How far was British expansion in East and West Africa driven by the men on the spot

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There are many different causes that are attributed to Britain’s expansion in East and West Africa. One of which is the ‘men on the spot’, these individuals like Goldie and Mackinnon, were no doubt instrumental in British expansion, however fair weight has to be placed on the other factors as well. Foreign competition is a recurring cause throughout many different countries’ history for some key decisions.

The Scramble for Africa is no different and so perhaps the expansion was led by this need to compete with other countries and to retain the supremacy Britain enjoyed. However, similarly somewhat to Egypt, internal affairs and local crises could have a role to play in the decisions Britain made. Sir William Mackinnon was a Scottish ship-owner who proposed a scheme in 1877 in which a group of Britons led by him would administer the whole area from the coast to Lake Victoria in the name of the Sultan.

The interest he showed in this area suggested to some that this could be a valuable piece of land. However the fact that they would be doing in the name of the Sultan suggests they were not looking to add the area to their formal empire. Britain wanted to create legitimate trade in East Africa and Mackinnon proposed they use the Sultan’s authority to do so. However Lord Salisbury, the foreign secretary, actually asked G. P Badge to go to East Africa under the pretence to help with legal forms but actually to ruin the plan.

G. P Badge was effective and irritated and annoyed the Sultan so much that he refused to allow Britain to expand their authority in East Africa. Although Mackinnon was one of the first to set up a scheme that could work and expand Britain’s power in East Africa, it was clearly not attractive to the government and this shows that Britain was in no rush to increase their responsibility in East Africa, even if it was under the Sultan’s authority. Therefore Mackinnon could only have a limited impact.

Although he was one of the first people to suggest the idea of seriously expanding in that part of Africa and so, for that, he could have helped drive the expansion a little. Similarly in East Africa a German man was also looking to expand his country’s authority. German Karl Peters went to East Africa in 1884 and, although the government told him he was acting alone, he made many treaties with several chiefs. After the Berlin West Africa conference the German government publicly announced that they would accept the territories secured by Peters.

The interest from another country also led Britain to secure more land in East Africa, although this may not have happened if not for Peters. In West Africa the key figure was Sir George Goldie. He originally went to the Niger after being left some shares in a company trading on it. In 1879 he persuaded a number of companies who traded on the Niger to join together to form the United Africa Company, later changed to National African Company. The success of Goldie and the other traders on the Niger did make West Africa seem more attractive to the British government.

After French companies were threatening British success on the Niger Goldie and the chairman of the National African Company, Lord Aberdare, tried to persuade the British government to make a deal with France to leave the river below Timbuktu. However Goldie and the rest of the company eventually forced the French out themselves by undercutting their prices and forcing them to sell out in 1884. By forming a collection of the traders on the Niger Goldie made it clear to the government that they were substantial businesses and that perhaps with all their success the British government should look more seriously at West Africa.

The trading possibilities would have surely made the British government look more closely at West Africa. One of the reasons why countries started to expand so rapidly in Africa is because of foreign competitions. Each country wanted to improve or protect their position on the world stage. In East Africa the key countries involved were Britain, Germany and France. Germany’s man on the spot, Karl Peters, had already secured territories for Germany and so this led Britain to want to make sure she also had land there.

This part of Africa had unknown sources of wealth and, even if there was nothing, Britain wanted to take the risk to make sure no other country could benefit from it. At this point in time Britain was the number 1 imperial power in the world, and she wanted it to stay that way. France was also looking to East Africa and the interest of both these countries drew Britain’s attention to East Africa and it started to consider expanding there. In West Africa more foreign powers were involved.

It was known that the area had valuable trading products like palm oil and so that interested many other countries. Likewise with East Africa, Britain wanted to make sure the other countries did not get so much land that they could threaten Britain’s position. Also, the fact that Britain knew how much potential wealth was available could mean that the foreign competition argument becomes much stronger for the drive of expansion in West Africa. The French colony of Senegal expanded significantly in the 1850s under General Faidherbe.

