Assess the importance of humanitarian and missionary activity in creating a larger African Empire for Great Britain during the period from 1868 to 1902?

From the period of 1868 to 1902, Britain had few colonies in Africa, before 1880 Cape Colony, Natal and some small coastal colonies in the form of Gambia and Sierra Leone. When the scramble for Africa was triggered, Britain sought to expand gain as many colonies in Africa as possible. The scramble for Africa was the process of invasion and annexation of sovereign African territories by European powers during the new Imperialism period. The fundamental reasons for Britain being involved in the scramble for Africa were the great power rivalry Africa had created between the Great European powers, in which each power tried to gain as much land as possible so that it is denied to another, economic interests in Africa, Africa’s strategic value, and humanitarian purposes and missionary motives. Britain’s aim in the mid-19th century was not to actually gain territory in Africa by means of invasion, but it Britain’s Empire was largely based on an informal or ‘Empire on the cheap’, these Empire were made by private companies and gentleman capitalists, who wanted to trade with Africa. However, great power rivalry caused a scramble in Africa. This led to Britain forming a formal Empire, to ensure Britain’s name as a superpower was maintained. Missionary motives were that of British people who were sent to Africa to persuade people to follow their principles, for example Christianity. Missionary and humanitarian activity which was activity concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare. The British public were commonly informed that missionary and humanitarian motive were the most important motive.

Many people from the period of 1868 to 1902 believed that Britain had an obligation to bring civilization to the people of Africa, the British government claimed its mission in Africa was to civilise the natives there – “the White man’s burden”. Even within the government politicians with high positions including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain stressed that it was up to Britain to bring civilization to the African people and spread Christianity, these reasons are just some that explain why humanitarianism and missionary motives were of importance to Britain’s involvement in the scramble for Africa. Chamberlains views were also mirrored in that of the public’s who also felt strongly about the civilization of the Africans. Sir David Livingstone captivated public attention when he spread his view of that humanitarianism should be spread throughout Africa under the name of Britain. It was his work that earned the support of the British public on the Empire as his work spread Christianity throughout Africa. Furthermore, 19th century Victorian Britain was very religious and the Church promoted the idea of missionary work in Africa. Furthermore, the British government also started anti-slavery expeditions in the 1850’s, which got the hearts of the British public and gained their support that humanitarianism and missionary motives were important in creating a greater African colony during the scramble for Africa.

However, humanitarian and missionary motives were of small importance in the expansion of a greater British Empire in Africa, this was shown when Sir David Livingstone was sent home after it was deemed his results were unimpressive despite converting many people into Christianity. Also there was humanitarian work in Africa before the scramble started so this didn’t explain why Britain needed a military presence in these lands. Moreover, the Boer war belied the myth of humanitarianism as the British defeated the Boers mercilessly. So overall humanitarian and missionary motives had little in the decision to expand into Africa but instead the decision was largely led by the economic interests in Africa.

Furthermore, off greater importance in creating a larger British Empire into Africa was the economic interest that Africa had, which interested Britain, for example Britain wanted a greater market for surplus goods, and new African colonies offered this, this was first shown when Britain invaded Egypt, Egypt was important to Britain as it produced high quality cotton which was in high demand in Britain by British textile manufacturers especially in Manchester. In addition, in the west Britain was attracted to mineral goods found in Nigeria, in the form of palm oil, which was used as a lubricant and was used to make soap. Also the cocoa in the west was used in the manufacturing of chocolates by companies such as Cadbury. Moreover, the work of Rhodes in the south of Africa ensured Britain’s economic dominance, in such lands as the Matabele land. Also, the Suez Canal in Egypt was also lucrative to Britain’s interests and expansion into Africa as most of Britain’s trade passed through there. Additionally, the gold found in the Transvaal also cause Britain to invade such lands as the territories provided great prosperity to Britain’s trade power. Such economic factors as these caused Britain to invade and annex vast amounts of land in Africa, and probably make economic factors the most fundamental in the reasons of African expansion.

Dissimilarly, economic aspect did not gain Britain as much land as possible due to the informal Empire as only a few entrepreneurs were actually able to gain control of territory for long periods of time.

