While African resistance to European colonialism is often thought of in terms of a white and black/European and African power struggle, this presumption underestimates the complex and strategic thinking that Africans commonly employed to address the challenges of European colonial rule. It also neglects the colonial-era power dynamic of which African societies and institutions were essential components.
After the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, at which the most powerful European countries agreed upon rules for laying claim to particular African territories, the British, French, Germans, Italians, Spanish, Belgians, and Portuguese set about formally implementing strategies for the long-term occupation and control of Africa. The conquest had begun decades earlier—and in the case of Angola and South Africa, centuries earlier. But after the Berlin Conference it became more systematic and overt.
The success of the European conquest and the nature of African resistance must be seen in light of Western Europe’s long history of colonial rule and economic exploitation around the world. In fact, by 1885 Western Europeans had mastered the art of divide, conquer, and rule, honing their skills over four hundred years of imperialism and exploitation in the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific. In addition, the centuries of extremely violent, protracted warfare among themselves, combined with the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, produced unmatched military might. When, rather late in the period of European colonial expansion, Europeans turned to Africa to satisfy their greed for resources, prestige, and empire, they quickly worked their way into African societies to gain allies and proxies, and to co-opt the conquered kings and chiefs, all to further their exploits. Consequently, the African responses to this process, particularly the ways in which they resisted it, were complex.
The Complexities of Resistance
Adding to the complexity was the fact that rapid European imperial expansion in Africa did not necessarily change relationships among African communities. Those in conflict with one another tended to remain in conflict, despite the impending threat from the French, British, Germans, and other powers. There was, moreover, no broadly accepted African identity to unite around during this period. The strongest identities were communal and, to a lesser extent, religious, which begins to explain the presence of African participants in European conquests of other African societies. During the second half of the nineteenth century, for example, in what is now Ghana, conflict between the Fante and Asante, which predated British designs on the kingdom of Asante, motivated the Fante to join the British against the Asante, who at the time seemed to be their greatest threat.
The complexity of Africans’ political relationships among themselves, then, influenced the nature of their resistance to colonial rule. As they resisted European invasions, they confronted both European and African soldiers. That is, they confronted a political hierarchy imposed by Western Europeans that included African proxies. The power was European, but the face of it on the local level was often African. Despite these seeming contradictions, it remains insufficient to speak of African responses to the imposition of colonial rule as a choice between either collaboration or resistance. It was possible to resist colonial rule through collaboration with the colonizers in one instance and in the next to resist European authority. It was also possible to limit European political control through some form of collaboration with European generals or colonial administrators. This is all to suggest that Africans evaluated their circumstances, assessed possible actions and consequences, to make rational responses. Some form of resistance, moreover, remained constant during the period of formal European political dominance. Ethiopia stands alone, however, as the one African society to successfully defend itself against an invading European army and remain free of direct European political domination.
Menelik II, emperor of Ethiopia, led his army to accomplish this unique feat in March 1896, defeating General Oreste Baratieri’s Italian army and its Eritrean allies at the Battle of Adwa. Like Menelik II, Samory Touré, who created a large Mandinka empire in West Africa between the 1860s and the 1890s, was an inspiring political and military leader, but in the French he faced a far more capable, tenacious, and experienced adversary than Menelik had in the Italians. Samory’s legacy remains controversial, yet he is a significant example of pragmatic resistance for the ways in which he contended with French aggression. He manufactured firearms, relocated his kingdom, and engaged in diplomacy with both the French and the British. Yet as he conquered African territory and engaged in conflicts with African competitors, the French pushed deeper into the West African interior from Senegal, under the direction of Louis Faidherbe and his Senegalese Tirailleurs—a corps of African soldiers—and the British pushed northward through Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast with a large contingent of Hausa soldiers. Each time the French attacked his territory or the trade routes and goldfields at the heart of his economy, he mounted a series of successful counterattacks, until he was captured by the French, dying in exile in 1900.Ethiopia’s history and political structure fostered a broad-based, unified military response to the Italian invasion. Ethiopians rallied around Menelik II and took pride in the kingdom’s glorious history. Between 1832 and 1842 in Algeria, Islam became another source of unity, as Abd al-Qadir led his resistance against the French.
Alliances and Divisions
In other territories conflicts among African societies hindered the effectiveness of their resistance. In the 1880s, for example, in what is today Zimbabwe, the British used existing disputes between the Ndebele and neighboring communities to foment a conflict in which the British would have to intervene and would ultimately gain a position to claim control over Ndebele land. Ndansi Kumalo, a Ndebele chief and a subject of Lobengula, the Ndebele king, described the events that took place between 1893 and 1896 when Cecil Rhodes and Lobengula disagreed about the terms of the treaty signed in 1888. Lobengula believed that he had extended only mineral rights to the diamond magnate; Rhodes argued that the entire territory had become his personal fiefdom, and gave his name to the territory: Rhodesia.
