Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 15 Pre-scramble Period

Pre-scramble Period (to 1800)

- as we have noted earlier, European contacts with sub-Saharan Africa began with Portuguese exploration southward in the 2nd half of the 15th C. Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488; further exploration up east coast of Africa before the end of the 15th C.

- during 16-18th C most of the typical European intruders had appeared: traders, missionaries, explorers and settlers (a number were involved in more than 1 activity).

- white settlers had only come beginning in 1652 at the Cape; this immigration was small, just a few thousand over 150 years. Most of the growth (still only perhaps 50,000 or so by the end of the 18th C) was by natural increase.

- penetration was limited, only about 500-600 miles east (mostly along the coast) from Cape Town by 1800. We shall discuss this more extensively in lecture 18 White Settlers in South Africa.

- explorers were almost continuous; this was the early phase of European interest and expansion.

- the interest was both commercial/economic and intellectual. The curiosity about the world was also resulting in the development of science (i.e., systematic observation and experimentation); Intellectual curiosity and economic interests were often interlinked; e.g., the foundations of biology were often linked with attempts to improve agriculture and farming.

- in Africa too, this was usual. Prince Henry’s activities were designed to satisfy curiosity as well as to discover an alternative route to access West African gold and later to find an alternative route to Asia with its economic opportunities. Always, explorers and adventurers were looking for trade possibilities and opportunities.

- in the 18th C, geographic and scientific societies were formed; they began to encourage and to fund expeditions.

- one of the great puzzles for Europeans in the 18th C was the location of the mouth of the Niger River. This mystery was solved only in the 1st decade of the 19th C after several expeditions had crossed the Sahara and attempted to travel down the river to the mouth.

- a Portuguese traveler had made a transcontinental trip across central Africa (between Mozambique and Angola). Nevertheless, little was known of most of Africa; explorer/adventurers became more numerous in the 19th C, especially after 1850.

- missionaries too made an early appearance by the early 16th C. The Catholic Church was militant and aggressive in spreading the faith; the Portuguese kings made spreading the faith one of the main obligations for their subjects involved in interactions in Africa.

- after a promising start in the Kingdom of the Kongo (in modern Angola), Catholic missions petered out in the 17th C. In practice, most Portuguese were more interested in taking slaves than in making Africans Christian. While always remaining an official objective and priests/missionaries were among those going to Africa, in practice most Catholic activities involved Portuguese or small communities of mixed population that often grew up at trading posts rather than attempting to convert large numbers of Africans.

- Protestants had very little missionary outreach in Africa prior to the 1790s; in South Africa, a couple of Moravians (from Germany) had come in 1739 but only lasted for a few years; the Moravians returned permanently in 1792 and had one station about 70 miles or so from Cape Town.

- white settlers had vigorously opposed this and had accepted only when it was clear that the mission station and activities would not interfere with their labour supply and with their techniques of coercing the indigenous people.

Trade in Africa

- traders were the most numerous and persistent of Europeans attempting to involve themselves in Africa. Gold and ivory provided much of the initial attraction; However, the trade in slaves become the most important commodity for most of this 300 year period.

- the largest amount of slave trade was in West Africa, but other areas were also involved. The Portuguese did slave trading more or less continuously from Angola and Mozambique (slaves to Brazil, but also to plantations in Sao Tomé etc.), but the numbers were relatively small; these areas could not apparently support a large trade. After the collapse of the Kingdom of the Kongo in the 17th C, large numbers of slaves were not available.

- a number of aspects of the slave trade are still debated—How many people were caught up?

- estimates show great differences. Although there are some statistics from shipping records, these are far from complete. However, the number of people actually shipped are only a portion of those affected; mortality rates were high, not only from the fighting, but perhaps even more from disease.

- some slaves transported were criminals, others were acquired in trade from peoples farther inland where slavery was established in African societies before Europeans arrived and still others were captured in slave raids.

- Europeans in most cases did not try to penetrate inland or dominate the trade. They could not; mortality rates among Europeans were high.

- the question of the profitability of African trade is also contentious. Even during the heyday of the 18th C, there were often complaints about the profitability of the slave trade. African consumers were very fickle in their tastes, most of the trade goods were not high margin items, risks were very high as disease could quickly wipe out most of one’s cargo of slaves in the factories or on the ships. Thus, the profitability of the slave trade (and therefore its economic importance) has been frequently overestimated. With the abolishing of the slave trade, the replacements in trade (such as palm nuts or oil) were even less attractive.

- Asia and America were always much more attractive and profitable for trade than Africa, even in late 19th C during the scramble.

- while trading interests were often an important part of the intruding European presence in Africa, I find it less and less satisfactory as an explanation for the ‘new’ imperialism behind the ‘scramble’ in the late 19th C.

- e.g., while Liverpool came to have a great involvement in the African slave trade, London was much less so and its involvement declined; London was much larger and much more influential than Liverpool ever was.

- as I shall be arguing, the possibilities changed dramatically in the 19th C—technological changes gave Europeans enormous military preponderance which made domination possible.

- attitudes also changed to make domination of Africa (and other areas of the world as well) desirable.

- while trade was one of the reasons why Europeans thought it desirable and necessary to dominate Africa, it was only one of several motivations and often it was not the most important. The economic explanations have been greatly over-estimated and even exaggerated.

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