Although parts of North Africa were colonized in antiquity, by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and even the Vandals, the true carving of Africa into colonies of the European empires was in the late nineteenth century. France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Portugal established colonies and exploited the natural wealth of the continent, creating riches for themselves at the expense of the people under their rule. King Leopold II of Belgium ruled over his own colony of the Congo Free State, independently of his rule over Belgium, for more than twenty years. It was a reign notable for its corruption and for its cruelty.
The European empires divided the continent through treaties and gentlemen’s agreements with little concern over the desires of the natives. When those natives rose up in protest against the cavalier manner in which their affairs were decided for them the empires brutally crushed them. Africa offered wealth for the empires, in the form of coal and oil, rubber, coffee, sisal, cotton, diamonds, gold, timber, and iron. Along the Mediterranean coast citrus fruits, olives, almonds, sheep, and other products enriched the European traders while all but enslaving the peoples of the continent. Missionaries and schools attempted to enlighten what was called the Dark Continent, though the real goal was wealth.
German East Africa
In 1884 the Society for German Colonization was formed to establish a German presence on the eastern side of the African continent, where it developed mining operations, farmland, and built railways to transport its products and workers. It was supported by its own troops, who used intimidation to cow the natives into grudging submission. Its officers and investors backed the idea of a large German navy, a goal shared by the Kaiser, in order to protect the wealth it acquired from the emerging colony of East Africa. The company was founded largely through the efforts of Karl Peters, who acquired the property which became the German colony from native chiefs.
German chancellor Otto von Bismarck was at first hesitant to allow Peters’ African investments to become a German colony, concerned about the reaction of the British Empire. Peters leveraged his position with the German government by threatening to sell the holdings of his company to King Leopold II of Belgium. Peters’ Society for German Colonization became the German East Africa Company. Peters used troops raised locally and through the hiring of mercenaries to expand German influence into Uganda and other areas of the continent, raising the ire of the British colonialists, and ruthlessly crushed native resistance to German expansion.
After the German government granted a charter for the colony of German East Africa it was obligated to protect its borders from incursions by rival empires and its interior from native insurrections. In this the German government was also responding to pressures from the investors growing rich from the produce of the colony. German troops were stationed in the colony and the German fleet patrolled its shores and ports. In 1892 Peters and representatives of the British East Africa Company established the border between their holdings. As an administrator, Peters favored harsh treatment of the native people, and their frequent attempts at resistance led to German military reprisals against them.
As the Imperial High Commissioner of German East Africa Peters held near total authority over the colony, though he reported to the colonial office in Berlin, and control of the military in the colony was in the hands of Hermann von Wissmann. Under Peters’ administration through the efforts of his officers, schools and hospitals were established in the colony, tribal wars suppressed, and infrastructure built. Peters exploited the native population further by taking native women as his personal harem, and when one of these women was discovered to have had an affair with another native servant Peters had both of them hanged.
It was his downfall. Recalled to the Imperial Colonial Office, Peters underwent a three year investigation which led to his being relieved of his position in 1897. Peters went to England and formed other companies for the exploration of British Africa, where he later uncovered lost ancient gold mines. German East Africa remained a colony of the German Empire until it was occupied by the British during the First World War. After the war the former German colony was divided by the League of Nations, which split it between the British Empire and the Kingdom of Belgium. The native African people were not represented in the decision.