evangelization will be successful.

 The strategic position of Africa also motivated the scramble. It was for this reason that Britain took control of Gibraltar and the Cape of Good Hope. There was also the need to establish military bases in Africa as well as acquire areas in Africa which will serve as new sources of military man power.


To crown the above discussion, economic, political and social forces operating in Europe in the second half of the 19th century forced European powers to start scrambling for territories in Africa.

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