Here’s What Led to the European Colonisation of Africa

The Europeans had explored and traded in Africa for many centuries before extensive colonisation began in the 1880s. This trade and exploration, however, mostly took place along the coast of the continent and the Europeans knew very little about the interior. See image 1. In exploring the coastal areas, Europeans were hoping to find a trade route to India. Early African trade contact had been made with Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and France from as early as the 15th century.


Colonisation is the forming of a settlement or colony by a group of people who seek to take control of territories or countries. It usually involves large-scale immigration of people to a ‘new’ location and the expansion of their civilisation and culture into this area. Colonisation may involve dominating the original inhabitants of the area.

European trade in Africa

The economic boom in Europe resulting from the Industrial Revolution led to growth in African trade during the 1800s. Extensive supplies of African goods and natural resources began to be traded in the growing European market. The Europeans traded goods such as cloth, metals and beads in exchange for African ebony, ivory and gold. Europeans also obtained raw materials such as palm oil, cotton, copper, tin and wild rubber. They also discovered African diamonds in 1870. See image 2. Through the exchange of goods, Africans acquired cooking pots, axes and guns.


Early trade contact had been made with the coastal areas of Africa from the 15th century, and Europeans had occupied coastal areas from the early 1800s. Until the late 1800s, however, Europeans knew very little about inland Africa. The harsh climate, thick forests and the threat of disease had made the exploration of Africa’s interior difficult. See image 3. Advances in transport and medicine in the later part of the century, however, led to further exploration of the continent.

From the 1880s, explorers started to investigate further inland. Some of these explorers were also missionaries who wanted to wipe out the internal slave trade in Africa. As the decade progressed, explorers from more European countries began to investigate Africa.

European rivalry: the lead-up to colonisation

By the 1880s, Europeans were competing for trade and land in Africa. Some historians have suggested that this competition may have contributed to the outbreak of World War I. Europeans wanted to control Africa’s trading markets and negotiated several agreements, called protectorates, to secure trade access. African rulers were often defeated if they resisted granting Europeans access to their lands.

Motives for colonisation

European powers became more and more interested in gaining territories for themselves. Many European countries felt that their resources were in short supply after industrialisation and were keen to find new resources such as gold and ivory.

It has been suggested that the French wanted to regain their reputation after their defeat by the British at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and to gain some territory. Many people in Britain saw the colonisation of Africa as a chance to end slavery but also as a chance to increase trade. Belgium’s King Leopold II had previously invested money in the exploration of the area and many historians believe that he wanted a return on his investment.

By the late 19th century, European countries were claiming parts of Africa as their own territory. There were fears that disputes over land might cause a war, so in 1884 the Berlin Conference was called to discuss the colonisation of Africa.

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History of Colonization in Africa

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