The motives of Britain’s imperialist activities
in Africa from 1869 to 1912 were strategic and defensive. While other motives
did exist, such as to colonize, to search for new markets and materials,
to attain revenge and world prestige, to convert natives to Christianity,
and to spread the English style of orderly government, the main motives
evident in many events of the period showed attempts to safeguard the country
and protect former land holdings. As its free trade and influential relationship
with Africa was threatened, Britain began to turn trade agreements into
stronger and more formal protectorates and even colonies. Britain acted
to protect the route east and its connection with the Indian Empire. Rather
than to expand the British Empire, Britain fought battles over territory
to prevent French or German control in Africa.
Britain’s imperialist involvement in the
scramble for Africa occurred in response to the actions of the French and
even German. Britain had a history of African trade agreements and, compared
to its European counterparts, the highest degree of control in Africa.
France and Britain began an earnest race for the Niger in 1883, agreeing
then to divide the territory–Lagos to Britain and Timbuktu for France.
This did not neutralize the competition, however. Britain had to act in
Nigeria (1885) and Nyasaland (1891) to protect existing spheres of commercial
and missionary activities. France’s strategy to declare its “right of occupation”
and then seek negotiation further urged Britain’s aggressive maintenance
The British annexed Bechuanaland (1885) partly to guard against
the Germans; partly to prevent its absorption by the Transvaal, which would
have increased the power of the Boers. (Faber 57-58) Later, in 1888, the
French threatened the Britain dominated Nile Valley, hinting they might
divert the water of the Nile to render the area useless.
In East Africa the British had strategic
motives to protect the Suez Canal and the route to the east. As the scramble
exploded in the 1880s, Britain was suddenly challenged for her right to
trade and conduct financial and military business. “The prime object was
defensive in the eighties, as it had been under Disraeli: the prevention
of serious inroads on British power; the anticipation of other powers,
when strategically necessary, in the ‘Scramble for Africa’; the protection
of the route to India and the East. The safety of the Suez Canal had already
become a cardinal point of British policy.
” (Faber 57)
The first showdown over the route to the
east between Britain and France occurred in Egypt. French pride over a
new Egyptian canal, built in 1869, was soaring. It was abruptly grounded
in 1875, however, by a surreptitious British purchase of the majority share
in the Suez Canal. A dubious balance of power was achieved through duel
Anglo-French control of Egypt. Britain was able to prevail over France
during the Egyptian Crisis, as the French government did not allow French
involvement in smothering the rebellion.
This afforded the British a chance to
re-establish their role in world military dominance.
These conflicts were
clearly not for the purpose of monetary gain on Britain’s part. The Economist
observed in 1892 that East Africa was ‘probably an unprofitable possession’;
it was primarily for strategic reasons that the government held on to it.
By 1893, France was still not reconciled
to Britain’s role in the Nile Valley. They tried to follow through on earlier
threats to divert the headwaters of the Nile to devastate the valley. An
expedition headed by Jean-Baptiste Marchand finally departed in 1896 and
marched from the west coast to Fashoda, a city on the upper Nile. Britain
responded to rumors of this expedition by ordering that an army lead by
Herbert Horatio Kitchener conquest the Sudan in order to protect the Nile
from the French.
Kitchener crushed the politically separatist Sudanese,
winning the famous Battle of Omdurman in 1898. He took Khartoum and moved
on to Fashoda by September, where Marchand had been camped out since April.
Britain and France teetered on the brink of war, which was finally averted
by careful handling by both Marchand and Kitchener.
Britain’s action in South Africa helped
to protect their connection to the Indian Empire. They officially annexed
South Africa in 1877, recognizing this might lead to a reduction of British
responsibilities South Africa. It was also important that they maintain
their control to keep other powers from getting a foothold.
The Boer War
ended in 1902, while the Transvaal was given self-rule by Britain 1906.
Britain was not an instigator in the scramble
for Africa, but rather a reactionary nation who responded to the actions