Africa and Imperialism

Italians in Libya

Italy had won Libya in its war against the Ottoman Turks in 1912, and now, after World War I, in Libya the Italians were facing resistance to their attempt to expand their rule. In 1922, Mussolini’s Italy launched a mechanized drive into Libya’s interior, using tanks and aerial bombardment. It was a war that was to last through the decade. As the Italians moved deeper into the desert, the Libyan guerrillas had greater successes against them. Mussolini was determined to succeed in Libya, and he agreed to let his military pursue his war without restraints. The Italians herded thousands of Libyan civilians into concentration camps — the old tactic of separating guerrillas from its civilian base. According to a Libyan historian, Mohammed Ali Al-Taeb, as many as seventeen a day died of hunger, illness and depression. The Italian military responded to newspaper accounts of the suffering by starting to increase rations to the imprisoned, which was too little and too late. The Italians built a barbed wire barrier to block supplies coming to the guerrillas from Egypt. The Italians defeated the guerrilla bands one by one, and they captured the eighty-year-old rebel leader, Omar al-Moktar (the Lion of the Desert), and in 1931, in the city of Solouq, they hanged him, forcing the city’s residents to watch.

The French in Tunisia and Algeria

After World War I, a new nationalist movement arose in Tunisia, inspired in part by Egypt’s liberation from British tutelage. Various groups united to form a Constitutional Party, which advocated improved health services, an economy that served Muslims as well as European settlers, better educational opportunities for Muslims, full recognition of Islamic customs, and local government with equal representation for Muslims. The Constitutional Party remained a party of intellectuals, without support among the common people. And in 1925, when the French exiled leaders of the Constitutional Party, the Constitutional Party disintegrated.

Just west of Tunisia, in Algeria, conflict had arisen between European settlers and Muslims. The Muslims were the majority, and their population was growing faster than the Europeans. The Europeans maintained dominant political power, and they wished to keep the Muslims subservient and politically weak. Farming — largely of wine grapes, citrus crops and vegetables — was dominated by European settlers, and the Europeans produced forty percent of Algeria’s wheat. Poverty among Muslim Algerians was widespread, with many forced to seek work on European owned farms at extremely low wages. Inflation had diminished the purchasing power. And, after the war, harvests through 1924 were poor and hurt most everybody in Algeria. The herds of sheep and cattle and other farm animals that Muslims owned dropped substantially. The death rate was rising among the Muslims, and so too was unrest.

Beginning in 1925, harvests were good. Wine production was especially successful, the European growers in Algeria having defeated an effort by growers in France to limit competition from Algeria. Algeria was on its way to becoming the world’s third largest producer of wine. The prosperity increased the demand for Muslim labor and services, especially in the labor intensive wine industry, which hired rural Muslims for pruning, cultivating and harvesting.

Some other Muslims, meanwhile, had gone to France to work. New laws restricted the migration of Algerians to France. And new movements for Algerian rights were organized in France and in Algeria. In the city of Algiers in 1927, 150 Muslim Algerians attended the first congress of a nationalist group called the Federation. The Federation called for representation for native Algerians in France’s Parliament, equal pay for equal work on government jobs, equality in length of military service, free travel between France and Algeria, more educational opportunities and other social benefits for native Algerians.

A more militant nationalist group was led by Messali al-Hadj, a laborer and army veteran who had married a French communist. France’s Communist Party had been supporting Algerian demands for reform, hoping to win Algerians to its ranks, but it had been reluctant to support independence movements among the colonized, Communist Party leadership describing calls for independence as a diversion from the class struggle. According to France’s Communist Party, Marxists were supposed to advocate worker solidarity rather than nationalist aspirations. Marxists were not supposed to be drawing lines between white Frenchmen and black Africans.   

Hadj left the Communist Party, and his movement, called the Etoile Nord-Africaine (North African Star), called for Algerian independence and for the withdrawal of France’s “army of occupation” from Algeria. His movement grew to about 4,000 members inside France. Then in 1929, France outlawed Hadj’s movement, and Hadj became a fugitive.

