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Documentary about How Europeans divided Africa

This Magnificent Afican Cake is episode 6 of a documentary series by Basil Risbridger Davidson. Basil was a British historian, writer and Africanist.

The west coast of Africa looks today as it did 100 years before. The slave trade had long come to an end. But the traffic shores have opened up the west coast to a new form of confrontation. Old trading post like the one pictured in this documentary had long been the scene of partnership between the maritime traders and the local African leaders. By the 1880s that partnership was fast fading and getting replaced by the new European quest for overseas empires.
European powers led by France and Britain came to Africa in the hope of getting raw materials for their factories, market for exports and positions of advantage against rivals. This was called scramble for Africa. By 1914, only Liberia and Ethiopia were free from European influence. As seen from the map shown in this documentary, Britain had carved for itself the largest share; Egypt and Sudan in the north, the immense wealth of South Africa, valuable colonies like Kenya and Rhodesia and richly populated territories like Nigeria and Gold coast. France had captured Algeria in the 1830s. She went ahead to add more colonies south of the Sahara including the island of Madagascar. Portugal managed to capture 2 vast colonies; Angola and Mozambique. Imperial Germany took Cameroon and the South West Africa and Tanganyika. The vast Congo basin fell to king Leopold of Belgium. Italy sealed the few remaining territories and with that, the fate of the continent dramatically changed.
But rivalry was intense between colonial powers. In 1884 a congress of the competing powers met in Berlin to settle their disputes. This meeting was attended by German chancellor Bismarck. King Leopold of Belgium was determined to get his share of the African cake. Any power that could occupy African soil could effectively claim it. The next task would be to establish frontiers in the unchartered lands of Africa. French prime minister said they had embarked on a gigantic steeplechase into the unknown.
According to the narrator of this documentary, the game was to capture positions of advantage over rivals no matter what irrational frontiers might result. One such example was the Gambia River. Britain had long held Banjul pictured in this documentary and was determined to keep the river route along Gambia River. But France had enclosed all the surrounding territory of Senegal. The French were eager to have the Gambia River and offered in exchange the much richer colony of Ivory Coast. But British parliament insisted on keeping Gambia. This resulted in a country whose people were and are still divided. The European intention according to one British governor was to seize the continent and rule over it as though there were no inhabitants. Christian Europe’s contempt for Africans was deep. They assumed Africans were helpless and lazy in order to justify taking away their land from them.
European conquest was always resisted; most of the time it resulted in death. Sometimes it wiped out almost entire generations. The resistance took several shapes. In French West Africa, a new avenue was found in Islam. Some like Senegalese religious leader, Akhmedo Bamba offered an arm of peace but was still sent to exile. Others like Samouri Toure resisted the French attack after attack and was only defeated and exiled after several years of battle. As evidenced in this documentary by the skulls paraded at Kumasi, then capital of the Asante nation in Ghana, many died. Led by their kings titled Asantehene, they had long resisted the British influence. Over time though, they surrendered and began to seek a peaceful resistance. Fearing going into disastrous war with Britain, king Prempe sought a peaceful settlement from his capital in Kumasi. He allowed the British to establish a company in the kingdom with all concessions and rights thereof. But the British were not satisfied. They wanted territorial control.
In 1896, the Asante surrendered. The king was made to kiss the British commandos boot. Old images seen in this documentary depict the king kneeling over to kiss the commando’s boots. He was then sent to exile. New British governor, Sir Fredrick Hudson demanded possession of the Asante royal stool, a symbol of the king’s authority. He ordered the chiefs to hand the stool over. He demanded to sit on it, something no one had ever done, not even the kings. This provoked war again. The British came under siege and took refuge in a British Fort pictured in this documentary. The British lived in this fort located in Kumasi for months. They had to eat rats to stay alive. Efforts to bring in food aid from the coast were resisted frantically. At last Governor Hudson made his way to the coast and the tragic affair was brought to a close. In 1901 the British annexed the country and it became part of their colony. All over Africa the new technology of automatic guns gave easy victory to the invaders. Many fighters died as captured by old images contained in this documentary. Countless of thousands of them died in the British conquest of Omdurman in Sudan.
Even before 1900, there came a new source of conflict; settlers from Europe. French settlers came to the far north, British and Dutch the far south and the Germans too. Settlers were attracted to the agriculturally rich lands of Tanganyika, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Kenya and Uganda. The narrator of this documentary says settlers needed not seek permission. The golden rule was; wherever fertile land and good water is found the land must be occupied by Europeans without questioning whose land it is. The next step in East Arica was to build a railway from the coast to the interior. Several black men are filmed working in the railway in this documentary. It was completed in 1901. It opened up millions of acres of African land to white occupation for the buying price of next to nothing.
