In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Historiography
  • Archives and Document Collections

African Studies British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa
Timothy H. Parsons
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0019


The British Empire in Africa went through several distinct phases. From the heyday of the Atlantic slave trade to the mid-19th century, the British imperial presence was limited to a small handful of trading forts on the West African coast, the seizure of the Cape Colony from the Dutch, and a protectorate over the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Britain acquired its substantial African holdings during the era of “new imperialism” of the late 19th century, when it played a substantial role in the European conquest and partition of the continent. While British Africa may have appeared ordered and coherent from London, where a pinkish red usually marked its component territories on maps of the empire, it was in fact a highly diverse and varied entity. Empires, by their very nature, embody and institutionalize difference. Moreover, they are hierarchical institutions that appear quite different from the perspective of the metropole, a colonial capital, and local subject communities. In the decades before the First World War, British Africa included protectorates over theoretically sovereign states, a handful of West African coastal enclaves with Crown Colony status, settler colonies, the self-governing dominion of South Africa, and territories governed by anachronistic charter companies that belonged to an earlier imperial era. While there were small but politically influential communities of European descent in eastern, central, and southern Africa, the vast majority of Britain’s subjects in Africa were Africans. According to the widely accepted stereotypes of the new imperialism, Britain had a moral responsibility to govern these subject peoples because they were at a less advanced stage of human development. This doctrine of trusteeship became harder to justify as social Darwinism went out of fashion over the course of the 20th century, and it proved incompatible with institutionalized racial discrimination in the settler colonies and policies that privileged British economic interests. These realities explain why much of the literature on British Africa appears contradictory, for historians writing about imperial topics are often writing about very different things. The substantial diversity and variety in the form and function of British rule has made it difficult for historians to draw broad conclusions about Britain’s African empire. See also the related Oxford Bibliographies articles on German Colonial Rule and Belgian Colonial Rule.

General Overviews

Most general surveys that pay substantive attention to British Africa are histories of either the entire British Empire or Africa in general. Eldridge 1984 and Hyam 2002 are broad histories of the British Empire that pay good attention to Africa. For an in-depth examination of why Britain took part in the new imperialism, which included the conquest of Africa, see Cain and Hopkins 1993. For a dated but still informative overview of British rule in Africa see the two edited collections, Gifford and Louis 1967 and Gifford and Louis 1971. Hyam 2006 is a good introductory history of the British Empire’s demise that pays sufficient attention to the African colonies.

  • Cain, P. J. and A. G. Hopkins. British Imperialism. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1993.

    This highly influential survey of British imperial history attributes Britain’s imperial expansion to an alliance between landed aristocrats and London bankers and businessmen. Vol 1, Innovation and Expansion, 1688–1914; Vol 2, Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914–1990.

  • Eldridge, C. C., ed. British Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1984.

    A collection of introductory essays on British Empire building in the 19th century.

  • Gifford, Prosser, and William Roger Louis, eds. Britain and Germany in Africa: Imperial Rivalry and Colonial Rule. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.

    This collection of essays resulted from the first of a series of scholarly conferences, organized by the noted historian William Roger Louis, which examined various aspects of European imperial rule in Africa. The chapters cover Anglo-German imperial competition and cooperation, comparisons of German and British colonial policies regarding “native administration,” missions, taxation, and the British acquisition of some of Germany’s African colonies after World War I.

  • Gifford, Prosser, and William Roger Louis, eds. France and Britain in Africa: Imperial Rivalry and Colonial Rule. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

    Gifford and Louis’s sequel to Britain and Germany in Africa 1967, this collection compares British and French colonial policy in Africa. Topics include the French and British imperial rivalry, comparative systems of administration, education, and economic development.

  • Hyam, Ronald. Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815–1914: A Study of Empire and Expansion. 3d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403918420

    An excellent introduction to the origins of Britain’s African empire, for students and general readers.

  • Hyam, Ronald. Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonization, 1918–1968. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Written by one of the foremost specialists on the British Empire, this narrative survey is a compelling explanation for the empire’s short life and unexpectedly rapid demise in the 20th century.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.