The French and Spanish in Morocco

In French-controlled Morocco, a Muslim Sultan held nominal power, but the real power lay with the French resident-general, an aristocrat and former army colonel, Louis Lyautey. Lyautey was bright and sophisticated. His policies closely fit the French colonial ideal, and he was a favorite among French conservatives. Lyautey had served in Madagascar while a colonel, and he had convinced tribes there that the French army was on their side, the army giving them machine-made tools and teaching them scientific methods in farming. In Madagascar his troops had built roads and had established telegraphic installations, and Lyautey had left Madagascar materially better off and more tranquil than it had been in its entire history.

In that part of Morocco controlled by the French, French farmers had incomes that averaged eight times higher than the average of Moroccan farmers, and the French farmers looked upon their Muslim neighbors as an inferior race. Lyautey had been in Morocco since 1912, and he had become popular with the local French and the Moroccans. Lyautey dealt with the Moroccan people through the authority of their own chiefs. He endeavored to avoid offending any local customs and religious practices. Under Lyautey the French taught Moroccans how to grow more and better crops. More market places were developed for the Moroccans, and the French built hospitals, schools and roads. In that part of Morocco that the French controlled the economy improved, benefiting local people and French investors. And Lyautey created two new coastal cities: Kenitra (to be renamed Port Lyautey) and Casablanca.

In 1920, while France was having success in its portion of Morocco, rebellion erupted among mountain tribes in that part of Morocco nominally controlled by Spain (a stretch of two hundred miles between the two Mediterranean port cities of Ceuta and Melilla, ports that Spain had held for over 300 years). The rebellion was led by Mohammed ben Abel Krim. In 1922 Krim announced the creation of an Islamic republic. He was receiving aide from abroad, while describing his struggle as nationalist rather than pan-Islamic.

During the rebellion, atrocities were committed by both Krim’s forces and the Spanish. The Spanish bombed the Moroccans but hit mainly rocks and cactus plants. By mid-1924 many Spaniards were sick of the fighting. So too was Spain’s dictator, Miguel Primo de Rivera. Spain had spent a lot of money and was gaining nothing in wealth from Morocco, and Primo de Rivera complained about the tens of thousands of men killed in the war. He wanted to end Spain’s pursuit of the rebel forces, but  he complained that Britain would not let him withdraw. The British were concerned about the French expanding in Morocco near the Strait of Gibraltar. Also, Spain’s military officers in Morocco — among them colonel Francisco Franco — were adamant about continuing the fighting. They were concerned about their careers, and they saw Spain’s imperial enterprise in Morocco as an effort at wiping out the shame of defeat by the United States in 1898 and reclaiming for Spain the glory of empire.

In 1925, Krim’s advances spilled over into tribal areas governed by France. Resident-general Lyautey did not want a war against Krim. But Krim allowed incursions against French-controlled Morocco to continue. Krim recognized that Lyautey had given Moroccans order, security and economic prosperity, but he claimed that he would bring all Moroccans the same benefits but with the advantage that he was a Muslim, a leader of their own faith rather than an infidel. Krim expanded to within twenty-five kilometers of Fez, where the Sultan and Lyautey were headquartered. But the Moroccans in French-controlled areas largely supported French rule and viewed Krim as a menace. Krim was facing too much of an enemy. For Lyautey, a policy that appealed to hearts and minds had proved successful.

A joint French and Spanish force applied overwhelming force against Krim. This included artillery barrages, aerial bombardment and the use of gasoline bombs from a volunteer airforce commanded by an American soldier of fortune, Charles Sweeney. Krim and a party of twenty-seven surrendered to the French in May 1926. The French received Krim and his party courteously and exiled them to French islands in the Indian Ocean. Krim and his family went to the island of Réunion, where the climate was similar to Morocco, and they lived on his annual stipend on a large estate not far from the island’s capital, St. Denis. The French wanted Krim not as a martyr but to be forgotten. Spain wanted revenge against Krim and viewed France’s treatment of Krim as a disgrace.