Senegal nearly engulfed the British colony of Gambia. Although Gambia was of little use to Britain they did not want to give up any territories that were once under their rule. It was not just Senegal that France was expanding, Charles Freycinet had ambitious plans for West Africa and he was supported by Admiral Jaureguibbery. They wanted to build a great railway network that would link Senegal, Algeria and Upper Niger. This plan, to the British, is a clear view that France was serious about expanding in West Africa and so they felt they had to make sure that did not happen.

Belgium’s King Leopold also wanted to expand to create a colonial empire. The Berlin West Africa Conference was called by von Bismarck in 1884-1885. Three key decisions were made: there was to be free trade on the Congo river, there was also to be free trade on the Niger River and Britain was granted control of the lower and middle Niger region and the countries had to perform ‘effective occupation’ to control a region. The fact that Britain receives control of some of the Niger meant their traders had more protection.

However the threat of France, Germany and other countries was still there and so Britain might have felt like they should do more. Internal affairs and local crises also helped to drive the expansion. In East Africa there was a serious issue with religion, especially the persecution of Christians. The Buganda, until the 1860s, had been pagans but Zanzibar traders brought with them Islamic faith. Furthermore Henry Morton Stanley drew attention to the rival claims of Christianity. There soon became three rival parties, Muslim, English Protestant and French Catholic.

From 1885-86 some atrocities were committed by the new king Mwanga. He had ordered the murder of James Hannington, an Anglican bishop. Furthermore 30 of his pages were massacred because they were Catholic converts and they had refused to recant. In the late 1880s Uganda was in a state of civil war. Britain’s government could not be seen as letting Britons be killed for their religion at the hands of another government and so might have intervened and therefore expanded in the area to try and protect their people and interests.

In West Africa Britain also might have expanded to try and protect Britons, mostly traders. The Ashanti Confederation repeatedly fought the British in the East. They resented the British using their influence against the Ashanti slaving activities, which is where they made a lot of their money. In 1823 they defeated Sir Charles McCarthy and a small British army. Even worse, they used McCarthy’s skull to drink out of. This open disregard for British authority would have helped to push Britain towards expanding.

The Ashanti wanted to extend their authority to the coast, which was where the British had their power. Although the British defeated Ashanti in 1826 they made no attempt to move inland. Clearly showing how they were not after any expansion. In 1844 the British government signed treaties with Fanti chiefs which gave them some British protection. Although the British didn’t want to increase their responsibilities they were, in whatever form, slowly starting to expand. However in 1863 the Ashanti invaded the British protectorate and there were a number of British casualties.

In 1873 the British, led by Garnet Wolseley, defeated the Ashanti and temporarily occupied the capital, Rheir. In July 1874 the government decided to make the Fanti into a crown colony. There were many British traders in the Fanti region and so this made sense on that level. Also, the British wanted to make sure the Ashanti didn’t expand to the coast and threaten the British traders and they might have thought that by having the Fanti area, they could put up a better fight against the Ashanti.

The British expansion in West and East Africa were mainly driven by three key factors; men on the spot, foreign competition and internal affairs. In East Africa Mackinnon certainly may have properly introduced the idea of expanding but the competition from Germany was equally, if not more, important. Furthermore the need to protect British missionaries out there could have led Britain to exert more authority. In West Africa I think that Goldie was slightly more important than Mackinnon was in the East. Goldie united the traders and increased their influence on the British government.

However the expansion of other countries certainly threatened Britain, but the Ashanti wars showed an even greater need for Britain to expand in West Africa – otherwise they would lose their trading stations. The men on the spot did help to draw the British government’s attention to these parts of Africa that had not been fully exploited. However I think it is ultimately the foreign competition in the East and the Ashanti wars in the West that made Britain expand and the men on the spot did help to drive it but only slightly.

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