african resistance to colonization
The European imperialist designs and pressures of the late nineteenth century provoked African political and diplomatic responses and eventually military resistance. During and after the Berlin Conference various European countries sent out agents to sign so-called treaties of protection with the leaders of African societies, states, kingdoms, decentralized societies, and empires. The differential interpretation of these treaties by the contending forces often led to conflict between both parties and eventually to military encounters. For Europeans, these treaties meant that Africans had signed away their sovereignties to European powers; but for Africans, the treaties were merely diplomatic and commercial friendship treaties. After discovering that they had in effect been defrauded and that the European powers now wanted to impose and exercise political authority in their lands, African rulers organized militarily to resist the seizure of their lands and the imposition of colonial domination.
This situation was compounded by commercial conflicts between Europeans and Africans. During the early phase of the rise of primary commodity commerce (erroneously referred to in the literature as "Legitimate Trade or Commerce"), Europeans got their supplies of trade goods like palm oil, cotton, palm kernel, rubber, and groundnut from African intermediaries, but as the scramble intensified, they wanted to bypass the African intermediaries and trade directly with sources of the trade goods. Naturally Africans resisted and insisted on the maintenance of a system of commercial interaction with foreigners which expressed their sovereignties as autonomous political and economic entities and actors. For their part, the European merchants and trading companies called on their home governments to intervene and impose "free trade," by force if necessary. It was these political, diplomatic, and commercial factors and contentions that led to the military conflicts and organized African resistance to European imperialism.
African military resistance took two main forms: guerrilla warfare and direct military engagement. While these were used as needed by African forces, the dominant type used depended on the political, social, and military organizations of the societies concerned. In general, small-scale societies, the decentralized societies (erroneously known as "stateless" societies), used guerrilla warfare because of their size and the absence of standing or professional armies. Instead of professional soldiers, small groups of organized fighters with a mastery of the terrain mounted resistance by using the classical guerrilla tactic of hit-and-run raids against stationary enemy forces. This was the approach used by the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria against the British. Even though the British imperialists swept through Igboland in three years, between 1900 and 1902, and despite the small scale of the societies, the Igbo put up protracted resistance. The resistance was diffuse and piecemeal, and therefore it was difficult to conquer them completely and declare absolute victory. Long after the British formally colonized Igboland, they had not fully mastered the territory.
Direct military engagement was most commonly organized by the centralized state systems, such as chiefdoms, city-states, kingdoms, and empires, which often had standing or professional armies and could therefore tackle the European forces with massed troops. This was the case with the resistance actions of the Ethiopians, the Zulu, the Mandinka leadership, and numerous other centralized states. In the case of Ethiopia, the imperialist intruder was Italy. It confronted a determined and sagacious military leader in the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II. As Italy intensified pressure in the 1890s to impose its rule over Ethiopia, the Ethiopians organized to resist. In the famous battle of Adwa in 1896, one hundred thousand Ethiopian troops confronted the Italians and inflicted a decisive defeat. Thereafter, Ethiopia was able to maintain its independence for much of the colonial period, except for a brief interlude of Italian oversight between 1936 and 1941.
Another example of resistance was the one organized by Samory Touré of the emergent Mandinka empire in West Africa. As this new empire spread and Touré attempted to forge a new political order he ran up against the French imperialists who were also trying extend their territories inland from their base in Dakar, Senegal. This brought the parties into conflict. Touré organized military and diplomatic resistance between 1882 and 1898. During this sixteen-year period, he used a variety of strategies, including guerrilla warfare, scorched-earth programs, and direct military engagement. For this last tactic he acquired arms, especially quick-firing rifles, from European merchant and traders in Sierra Leone and Senegal. He also established engineering workshops where weapons were repaired and parts were fabricated. With these resources and his well-trained forces and the motivation of national defense he provided his protracted resistance to the French. Eventually he was captured and, in 1898, exiled to Gabon, where he died in 1900.