Definition, Nature, Character of Colonialism


Definition, Nature, Character of Colonialism


Definition of Colonialism 

Colonialism was a major phenomenon in Africa for about a century, and during the period a dominant-dominated relationship was created between the metropolitan powers and African colonies. The objective of colonialism was basically economic but the “dual mandate” system was deceptively proclaimed to convey the notion that exploitation involved a sacred duty towards the exploited peoples. It is said that the colonial subjects must serve the colonial interest, but in return they must be “civilized”, and “protected”.

Colonialism is a form of imperialism. It represented a continuation of European encounter with, and penetration of Africa, after the era of slave trade, and what was described as “legitimate trade”. The basic driving force behind colonialism is economic. It was this motivation which encouraged Europeans to embark on the adventures of expeditions and missionary activities that provided the convenient fore runners, which facilitated imposition of colonial rule.

In his “Towards Colonial Freedom”, Nkrumah (1947) identified the three fundamental doctrines in the philosophical analysis of imperialism as:

(a) The doctrine of exploitation

(b) The doctrine of “trusteeship” or partnership

(c) The doctrine of assimilation.

From this doctrine we can see the connection between slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism, its contemporary manifestation–as different forms of imperialism or exploitation.

But in order to disguise its economic motivation, the Europeans found it convenient to present the colonial enterprise as fulfilling for the African people, a “civilizing mission”, otherwise described by the “imperial destiny”. But in 1885, the year when the partition of Africa was concluded, Jules Fery exploded this myth, and stated the three objectives why European nations desired colonies: to have access to raw materials; to provide markets for sale of manufactured goods; and as a field for the investment of surplus capital.

In a more unmistaken term, Colonial Secretary of State for France said in 1923 “what is the use of painting the truth? Colonialism was not an act of civilization the origin of colonialism is nothing else than enterprise of individual interests, a one sided egotistical imposition of the strong upon the weak (quoted in Nkrumah, 1973:19).

We can therefore define colonialism as the policy by which the “mother country”, the colonial power, binds her colonies to herself by political ties with the primary object of promoting her own economic advantage to secure trading routes and safe ports.

To give effect to the desire the scramble for colonies in Africa began among the leading European nations: Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Italy. At a conference in Berlin, chaired by German Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck, African territory was carved out, to gratify European greed, and prevent wars among them.

The conference therefore ratified France’s 1881 colonial sway over Tunisia, and Britain’s seizure of Egypt in 1882.1884 witnessed the establishment of the first German colony at Angra pequena in South West Africa, followed by the occupation of Togoland and Cameroon. Portugal took over Angola. Italy colonized Somaliland, Spain and France established joint protectorate of over Morocco, while Leopold II, of Belguim established a personal rule over “Congo free state”, a colony sixty-six times the size of Belgium. In virtually all cases, colonies were established by force of arms, and it was through similar process that Germany lost her colonies after her defeat during World War I.

But rather than apply the Wilsonian principle of self-determination to Africa, the colonies were passed over to the victorious nations, as mandated nations under the League of Nations.

In administering their colonies in Africa, European powers established different patterns. Britain was famous for its policy of Indirect Rule, a system which successfully adapted and integrated traditional institutions into her colonial administration.

In her colonial policy Britain is widely believed to be more pragmatic than her European counterparts by recognizing the need to preserve indigenous cultures values and social structures where they did not jeopardize colonial interests. As Smith (2003:36) put it. “Britain’s need for political control and the maintenance of stability was consistent with the preservation of indigenous practices.” On the other hand, France pursued the policy of assimilation. This was intended to create new African French elite, through Western education. Its effect was that local political elites identified closely with Europe and European culture. (The assumption behind assimilation policy was that local culture was an obstacle to the spread of European civilization). The enduring effect of this policy is still evident today in former French colonies in Africa.

The application of the policy of assimilation in its extreme, found expression in Algeria, among others, a colony regarded by France as a department of Paris.

Similarly, Portugal treated her African colonies as an extension of the government in Lisbon. But whether in British, French or Portuguese colonies, the essential feature of colonial government was a fusion of politics and administration, which Adamolekun (1993) labeled as “administocracy”. A “minimum government” which administocracy provided was regarded as consistent with the requirements of a colonial economy, which needed a regime of law and order, at limited cost, to thrive.

To Cohen (1973) colonialism entails the following: “economic exploitation combines with political domination and the superimposing of European control over indigenous political authority”. What is critical is that colonialism seeks to reverse the power relations between two countries.


Nature and Character of Colonialism

It is not easy to separate the whole colonial enterprise into its separate dimensions. However, it will serve academic purpose, and enrich analysis if we attempt to de-construct colonialism into its economic, political and military dimensions.

i. Economic Character

A colonial rule is by definition a system of economic exploitation; the alienation of Africans from their lands, the enactment of chieftaincy and mineral ordinances, and the encouragement of cash crops. The selective construction of railways and roads were meant to serve colonial objectives.

