Ethiopia was the only Christian state in this region. The emperor was politically weak as rivalries between provincial warlords divided the nation. Ethiopia was also subject to repeated attacks by Galla nomads from the south. In 1855, Emperor Tewodros II came to power intent on both unifying and modernizing his nation. In the first six years of his reign, he focused his efforts on suppressing the rebellions of provincial lords. Concerned with corruption, Tewodros stipulated that governors and judges must be paid a salary (thus reducing the temptation to accept bribes). He introduced the collection of books by building a library, reformed the arcane tax codes, and oversaw the establishment of functional administrative districts. He also formed a professional standing army, rather than depending on local lords to provide soldiers for his expeditions.


A painting of Emperor Tewodros II who reigned from 1855-1868 (Source: Wikimedia)

In 1862, as fighters from Galla continued to harass the Ethiopian army, Tewodros reached out to Queen Victoria of Britain asking for military help. In 1864, a frustrated Tewodros imprisoned three British citizens who were living in Ethiopia because the British government had not responded to his plea for help. When messengers from Britain finally arrived from the Queen to discuss Tewodros’ letter, he also imprisoned them. In response, the British mounted a military response. The British army met the Ethiopian army at Magdala. The outcome of the battle was decisively in the British favor. Seeing his army decimated by the British, Tewodros committed suicide.

After a series of skirmishes between would-be successors, a powerful, local leader, Menelik, seized power becoming the Emperor Menelik II (r. 1889-1913). Ethiopians consider him to be the founder of modern Ethiopia. Among his achievements was the building of railways and schools and the establishment of a new capital at Addis Ababa.


An illustration from the Illustrated London News (1868) shows a victorious British army leaving Magdala (Source: Wikimedia)

For most of the century, the Horn of Africa was under the control of Egypt. When the French army under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the combined forces of the British and Ottomans drove them out in 1801. Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) was appointed Pasha (viceroy) of Egypt by the Ottoman Sultan. At the height of Ali’s rule, he controlled Lower Egypt, Upper Egypt, Sudan, and parts of Arabia and the Levant. Today he is regarded as the founder of modern Egypt.

Muhammad Ali attempted to modernize Egypt by instituting dramatic reforms in the military, economic and cultural spheres. He encouraged industrialization as a means of strengthening the commercial economy. The first Egyptian railway was constructed in 1854, and others followed soon after. By 1875, Egypt was the only African country with more than one thousand miles of railroad track. Cash crops for export from Egypt included cotton and tobacco. Beyond building a functioning, industrial economy, Muhammad Ali also tried to train a professional military and bureaucracy. He sent promising citizens to Europe to study. The driving impulse behind this effort was to build a European-style army. Students were sent to study European languages, primarily French, so they could in turn translate military manuals into Arabic. He used both educated Egyptians and imported European experts to establish schools and hospitals in Egypt. When he died in 1849, he left his successors the strongest government, most efficient army, and most prosperous economy in Africa. Descendants of Muhammad Ali continued to rule Egypt for 150 years.

In 1869, French workers completed the building of the Suez Canal, which had begun in 1859. This canal offered ships a more direct route between the North Atlantic and northern Indian oceans via the Mediterranean and Red seas, thus allowing them to bypass the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. Although the canal was the property of the Egyptians, Europeans (mostly French and British) owned the company which operated the canal. When local Egyptians, led by Orabi Pasha in 1881-82, attempted to seize control of the canal and to banish all European workers, the British responded with a military expedition. The success of this military intervention established British control of Egypt.


A pencil drawing of the Suez Canal in 1869 (Source: Wikimedia)


In the 19th century, the North African coast was divided between France and England. As Britain increased its control of Egypt, France focused its imperializing efforts on the more western areas. Beginning in 1830, hundreds of thousands of southern Europeans settled in North Africa, controlling practically all trade, industry, and finance. Their presence aroused considerable animosity among North Africans.


This map shows the location of Algeria in Africa (Source: Wikimedia)

Residents of Algeria contested the French government’s claims to fishing rights. In 1830, the French invaded and launched the largest and most destructive military campaign in the long tragic narrative of European imperialism in Africa. Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine (1808-1863) fought against the French colonial invasion and won independence in 1837 for his people. An Islamic scholar and Sufi who unexpectedly found himself leading a military campaign, he built up a collection of Algerian tribesmen that successfully held out against one of the most advanced armies in Europe. His consistent regard for what would now be called human rights, especially as regards his Christian opponents, drew widespread admiration, and a crucial intervention to save the Christian community of Damascus from a massacre in 1860 brought honors and awards from around the world. He ruled over his people for ten years before being conquered by the French in 1847.

By the early 1850s, there were more than one-hundred thousand European settlers in Algeria, and the French were firmly in control. In 1867-68, Algeria experienced the worst drought of its history, along with locusts and cholera. More than three-hundred thousand people died out of a population of two and a half million. The French also occupied Tunis in 1881, provoking a large-scale uprising, followed by sporadic warfare in the south. Morocco kept Europeans pretty much at bay until 1850, when the French waged a victorious war to become, in essence, the owner of that country.

