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Colonization of Africa during "Scramble for Africa" (1880-1914) when Europe colonized 90% of Africa

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

The Scramble for Africa was the invasion and colonization of Africa by European nations during the new imperialism era that began in full earnest in 1880. Prior to 1880, very few European nations had ventured into Africa, and the ones that did mostly set up trading posts along the west coast of Africa and dealt in the trading of gold and slaves to the Americas. Portugal was the earliest of these nations and by the 19th century had set up several trading post along the coast of west and east Africa from the Niger Delta to South Africa and from South Africa to Ghana. Prior to 1881 only 10% of Africa was occupied by Europeans, three decades later 90% of Africa would be occupied with only the African nations of Ethiopia and Liberia remaining free of European control in 1914.


Africa had long been a desire of European imperialism, but it remained mostly untouched before 1880 until the decline of the Ottoman Empire, expeditions into Africa that occur during the 1800's, technological advancement during the industrial revolution, and the political landscape in Europe

Decline of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire (Muslim/Arab/Turkish Empire) from about 1453 with the conquest of Constantinople to the height of power by the 17th century, dominated the globe for almost 600 years and controlled most of Southeastern Europe, Central Europe, Western Asia, parts of Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa. The Ottoman Empire for 600 years had long been a threat to European nations and kept them busy defending their borders instead of expanding until the Ottoman Empire’s decline in the 1800’s.

European Expeditions into Africa

Not much was known about Africa, the earliest recorded voyages of African expeditions were those of Portuguese navigators who in the mid-1400’s were trying to reach India by sailing around Africa. These voyages were commissioned to circumvent the Ottoman Empire’s control of trade in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa.

In their journey to reach India Portuguese explores began establishing trading posts along the West-Coast of Africa and eventually along the East-Coast of Africa. These trading post’s were limited to coastal lands with agreements from the kingdoms of the area, some of the earliest include Cape Verde off the coast of Mali, Cape of Good Hope off the coast of South Africa, and eventually the Gold Coast of Ghana. In hopes of reaching India faster through Africa the explores would eventually begin sailing through the vast river systems hoping to reach the east coast of Africa.

By the late 1800’s European explorers had mapped out most of Northwest Africa and expeditions into the interior via the Niger, Congo, Nile and Zambezi Rivers had introduced the Europeans to the vast wealth of Africa’s natural resources.

Advancement in Technology and Medicine

Technological advancements during Europe’s industrial revolution in shipping, weapons, communications, and medicine were critical to the exploration of the interior of Africa. Until 1817, explorers that ventured off the coast of Africa and into the interior were less likely to survive the journey because of malaria and yellow fever. The development of quinine a cure of malaria would allow explorers to traverse the interior river systems of Africa. By the mid-1800s the invention of steam engine propelled, iron-hauled, heavily weaponized boats that could navigate the non-tidal sections of rivers would further help map out the interior of Africa.

Political Landscape in Europe

By 1871 the dust had settled in Europe with Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Russia securing their imperial borders leaving no room for expansion in Europe. With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, it loses territories in Northern Africa and Europe, the super-powers would expand into Africa leading to the largest land grab in modern-day history.

Slave Trade Act of 1807

The parliament of the United Kingdom in 1807 prohibited slave trading in the British Empire and by 1810 Britain would use its influence to get several other nations including Portugal, United States of America, and the Dutch to do the same. The British navy would patrol the Atlantic Ocean for slave traders to enforce the ban. Although slave trading was prohibited and diminished along the west coast of Africa it was still occurring in the interior of Africa. In the late 1800’s Britain began using the Slave Trade Act to justify incursions into Africa where slave trading still occurred.

The economic impact of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 hurt Britain the most as they were the largest traders of slaves in the world. As the spoils of slave trading diminished the European nations involved in the slave trade would begin deeper incursions into Africa looking for other valuable goods.


The new imperialism era begins with Britain, France, Italy, and Germany establishing footholds in Africa. Britain begins the takeover of South Africa from Portugal and Dutch settlers, occupies Egypt and the territories under Egyptian control which included parts of Sudan, Chad, Eritrea, and Somalia. France takes further stakes in Northern Africa with the conquest of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and occupies Guinea and Senegal. Germany begins incursions into Southwest Africa, parts of East Africa and occupies Togoland, and Cameroon. Italy begins the occupation of parts of Ethiopia. Belgium King Leopold II occupies the Congo.

