FOR the last century, Europe's interest in Africa has been the conversion of the heathen, the annexation of colonies and investment for profit in African labor and raw materials. Once, investment in Africa involved the slave trade and the transport of Negro labor to America. American Negro slavery, through the crops it raised, the commerce it gave rise to, the cities it built and the inventions it inspired, helped bring the Industrial Revolution. With the new industrial era began the decline of the slave trade and slavery and the utilization of African labor in Africa to develop African resources. Thus the search of finance capitalism for new fields of exploitation introduced a new set of problems into the relations of Africa and the white world.

In 1870 a young man dying of tuberculosis, Cecil Rhodes, began to dig diamonds in South Africa. Within a year he was a millionaire. Within a decade he had planned an empire built on diamonds and gold. A few years later he set his face toward the copper, tin and platinum of the inner regions of the continent. A bearded roué in the royal palace at Brussels caught the significance of the trend and planned an international state in central Africa, nominally for "scientific and philanthropic" motives, but in reality out of the love of gain. Even Bismarck, against his better judgment, felt obliged to follow England and France into colonial imperialism.

At first these political schemes led only to expense and controversy. Gradually, however, economic profits began to accrue. Foremost among the sources of these profits was the mineral wealth of the Rand, which was to furnish half the world's gold and most of its diamonds. Another -- one that steadily increased with the years -- was the vegetable oils from which Europe and America made their soap. Later, with the electric age, came copper -- one of the greatest copper reserves in the world is in Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo -- to be followed by tin, manganese and rarer but increasingly necessary minerals like vanadium. Africa's possibilities for the cultivation of cocoa, rubber, cotton and other fibres were exploited in ever increasing degree. Imaginative men conceived of an Africa which, with improved techniques, trained labor and the utilization of the boundless sources of water power, might easily become one of the most productive regions in the world.

But these resources could be extracted from field and mine only by the labor of the native peoples. The most pressing African problem hence came to be how to put Africans to work for the profit of white investors. It was a problem which presented many difficulties. There could be no question of compelling the African to work against his will indefinitely. The pressure used must be the pressure of circumstance rather than of physical force.

The efforts of the profit-seekers to get the African native to work for them received unintended help from the missionaries. It seemed both logical and natural to the missionaries of the nineteenth century that their activities should involve the disruption of African tribal life and the introduction of work for wages. The European wage system appeared to them normal and progressive while the communalism of the African clan, the African subordination of labor to life, and the lack of any African conception of individual land ownership seemed proof of African barbarism.

II

One of the first objectives of European investors in Africa was to gain ownership of the land. This effort had two purposes: to establish plantations on which cocoa, coffee, tobacco, grain and other profitable products could be raised; and to sequester enough land to make it impossible for the natives to live without working for the outside capitalists. This transplantation of Europe's disastrous land economy to Africa has not been carried out in the same way or at the same speed throughout the continent. Its effects are today most manifest in South Africa, where seven and a half million colored folk own ten percent of the soil while two million whites control the rest. By recent legislation the natives may increase their share to thirteen percent if they can obtain the necessary funds.

In the early years the whites who acquired this land were the Dutch pioneers who wanted it to farm with their own hands, aided by black labor. But with the development of the South African mining industries, the desire to speculate and to monopolize overrode all other motives, until today only five percent of the vast amount of land controlled by the whites is in actual cultivation, while the blacks and even the poor whites are a landless proletariat. In Northern Rhodesia the development of copper mining by European capital is bringing about among the native workers a cataclysmic change from tribal and rural life to industrial and urban life. In the train of this uprooting have come boom and depression, forced labor and unemployment. The small European minority which governs Southern Rhodesia is seeking to set up a caste alignment in agriculture and mining between white capital and colored labor, with the poor white excluded entirely.

There are in South Africa four protectorates which are not a part of the Union: Bechuanaland, Swaziland, Basutoland and Barotseland. Together these are as large as Abyssinia and have a native population of a million and a third. They are the remains of unconquered Africa, brought under British protection only by solemn agreement between blacks and whites. Here the natives own most of the land and retain their local autonomy under the general supervision of the English. But economically they are bound hand and foot to the Union of South Africa; and the Union wishes to annex them in order to obtain lands for further speculation and for the settlement of poor whites, and in order to obtain greater control over the labor of their inhabitants. It would be an indefensible betrayal of trust for England to surrender this territory to the South Africans.