The British attacked, the Ndebele surrendered, and the British imposed Africans from a different territory to police the Ndebele.
They came and were overbearing and we were ordered to carry their clothes and bundles. They interfered with our wives and our daughters and molested them. In fact, the treatment was intolerable. We thought it best to fight and die rather than bear it.
There was much bitterness because so many of our cattle were branded and taken away from us; we had no property, nothing we could call our own. We said, “It is not good living under such conditions; death would be better—let us fight.”
We knew that we had very little chance because their weapons were so much superior to ours. But we meant to fight to the last, feeling that even if we could not beat them we might at least kill a few of them and so have some sort of revenge.(Ndansi Kumalo)
The Ndebele fought tenaciously even though with each charge British Maxim guns mowed them down. Yet they managed to kill enough British soldiers to force them to retreat. “We made many charges but each time we were beaten off, until at last the white men packed up and retreated. But for the Maxims, it would have been different.”
In a longer passage of which this quote is a part, we witness not only the overwhelming effects of European military technology, but also the tensions existing within African societies that inhibited their ability to withstand European incursions. The British succeeded in playing the Ndebele and neighboring Mashona against each other, and this, combined with the spread of smallpox, placed the Ndebele at a severe disadvantage.
Much to the detriment of African societies, the enmity between them often fostered alliances between Africans and Europeans against a common African enemy. Hendrik Witbooi, a Nama chief and early Germany ally against the neighboring Herero, in what is now Namibia, illustrates shifting European allegiances and the strategies that placed Africans at a distinct disadvantage. Initially, Witbooi and the Nama were allies of the Germans against the Herero. But after the Germans asserted increased control over the region, in 1901, Witbooi revolted and joined with the Herero to resist them. On August 17, 1894, Witbooi wrote a letter to the colonial administrator Theodor Leutwein, who had accused Witbooi of recalcitrance.
Since you have the guns, you force the right on your side. I fully agree with you in one thing: in comparison with you, we are nothing here. …I guess this time I shall be forced to defend myself against you. I shall do so not so much in my own name but in the name of the Lord. Trusting in His aid and strength I shall defend myself. …I have told you that I am fully in favor of peace and that I shall never be the one breaking such peace. But you say you intend to attack me. The responsibility for the innocent blood of my men and yours therefore cannot be mine since I am not the instigator of another war…
Please do leave us alone and withdraw! Call your troops back and withdraw. Please do withdraw! Please do so!
This is my very serious plea!
Despite Witbooi’s pleas, the Germans defeated the Nama and the Herero. But Witbooi rose again, at the age of eighty, to fight once more. In 1905 he was killed leading a charge against a German column.
As the example of Hendrik Witbooi illustrates, African individuals and groups who resisted European colonial authority were aware of the challenges they faced. At the same time, the larger picture of European colonial rule and its implications were not always readily apparent; nor could they have been. Political and economic competition with neighboring communities remained the highest priority, particularly when the European presence appeared to be an economic and political advantage.
In the aftermath of their conquest of the Nama and Herero, the Germans waged a war of extermination. Those who survived hunger, thirst, and exhaustion were placed in concentration camps that foreshadowed the death camps of Nazi Germany. By 1911 the population of the Herero had declined by four-fifths in ten years, and there were half as many living Nama. Witbooi, never failing to inspire tenacious defense of the Nama, was killed in an attack against a German column.
Cultural and Religious Resistance
Not all resistance during the early years of European colonial rule took the form of pragmatic violence. Most was more subtle and directed toward local issues of political and economic autonomy. Particularly in British territories, Africans commonly used local movements to resist European colonial policies or practices by the colonial administrations’ African proxies. The 1929 Aba Women’s Revolt, or Igbo Women’s War, in southeastern Nigeria reflects this trend. What is unique about the movement that produced the revolt is that its leadership was composed entirely of rural women. It is also unique because it was the only mass protest to take place in Nigeria prior to the years leading to independence in 1960.
There was a history of economic and social autonomy among Igbo women, and they were well organized through communal associations. In 1929 Igbo women felt that their autonomy was threatened by an impending tax imposed by the local colonial administration. Rumors of this tax spread after the district administration’s census of men, their wives, and cattle. Within days of the census’s completion, up to ten thousand women reportedly confronted the Warrant Chief Okugo, who had overseen the census on behalf of the district administration, and demanded that he resign. The protests spread throughout the region and resulted in the death of fifty-five women.
