Britain was not the only European power to actively colonize Africa. Belgium, Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal all held African territory in the late 19th century, and played a part in shaping the politics and culture of the continent today. The different European powers used different styles of colonialism: The French favored an assimilative style in which Africans could attain French citizenship, while the British preferred a strategy of indirect rule that kept “inferior” locals at a distance from the imperial hub in the United Kingdom.

International Boundaries

Along with its colonial rivals, Britain was responsible for drawing international boundaries onto Africa in the late 1800s. The Congress of Berlin, held between 1884 and 1885, laid out the rules for European colonization, meaning in the 30 years following, European countries divided up newly colonized territories in a series of bilateral agreements. The new international boundaries were “drawn by Europeans, for Europeans,” and paid little attention to conditions on the ground, says Geography professor Ieuan Griffiths. Despite the arbitrary nature of the boundaries in many parts of Africa, after independence the new African countries became, as Ralph A. Austen of the University of Chicago points out, “staunch defenders of the existing boundaries.”


British and European settlement led directly to conflict, both between settlers and locals, and between rival local groups. The British strategy of indirect rule meant local leaders were under the control of a British governor, removing their previous authority and encouraging some leaders to act as tyrants because they were no longer answerable to their people. Occasionally, conflict between the European powers spilled over into Africa; during World War I, German and British forces fought each other in southwest and eastern Africa, involving an estimated 2 million Africans.


British colonialism led to the spread of the English language in Africa, and many former British colonies still maintain English as an official language. The official languages of Kenya, for example, are English and Kiswahili, while Zimbabwe -- formerly Rhodesia under British colonial rule -- uses English as its only official language. South Africa’s Dutch and British colonial heritage is preserved in the fact that both English and the Dutch-derived Afrikaans are official languages alongside numerous local languages like IsiZulu and IsiXhosa.


British missionaries were largely responsible for converting sections of the African population to Christianity. Many Africans still self-identify as Christians today, including an estimated 82.5 percent of the Kenyan population, 71.2 percent of Ghanaians and 71.6 percent of people in Botswana. In some countries, the religious and cultural activities started by missionaries have been maintained following independence, such as the 20 Orange Order lodges active in the West African countries of Togo and Ghana, a legacy of past Irish Protestant missionaries.

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