Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism in the Dark Continent

By Ronald Robinson; John Gallagher et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIII '
Imperialist' Beginnings in West Africa

THE LONG STANDSTILL 1890-1895

In west Africa between 1890 and 1895 British governments had held back. Compared with the resolution shown elsewhere, here their purpose and power remained diffident. There were no wealthy financiers or eager settlers, no Egyptian army and treasury to forward spacious claims. On the west, there was only the small trader; and official aid to him was stinted. Ministries were content if they could save the existing field of British commerce from French and German advances. Little was done to stake off large colonial estates for future exploitation, since private enterprise, except in Goldie's Niger Company, showed little energy for carrying British claims inland. In the official settlements as well, trade and revenue were far too slender to empower the administrators to enlarge their territory. Imperial aid for the purpose was usually refused. So fettered, government in west Africa carried out no grand strategy as on the Nile or in southern Africa; and ministers protected the commercial network only where the merchant could bear the charge. They deliberately skimped the coat of empire to the poor cloth of trade. The depression of west African commerce between 1885 and 1895 sapped the strength of commercial expansion; and the Foreign Office went on yielding to European rivals on the west, the better to defend the strategic interest on the Nile.

Salisbury merely attempted to hold what he had in west Africa. Since the Berlin Conference, the French had driven their power from Senegal and Guinea deep into the western Sudan. By the end of the Eighteen eighties, they were engulfing the British settlements of the Gambia and Sierra Leone.1 But Salisbury did little to save them their hinterlands. The Colonial Office for many years had been able to think of no better use for the Gambia than to hawk it to France2 for a consideration elsewhere. But the bargain had never been clinched; and the colony had

____________________
1
Holland to Salisbury, 3 Jun. 1887, S.P. ( Holland). c.f. J. Méniaud: Les Pionniers du Soudan ( Paris, 1931), I, 301-21, 391-527.
2
A. W. L. Hemming, 'Memorandum: Proposals which have been made involving the cession of the Gambia to France, and Proceedings in Parliament relating thereto,' Nov. 1888, C.O. African No. 357.

-379-

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