The Aba Women’s Revolt was an effort on the part of Igbo women to protect their economic and political interests. It was not a movement against European colonial rule; rather, it aimed at particular policies that the women perceived to originate with the British-imposed warrant chiefs.
Struggles with maintaining political autonomy and control over culture created tension within African societies and between the colonial administration and Africans throughout Africa, often leading to subtle forms of resistance as African individuals and groups sought to remove themselves from the colonial sphere of influence rather than challenge it. Yet doing so was in and of itself a challenge to the colonial order and a threat to European authority.
This phenomenon is seen in the work of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a Muslim leader in Senegal who in 1883 founded the Mouride Brotherhood. Ahmadou Bamba aimed to sustain a level of social and economic autonomy, and his case illustrates the fear that colonial administrators had of Africans’ continued capacity to organize themselves outside the European sphere of influence. During the 1880s and early 1890s he gained a broad following that included influential chiefs and their followers. The French feared Bamba’s potential ability to organize a resistance. Yet his goal was to protect Islam from the corruptive forces of European rule. He waged war not on the French occupiers but on European culture and colonial politics. Still, as a safeguard against his potential political influence, the French repeatedly exiled Ahmadou Bamba between 1895 and 1907. Yet his exile enhanced his standing among Senegalese as stories of his miraculous survival of torture and attempted executions spread. The French allowed him to return to Senegal in 1887.
After World War II most African leaders engaged the colonial state through formally organized political parties and trade unions. Between 1950 and 1963, many of these parties ushered in the transition to independence and became the ruling parties of independent Africa. As such, they had little alternative but to cooperate with the outgoing colonial powers. Yet there were parties and politicians that refused to compromise and sought to define their nation’s transition to independence on their own terms.
One such example is Sékou Touré, the Republic of Guinea’s first president from 1958 to 1984. Under Touré, Guinea was the only former French colony in favor of immediate independence rather than continued association with France, despite the consequences. He famously remarked, “We prefer poverty in liberty than riches in slavery.” As was the case with earlier forms of resistance, Touré understood the political and economic implications of his position. He thoughtfully assessed his choices and made what he believed, considering the circumstances, to be the decision that best served the interests of his people.
The discussion of pragmatic resistance in Africa comes full circle with the former Portuguese colonies, South Africa, and Kenya. In these territories, violent resistance brought colonial rule to a close. It was guerrilla warfare in the case of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (1952–60) and Zimbabwe’s war of independence (1965–79); it was all-out war in the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau (1961–74), and the South African colony of South West Africa (Namibia). There was no military confrontation within South Africa around apartheid, but mass uprisings and sporadic guerrilla attacks spurred the fall of the apartheid regime. The people of South Africa took to the streets in mass civil unrest to overwhelm the resources of the apartheid regime. The African protesters suffered severe consequences, but ultimately their mass movement was too much for the white minority government. Among the most awesome of the many examples of mass protest in South Africa is the Soweto uprising of 1976, in which African students boycotted schools and took to the streets in protest, rather than have Afrikaans, the language of the oppressive white minority, elevated to a language of instruction in their schools.
Many young people were beaten, arrested, and even killed, but the students assessed the problem and their options, and grew determined to move toward direct resistance and chart their own destiny. South Africa is also noteworthy for the often violent conflicts between Africans into the early 1990s that provided the apartheid regime with an opportunity to resist change.
These are some of the many examples that defined African resistance to European imperial expansion and colonial rule in Africa; and they in no way exhaust the methods Africans employed to contend with the reality of European colonial rule. They do, however, demonstrate that as Africans confronted European military superiority and political dominance—whether they aligned themselves with Europeans, sought protection, or responded with aggressive military resistance—they were mindful of their social and political environment as they saw it at the time. It would have been difficult for African societies to fully and accurately weigh the consequences of their decisions, or of the European presence, for that matter. Yet they possessed an understanding of their immediate reality, which they took into careful consideration as they attempted to protect their interests and survive in the midst of growing European military aggression and political dominance.
Anderson, David. Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2005.Boahen, A. Adu. African Perspectives on Colonialism. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Cooper, Frederick.Africa Since 1940: The Past and the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Edgar, Robert, and Luyanda ka Msumza, eds. Freedom in Our Lifetime: The Collected Writings of Anton Muziwakhe Lembede. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1996.
Gerhart, Gail. Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Iliffe, John. A Modern History of Tanganyika. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Mba, Nina Emma. Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women’s Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900–1965. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, 1982.
Wa Wamwere, Koigi. I Refuse to Die: My Journey for Freedom. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
Worger, William, Nancy Clark, and Edward Alpers, eds. Africa and the West: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to Independence. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 2001.