How did this happen?

Jules Ferry (1832-1893)”Gentlemen, we must speak more loudly and more honestly! We must say openly that indeed the higher races have a right over the lower races …. I repeat, that the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races….I say that French colonial policy, the policy of colonial expansion, the policy that has taken us under the Empire [the Second Empire of Napoleon] to Saigon, to Indochina [Vietnam], that has led us to Tunisia, to Madagascar; I say that this policy of colonial expansion was inspired by… the fact that a navy such as ours cannot do without safe harbors, defenses, supply centers on the high seas …. Are you unaware of this? Look at a map of the world.”

Jules Ferry was Prime Minister of France from 1880 to 1881 and from 1883 to 1885.

He is especially known for promoting a vast extension of the French colonial empire.

The nineteenth century saw fundamental changes in Africa. Some of those changes were the result of the territorial ambitions of African rulers. As the century progressed, alliances with merchants and missionaries from Europe began increasingly to have a bearing on how African chiefs achieved their goals.

At the beginning of the century, Europeans were still hugely ignorant of the continent. The systematic colonisation of Africa, which gathered momentum in the 1880’s, was not even on the horizon in the first half of the 19th century. Europeans had confined themselves to trading mainly along the coast. In the last two decades of the 19th century conflicts and rivalries in Europe began to affect people in Africa directly. In the 1880’s European powers divided Africa up amongst themselves without the consent of people living there, and with limited knowledge of the land they had taken. That is how the Scramble for Africa, also known as the Race for Africa, resulted in occupation and annexation of African territory by European powers during the New Imperialism period, between the 1880s and the First World War in 1914.

Some of the readers of this text might now start scratching their heads, asking themselves and wondering why is that colonialism, widely seen as a positive accomplishment in the western world, is treated here like a crime or even a crime against humanity in some places in Africa. And above all, why colonialism is mixed with imperialim or new imperialism.

The simple way to distinguish colonialism from imperialism is to think of colonialism as a pratice and imperialism as the idea driving the practice. Colonialism first began to take shape about 400 years ago. It changed the economic landscape of the world forever. For one thing, colonialism enabled Europe to get fabulously rich on the trade it produced. The foundations of what we now think of as free-market capitalism were invented during the colonial era, partly to handle trade. It is very important to keep in mind that colonialism has been important to European dominant powers for its economic consequences, cultural factors (such as missionary Christianity or a sense of racial superiority) and even for political and geostrategic reasons. By the end of the First World War the colonial empires had become very popular almost everywhere: The western public opinion had been convinced of the needs of a colonial empire, although most of the metropolitans would never see a piece of it. Colonial exhibitions had been instrumental in this change of popular mentalities brought about by the colonial propaganda, supported by the colonial lobby and by various scientists.

King Leopold II's bleeding the Congo

The Congo under Belgium’s control

One of the many prices paid by natives Africans obviously was huge. Among them, here is a shocking native’s tale:”[W]e brought rubber into the white men’s stations . . . when it was not enough[,] the white men would put some of us in lines, one behind the other, and would shoot through all our bodies. . ” Tales of forced labor, a rubber tax, starvation, mutilation, beatings, murders, rape and other brutalities were the ransom to be paid by local populations in exchange of western civilization, christianity and commerce.

In the end, we now know for certain that Europe’s colonization of Africa underdeveloped the black continent. Europeans had exploited the resources throughout vast territories without making much progress in developing the colonies they controlled. Due to the slave trade and the virtual slavery in many of the European colonies in Africa, the number of inhabitants in Africa dropped significantly, leaving an insufficient number of natives to cultivate and develop the country; especially after the African countries had gained their ”independence”. According to accurate estimations, experts think that due to the cruelties perpretrated in the Belgian Congo, Leopold II of Belgium reduced the area’s population by at least 50%. In addition to that, many Africans were not provided with an education sufficient enough to efficiently rule a country left by colonial administrations after the world war II. To complicate matters, the arbitrary boundaries of colonies set during “the Scramble” had originally been made regardless of indigenous ethnic diversity, and therefore preventing the birth of strong and national spirit necessary to set up new and strong nations and countries.

All in all, after the colonial rule that left Africans poorer than before the Scramble for Africa, after the super-exploitation of african labour and resources, after having undermined the continent’s capacity to efficiently develop itself, as quoted in the book of the Guyanese historian Walter Rodney titled: ”How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, we now know for sure that the only things that did develop were dependency and underdevelopment.

However, it’ impossible to say what would have been the shape of contemporary African history had european colonial rule never taken place. ”If they had not become european possessions, the majority [of african countries] would probably have remained very much as they were,” wrote Cambridge historian D.K. Fieldhouse.

As an African, I can affirm that this is far from the truth! The claim that Africa couldn’t have developed without colonialism is not only an insult but also a punch on Africans’ faces and Black people collective conscience. ”If that was true, then there is something wrong with the rest of world which developed without it,” the late Nigerian billionaire and politician Moshood Abiola once told a conference in 1991.

And guess what: He was right. He was right because there are many other cases to single out. For example: Japan has never been anyone’s colony. Yet, today Japan is a vibrant world economic power.

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Categories: Focus, OPINION

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