World History

European Imperialism in Africa up to the Cold War

Imperialism Vs Colonialism

First, it is important to understand the difference between the words Imperialism and Colonialism

Colonialism can be seen as the actual practice of going into another territory, conquering and establishing governmental and economic rule over that territory.

Imperialism is the idea or driving force of taking over territory and establishing total control in order expand the wealth and prosperity of a nation or empire. It is done by suppressing others.

Big image
One of the most notable things about colonization was its swift and sudden nature. No one, especially in Africa, would have ever imagined that it would happen.

Africa: Developing a Grand Continent - Just Kidding!

The eve of colonization in Africa was one of great optimism. Africa had gone through many revolutions and for once had been in a very good political and economic place. The old Africa appeared to be dying and a new modern Africa with great prosperity was in sight (Boahen, 1987).

From Human Slave Trade to Natural Resources

  • The cease of the African slave was of great shock to Africans. It created a huge hole in their economy, which they had to scramble to fill. This was done rather quickly and successfully. With the end of trade of humans came the start and expansion of trade of natural resources such as ivory, cloves, honey, peanuts, cotton, and above all, rubber.

  • Africa began to prosper greatly with these new systems of trade. Politics eased with the elimination of tensions between civilizations killing and conquering for humans to trade in the slave trade. Things were looking good for Africa by 1880.

(Boahen, 1987; Reinhard, 2011).

Natural Resource Curse

One thing that Africans failed to realize about the Europe that they once knew was that it was not the same. Europe had been experiencing the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which created a raw-material-hungry Europe ready to build its empires through the exploitation of the rich natural resources in Africa (Boahen, 1987; Reinhard, 2011).

Scramble for Africa

The Scramble for Africa happened in three stages:

  1. Treaties among European countries and African leaders were signed (coerced to take their land)
  2. Treaties among European nations were signed that recognized territories among the empires
  3. The bloodshed of conquering by force occurred by the European empires.

(Boahen, 1987; Lewis, 2012, History World, n.d.).

The Empires of Britain and France

Britain and France were the two empires that controlled most of the continent. Britain and France controlled 36% of Africa. 47% of the population in Africa were British subjects while 27% were French subjects (Reinhard, 2011).

The direct rule of European empires over Africa would last for one century.

WWII - Decolonization - Cold War

Europe in Shambles

After WWII, European empires were left in shambles. The distraught was go great at home that they could simply not support and manage their colonies abroad. (Mason, 2011; Mustachich, 2013).

U.S. Involvement in Decolonization

  • The United States played a major role in redesigning the economic landscape after WWII.

  • The United States took advantage of this and supported a comprehensive plan to help rebuild Europe by investing and providing billions of dollars in aid through the Marshall Plan.

  • Western European empires could no longer support and manage their colonies.This began the great decolonization of African states. The United States had also pressured Europe to dismantle their colonial powers. This would allow the entire "third world" to be open to American capital and investment.

  • Former colonies were no longer necessary to ensure that there would be continuous transfer of wealth from the third world (periphery) to the first world, (metropolis)

(Mason, 2011; Mustachich, 2013).


  • The European empires varied in their readiness and willingness to actually give real power to African politicians.

  • The French seemed to be the most willing at first, however the resisted change in Tunisia, Morocco and above all in Algeria.

  • Portugal was perhaps the most resistant. As a result they sustained brutal and expensive wars until 1975.

  • British were in the middle ground Ghana becomes the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence from Britain under African rule.

(History Word, n.d.)

Cold War

  • The Cold War is largely seen as the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union over world domination and spread of communism by the Soviet Union. However, a critical aspect that brought about tensions among the two powers was the Soviet Union’s willingness to supply military and economic support to third world African regimes who had been victims of Western Imperialism.

  • This would deter much of the capitalist efforts for profit in these “third world” countries and spread communism among those states - two things the United States was fiercely against.

The Rise of Neocolonialism and Neo-Liberalism

  • Former colonies were no longer necessary to ensure that there would be continuous transfer of wealth from the third world (periphery) to the first world, (metropolis)

  • With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War came to an end.

  • A new era was emerging - neo-liberalism, which for the West meant that the government should limit its restrictions so that capitalism can occur and the “invisible hand” can allocate resources efficiently

  • With the rise of Neo-liberalism came the eventual rise of neo-colonialism in which African nations would succumb to economic demands of the U.S. and Europe for the promise of help with development.

(Mustachich, 2013).

Negative Impacts of Colonialism on Africa

  • Africans experienced loss of sovereignty and political power in Africa, this affected their control of their states destinies.

  • Colonialism led to a delay in industrialization and technological advancements. It explains their “technological backwardness today” (Boahen, 1987 p. 101).

  • Colonialism put an end to inter-African trade.

  • Colonialism caused a tremendous downgrade in the status of women in Africa.

  • Colonialism had psychological effects by creating African sense of inferiority as well as loss of human dignity.

(Boahen, 1987, Lewis, 2012; History World, n.d.).


Boahen, A. A. (1987). African perspectives on colonialism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins

University Press.

History World. (n.d.). History of africa. Accessed from

Lewis, G. (2012). Western civilization. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Mason, S. D. (2011). “Europe divided, the coldwar, and decolonization” in A concise history of modern europe, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Mustachich, A. (2013). Imperialism, the cold war and contradictions of decolonization. Global

Research. Accessed from

Reinhard, W. (2011). A short history of colonialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.