The Dark Continent: European Colonization in Africa

Africa was deemed "The Dark Continent" (most likely used in print for the first time by US journalist and explorer Henry Stanley – of “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” fame – in his Africa account “Through the Dark Continent”) due to the fact that it remained a mystery to Europeans for so long. While most of the world had been under European control for quite some time Africa held out until the final decades of the 19th century, when it was carved up and parceled out to the main European powers in the Berlin Conference. But even after Africa had been divvied up, in reality the majority of the continent remained largely unexplored. It was not exploited until later when various factors collided enabling Europeans to begin a systematic exploitation of Africa's vast resources.

The fact that Africa was last to be colonized also meant that it was the last to gain independence as European imperialists wanted to hang on to their African colonies long enough to get a return on the investments they had put into their various economic ventures. Most of the countries in Africa have undergone decolonization in the latter half of the 20th century. This explains in part why there are so many conflicts going on in Africa today. It is not an easy task to form an independent nation. Every country has a difficult time in its formative years. Consider the US: it was practically bankrupt after the Revolutionary War, had a number of violent rebellions and was basically a group of largely independent states unified in a lose federation in its infancy. It was still trying to solidify its nationhood 90 years after it had begun its fight for independence. The US Civil War almost ripped the US apart. Instead the results of the war actually helped to strengthen the power of the federal government over the independent states and the US forged ahead as a powerful unified country. Most African nations are undergoing this process of nation building. And they face other challenges relevant to their specific traditions and historical development.  The dominant political organization in most of Africa is based on tribal affiliations. The model of a nation state – a European creation – does not apply well to such a political system.  So the fact that Africa was colonized and thus decolonized last explains in part why there is so much turmoil in the continent today.

But why was Africa colonized last? Compared to all the other parts of the world taken over by Europe, Africa is geographically the closest! Why then did they wait so long to get into Africa? The answer lies in the land itself. Africa is bordered by some of the harshest deserts on earth, the Sahara in the north, Namib and Kalahari in the south. The Great Rift Valley in the east creates some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth, many of which are impenetrable. Extensive rainforest and jungle cover much of the Equatorial zone. The interior of Africa is a large plateau so the continent's rivers tend to be fast movingas they seek the coast creating many impassable rapids and waterfalls. Sand deposits in the slow moving areas of the rivers downstream from the rapids create underwater hazards for any boat that is not flat bottomed or does not have a shallow berth.  Africa has a tremendous variety of fascinating yet horrific diseases that have a very impressive track record of evolving with great efficiency to form resistance to human vaccines and other treatments. Because of these situations Europeans had an incredibly difficult time penetrating into the interior of Africa and thus fully exploiting its resources until they had the technology of the 20th century at hand.

The following scenarios are made (but based on fact) up for kids to act out in class. It is meant to be an introductory activity to European Imperialism in Africa. A group randomly selects one of the scenes and acts it out in front of the class. Once all the scenes have been acted out the class tries to figure out what they have to do with the colonization of Africa. If they have trouble figuring out the connection the term, “The Dark Continent” can be introduced and any other hints that might be of assistance.

Select Scenes from the Colonization of Africa

You are French and are on an expedition to claim more land for the glory ofFrance. You are traveling 300 miles up a large river in Africa from the Atlantic coast. 50 miles into your journey you come across a large waterfall. You decide that the only thing to do is unload the boat, take it apart, carry it and the supplies to the top of the waterfall, rebuild and reload the boat. This process takes several days but you are finally to the top of the waterfall and on your way. After about a mile the boat comes to a sudden stop. You realize that you are stuck on a sand bar. The only way to get unstuck is to unload the boat so that it is lighter. After unloading you realize that there are many more sandbars in this part of the river. You slowly make your way past this 5 mile section and reload your boat. Unfortunately you realize the next day the cause of all the sandbars – a huge set of rapids has brought the sand to this part of the river where it was deposited in the slow moving water at the bottom of the rapids. You have no choice but to unload and disassemble your boat again and move it around the rapids. After three weeks of travel you have only moved 30 miles upriver. 

You are British and are on an expedition to claim more land for the glory of the British crown. It has been three weeks since you left the coastal area in the Gulf of Guinea. You and your team of 50 men have had quite an ordeal so far in your expedition. Upon leaving the coastal area you entered into a dense forest. At times the underbrush was so thick that you had to cut a path in order for the team to move forward. On the third day you came upon a very wet swampy area. You decided to walk through the swamp. After several hours of trekking through the swamp the water began to get increasingly deeper. Many of the porters can not swim and were getting quite frightened about the water’s depths. The only option is to backtrack and come up with another plan. When you get out of the water you realize that your legs and lower body are covered in huge leaches that have been feasting on your blood for quite a while to have grown to such a size. That evening you collapse exhausted in bed only to be overwhelmed by swarms of mosquitoes. Every uncovered bit of skin is immediately covered by mosquitoes. You wrap your self up completely but the heat and humidity are almost as unbearable as the mosquitoes. Then it begins to rain which brings relief from the mosquitoes and heat. But soon the rain becomes a downpour soaking you and your equipment completely. Eventually you fall into a fitful sleep for a few hours. The next day you decide the only solution is too walk around the swamp. But it is the rainy season and the swamp is growing larger everyday. You don’t realize this and began what will be an unsuccessful expedition. You will run out of supplies and have to turn back after 3 months of incredible hardship. 

