NOWHERE HAS western imperialism so completely dictated the history of an entire continent as in Africa. From the early days of the Roman Empire, when the enslavement of Africans first began, through the plundering and divvying up of Africa's vast territories, to the modern age of massive international and multinational corporations, Africa has suffered abuse and exploitation by other nations.
Although the major burden of imperialist practices in Africa has shifted during the 20th century from Western nation-states to large interterritorial corporations, both have helped shape Africa's destiny according to the whims and needs of outsiders.
Up until the middle of the 17th century, European interest in Africa was mostly peripheral. The dark continent was a mystery for daring explorers. Sailors enroute to Eastern riches navigated the coastline, and some areas occasionally supplied slave labor for the American colonies. But the developing global economy, Europe's continued and increasing infatuation with Far Eastern goods, and the birth of the plantation economy in the Americas indirectly led Europeans to Africa.
European trade with the Americas was largely due to increasing demand for certain goods--especially sugar, which had been introduced into the New World at about 1650. As a result of Europe's rapidly growing demand for sugar and later cotton, the plantation as an economic unit achieved prominence. The new plantation economy brought Africa into the foreground because plantation owners were quick to adopt forced labor for their main work-force. Slavery became one of the basic economic institutions of a large part of world production, and transatlantic slave trade became a booming business for English, New England and French merchants.
England particularly benefitted immensely from the spoils of Africa during this era. The phenomenal rise of British capitalism during the 18th century had considerable basis in the enslavement of Africans.
The yearly export of merchandise from Great Britain to Africa, most of which was used in slave trade, increased by more than ten times between the first and last decade of the 18th century.
Liverpool was built up mainly as a center for slave trade and eventually helped stimulate the industrial revolution in Manchester and nearby towns.
As Europeans spread their culture and influence over the entire globe and reaped the benefits of drawing all peoples into their world economy and market, it was inevitable that Africa's territorial frontiers also would be assaulted. The goal of European imperialism in Africa gradually changed from the establishing of trade centers for the exchange of goods and the gathering of slaves; Europe now aspired to political and territorial domination of the sources of many of the goods they desired--rubber, gold, diamonds, petroleum and others.
The colonial age in Africa stampeded in as the British, French, Germans, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Italians all raced into the interior of Africa in the year following the 1870 explorations of Livingston and Stanley. In this mad scramble for a piece of Africa, one government often annexed territory hurriedly simply to prevent another from doing so first; colonies came to have enormous value in symbolism and prestige.
Eventually, as the evolving natural paternalism of colonialism attacked slavery, tribal warfare, illiteracy, and some grosser forms of oppression, a westernized class of Africans arose. In this segment of westernized Africans--which generally came to resent both exploitation and paternalism--the roots of nationalism in Africa began to arise in the 20th century.
Despite the slow rise of nationalism, Africa's political complexion changed very little from 1914 to 1950. It was in the '50s that the nationalist movement spread into the general populations of blacks living in empires carved by Europeans in the decade and a half imperialist scramble for Africa in the late 1800s. By 1960 almost all of Africa was either independent or close to attaining independence. Currently there are 40 sovereign black nations in Africa. Portugal alone still clings to Angola and Mozambique as tokens of Portuguese grandeur during European expansion.
Independence was not achieved bloodlessly and the road for newly-established African countries has not been an easy one. The problems they face are enormous and the resources at their disposal are severely limited.
The old age of nation-state imperialism in Africa, dating back to ancient times and climaxing in the final decade of the 19th century, has come to a close. But, in its place, Africa must now contend heavily with the corporate imperialism which plagues its developing nations. The process of "decolonization" in Africa strengthened the incentives for large corporations to invest in the vast African resources which had previously been harbored by the European colonial governments. The African leader Kwame Nkrumah observed in 1965 that the "colonial preserves of European imperialism were opened up to American capitalism" by the decolonization of Africa.
The upshot of the changes has been a significant decline in the importance of small scale financial and commercial interests and small scale agricultural capital relative to large scale manufacturing and vertically integrated mining concerns. In other words, in areas where there has been large investment, the economy has shifted in a corporate direction.
The U.S. and multinational firms which control this segment of Africa's economy are only encouraged to put more and more money into their African operations because of the phenomenal 15 to 20 per cent returns they may bring. But most of this investment goes into economies which support one of the most threatening problems to peaceful and equitable development in Africa: the artificial racial barriers erected by the White-dominated colonies and countries in the South. As long as these remain the uneven investment patterns which favor the white centers of development, there is little hope that an equitable integration of races can be achieved and the constant danger that violence may erupt.
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