The Ottomans obtained a firm hold on Tripoli, the Fezzan, and Cyrenica by 1835. In Libya, a mystical Muslim theologian and leader, Muhammad ibn Ali as-Sanussi, was able to defend his people against the encroachments of the Italians and thus to maintain their independence. He also established a spiritual movement, which was continued after his death in 1859 by his son, Muhammed ibn Muhammad al-Mahdi. Missionaries were sent from Libya throughout Northern Africa helping to spread the Muslim faith.


In the 1820s, at the southwest corner of the western bulge of Africa, 2500 former United States slaves formed the country of Liberia. Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), who believed African Americans would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States. The country declared its independence on July 26, 1847. Between January 7, 1822, and the American Civil War in the early 1860s, more than fifteen thousand freed and free-born African Americans who faced discrimination and legal segregation in the U.S. and over three thousand Afro-Caribbeans relocated to the settlement. The settlers carried their culture and tradition with them. The Liberian constitution and flag were modeled after those of the U.S. On January 3, 1848, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, a wealthy, free-born African American from Virginia who settled in Liberia, was elected Liberia’s first president after the people proclaimed independence.


This map shows the location of Liberia in western Africa in dark blue (Source: Wikimedia)

In the Niger River bend, the great African Empires of previous centuries were replaced by numerous smaller city-states, the most important of which were Segu, Kaarta, and Masina. Farther east, the whole of Hausaland, including the Kingdom of Bornu near Lake Chad, was overrun, and conquered by the Fulani, under a Toucouleur chief, Usman dan Fodio. The Fulani had a formidable army of horsemen, and from Hausaland they struck east and southwest, forming the Bornu Empire under the Kanemi Dynasty. By 1850, this was the most extensive political structure in Africa, comprising twenty provinces in an area of one-hundred and fifty thousand square miles between the Sahara Desert and the forest belt. The extension of the empire allowed Islam to spread peacefully through central Africa.

The sultanates of Wadai and Darfur were founded between Lake Chad and the Nile River. Along the Nile, the Funj Sultanate of Sennar (sometimes spelled Sinnar) exercised authority and control. These communities had extensive trade across the Sahara, bartering slaves, leather, kola nuts, etc., in exchange for weapons, horses and holy books.


This map shows the location of central African empires (Source: Wikimedia)

The Ashanti Kingdom comprised most of what is modern Ghana and in 1850 had close to five million people in its one-hundred twenty-five thousand square miles. There was great opulence in the royal court at the capital, Kumasi. Each new ruler was chosen by the Queen Mother, assisted by senior chiefs. By the early 1800s the Ashanti had become a major exporter of enslaved people, as the Ashanti sought to meet the growing European demand.  In exchange, the Ashanti received luxury items and some manufactured goods including most importantly firearms. The consequence of this trade for the Ashanti and their neighbors was horrendous.  From 1790 until 1896, the Ashanti Empire was in a perpetual state of war involving expansion or defense of its domain.  The constant warfare weakened the Empire against the British who eventually became their main adversary.  Between 1823 and 1873, the Ashanti Empire resisted British encroachment on their territory.  By 1874, however, British forces successfully invaded the Empire and briefly captured the capital city of Kumasi.  The Ashanti rebelled against British rule and the Empire was again conquered in 1896.  After yet another uprising in 1900, the British annexed the Empire into their Gold Coast colony in 1902.

As the 19th century progressed and European imperialistic endeavors increased, the French penetrated the Senegal River to obtain a profitable gum trade, and the British occupied Sierra Leone and took over the Niger basin. A British colony was established at Lago in Nigeria in 1861 and by the 1870s there were fourteen British steamers on the Niger River. On the upper Niger, however, the Toucouleur people, under their leader Umar ibn Sa’id al-Futi Tal (1794-1864), actively defended their freedoms and land against French incursions on the Senegal.


Europeans penetrated central Africa in the middle part of the 19th century. Sir Henry Morton Stanley explored the Congo for King Leopold of Belgium and then sold the southern bank area to Belgium. France signed treaties with the Anziku Kingdom for the north bank of the Congo. The scramble for land in Africa by European powers became so intense that in November, 1884, the Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck organized an international conference in Berlin. Fourteen European nations took part. At this conference, Europeans “divided” Africa among themselves. The conference ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity by European powers, which eliminated or overrode most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.


In this part of Africa, there were a cluster of strong kingdoms – Bunyoro, Buganda, Ankole, Karagwe, Rwanda, and Burundi. To the east, the Maasai in central Kenya and Tanzania raised cattle. Arabs on the east coast grew rich from the sale of ivory from elephant tusks.


