Africa During the Scramble: The Years without Food

By Gary Oswald

Cattle dead from rinderpest in South Africa, 1896

Between 1500 and 1820, Africa’s population declined relative to that of the rest of the world due a combination of booming populations in Europe and Asia and the effects of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The decline of that Slave Trade and the increasing use of new agricultural techniques within Africa during the 19th century, should have led to this being reversed but while relative population stabilised it didn’t start to increase until the 1920s.

To some extent this was due to agricultural and industrial advancements in the rest of the world but late 19th century Africa also saw population losses in a lot of areas and a decrease in population growth in even more. This was due to three massive and intertwined disasters which would hit Africa, in particular East Africa, during the late 19th century.

The first of those disasters can be rather easily deduced by the very title of this series of articles. The Scramble for Africa was a series of wars which led to imperial conquest. Moreover it tended to follow and be intertwined with, an increasing level of inter African wars as new weapons and new social structures meant larger nations could be formed. From Somalia to Sudan, and Mali to the Transvaal, some of the most bitter fighting of the era was between various African states with little direct involvement of the European Empires.

And wars kill people, both directly through deaths in battle and indirectly through famines when livestock is destroyed in the fighting and agricultural workers are removed from their farms and through diseases when men are forced into close quarters with each other in situations of poor quality hygiene.

Obviously the complete conquest of an entire continent did not happen without bloodshed. But perhaps more importantly, that conquest also resulted in a change in structure which often reduced birth rates because Colonial subjects tended to be worked harder than they had been previously. So the relatively prosperous cattle farmers of the Xhosa, Herero and Zulu became instead manual labourers and in the rubber plantations of the Congo Free State, Portuguese Angola, French Central Africa or German Cameroon, workers were forced into brutal labour away from their villages by the use of hostages. This obviously resulted in people being worked to death but just on a smaller scale, it meant people spending more time away from their families and so having less children than they otherwise would have.

Theoretically, a successful conquest meant an end to war, both between the imperial power and the natives and between the various African polities within this region and undoubtedly peace was enforced in some areas. But there is two caveats to this. First of all, the various imperial powers did go to war against each other in 1914 and this meant further war within Africa. The East African Campaign in WWI probably led to more than 400,000 deaths in the region. And secondly, after conquest and mistreatment, there naturally follows revolts. Both revolts and European wars meant more bloodshed.

In Ubangi-Shari, modern day Central African Republic, the French had granted many private companies concessions of control in the territory. This lead to Free State esque brutality as companies such as French Forestière would take villages hostage to demand forced labour as taxes. Many labourers would die from the poor conditions when collecting cash crops and building infrastructure such as the Congo-Ocean railway. Local chiefs left in power by the French, as indirect rule, would take advantage of this demand for labour by increasing their slave raiding and then offering slaves as labourers to the company.

This situation, as memorably exposed by the French anti-colonialist writer André Gide, was innately unstable and in the 1930s the people of the region began a massive campaign of both peaceful and violent resistance to the companies called the War of the Hoe Handle which French authorities complained had been started by communist agitators like Gide. The Companies, with the backing of French Armies, brutally put down the rebellion, having headman for villages refusing to work publicly executed in the centre of those villages as a lesson. The exact death toll is unclear, though thanks to forced movements of people and scared Africans fleeing their villages to escape the French, it must have been considerable from hunger alone. Some sources argue as many of 100,000 Africans died in the war, though others put it closer to a tenth of that figure.

This was not a climate in which populations would naturally skyrocket.

And this conquest was helped along by the second great disaster of this era which was natural in type. El Niño fluctuations in the late 19th century, caused numerous brutal droughts across most of the world from the 1870s to the 1900s, from China to Brazil and this hit Eastern and Southern Africa hard, with some countries seeing six years with limited rain in a single decade.

A country starving is one unlikely to put up much of a fight and so imperial invasion often came upon the tails of these droughts. Portugal in Angola, Britain in South Africa and Italy in the Horn of Africa all launched their most serious attacks after or during existing drought caused famines and the destruction of those wars combined with and exaggerated the effects of those famines.

And the nature of the Scramble meant that famine relief was almost non-existent, if you want to invade a country, why would you give it food? In the Merina Kingdom of Madagascar forced labour by serfs had been used to build up food supplies so that famines could endured but by the 1880s, with France prowling, that forced labour was increasingly put to work in the gold fields to raise money for buying guns rather than to build up the food reserves. As a result the El Niño famines were the most brutal to ever hit the Kingdom. Morocco likewise suffered especially harshly because of its move to an export economy.

In British controlled Egypt it was even worse. The Khedive had defaulted his debt to European creditors after a slump in cotton prices due to the return of the American South to world trade. As previously discussed this resulted in the UK conquering Egypt to use as a cash cow to pay off that debt and as such a government less inclined to offer succour to struggling farmers. During the famine, the British encouraged tax collectors to confiscate the property of peasant small holders whose tenancy had previously been guaranteed. This over taxation made the famine far worse than it could have been and tens of thousands starved as a result.

French Algeria was spared the deaths of Egypt but the colonial regime took advantage of the poor harvest to confiscate land in places of taxes and accelerate the impoverishment of the Berbers.

And the famines were intertwined with the wars. The Mahdists of Sudan would always be an aggressive military power by nature of their government but the famine meant their raids for cattle and slaves were driven by desperation. The Mahdist campaign against the rebels in Darfur was so brutal due to their need to fund their army by gathering grain as they went, leaving entire villages starved out. Prior to the battle of Tukar, Kitchener even managed to prevent an additional Mahdist attack on Egypt, simply by blocking the private sale of food to Eastern Sudan so that the Mahdists couldn't support their Army there.