Africans who had initially welcomed the settlers began to resist the loss of their land. With superior weapons against bows and spears, the British unleashed terror on Africans. According to an old kikuyu lady from Kenya interviewed by this documentary, settlers even burnt down their houses. This was apparently supposed to pacify Africans. A British commando recorded in his diary that in their initial attack on the Embu, they killed 797 niggas. But still he was not content and felt he needed a second shot in order to completely pacify the locals. In the second attack against the Embu, they killed about 250. In Nandi’s resistance Britons reported killing 1177 locals besides seizing all their livestock. In 1906, Winston Churchill said it was not sensible to continue killing the defenseless Kenyans at such scale. But his word had no effect. The kikuyus had lost their land. Some took refuge with the missionaries. Natives were forced to work for the settlers. We can see them build stone houses for their masters in this documentary.
By 1915 about 4million acres of farming land in central Kenya filmed in this documentary had been given to 1000 British settlers. By 1920 about half of all able-bodied men from Kikuyu and Luo tribes were working on settler’s farms. They forced Africans to pay taxes. Since they had no money economy of their own, Africans could only pay tax by working on settler farms.
An old Maasai interviewed in this documentary recalls that the settlers required each household to pay 2 shillings as poll tax. The Maasai proved good at evading taxes so settlers thought they should send some of the idle morans to school. The police collected children from the villages and forced them to go to school.
In Northern Nigeria, the scene was different. With no white settlers, life continued as was before. The British had conquered the vast region for no real reason other than to keep it from France. Britons were content with the role of supervision, taking a back seat. Under the leadership of Lord Lugard, this was called indirect rule. Pictured in this documentary is the royal residence of the British governor of the northern Nigerian province of Kano. British exercised their rule indirectly through local leaders called emirs who after defeat accepted the lordship of the British. Local kings kept law and order in their villages for their sake and for the sake of the white rulers. Kings like the Emir of Katzina is depicted as wealthy in this documentary. The emirs were able to make great wealth in those times. Nigerian professor Obaro Ikeme says British rule did not mean anything for the larger part of Nigeria. He says in the north for instance only the emirs and the district heads may have felt the direct impact of the British. The villages were still ordered and run just as before. With one important difference though, taxation. This documentary establishes that the British were able to succeed by creating a core of native administrators who became their partners and amassed wealth at the expense of the locals. Each month the emirs sat in a council with the British where they discussed administrative issues. An old film seen in this documentary shows the emirs at a meeting with the governor.
In French colonies along the coast, the scene was both the same and different. Dakar, the capital of Senegal is a charmingly nostalgic place as we can see in this documentary. The French run their colonies in much the same way as the British. However the French hoped that in the distant future, Africans would become black Frenchmen. They taught Africans the culture and the language of the French. This was called assimilation; originally a generous idea but colonialism reduced it to nothing. But in four Municipalities of Senegal though, assimilation succeeded. One such place is the island of Goree at the port of Dakar. Here you could go to school and even become a French citizen. By 1926 only 40000 Senegalese had been assimilated out of a total population of 1.4 million. Senegalese historian Prof. Sheikh Diop explains that the population was just too big to be assimilated. Blaise Diagne, one of the few Senegalese who were successfully assimilated became the first black man to be elected to the French parliament in Paris. He campaigned for black rights and won concessions in 1914. A monument commemorating his life can be seen in this documentary.
During the First World War, an embattled France called for tens of thousands of African troops. Blaise Diagne agreed to be its recruiting agent in Senegal and his reputation vanished. An old Senegalese tells this documentary how they were taken from their families and forced to go to war. They did not have the option of refusing. More than 200000 African troops, mostly conscripts were sent to France. At least 170000 were sent into the hollow coast of the trenches. Thousands never came home, several returned with memories they have not forgotten. Another old man interviewed by this documentary says they killed several Germans but a good number of Africans died. Thousands were maimed. As we can see in the documentary he lost his hand at the war.
With the coming of peace in 1918, the Victorian’s colonies looked stronger than ever before. Military rule gave way to civilian governments which allowed the British to collect even more taxes. The district officers were the lynch pin of the British rulers. Pictured in this documentary one such district officer and his wife are doing rounds in the district. Even the village chief bows in his presence. Colonial powers believed that the firm hand of rule was a blessing to Africa and needed to be exercised for centuries to come. According to an old film made reference to in this documentary, the coming of the white settlers and Indians had brought peace to Africa but there was still a lot to do in regard to poverty, ignorance and disease.
There followed the establishment of modern hospitals, veterinary services and others also seen in this documentary. But Africans had to pay for all these through tax. Settlers began a drive to produce exports to sell for cash. In Senegal, groundnuts became a golden cash crop that brought in cash for the farmers and the colonialists. But as Prof. Sheikh Diagne explains, the monoculture of groundnuts was for one sole purpose; to produce oil for international markets. Every colony was forced to produce what could grow best. For the Sahara region, it was groundnuts. The system forced locals to produce in order to provide raw materials for French industries. In 1929, prices collapsed following the grand economic depression. Food production for the local people was already a problem since their land was taken for major cash crops. What followed were crises all over Africa.