This map shows the region of East Africa in highlighted yellow (Source: Wikimedia)


In the region of modern Zimbabwe, the last people to inhabit the city were driven out in 1830 during the Zulu wars. Into the vacuum their departure created, the Ndebele people swept in from the original Zulu area in the south. On the west side of the continent, the Portuguese established coastal settlements in what is now Angola, but after the abolition of the slave trade in 1840, the colonies collapsed and the number of Europeans who remained there dropped from three thousand to less than a thousand by 1850.

Portugal was the first to colonize Angola and Mozambique. Germany soon followed and established colonial rule in areas on the Indian Ocean coast north of Mozambique and Cameroon and in Togo (German Southwest Africa) in the west. In the second phase of European partition of Africa, after 1895, there was increasing bitter, local African resistance. The colonial governments raised money for their European masters by direct local taxation and forced labor systems, which had become widespread. This, along with the expropriation of land, led to more destructive, bitter, and longer wars.

One of the most important female leaders in modern African history came to power in the early 19th century. Queen Manthatisi led her people from 1815 to 1824 in the area now known as KwaZulu-Natal. Ruling as regent in place of her young son, Manthatisi successfully protected her people against the attacks of both rival tribes and Europeans. She was one of the best known, and most feared, women military and political leaders of the early 19th century

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The section in red shows the location of the region of KwaZulu-Natal in southeast Africa (Source: Wikimedia)


Both the Dutch and British started settlements near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa at in the late 1700s. In the early decades of the 19th century, Bantu-speaking Africans from central Africa migrated southward. These included multiple tribes such as Swazi, Zulu, Pondo, Tembu, Xhosa, Sotho, and Tswana. Cattle raiding by these new settlers along the line of the Fish River led to fighting between the Dutch and indigenous Africans. These hostilities continued throughout the 19th century. After the British officially assumed control of Cape Colony through a treaty with the Dutch Republic in 1814, they decided to control the territory more securely along the Fish River by building settler communities. Thus between 1820 and 1821, over 5000 people emigrated to South Africa from Great Britain. As a result of their political control and numerical superiority, English began to replace Dutch as the official language, the judicial system was remodeled on the English pattern, and Dutch currency was replaced by English.


A map of South Africa showing the location of Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope (Source: Wikimedia)

Tensions emerged between the Dutch and the English as Dutch settlers clung tenaciously to their own culture and institutions. The desire of the settlers (called Boers after the Dutch word for farmer) led them to undertake what is known as the “Great Trek.” Five thousand Boer settlers traveled inland from the Cape, some going as far as 1000 miles, to be free of British influence and control. The movement of the Boers increased tension in the region as they increasingly came into contact with Africans who lived on the land they were traveling through. Many settled in the region of the Orange and Vaal rivers where they declared the establishment of the independent Boer state of the South African Republic (Transvaal) and two years later the Orange Free State. Military conflicts between the Boers and the English and between Europeans (both Boer and English) and Africans continued throughout the 19th century.


A photograph of a traveling Boer family from the late 19th century (Source: Wikimedia)

Two mineral discoveries had a dramatic impact on the history of South Africa in the 19th century. Diamonds were unearthed in an old volcano chimney along the Vaal River and at the site of present-day Kimberley, bordering English and Boer states. Within 10 years, one hundred million dollars’ worth of diamonds had been mined. The British annexed the Kimberly region into the English Cape Colony in 1870. Two Englishmen, Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato, were the chief beneficiaries of the diamond trade. Gold was found in 1886. By 1900, over hundred thousand men were looking for gold in the area. By 1911, over 237,000 people had moved to the original mining camp which was renamed Johannesburg. The gold was deep in the earth, requiring costly machinery and capital to recover it. Rhodes, with a dream to make all Africa British, became involved politically in the gold industry as the British attempted to control the mining industry. Conflicts inevitably followed between the Dutch and English. These conflicts escalated into a full-scale war in 1899. The English referred to these conflicts as the Boers Wars, while the Dutch referred to them as Wars for Independence.

Although the leaders of both the Boers and the British believed that this should be a “white man’s wars,” Africans played an important part, and also suffered severely. From the beginning, British and Boer forces alike employed Africans in non-combatant roles. As the conflict intensified, Africans were enlisted into the army so that by the end of the war there were close to 30,000 armed Africans in the British Army. The victory of the British over the Boers had long-term consequences for the history of South Africa in the 20th century. The war devastated the Boers economically and psychologically. In response, they began to develop an identity as white Africans, calling themselves Afrikaners. This identity shaped them as “race patriots” and led to an aggressive nationalism, in which they aspired to self-determination and complete dominance of South Africa. This, together with a fear of the black majority, helps to explain the implementation of the policy of apartheid (racial segregation) in the 1940s.

Africans were equally devastated by the war, with similar results concerning poverty and urbanization. As was typically the case with European treaties in the 19th century, the peace established between Great Britain and the Boers did not treat the Africans as equal partners or recognize their rights to their ancestral lands.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about Nationalism in the 19th century by watching Crash Course in World History #34.


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