French Colonialism in West Africa

Among those ruled by the French in western Africa, the spectacle of white men killing each other in World War I eroded much if not all of whatever view they had that whites were indeed superior to Africans. During the war, the French had recruited 175,000 from their colonies in Western Africa, some of these recruits becoming combat soldiers, some others becoming support personnel. These Africans were a variety of men of many shades of brown, some of them Moslems, and some not. After the war some of them stayed in France, where several became advocates for more rights for Africans, most of them favoring assimilation rather than national independence. One movement that favored nationalist independence was led by a missionary-educated military veteran, André Matswa, whose movement spread to Brazzaville.

France’s colonies in western Africa covered an enormous area, from the dry and sparsely populated Sahara to the rain forests farther south — an area that in the decade of the twenties was calculated to have only 3.1 million people. It was a population that had been declining. The flu epidemic at the close of World War I had spread to France’s sub-Saharan colonies, killing about five percent of the population there. And diseases continued doing their damage through French West Africa, including venereal diseases, which spread sterility, while the most damaging diseases were malaria, yellow fever and smallpox.

In their West African colonies the French were less successful than they were in Morocco, and British colonialists looked down upon French colonial rule in West Africa, deriding the French for  failing to live up to their pretended standard of liberty, equality and fraternity. France was letting French enterprises in West Africa develop as they saw fit — enterprises that were largely coffee and banana plantations and that lacked the restraint of public opinion with which businesses in France had to contend. In France, the average person or politician had little grasp of conditions in West Africa. There were no television camera crews going about in West Africa doing documentary exposés, and French businessmen in West Africa were doing whatever they pleased. A free enterprise by people with power and without any form of cultural restraint was dangerous, and the French had too few civil servants to travel about looking for and prosecuting abuses. Africans, moreover, had little protection from the colonial court system — a system that frequently prosecuted minor “offenses” by Africans with death sentences.

Instead of supporting local autonomy, the French in Africa had been making local African leaders their tools. The French obliged these leaders to enforce arbitrary colonial rules on taxation and all other matters, including the drafting of labor. The French had wiped out the most eminent chiefs in its conquest of West Africa, and in the peace that followed they had replaced chiefs that were legitimate in the eyes of Africans with chiefs of their own choosing, the qualification for chiefdom being that of willingness to please the French.

Beyond investments in coffee and banana plantations, very little was being invested by the French in West Africa, and very few Africans were able to accumulate capital. The capital that was raised was squeezed from Africans in the form of taxes. Taxation in some areas was such that African farmers had to grow cash crops in order to meet their tax requirements. The French forced cotton growing requirements on farmers who might have been better off growing food. And the cotton they produced they sold to French merchants at prices that brought very little return.

Taxation forced farmers in French-ruled Sudan to migrate seasonally to Senegal to work in groundnut fields there. Anyone who did not grow cash crops in great quantity had to sell their labor. Laborers traveled to work on cocoa plantations and to cut timber in the Ivory Coast. And the French conscripted Africans to labor on public works projects and on French-owned plantations — for the growing of crops destined not for Africans but for the people of Europe. And Africans were forced to work on the construction of three hundred miles of railroad from Brazzaville (on the Congo River) to Pointe Noire (on the Atlantic coast), construction that over a ten-year period killed nearly ten thousand.

In 1927, while this railway was being laid, the French writer André Gide had his book, Travels in the Congo, published, and in France a furor of indignation followed, with calls for reform. Gide wrote that the less intelligent the white man was whom he found in Africa the more stupid this person considered blacks to be. He wrote of dim-minded young whites being sent to remote stations in the colonies, being put in supervisory positions without sufficient training and trying to make blacks obey and respect them by brute force.

Africans were not overjoyed at the prospect of working for the French. Many of them were debilitated by one or more of a variety of diseases. Some of them preferred to work for subsistence outside the money economy. Some French in Africa saw any lack of enthusiasm in working for them and for money as laziness. Some French saw the Africans as lacking the Westerner’s belief that work ennobles man’s character.