Indeed the hospitals and schools, which later became unintended by products or benefits of colonialism, were originally intended to serve the basic health and clerical needs of expatriate colonial staff.

Nkrumah (1947) listed what the colonial powers did to sustain this economic objective:

1. Colonies were made non-manufacturing dependencies.

2.Colonial subjects were consciously prevented from acquiring the knowledge of modern means and techniques for developing their own industries.

3. Colonial subjects were made simple producers of raw materials through cheap labour.

4. Colonies were prohibited from trading with other nations except through the “mother country”. In short the slogans “trade follow the flag” and “buy British and trade imperial” eloquently demonstrate the economic character of colonialism.

ii. Political Character

The partition of Africa at Berlin in 1884/85 was largely a political exercise. It was meant to create and preserve these colonies as spheres of influence for the political leverage and diplomatic maneuvers of the colonial powers. Indeed, possession of colonies was a mark of the imperial prestige and status, and an instrument of foreign policy by the European nations in their competition for world domination (Cohen 1973).

The political character of colonialism can also be viewed from the fact that what eventually became the territories of post-colonial states in Africa were negotiated at the Berlin conference. But despite the fact that these boundaries were drawn regardless of ethnic, language or cultural factors, the inherited colonial territories were accepted as sacrosanct and inviolable by African states after independence, and endorsed as such by the international community.

Consequently, most African states today are multi ethnic and culturally diverse societies. This colonial bifurcation, in some cases, fostered by the policy of divide and rule still continues to have profound consequences for national integration efforts or what has come to be described as the national question in African states today. Similarly, the adoption of the language of the colonial master as the lingua franca, the embrace of Western education and culture as well as Western legal system, including the preference for Western fashion of liberal democracy, have far reaching and enduring implications, beyond the political in Africa today. Nkrumah (1947) confirmed the links between the economics and politics of colonialism when he wrote: “the basis of colonial territorial dependence is economic, but the basis of the solution to the problem is political”.

iii. Military Character

The military institutions, which most African states inherited at independence, just as the states themselves owe their origins to colonial rule. So, by orientation the African military was infected by the values, mechanics and techniques of the Sardhurst or Mons military training schools. In the recruitment policy into the army the policy of divide and rule, and the device of balkanisation were employed. The objective was to recruit those who would not rebel against the colonial authorities.

To achieve this colonial power preferred the uneducated, small ethnic groups, and conservative people to the educated, dominant ethnic groups.

In Nigeria this translated to the army having more recruits from the Muslim dominated North than the Christian oriented south. Lord Lugard in particular believed that the educated constituted threats to colonial rule since according to him, “they are liberal, argue a lot, critical and radical”, and as a result could not make good soldier”. In military he argued that “brawn” was more important than “brains”.

This consideration, which was reflected in the recruitment policy in other colonies, debarred and prevented the Ashanti of the old Gold Coast, and Sulu of South Africa (two famous warrior groups) from joining the army. The quota system was deliberately introduced in recruitment into the military in Nigeria, for example, to give the Igala, Tiv and other minority Christian ethnic groups more advantage than the Hausa Fulani Moslem of the North; and the whole North more opportunities than the combined South. This uneven access was carried over to the post-colonial era, and was to have consequences for military organization, discipline and cohesion, and by extension political stability, when the military intervened eventually in politics.



What Aided Imposition of Colonial Rule

We already know that colonialism does not represent Africa’s first encounter with Europeans; it merely consummated the relationship, and made it overtly political. Before colonialism what Africa experienced was a form of imperialism a purely economic relations- which includes exploitation and inequality, but exclude domination. This is why Smith (2003: 23) sees imperialism as a mere economic concept while colonialism as a social and political concept. But this conception was not meant to deny the inherent economic impetus behind colonialism, but merely an attempt to subsume it within the social forces and political arrangements that helps in sustaining colonial rule. We can now identify the major factors beyond the civilizing mission thesis that facilitated the imposition and sustenance of colonialism.

a. Technological developments in communications, and transportation improved access of European countries to Africa.

b. Technology also provided opportunities for acquisition of and control over Africa.

c. Technology made it possible for Europeans to develop new trade routes, especially the construction of railway lines into the interiors.

d. Relatively advanced military weapons made it possible to seize African territories by force and their incorporation as colonies.

e. Advances in medicines enabled Europeans to survive in otherwise inhospitable climates.

f. Availability of fertile land and valuable mineral resources in many parts of Africa promoted colonialism, and in some cases, encouraged settler policy.

g. Initially, water routes or harbor were keys to colonial penetration, and were critical in penetration to the hinterland.

In other words, land locked areas were not of feverish interest to colonialists except where they were rich in mineral resources or could be penetrated via adjourning colonies. For example when Mango Park ‘discovered” River Niger he was reported to have said “A gate is open to every commercial nation to enter from West to the Eastern extremes of Africa.

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