In South Africa the present land situation evolved gradually by force of circumstance. In Kenya it was planned. Kenya is an island of high and fertile land rising above a vast expanse of equatorial steppe and swamp. On this wide plateau Negro tribes, such as the Masai, had for centuries pastured their cattle. Early explorers had pointed out that these mountain sides were high enough and free enough from disease to support a white population. England tried to give the land to the Jews in 1902 as a homeland, but they refused. She advertised for settlers and got a large contingent from South Africa, who naturally brought their South African ideas with them. After the World War Britain gave land to indigent officers and soldiers, charging them a penny an acre, until by 1924 the first Labor Government awoke to find two thousand white landowners in Kenya demanding absolute political control over three million natives and the ownership of the best land in the colony. Even the Anglican bishops upheld the doctrine that laborers must be forced to work. Today one-quarter of the land in Kenya is owned by whites, and the figure tells but part of the story for that quarter represents most of the fertile land in the colony.

In the Congo, Leopold of Belgium decreed his personal ownership of all the land and used forced labor to gather its fruits. When his domination was replaced by that of the Belgian state, his policy was modified but not reversed: though large blocks of land remain under the control of great corporations exploiting the colony's mineral and agricultural resources, the rules of ownership are now stiffer and certain native rights to the soil have been protected. Nevertheless, there is nothing in law or policy to prevent any amount of land in the Belgian Congo from being put under white control whenever and wherever such control yields the profit which European industry demands.

In West Africa, both British and French, the pattern changes, for there the political and social organization of the natives was strong enough to withstand the disintegrating force of European penetration. In South Africa long wars so broke the tribal life of the Negroes that opposition to white domination was impossible; in Kenya tribal organization was so loose and the population so scattered that the concentrated power of new settlers could override native resistance. But in West Africa tribal life stood firm, supported as it was by the great native states whose origins went back to the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Here European domination had to be accomplished by negotiation and treaty, tempered with occasional sharp blows of force. Seven wars were necessary to bring the Ashanti under British control, and France went through continuous campaigns to gain possession of Dahomey and the French Sudan. In the end, however, European political domination was imposed under a compromise which left the land largely in the hands of the indigenous black folk. The profit of the white investor came only through handling the products raised by peasant proprietors or extracted from the forests to which the Negroes still had claim. Not long ago, Governor Cameron attempted to impose the West African pattern in the mandated territory of Tanganyika, but met the united opposition of South Africa, the Rhodesias and Kenya. He accomplished much towards restoring tribal government, less in the direction of restoring the land to the native.

In other words, the plantation economy of America and other parts of Africa could not be reproduced in West Africa. Instead, native proprietors by the thousands took to cocoa raising. The figure of 500 tons of cocoa exported in 1900 had risen by 1935 to 270,000 tons -- grown on the farms owned by 50,000 black peasants. Half the cocoa consumed by the world comes today from West Africa.

After the war the Empire Development Society in England vainly demanded land monopoly and forced labor in the West African colonies. The organization of the blacks was too strong. But there are many ways of skinning a cat. English industry organized itself to buy and sell the produce raised by Negro peasants. The former Royal Niger Company merged into Unilevers, controlling six hundred companies and operating in sixteen countries all over the world. Transportation companies were organized and monopolized. Local chambers of commerce, closely associated with Liverpool, received political representation in the colonial governors' councils. Through mining companies, railways and government loans, the grip of finance capital was fastened on British West Africa.

Only in French Equatorial Africa were there granted concessions and rights over the land similar to those which had led to forced labor and monopoly in the Belgian Congo. But these concessions have now been in part liquidated. By means of these and similar processes a native labor force is today available for white exploitation throughout much of Africa: it forms the main working population in South and Central Africa, in the former German colonies and in the Belgian Congo. But in British West Africa ninety-eight percent of this labor is self-employed on its own land.

III

To render firm the foundations of this investment and industrial activity, political control was necessary: first to keep other nations from trespassing, and secondly to keep the Negroes regularly at work by legal, social and military means. For the most part Africa is today kept in order by black soldiers under white direction. All through British and French West Africa black soldiers make up the police and military forces. This is also true in the Belgian Congo and in East Africa. It was largely by the use of native troops that Italy conquered Abyssinia. In Portuguese Africa Negroes and mulattoes constitute the armed force. In South Africa the soldiery is chiefly white, although during the World War black soldiers and stevedores were used to a considerable extent. The conquest of German East and West Africa was to a large extent accomplished by black troops under white officers.

The execution of this policy has called for thought and ingenuity on the part of Europe. A large degree of autonomous and tribal government had to be left to the Negroes. Their social organization could not be entirely overthrown. Even in South Africa the chiefs still retain -- or have had restored to them -- recognition, power and political status, and they are paid largely with government funds. (In some cases the place of native chiefs has been taken by white officials acting as chiefs and enforcing ancient tribal custom.) Native law has to be widely recognized. The establishment of native councils, even after long abolition, has been found necessary in South Africa and the Rhodesias, and efforts along that line are being made in order to repair the damage of tribal disintegration in the Belgian Congo.