However, this did not explain the vast amounts of land Britain conquered, that had no economic value such as the Sudan, which was mostly desert. To define these annexations we must look elsewhere. Overall, i would definitely say that the importance if economic reasons for Britain’s partake in the scramble for Africa, and expansion outweighs it reasons for unimportance as Britain, as most of the land annexed by Britain was due to economic reasons.

In addition, public opinion also played a very small part in creating a larger African empire in Africa. The government usually did not take notice of public opinion, but usually took their opinions into account when it was election time. Also, the government only listened to the British public in a major matter when in 1898 the public demanded revenge for Sir Gordon’s murder by the Mahdi revolt, this led to the re-invasion of Sudan, and this was mostly influenced by the public’s opinion. However, the British government had other reasons that affect this invasion for example, the buffer around Egypt to ensure that Egypt was safe, moreover, the British public had not directly asked for the annexation of the Sudan only revenge.

Overall, public opinion had minor effects on the government’s decision to annex lands, and therefore did not contribute to a larger African empire.

The reasons of annexing land that had no economic or humanitarian value, was strategic value. The Suez Canal in Egypt was very important to Britain and led to the invasion of Egypt in 1882 as the canal was the short route to India which was Britain’s was economically lucrative to Britain as India gave Britain the most trade as a colony even known as ‘the Jewel of the Empire’, also the protests in Egypt led by colonel Arabi were put down, which also showed how the route to India was vital to Britain, as they were willing to invade turkey for their strategic interests. In addition, the invasion of Sudan to protect Egypt was also the results of strategic thinking as Britain wanted to ensure that Egypt was safe, even by conquering vast deserts. Also the last coaling station en route to India was the cape colony, was also of strategic importance to Britain as it was the last place British ships could stop to refuel before undergoing their journey to India. Some historians believe this was the main reason the cape colony was brought into the British Empire.

However, some territories that were gained did not offer strategic value for example Nigeria, but these are explained by economic reasons. Overall, the strategic lands that Britain had annexed outweigh its unimportance as it gained Britain much more land than humanitarianism.

Great power rivalry was first caused when Britain invaded Egypt, this in turn caused, many European powers to view Africa as the only place they could gain new land, this was the scramble for Africa. Britain initially only planned to have an informal Empire run by private businessmen, as the tax payer did not have to pay for it, “Empire on the cheap”, as they were interested in the economical aspects of the land they invaded. This changed drastically when Britain realised it had triggered the scramble, other countries rushed in to gain land in Africa to prove they are the greatest power. This even led Britain to invading land that had no economical benefits. Most great power rivalry was between Britain and Germany, as Germany conquered land that had no economical benefits, around the British Cape Colony, for example in 1890 Britain made a deal with Germany where Britain took Uganda, Kenya, Zanzibar and Somaliland in exchange for North Sea Island of Heligoland. It seemed Britain was conquering land even in places that had no benefits. An example of this would be the taking of Sudan in 1898 after the Mahdi’s defeat at the Battle of Omdurman, despite this land being strategically useful for Britain some modern historians say that the land was also conquered to deny it to Germany and France. Similarly Nigeria was made a British protectorate in order to ensure that France didn’t conquer the land. However, great power rivalry was also a minor factor for Britain’s expansion into Africa, as Britain had always disliked large and costly territorial land grabs. All in all, though the importance of great power rivalry i believe is a greater factor for African expansion than its unimportance as it caused Britain to become one of the greatest superpowers of the 19th century.

All in all, i believe that humanitarian and missionary motives had little effect in creating a larger African Empire, as overall it barely gained Britain any land in Africa, as even the greatest humanitarianists were returned home due to unimpressive results. i do believe that Britain’s primary reason in getting a larger Africa was economic prospects that led to invasion and annexations of African lands. Britain gaining a larger Empire was not due mostly to the effect of public opinion, as the government only listened to the public when it was election time. Moreover, great power rivalry from other great European powers, did make Britain gain a vast amount of land as they acquired huge territories just to deny it to others. Additionally, the strategic importance of certain lands in Africa, including the large Egypt and the Cape Colony, i also recognise by this that some reasons for creating a larger African empire were of mixed reasons like economic and strategic in Egypt. However with taking all of these factors into account i realise that economic factors mostly made Britain have a larger African Empire for example in the west the lands of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, in the west lands like Zanzibar and Uganda, in the north sudan and Egypt and in the south the cape colony and the Transvaal, with that said humanitarian and missionary activity were minor in creating a larger African Empire.


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