In the late 1800s and early 1900s, seven European powers – France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Portugal – were active in claiming African territory as their own. By 1914, the vast majority of the continent was under European control, with France dominating the northwest, while British possessions were concentrated in the east and south. European colonial activity in Africa was motivated by a variety of factors.


European imperialism in Africa was partly due to rivalries between the different European countries involved, with Britain, Germany and France the dominant powers. As Professor Richard Evans of the University of Cambridge observes, by the 1880s “rivalries and interventions had been building up already over several decades.” Each country aimed to increase its own prestige by accumulating territories in other parts of the world. Such was the rivalry between European powers that, in 1884 and 1885, the Berlin conference was held to map out European possession of Africa, and by 1900, over 90 percent of African territory was nominally under European control.


Africa’s natural resources were an important component in motivating European colonialism. In the early 1800s, the triangular trade in slaves between Africa, the Americas and Europe exploited Africa’s population, but after the abolition of slavery other resources came to the fore. For example, mining millionaire Cecil Rhodes exploited goldfields and diamond mines in South Africa and played a vital role in securing British rule over parts of modern-day Zimbabwe in the belief that the land contained large deposits of gold.


Sometimes European powers were keen to maintain control of specific territories for strategic reasons. For the British, South Africa provided a useful stop for ships on their way to India, another significant part of the British Empire, while from 1869 the Suez Canal in Egypt created a much shorter route between the United Kingdom and her colonies further east. As transport grew more reliant on oil, the canal also formed a route to the oilfields of the Middle East. Britain gained control of the canal and its operation in the 1880s, and fought to maintain that control in both world wars.


African colonies played two important economic roles. First, they were intended as a market for the goods manufactured in the European “home” country. The colonies acted as “protected” marketplaces where European products could be sold. In addition, African colonies were expected to contribute to Europe’s economy. In West Africa, for example, French administrators encouraged local people to grow crops like cotton and groundnuts, which could be sold at home in France.