In French West Africa the chiefs and councils were for a long time, without regard to native law, replaced by Negroes trained in the French schools, with the result that the native chieftainship has been in great degree supplanted by a new chieftainship, a tendency which has been accentuated by bringing the natives into consultation on all government bodies. In some cities there is an elected native element in the governing authority.

In British West Africa the development has been more complicated. In such places as Free Town (Sierra Leone) and Lagos (Nigeria), there were beginnings of elective democracy. There gradually has been substituted a policy which allows tribal autonomy under the direction of British advisers whose effective control is exercised through their rights of veto and of legal, and even military, interference, and through their ultimate control of the courts. This benevolent despotism can be made a training school of peoples in government and social organization; but it can also be made a process of grim repression by encouraging conservative reaction and by setting up in opposition to each other hand-picked chiefs and councillors on the one side, and young educated and impatient progressives on the other. Thus "indirect rule" may be a policy to still opposition and increase profit, or it may be a step towards the development of black democracy and culture.[i]

Facts like these have led to an extraordinary and almost unnoticed agitation for democracy in British West Africa. It began in the Fanti movement for confederation in 1867, it developed into the Gold Coast Aborigines Rights Protection Society in 1899 and culminated in the National Congress of British West Africa of 1920. When the Fanti tried self-organization for social advance, the British governor threw their leaders into prison and accused them of high treason. But their effort brought crown colony government in place of that by commercial enterprise. The Aborigines Rights Protection Society took the agitation to England and hired Herbert Asquith as its advocate. They secured partial government recognition between 1898 and 1905. In 1920 Negro representatives from the four British West African colonies met and demanded political recognition. They declared: "In the demand for the franchise by the people of British West Africa it is not to be supposed that they are asking to be allowed to copy a foreign institution. On the contrary it is important to notice that the principle of electing representatives to local councils and bodies is inherent in all the systems of British West Africa." They demanded the right to elect their officials and control the revenues. Partial yielding to these demands took place between 1922 and 1925, so that today the legislative councils in parts of each West African colony contain a minority of members elected by the Negroes. This movement towards native participation in government is likely to gain momentum in the future.

In South Africa the question of the native's right to a political voice in the state has led to curious complications. Cecil Rhodes laid down the dictum of equality for all civilized men south of the Zambesi regardless of race and color. As a result there were Negro and colored voters in the Cape Colony. Later, as racial lines hardened and economic competition stiffened, this recognition of Negroes as voters by the Cape nearly ruined the possibility of uniting the four colonies into the Union. In the other three provinces there was, and is, no Negro suffrage. Recently, in the curious coalition government which included the Dutch independence movement and union labor, a policy was inaugurated which drove black labor out of all skilled industries, limited the Negroes' right to vote in the Cape Colony to the election of three white members no matter how many black voters there might eventually be, and ordered the establishment of a Negro council for the entire Union. This council, containing both appointive and elective members, can discuss all legislation relating to natives but has only advisory power.

In Uganda native autonomy has been more extensively recognized than in most African states, though even here it is supervised, especially in its economic features, by British advisers. The British, who at first tried to turn the chiefs and councillors into an aristocracy of landholders, have recently been compelled to distribute the land more widely. Through their own democratic assemblies the natives have been able to assert, and to some extent protect, their economic rights. Nevertheless, finance capital is pressing to control the peasant cotton crop and to exploit mining, and in Kenya it is seeking to increase the number of workers who must hire their labor.

Especially has the weapon of taxation been used throughout Africa to force the native into hired labor. Most of his wants the native can fill by his own labor at home, or simply go without. But in the case of government taxes he must pay, and pay in cash; as a result, taxation has been in many cases oppressive if not overwhelming. In Northern Rhodesia, for instance, taxation absorbs ten percent of the native's income, and in Kenya African laborers working for a shilling a day pay in the aggregate four million dollars a year in taxes. An extraordinary situation has arisen in places like Kenya, the Rhodesias and South Africa where the black community, poor as it is, has actually been taxed for educating white children and paying the expenses of a government carried on primarily for the whites.

