In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gunpowder and Colonial Campaigns in Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Rebellions in South Africa, 1880–1881
  • German Conquest of East Africa
  • Congo Free State
  • Portuguese-Gaza War, 1895
  • Italian Invasion of Ethiopia, 1896
  • Anglo-Boer War, Second (South African War), 1899–1902
  • Herero and Nama Rebellion, 1904–1907
  • Zulu Rebellion, 1906

Military History Gunpowder and Colonial Campaigns in Africa
Tim Stapleton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0069


By around 1880, European colonial intrusion in Africa consisted of a series of coastal enclaves and settlements in the Cape in the far south and Algeria in the far north. Up to that point, Europeans had been kept out of most of the interior of Africa both by deadly tropical diseases for which they had little immunity and by powerful African states. Most Africans lived in independent societies that ranged from highly centralized kingdoms to decentralized “stateless” groups. This changed rapidly from around 1880 to 1914 when, in a process called “the Scramble for Africa,” European powers conquered all of Africa except for Ethiopia, which defended itself from Italian invasion, and Liberia, which was a settlement of freed enslaved people from the United States who conquered indigenous Liberians. On the European side, important factors that facilitated this process included superior firepower from new magazine-fed rifles and machine guns, extreme racism, and nationalistic competition. Since they had planned the conquest at the 1884 Berlin Conference, the European powers did not fight each other over parts of Africa. On the African side, rulers did not perceive the European invasion as a common threat and reacted separately, some cooperating and others resisting. While the initial colonial conquest was often achieved by privately owned chartered companies with commercial interests in a particular area, financial problems meant that the respective European governments took over the colonies within a few years. Since these events took place, various theories have sought to explain this dramatic conquest, including Hobson 1902, which sees it as related to the rise of greedy ultrarich businessmen; Lenin 1963, which claims it represented the last stage of the capitalist system that was beginning to tear itself apart; Robinson and Gallagher 1961, which explains it in terms of European powers trying to secure points of strategic importance; and Hopkins 1973 (all cited under General Overviews), which demonstrates that the European desire to secure sources of raw materials related to industry motived the scramble for West Africa. In Southern Africa, the discovery of valuable minerals, diamonds in the late 1860s and gold in the 1880s, prompted the British to secure the interior, which led to a series of wars and eventually the creation of the self-governing and white settler–dominated Union of South Africa in 1910.

General Overviews

There are a number of broad overviews of European colonial conquest in Africa. Hobson 1902 offers a contemporary view, Robinson and Gallagher 1961 explains colonialism in strategic terms, Lenin 1963 places colonialism within a Marxist framework, Hopkins 1973 looks specifically at West Africa, Farwell 1985 focuses on the British role, Boahen 1990 offers a broad synthesis of the scholarship up to that time, Pakenham 1991 presents an epic narrative, and Vandervort 1998 emphasizes the military aspects of the conquest by condensing the relevant literature. Press 2017 looks at private empire building and fraudulently obtained treaties during the Scramble.

  • Boahen, A. Adu, ed. General History of Africa, VII: Africa under Colonial Domination, 1880–1935. London: James Currey, 1990.

    A broad but detailed overview that constitutes part of a much larger chronicle of African history assembled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

  • Farwell, Byron. Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. London: W.W. Norton, 1985.

    Originally published in 1973, this book presents a concise overview of Britain’s colonial wars during the mid- to late nineteenth century, many of which happened in Africa.

  • Hobson, John. Imperialism: A Study. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1902.

    The first attempt to explain the Scramble for Africa, published when it was still happening. A British social reformer, Hobson saw the new imperialism of his time as resulting from the decline of wholesome small-scale capitalism and the rise of greedy magnates like Cecil Rhodes.

  • Hopkins, A. G. An Economic History of West Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

    A scholarly and highly regarded study that sees the conquest of West Africa as rooted in the economic depression of the 1870s, which made European merchants want to cut their costs by undermining African intermediaries in the old coastal trade and gaining direct control over the sources of raw materials.

  • Lenin, V. I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963.

    First published in 1917, Lenin’s pamphlet should be seen within the context of the First World War and his revolutionary agenda. He regarded the Scramble for Africa as evidence that the capitalist system was pulling itself apart in the search for new areas to invest surplus capital.

  • Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa: White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent, 1876–1912. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

    A popular history told in epic style.

  • Press, Steven. Rogue Empires: Contracts and Conmen in Europe’s Scramble for Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1n2tv5q

    Press identifies earlier private European empire-building in Borneo during the mid-1800s as the origin of revived chartered company intervention in Africa during the late nineteenth century that seemed to relieve European states of the economic burden of empire. The book emphasizes the various fraudulent agreements supposedly made between private European empire-builders and African leaders that were put forth as a legal justification for claiming colonies in Africa.

  • Robinson, Ronald, and John Gallagher. Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism. London: Macmillan, 1961.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780755624140

    Rejecting Lenin’s economic approach, these British historians saw the Scramble as happening because of the desire by European powers to secure points of strategic importance such as the Cape and the Suez Canal, which resulted in a domino effect of similar territorial seizures.

  • Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 1830–1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

    A scholarly yet accessible overview of the European military conquest of Africa.

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