Like the British, the French were pursuing a program to educate their African subjects. The French wished to ennoble them with French culture. The education that the French advocated was mostly primary, with some secondary schooling to fill a need for office workers. Christian missionaries tried making Africans more French by eliminating the tradition of men having more than one wife. They proclaimed that one could not be a Christian and have more than one wife. But facing competition with Islam, which permitted polygamy, some missionaries gave up the struggle.

Many Africans who were unhappy with French rule joined religious cults, such as the Kimbangu cult in the Congo. Most educated Africans, on the other hand, favored assimilation with the French. They advocated that with this assimilation should come more political power, civil rights and French citizenship for Africans. The most successful of the Africans who favored assimilation was Blaise Diagne, who believed in the superiority of western civilization. Diagne was a black man who had lifted himself from humble circumstances to become the representative from Senegal in France’s parliament (the Chamber of Deputies). He was the first black man to fill that position who was not mixed white and black or a French merchant from Africa.

Diagne found fault with the American W. E. B. Du Bois for his efforts in Africa and for Du Bois having obscured what he, Diagne, described as the benefits that European powers were bestowing upon colonial peoples. Diagne called for labor legislation that was in force in France to be applied to French West African colonies, legislation that would have provided French subjects with more leisure time and arbitration in labor disputes. But Diagne’s proposals never progressed in parliament beyond talk.

Kenya and the British

In Kenya, European farming diminished during World War I as many Europeans rushed to volunteer to fight. And during the war agriculture was crippled by a lack of transport for exporting crops to Britain. The economy in Kenya suffered at the end of the war. White employers cut the wages of black workers, and unrest and rebellion ensued. Numerous protest organizations emerged, mostly among people of the Kikuyu tribe, who expressed grievances over taxes, labor policies and the sense that they were second class citizens in their own homeland.

After the war, the British government hoped to advance farming in Kenya and encouraged migration there, offering former soldiers land in Kenya on easy terms. White migration to Kenya rose along with the growth in number and size of European-owned farms. And immigration from India had also been rising, with the Indians resenting the way in which Britain’s colonial government in Kenya gave in to the demands of European settlers by imposing restrictions on Indian activities, preventing Indians from acquiring lands in certain areas and limiting Indian representation in legislative councils.

By 1920, the number of Europeans in Kenya was nearing 10,000, up from 400 at the turn of the century — against something like 2,500,000 blacks and maybe 23,000 Asians and 24,000 people of Arab origin. Many of Britain’s recent migrants to Kenya failed at farming, but in general European agriculture recovered from its decline during the war years. The colonial governing council, consisting of European emigrants, stabilized the currency in Kenya. The governing council passed a law forbidding whites to work as laborers on farms, and the governing council encouraged the development of a pool of full-time black agricultural labor to fill the need for labor on the more successful of the white-owned farms. The governing council passed laws to discourage growth of a rising black labor movement. And it passed a law against blacks growing coffee, responding to the fear of competition by white coffee growers and fear that black farmers would force up the price of black labor.

An association of Kikuyu farmers, the Kikuyu Association, was founded in 1920, which wished to block further losses of lands and sought reforms rather than the overthrow of British rule. A more militant group formed in 1921, called the East African Association. It rejected white rule, attacked the government’s labor policies, taxes, loss of lands to whites, and the identification card that all native Kenyans were required to carry. The leader of the East Africa Association was Harry Thuku, a literate member of an influential Kikuyu family. The British arrested Thuku in 1922, charging him with sedition. And when crowds descended upon the jail where Thuku was being held, prison guards fired their rifles, killing about twenty. Thuku was deported to Jubaland, and the leaderless people, influenced by missionaries, consoled themselves by forming a harmless sort of trade union.

In Kenya in the twenties, more roads were built, railroads were extended, and a few automobiles and trucks were imported. There was now a rail line to the soda deposits at Lake Magadi, another rail line that connected with the rail lines that the Germans had built in Tanganyika, new rail lines to interior agricultural lands, and a rail line to the cotton growing areas in Uganda. The British inconvenienced the Masai people again by shifting them about. And the Indian community continued pressing its demands for representation in the colony’s legislative council. Eventually the Indians won five seats on the council, but without the right to vote. Whites continued to dominate the council, and they sought additional power for themselves. They wished to make Kenya a self-governing colony like Southern Rhodesia. Great Britain refused their request, announcing its responsibility for Kenya’s blacks, Asians and Arabs.

