British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa

Timothy H. Parsons

in African Studies

ISBN: 9780199846733
Published online November 2013 | | DOI:
British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa

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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.

Article.  19168 words. 

Subjects: African History ; African Languages ; African Music ; African Philosophy ; African Studies

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