When it comes to the topic of imperialism in Africa, there are a multitude of opinions. On a continent which has been inhabited for longer than any other, there has been relatively little development. This stagnant pattern continued up until the Imperial period. The empires of Europe began their conquest of Africa in the 1870’s and remained in the continent for about 100 years (Gann and Duignan, 270). During this period, Africa was pulled out of its stagnant development and joined the world economy. However, this period and the ensuing violence of colonialism also came at a cost to the future of the continent.
Before the Imperial Period, Africa was referred to as the “Dark Continent”. This is because its land, people, and history were shrouded in mystery. When the western powers came, this was no longer the case. Africa was pushed into the world economy and was able to reap the benefits that came along with that. On an individual level, the native Africans had new opportunities that were not there before. Rather than struggling to live as a farmer or tradesman, they could get a job working in mining or some of the other manufacturing industries that came with western development. While working conditions were poor by today’s standards, at the time, having one of these jobs insured better living conditions. The lifespan of these workers increased, and they received better housing and food than they would have received in their native villages (Gann and Duignan, 274). Workers were also able to choose their employment. There were labor laws put in place which protected the workers and insure that they were not mistreated (Gann and Duignan, 273).
The Imperial period was also good for the development of Africa’s infrastructure. The imperial powers invested in Africa by building roads, railroads, telephone lines, and improving ports and harbors (Boahen, 311). The addition of the railroads was a great benefit of the African peasant. They were able to make use of the roads and trains rather than needing to carry goods over the land. These also made travel through the countryside safer (Gann and Duignan, 275). The development of the railroads was a direct result of the Western imperial powers. All the rail lines were built before the African states gained independence. After the imperial powers left, development came to a standstill (Boahen, 311). This indicates that infrastructure improvement would not have happened, within this time period, without western involvement.
There is another side to the coin. While imperialism during this period had some positive effects, it also set the African continent up for another period of stagnation. After the initial boom that imperialism brought during this period, development began to slow again (as referenced in Things Fall Apart). This happened as the African states gained independence. The infrastructure built by the western powers remained, but unstable governments came in to fill the void when the Europeans left. State lines were drawn somewhat arbitrarily and did not account for tribal, ethnic, or cultural differences. The resultant effect of this was that the governments that formed were not necessarily representative of the people governed. This is important because it explains the conflict and lack of cohesion that has been present in many African states during the twentieth and twenty first centuries (Boahen, 311). A recent example of this conflict can be seen in the genocide that occurred in the African State of Rwanda in 1994. The Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups had a hard divide drawn between them by the imperialist Dutch in the region. Tensions and civil war between the two groups eventually led to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi. This event set back the development in Rwanda even further.
It is easily seen that western imperialism in Africa left a large mark on the history of the continent. It improved the continent in some ways but left scars in others. Due to the European involvement, Africa is a player in the world economy. However, when the western powers left, they left a continent ill equipped to continue developing. This is the tragedy that resulted from the Imperial Era in Africa.