European colonialism in Africa was heterogeneous and complex, with multiple interest groups often competing for resources or clashing over the fundamental purposes of their endeavors. Without a doubt, the vast majority of European colonial enterprise in Africa was exploitative in nature, either tacitly or implicitly. The rise of geographic societies and the field of anthropology did a lot to raise awareness of the realities of exploitation and attempted to offer alternatives to rabid exploitation of human and non-human resources (Tilley, 2011). Set against the geographers and anthropologists, more traditional and conservative colonialists in Britain adopted what can be somewhat ironically called “constructive” imperialism, in which British interests were expressly designed and implemented under the guise of making improvements to local African infrastructures, offering economic assistance or support, and other elements reflective of the “white man’s burden” mentality (Hodge, 2007, p. 22). So-called constructive imperialism was systematic, and entailed intervention in local systems of governance and social systems as well. Constructive imperialism was where colonialism and imperialism blended in a sinister attempt to rule African people and develop African lands in ways that served the interests of European and British powers.
British and other European colonial powers viewed their targets as being “empty” and useless land, upon which backwards and “primitive” people dwelt (Hodge, 2007, p. 22). Anthropologists during the late 19th century attempted to refute such outlandish claims, but to little avail. Colonialists, capitalists, and imperialists were blind and deaf to the endeavor to illustrate how traditional African societies functioned. The value of nomadic lifestyles was lost on those who believed, sincerely, that industrial development and urbanization in the European model was a beneficial trend for all people.
Colonialism ultimately failed globally, leading to revolts that continue to threaten world peace. During the 19th century, European colonialism in Africa was already showing signs of dismantling because the British and other powers made some key mistakes based on faulty assumptions about the lands and people they presumed to overtake. For one, European colonialists imposed homogeneous structures, systems, infrastructures, and values on a diverse and heterogeneous area. Second, the attempts by the British to govern its colonies in a centralized manner failed (Hodge, 2007). When concerted efforts were made to engage locals in dialogue, the plethora of competing interests and political views complicated matters to the point where a reasonable solution became unreachable (Roberts, 1990). Likewise, even when colonial enterprise was branded as being “ethical” and promoting the interests of indigenous people as the Dutch tried to do, it was obvious to those indigenous people that their best interests were not necessarily at stake (Hodge, 2007, p. 43). Forced integration into the global economic system dismantled traditional African institutions, all but eliminated and often prohibited subsistence agriculture, erased millennia of tradition, and prevented self-empowerment (Gilbert & Reynolds, 2012). Given the deplorable track record of colonial powers from Europe, it is no wonder the enterprises the Dutch, French, British, Belgians, and Italians failed miserably and led to ongoing and potentially unsolvable humanitarian crises like malnutrition, disease and abject poverty.
European colonization in Africa failed for a number of reasons, each of them complex and dependent on situational variables including the colonial power’s own philosophical stance, the nature of its capitalist enterprises, the character of its political systems, and its sociological viewpoints related to racism. Exploitation, degradation, and oppression are untenable, which is why the systems of colonialism and imperialism failed in Africa.
Gilbert, E.T. & Reynolds, J.T. (2012). Chapters 14-16. Africa in World History. Pearson.
Hodge, J.M. (2007). Chapter 1 in Triumph of the Expert. Ohio University Press.
Roberts, A.D. (1990). Chapter 1: The imperial mind. The Colonial Moment in Africa. Cambridge University Press.
Tilley, H. (2011). Chapter 6 in Africa as Living Laboratory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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