When Britain’s Labour Party returned to power in 1929, they stood for land rights for Kenya’s blacks and an increase of black representation on Kenya’s legislative council. These improvements were accompanied by a crisis in 1929 concerning the brutal Kikuyu custom of female circumcision. The missionaries had been attacking the custom, and the Kikuyu responded with the claim that it was an essential part of their culture. They claimed that the missionaries were undermining Kikuyu rights. The leading Kikuyu nationalist association, the Kikuyu Central Association, rallied the Kikuyu, leading many Kikuyu to break away from the Christian churches and mission schools. And in place of these, Kikuyu developed their own schools.

Britain elsewhere in Africa

British migrants were joining Germans in Germany’s former colonies — colonies now being ruled by Britain though League of Nation mandates. The British rule in these areas faced challenges, but they were able to manage without much of a drain on their resources. The British suppressed a revolt in Nyasaland, a protectorate between Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia. And in 1923 the Khoikhoi (Hottentot) and Herero peoples in the former German colonies of Southwest Africa rebelled. The Khoikhoi and Herero were a proud, cattle owning people. They disliked prohibition against owning branding irons, being taxed on their dogs and being rounded up for work. The British blamed the rebellion on a too sudden move to leniency away from German discipline, and they crushed the rebellion with machine guns and airplanes.

The British continued to proclaim their rule in Africa as “a sacred trust” for advancing civilization. Their stated aim was to help their subjects to modernize and develop economically, a duty they said they would continue to perform until the Africans under their rule were able “to stand on their own.” In partnership with Christian missionaries of various denominations, the British envisioned for areas in eastern and western Africa under its rule an expansion of health and education services, while about a third of the African children under its rule were attending four years of schooling.

In Britain’s western holdings — Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia and Sierra Leone — efforts in education spread clerical skills and knowledge of the world among blacks, and people with clerical skills found employment in local government, in the churches, in commerce and in industry. The two hundred or so graduating every year from secondary schools did work with skill and responsibility, and the British stopped sending whites to Africa to fill positions that the Africans could fill.

Young men from wealthy black families in British-ruled western Africa went to Europe for training as doctors, veterinary surgeons, agricultural and forest officers and other fields. And they returned to Africa to work in their professions or in such positions as managers in retail stores, as schoolmasters, or as officials in tribal government. A new category of African was being created, called by Europeans the “trousered niggers.”

Just after the war, some educated blacks in British-ruled western Africa organized a movement for national self-determination. Men from Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia met to establish the West African Congress. They resolved that a university should be established that reflected African nationality, that all judicial appointments and positions in medicine should be open to qualified blacks. They called on Britain to refrain from partitioning Africa without regard for the wishes of the people involved. And they called for constitutions that included some provisions for black representation. In September 1920, the West African Congress sent a delegation to London, and Britain’s Secretary of State, Lord Milner, rejected their demands. Milner was backed by claims from Britain’s governors in western Africa that the delegation did not represent the people in their jurisdictions. And Milner had the support of a powerful chieftain named Nana Ofori Atta, who claimed that the West African Congress despised and ignored the traditional authority of West Africa’s chiefs.

While blacks in Nigeria who were more sympathetic to British rule were being given honors and positions of responsibility in local government, some others protested against British rule. In Nigeria’s port city of Lagos, educated blacks who were offended by the attitudes of British officials, by missionaries and by white traders, wished to introduce political reforms based on British democratic traditions. But they made little headway in spreading their views. A more vociferous protest arose among the Egba people of Abeokuta, forty miles north of Lagos, who rioted against unfamiliar rules recently imposed by the British. And a rebellion arose in 1929 among market women in at Aba, fifty miles from the coast in eastern Nigeria.

Source: Frank.E.Smitha

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