Berlin Conference of 1885

When European nations begin encroaching each other in Africa and war becoming inevitable, German Chancellor Otto van Bismarck, convenes the conference to regulate the occupation of Africa. Representatives from 13 European countries and the United States would form regulations about colonial activity and trade. At the conclusion of the conference the European nations and the United States agreed to several principals. The most important were the rules for occupation which required the European nations to have a sphere of influence in an African territory before being able to claim it as a colony and a free trade zone along the Congo River as to not hinder each other’s economic activity.

In the 30 years following the conference, European imperialism by 1914 added almost nine million square miles of territory as overseas colonial possessions, about one-fifth of the globes total land.

Great Britain held the largest share of territories including Egypt, parts of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mauritius, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Togoland after WW I, Cameroon after WW I, Ghana, Malawi, Lesotho, Eswatini, St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha and controlled almost 30% of Africa’s population.

France’s occupation was mostly in Northern and West Africa and included Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo after WW I, parts of Nigeria, Gabon, parts of Cameroon after WW I, Morocco, parts of Egypt, Madagascar, Comoros, Djibouti and parts of Mauritius and controlled 15% of Africa’s population.

Portugal retained most of their trading posts from centuries earlier and expanded to Southern Africa with territories in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe and Benin and controlled 9% of Africa’s population.

Germany managed to expand their territories in East Africa, they would lose all the territories after World War I, but they included Cameroon, Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Togo, and parts of Ghana and controlled 7% of Africa’s population.

Italy would control parts of Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia and controlled 1% of the population. During World War II Italy occupied Ethiopia for several years.

Liberia a colony of free slaves from the United States, effectively an American colony, was autonomously governed but had the protection of the United States. Ethiopia’s empire was one of few African nations with a centralized government that had control of its entire territory making it easier to defend. Ethiopia also had the experience of fighting invasions for centuries and were able to maintain border integrity for much of that time. Using military might and ingenious treaties with several European nations including France, Germany and Britain Ethiopia would remain a sovereign nation until Italy was able to penetrate the capital Addis Ababa during World War II and occupy Ethiopia while repelling attacks from Ethiopian guerilla fighters for several years.


The war which had been fermenting since 1870 and was largely driven by imperialistic goals in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa amongst the super-powers of Britain, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary changes the African landscapes. The Allied Powers redistribute German and Ottoman territories in Africa to Britain, France, and Italy by mandates of the League of Nations.


When the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan develop identity-based colonialism and attack the super-powers it would mark the beginning of the end for colonial rule of Africa. After the conclusion of the war the European powers weakened domestically and internationally would slowly start losing control of its African territories. The post war super-powers of the United States and Russia also heavily aligned against colonial rule, mostly based on their own self-interest, begin supporting anti-colonial uprisings throughout the world.

The decolonization period (1945-1970) in Africa was largely caused by military uprisings in the territories and with very-little appetite for war at home the European nations would start the process of granting independence over the next 30 years. African nations with no white settlers and governing bodies of their own were granted the quickest sovereignty while other nations with large populations of white settlers would wait longer for sovereignty.

Post-Colonial Africa

Before the colonial era there were 10,000 sovereign states/kingdoms in Africa that were absorbed into colonial borders created by Europeans which eventually would be used to create 54 sovereign nations after World War II. The political landscape of those borders often ensured that below colonial administrators that certain ethnics groups were given more power and other groups marginalized. After independence, these ethnic dynamics created political instability in almost every African nation that caused the deaths of millions of Africans in civil wars or national wars against neighboring countries.

Economically these nations were created to produce cash crops and optimized for the export of natural resources. When the Europeans granted these nations sovereignty their economies remained dependent on their former colonial rulers. Political instability that led to civil wars and military coups of almost every African nation would halt any production that was occurring and cause the economies to collapse. These nations would become dependent on loans from their former colonial rulers to keep their economies afloat and the servicing of debt to their former colonial rulers would lead to further economic collapse. Droughts and other natural disasters that occurred in these warn torn nations with collapsed economies would lead to famines that has killed millions of people across Africa.

The post-colonial era has been marred in political instability, civil wars, war, economic ruin, and massive debt which continue to plague Africa to this day.

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