The Scramble for Africa, Part 2

Leopold, King of the Belgiums, was a canny man and serious manipulator. He had set his sights on acquiring a colony for Belgium but had been rebuffed by all other nations in his attempts to buy a colony. Still, he was not deterred.

Knowing the major powers would not support a new colony in central Africa for Belgium (especially of the size he contemplated) he invited explorers, experts of all sorts, and the "movers and shakers" from the major western European nations to a conference in Brussels. Those attending were given lavish rooms, amazing meals, and vintage wine. The purpose of this gathering was not to examine the profits possible from Africa. Leopold proposed the establishment of a crusading force supported by all nations (those that mattered, that is) to bring the Enlightenment to the Dark Continent.

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Countries were encouraged to send explorers to Africa to penetrate the unknown interior under the newly formed International African Association, run by an International Commission, of which Leopold happened to be the chair. Once up and running no one noticed that funding and approval for the expeditions were only granted to expeditions heading well clear of the Congo River, which is where Leopold had already started to build small settlements, having recruited Stanley (of Livingston fame) to oversee things.

Dark clouds had gathered over the small colonies at the Cape. Poor diplomacy and stubborn diplomats had managed to anger all over the idea of a Union of South Africa. The Boers were not interested. They wanted total independence. So too did the Zulus. The British colonists wanted something but disagreed on what that should be. Then a little stone picked up by an African shepherd near the town of Kimberly changed everything. The Cape was known to have gold, but diamonds! Now things had to be settled! A modern British Army was sent into Zulu territory to bring them to heel. Unexpectedly, the British were wiped out at Isandawanda, then held out at Rorke's Drift, and finally won over the Zulus at Ulundi. The movies Zulu Dawn and Zulu are reasonably accurate. he find had made the establishment of a central government a necessity.

That is, for all but the Boers. The year after the Zulus were defeated, the Boers rebelled starting the First Boer War. This started with a series of British defeats and ended with the virtual independence of the Transvaal. Then came the discovery of a major gold ended strike near Pretoria, the Transvaal capital that ignited yet another war, the gold giving the British a reason to fight. It was an ugly guerilla war with scorched earth, overwhelming British firepower, and the introduction of concentration camps. Britain emerged victorious but with a badly battered reputation.

Over at the mouth of the Congo, where Leopold had hired the explorer Stanley to oversea development, a harbor was developed and construction of a railway hadstarted. It started up beside the difficult terrain of the Congo Rapids to Stanley Pond where the river widened and steamboats could set off on long journeys up the Congo. A brutal regime under the tight fisted control of Leopold was underway. With the towns and trading posts, the railroad and steamships, Leopold was establishing his own private colony in open view.

By 1887, other nations - Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Boers, and even Italy - had all taken bites of coastal Africa and claimed wider spheres of influence encompassing some of the inland tribes. The only real claim to anything in the interior of Africa was Leopold's Congo Free State that he ran like a massive inhumane plantation. Still, most of the land mass remained unclaimed save those still considered under the rule of African kings.

The powerful nations of Europe took their differences with them to Africa. After several African kings in the Cameroon had asked Queen Victoria for British law and order, their request was ignored. But when a British ne'er-do-well of substantial means clamored that the French were about to interfere in the palm oil trade that demanded attention. Something more than a mere sphere of influence was needed; Nigeria would take slow steps towards colonization, dragging the Gold and Ivory Coasts along as the British expanded their holdings. To the north, the French moved eastward from Senegal through nominally Muslim country to Tumbuktu and then turned southwards eventually reaching Gabon and the Congo River, across that mighty river from Leopold. The British and French narrowly avoided war as their desire for trade threatened to become a land grab. In East Africa, the British colonies now stretched northward through Northern and Southern Rhodesia, British East Africa, and Uganda (German East Africa would join the list after World War One).

In Germany, Bismarck loathed the idea of colonies. But here too, visions of empire found a willing royal supporter in Wilhelm II, soon to be Kaiser. His keen interest in challenging Britain as sovereign of the seas with a massive naval expansion was coupled with the need or global coaling stations and colonies. Cameroon, Togoland, and Southwest Africa were added to the German shopping list as Bismarck headed to London to hammer out the details. A financial crisis for Britain in Egypt gave Germany the win. The Portuguese expanded their two colonies without too much problem; Italy and Spain each took a small nibble. Ethiopia remained independent. It was, after all, a nominally Christian state as was Liberia, formed by freed American slaves returning to Africa under the aegis of the United States (the British would do much the same in Sierra Leone).

The Congo was turning to be profitable for Leopold, having now given up any pretense of bringing enlightenment to the natives. While Belgium priests and nuns were quick to establish religious centres, Leopold's harsh regime and the importation of new diseases from Europe resulted in the death of an estimated twenty million blacks, exceeding the genocidal regime of Nazi Germany. Amazingly, the canny Leopold had managed to retain private ownership of one of the largest territories in the newly divided Africa until 1908.

As had happened in the Americas, the takeover of the continent by European nations supposedly justified by Christian and benevolent motives was stealthy and steady. Trade led to European laws and administration and the destruction of much native culture. And, as in the Americas, the takeover was not without opposition.

While no tribal force was able to mount a defense as strong as the Zulus, there were outbursts and riots as European laws clamped down on prior cultural norms and traditions that often continued under the veneer of obedience. The tribal conflicts remained and would often boil over as the colonies became self-governing in the latter half of the 20th century.

With the European powers tripping over themselves in establishing areas they controlled it was possible, if not probable, that eventually a conflict in Africa would evolve into a war in Europe. Sensing the danger, Bismarck invited leaders and diplomats from the world's leading nations to a conference in Berlin in 1885. This resulted in the borders that now form the borders of the independent states. It formalized what had evolved on the ground. Once again, Leopold was able to continue his ownership of the Congo Free State until 1908 when it became the Belgium Congo.

The interface between cultures has always been difficult and too often has resulted in massive death by disease (as in the Americans and the Congo), war, or state sanctioned killing and prejudice. Few nations do not have such events in their history.

That speaks ill of any future meeting between those of our planet with those from another. If, as a species, we are not able to get along with those of different racial, ethnic, religious, or culture traditions, we can hardly expect the meeting with those from another planet to be the peaceful exchange so beloved in science fiction.

In most of the world, those arriving in a new culture are expected to fully embrace their new surroundings in two generations if not one. If they fail to do so, ghettoization results that can linger on for decades. Canada's experiment with multiculturalism, taking some of the new while keeping some of the old, offers a new solution to a worldwide and age-old problem.

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