Magazine article UNESCO Courier

An Unequal Combat

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

An Unequal Combat

Article excerpt

The story of the military conquest of Africa is an epic of heroic resistance against tremendous odds. It was a struggle in which, in virtually every respect, the dice were heavily loaded in favour of the European invaders.

In the first place, thanks to the activities of European explorers and missionaries, by 1880 Europeans were far more knowledgeable about Africa, its topography and resources and the strengths and weaknesses of its States and societies, than Africans were about Europe.

Secondly, owing to the revolutionary changes in medical technology, and in particular the discovery of the prophylactic use of quinine against malaria, Europeans became far less fearful of Africa than they had been before the middle of the nineteenth century.

Thirdly, the material and financial resources of Europe were overwhelming in comparison with thjose of Africa. Thus, while Europe could afford to spend millions of pounds on overseas campaigns, Africa could not sustain any protracted military confrontation with Europe.

Fourthly, while the period following the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 was marked, according to historian J. Holland Rose, by "a state of political equilibrium which made for peace and stagnation in Europe", in Africa it was marked by inter-State and intra-State conflict and rivalry--the Mandingo against the Tukulor, the Asante against the Fante, the Baganda against the Bunyoro, the Mashona against the Ndebele.

Thus while Europe could focus its attention on imperial activities without any major distractions at home, African States and countries had their attention divided. Moreover, divided though the European States were on imperial and colonial issues, throughout the era of partition and right up to 1914, they always resolved these questions without resort to war, except in the single case of the conflict between the British and the Boers in south Africa.

Despite competition and crisis, therefore, the European powers involved in the partition of Africa displayed a remarkable spirit of solidarity which not only eliminated wars among them but also prevented the African rulers and communities from playing one European power off against another. Throughout this period, various European powers took on the African powers one at a time and never was an African State assisted by another European country. …

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