You are a German and on an expedition to explore land in Southwest Africa for possible colonization for the glory of Germany. The ship you are traveling aboard has been sailing off the coast for several days looking for a suitable harbor to dock in or a safe area far off shore to lay anchor and shuttle smaller boats into shore. But the captain has found neither. Early one morning you are jarred awake by a horrible crunching sound and the ship seems to be in an awkward position. You go up to the deck to see what is going on and realize that the ship has run aground about 500 meters from the shore. The captain explains that the ship is stuck on a sand bar and they have to wait to see if high tide will release the boat. In the meantime huge breakers are pounding the boat sending huge sprays of water over the deck making work conditions on the boat very dangerous. The tide does not free the boat and the captain fears for the worst. He does not think the ship can take much more battering by the waves. He decides that everyone on board should make for shore in the lifeboats, not an easy task considering the huge shore break. Soon all essential supplies and persons are loaded on to the life boats and they are lowered into the pounding surf. Immediately three capsize leaving its passengers a 500 meter swim through the waves to shore. The two other boats make it to shore and wait for the capsized passengers. Only a few make it to shore. The crew explains that these waters are a major feeding ground for various types of sharks and that the currents are some of the worst in the world. After a few days on the beach you organize a party to go inland and explore the area. You pack up all your provisions and set off from the beach into the giant sand dunes (hills) that parallel the beach. At the top of the dune you look out and can not believe what you see. Desert landscape for as far as the eye can see. You realize that you are in a very bleak situation and fear greatly for the survival of your group. 

You are Belgian and have been assigned by King Leopold to get some land inAfrica for the Glory of Belgium. You sail into the port city of Kinshasa in land claimed by Belgium. It is your task to venture inland and claim all the land that you possibly can for King Leopold. In Kinshasa you are to make arrangements for the expedition, hire porters and guides and buy supplies. A few days into your stay you develop horrible stomach cramps, and can not keep any food or water in your system. You are running a high fever and spend the next few days lying on the cool tile floor of your room delirious, dehydrated and very weak. Eventually after a few days you feel well enough to continue with your job but still do not feel complete. The next day you break out in another fever and feel achy all over. That night in a state of delirium you tell the servant who has come to help you that you love him/her, want to marry him/her and raise sheep with him/her on a small farm in Canada. Frightened, they leave and you spend the night shivering and sweating. The next day your fever has broken and you feel a little better but still very weak. That evening the fever returns with a vengeance. You once again make a marriage proposal but this time to the lizard that is hanging out on the wall. Satisfied that your affections have changed to lizards the servant tends to you through the night and the next day your fever breaks. At breakfast you receive a letter from the King’s secretary asking how far along you are on your expedition. Behind schedule you throw yourself into your work to make up time. One of the most crucial connections you need to make is with the representative of the Belgian rubber company who will help you get your expedition on its way. You take a boat a few miles up river to where he lives on his plantation and receive news that he had passed away in the night due to several days of high fever and the inability to keep any water in his system. You return to Kinshasa frustrated and exhausted when another bout of stomach cramps keeps you in your room for the evening. The next day you awake to find yourself covered in some sort of skin rash that becomes very itchy and irritated when the skin gets hot and wet – which is all day in the tropical heat of Kinshasa.  Later that week, you get another bout of malaria, realize that Africa is not for you and return to Belgium a broken man.   

This is a joke – we have a Canadian kid in class who likes to kid around. You are Canadian. You have been assigned to go to Africa and try and claim some land for the glory of Canada. You step off the boat onto the dock in the port city Lagos. Your foot slips and you fall off the dock and into the water. You try and grab a hold of the dock but an octopus grabs your leg and pulls you back in. Then a shark comes and eats the octopus freeing your leg. You are happy and begin swimming for the dock – then the shark eats you.  This is why there were no Canadian colonies in Africa. 

Image links:

Rapids on the Congo River at Kinshasa. Kinshasa is the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the the Congo and is only 150 miles or so from the coast. To get beyond the rapids is no easy task today and presented  formidable barrier to European colonization.

The Namib Desert and Skeleton Coast in south west Africa. The coastal waters are prone to storms and have very strong currents. Few natural harbors exist on the coast for ships to take refuge. Offshore winds carry desert sand into the coastal waters creating a maze of underwater sand bars. The relentless, pounding surf often sinks stranded ships. Those who make it to shore face the Namib desert, one of the driest deserts in the world.

The Congo Rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). This is the main road across the country. Imagine what it was like to penetrate this environment 100 years ago (actually probably not too different than it is today considering the development – or lack thereof – in this most curious of countries).

No images of diseases necessary. You can imagine how they caused problems for the Europeans. A few map links to show the proliferation of certain diseases in Africa: Malaria; AIDS; Sleeping Sickness (trypanosomiasis)

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