In the Gold Coast, cocoa was the main cash crop. Grown and harvested entirely by black farmers who had to sell it to European firms which would bandit together to pay Africans very low prices. But African farmers worked so hard that Gold Coast became the world’s largest producer of cocoa. However, Prof. Edo Wahe of Ghana informs this documentary, that the gains were never equally shared. Africans had no say in setting of prices. It was obvious he says that what Africans were being paid bore no relationship to the prices they would in turn pay for imports. But the advertisements seen in the documentary were deeply racist at the time. Furthermore says Prof. Wahe, Africans were greatly involved in trade prior colonialists’ arrival before 1929. By this time, they had lost all control over trade routes. Banks were discriminating against them when borrowing loans. Most African merchants simply went out of business and their sons became employees in European-owned companies like UTC and UAC, pictured in this documentary.
These were difficult days for Africans. The turmoil witnessed in Congo has its roots in the King Leopold led Congo Free State. Here they laid emphasis on growing of rubber. The methods used by Belgians to get this done were no less than reigning terror. As shown by old images in this documentary, if one collected poor quality rubber, the punishment was disastrous. One could lose a limb. A British fact finding report revealed terrifying things done by the Belgians in Congo. Due to public opinion in Europe, the excess force was toned down, but the damage had been done. By 1920s, forced labor was practiced widely in most colonies. All early rails and roads were built by forced labor. A railway line in French Equatorial Africa pictured in this documentary is one such project. It was built by 125000 Africans to link up the coast to the inland capital of Brazzaville. But the cost in life and health was catastrophic. Nearly 14000 Africans died while undertaking construction. Images seen in the documentary show European passengers taking a comfortable ride in the train, whose construction claimed 14000 African lives. By 1920s most railways in Africa were complete. These were meant to transport Africa’s wealth, mainly from South Africa. European mining of gold, copper, diamond and zinc transformed South Africa thanks to African labor obtained through forced taxation. Some 30000 Africans died between 1904 and 1933 in the Southern Rhodesia mines mostly from disease. The narrator of this documentary also reports that wages at the end of this period were lower than they had been at the start. This labor system was called chibaro. Many old men were forced to go and work in the mines by the white settlers. Gold production boomed. In those days, the mines of Southern Rhodesia produced 87 million sterling pounds worth of gold at the cost of 20 dead African miners every week for 30 years. Living conditions for miners was appalling. The protective measures were wanting and healthcare almost non-existent. Child labor was used as well.
By 1930, the colonial masters demanded that laborers abandon their homes in order to work in mines and settler farms. This migrant labor soon began to disrupt the social stability of rural Africa. Forced labor was at its worst in the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique. Farmers were forced to grow cotton which they sold to Portuguese at low prices. So bad was the situation that the farmers came to refer to cotton as the mother of poverty. The cotton was transported to Portugal and returned as shirts for Africans to buy. An old man explains that this was the start of great suffering for Mozambicans. Those who caused trouble were whipped by the supervisors. An old Mozambican tells this documentary that he was arrested and whipped by the colonialists. After this he was sentenced to 15 days in jail. Africans had no legal means to protest. But as seen in an old film in this documentary, they could sing anti-colonial slogans while at work. Soon food crops disappeared and once famous food baskets were hit by serious famine. All natives had been forced to grow cotton; moreover, almost everyone was working on white farms. There was no one to produce maize and other food crops.
But despite Africans’ problems, settlers continued arriving in larger numbers. Some were political exiles, many poor people hoping for a better life. They opened shops and businesses pictured in this documentary in the hope of finding success. The Portuguese dictator laid it down in plain words saying, Africans must be organized and enclosed in an economy run by the whites. Soon even the poorest uneducated Africans could see that Europeans had much more to take than give. Mass resistance would follow.
Whatever good came out of colonialism must be measured unfortunately by the initial aims of the colonial masters. These aims were frankly stated; to extract wealth. The methods they used included wealth forced or cheap labor, seizure of lands and incessant pressure on growing crops for export rather than food for natives. In 1920s, political dissent was emerging all over the continent e.g. the protest action of Harry Thuku in Kenya and Casely-Hayford in British West Africa. Prof. Obaro Ikeme on interview with this documentary says most of these people were however deeply taken in by the Europeans system. Their demands did not go beyond just asking the colonialists to become a little more liberal. In 1930, with the rising of Mnadi Azikiwe Africans began making stronger demands. Men like Azikiwe sought mass audience. They used media sources. Nigerian Prof. Wahe says this is what took the struggle from just the elite to all Africans. Africans resisted by holding cocoa supplies in demand for better prices. The resistance was however not successful because there was no coordination between the farmers’ protests in the rural areas and those by the elite in the urban.
In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia, one of Africa’s only 2 countries that had remained free from colonial influence. Italian forces bombed and shelled their way advancing into Ethiopia. Prof. Wahe reports that this action made all blacks all over the world feel like they had been attacked. Ethiopia was a symbol of hope for the continent. Ethiopians accepted defeat and laid down their arms. This aroused strong anti-imperial feelings in Africa which saw the beginning of the first modern nationalist movements in the continent. These emotions were aroused among the Africans like Kwame Nkrumah who had received British education. By 1945, the World War 2 ended with serious upheavals that saw Africans begin freedom movements towards the independent Africa we see today.

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