IV

All through Africa the acquiescence of Africans in foreign control has been induced by the educational activities of missionaries. They have given schools to young black Africa. But the amount of this schooling is limited. In South Africa primary grades are taught by poorly-trained and poorly-paid teachers. Eighty percent of the black children are illiterate. In Nyasaland, on the other hand, due to the persisting tradition of Livingstone, there is good primary instruction and some secondary. In the Belgian Congo there is excellent and widespread instruction, given principally under the Catholic Church but confined to the first two grades without secondary or higher work even sufficient for the training of teachers or the necessary professional men. In West Africa there has been a determined impetus toward higher training. Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone is affiliated with Durham University in England. Achimota College in Nigeria, while doing only secondary work at present, is designed eventually to be a full-fledged university; and Mackerere College in Uganda has similar plans. In South Africa the natives have one college -- at Fort Hare -- started by native chiefs but limited unfortunately to theology and teacher-training.

The most complete educational system is in French West Africa, where the schools run from the primary grades to institutions of university standards on a level with their counterparts in France. This French system is however still in its early stages and is handicapped by lack of funds. There are 70,000 children in school out of 1,360,000 of school age. At the capital of each of the colonies there are higher primary schools. Entrance to these schools is by scholarships awarded through competition to the best boys from the regional schools. The staff is composed of university men of high standing. There are special technical departments which provide for artisan training in the postal and telegraphic service, the survey department, the public works department, the railways and other government or commercial undertakings. Then there is an academic division giving an education in French arts for those who propose to be government clerks, to enter commercial firms or to compete for scholarships which will fit them for careers in the learned professions.

Each year the best pupils from the higher primary schools compete in a federal examination for the selection of candidates for the state secondary school -- the William Ponty and Faidherbe School at Dakar. Fifty to eighty boys are selected each year. About one-half of these are trained as teachers and the other half for medicine, veterinary work and engineering. The course is four years and the pupils are from twenty to twenty-two years of age at graduation. Work in this school is similar to that covered in secondary schools in Europe, except that the students are taught with special reference to Africa. "The graduate of the William Ponty School is so fine a product that the education there given seems a complete vindication of French educational theory and practice in Africa."

V

Here then is the present African situation. What connection has it with the modern world, in particular with that part of it which must labor with its hands? The fact of the matter is that Africans have received practically no recognition from modern labor organizations elsewhere. The Labor Government of England made fair promises in Kenya which they did only a little to carry out. The Labor Party can, of course, plead that they did not have an independent majority in Parliament. But, the trades unions of England continue to be guilty of inexcusable discrimination against their black fellows in Africa. They recognize in the Union of South Africa and Rhodesia white trade unions which exclude Africans for race alone; they withheld aid to the heroic black I.C.U. labor crusade; and they have repeatedly refused to stand solidly back of the attempts to organize labor movements in West Africa. As for the Russian Soviets, they have appeared in Africa chiefly as deliberate troublemakers without waiting to study local conditions.

This means that the efforts of European labor to raise its social level are handicapped and contradicted by its refusal to recognize black labor as a part of the world-wide labor movement. It does not seem to see that this rift in world labor ranks is paralleled by the attempts of skilled labor in England and America to profit by the degradation and low wage of ordinary labor, attempts which in America have led to the revolt of the CIO.

Is it not possible to forecast similar revolt on the part of dark-skinned labor in India and the East, in the West Indies and South America, and in Africa? What will that mean for the future of democracy? The communalism of the African tribe has not disappeared. Negro land in West Africa is still held by families, clans and Negro states. Coöperative enterprises have been begun there and in French Equatorial Africa. Wide differences of wealth are absent among the Negroes of South and East Africa and only beginning in West Africa.

The Negro worker has not been despoiled of his art or his joy of life. He can be lazy, engaging in work as a pastime rather than for the income it brings. The white worker, rising at six in the morning and dropping to dreamless stupor at nine in the evening, may feel satisfaction in knowing that his machine-like effort supports civilization. Yet he may well ask himself whether it is necessary that labor pay for industrialized civilization with emasculated manhood, whether his poverty is necessary, whether wealth is the extreme of luxury or whether it is calm contentment. Has the African worker a message for European labor?

Beyond all this lies -- less mentioned today than twenty years ago, though it is just as real -- the danger which Africa's reservoir of military manpower represents for Europe. There is not a European colony in Africa that could stand for a moment against the armed force of its black inhabitants. Who can be certain that the white rulers in Kenya, the Union of South Africa and the Belgian Congo may not some day face the mass of their black subjects in arms -- arms supplied by European rivals, or by black America, or even by brown and yellow Asia? The conflict has already reached a breaking point in the British West Indies. Only in South America has it found a solution -- racial amalgamation. The conflict is of serious proportions and it can be met only by a steady will to think of Africans as men whose development is going to be along the line of all men. The fact that at least some white men can think of black men in these terms has been proved in the United States over long and difficult years.

[i] See "British and French Colonial Technique in West Africa," by Derwent Whittlesey, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1937, pp. 362-373.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now