A Maasai herdsman grazing his cattle inside the Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania. Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim and shared under the GFDL 1.2 licence

The countries hit the worst by the famines though were Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, where vast areas were depopulated almost entirely. Up to a third of Ethiopians died in those famines, with the Ethiopian Jews being hit disproportionately hard while the Kikuyu of of the Kenyan highlands saw staggering death tolls of between 50% and 95% depending on the area. The British, who were able to use the starving Masai people as mercenaries, faced no real opposition in Kenya as a result and opened up the highlands for settlement by Whites, Arabs and Indians, even offering the Zionist council an opportunity to establish a Jewish Homeland in the area. This settlement was largely unchallenged until the 1950s when native populations had bounced back to the population levels they had been at 70 years previously. Even in Uganda, which was relatively untouched compared to the rest of the region, death tolls have been estimated as being as high as 80,000 and allowed the less effected Bugandans to take the upper hand against their rival states.

But the famine was not all the fault of the El Niño fluctuations. There was the third disaster. Disease.

Because of the effects that Malaria and Sleeping Sickness had on colonists we tend to think of Africa as invulnerable to Eurasian diseases, but, while it was certainly less vulnerable than the New World, it was still hit hard. Small Pox was particularly devastating, killing tens of thousands of people from the Cape Colony to the Congo. German colonists in Tanzania found small pox scars on an estimated 70% of residents of interior villages. Likewise, Bubonic Plague had a huge effect in Uganda and Kenya, delaying the construction of the Ugandan Railway due to the need to quarantine workers. And diseases tend to be more deadly during times of war and famine, with cholera and typhoid running rampant across famine hit Morocco and Egypt. The worst disease however didn't directly target humans at all but rather cattle, horses and wild animals like giraffes.

Rinderpest is a deadly and infectious viral disease that effects ungulates and has since been eradicated by the United Nations, second only to Small Pox in being so eliminated. It first originated in India and came to Africa in 1887 when the Italians imported Asian Cattle to sustain their military campaigns in Somalia and Eritrea. When some of that Cattle was captured by the Ethiopian Army in border conflicts, it spread to Ethiopia, wiping out the Ethiopian cavalry almost entirely thanks to killing their horses and then moving onto their cattle, killing millions of previously healthy cows. With crops already failing thanks to the El Niño droughts and importation of food largely stalled by the wars on Ethiopia's borders, this loss of cattle would be devastating. From Ethiopia, the disease went North into the Sudan and West to the Fulani in Nigeria, devastating both areas, but most fatefully, it went South into Kenya.

To the nomadic cattle herders of Kenya and Tanzania, the loss of cattle was ever worse as they relied so heavily on the herds for survival, even drinking their blood as an alternative to water. This loss was the main reasons for their appalling death tolls. And in 1895, when Rinderpest crossed the Zambesi, it worsened the fates of the already impoverished natives of Southern Africa. The Herero, Zulu and Xhosa would lose much of the remaining wealth thanks to the death of over 5 million cattle in the region, resulting in increasing starvation.

South African Whites would eventually manage to create an early vaccine and cattle numbers would rebound but, for a lot of native populations, the damage was done. The Rinderpest Epizootic was undoubtedly the single most devastating result of the Scramble for Africa. Without it, if Italy had simply sourced their cattle from a different seller, the history of Africa would have been significantly different.

And not just because of the way the deaths and loss of cattle, weakened the African position compared to that of the Europeans and killed a lot of people who might have been significant figures. Rinderpest also had a huge effect on Tsetse fly numbers. And Tsetse flies play an important role in transmitting diseases such as nagana to cattle and sleeping sickness to humans.

Adult Glossina morsitans, transmitter of Trypanosoma protozoa in Africa. Photo by Alan Walker and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Tsetse flies, feed on ungulates, both wild and domesticated, so were obviously hugely effected by a disease which removed their main source of food. Rinderpest epizootic reduced tsetse numbers in South Africa and Southern Mozambique due to the cattle deaths reducing their food sources. Tsetse flies largely disappeared from Kruger Park as a result and still haven't returned.

However further North, it had the opposite effect. The lack of grazing, due to the deaths of so many herbivores, saw thornbush thickets transform pastures into woody grassland, which is much more suitable vegetation for Tsetse fly larvae. Wild ungulate populations recovered quicker than domesticated cattle populations so the tsetse flies found food and bounced back before this thornbush could be removed by grazing. Once that had happened, the tsetse flies made it far more difficult for the cattle herders to return to their previous lands as the increase in tsetse flies meant more humans caught sleeping sickness from them, with a relatively isolated disease prior to the 20th century suddenly becoming far more common.

In 1901 a sleeping sickness pandemic would hit Uganda, and kill an estimated 250,000 people. And the scourge of that disease would essentially make huge areas of what had previously been good cattle land unsuitable for humans. There is a reason why the sleeping sickness, has been called the world's greatest Game Warden. It is almost certain that without it, and therefore without the Rinderpest epizootic, places like the Maasai Mara and the other game reserves simply would not exist. West Africa would have a lot less wildlife and a lot more cattle.

The El Niño droughts were such that Africa was always going to have a hard time in the late 19th century, but it was that combined with the Rinderpest Epizootic and European conquest that devastated it. Without the Epizootic, African populations will be significantly larger and the amount of wild unmanaged land with huge quantities of animals will be significantly lower.

But could that be avoided? Would the Epizootic have happened through other channels, had Italy not landed in Eritrea? It's possible, diseases like to spread and the British Isles had an outbreak early in the 19th century but it's unlikely. The Italians were in a rare position in needing to import cattle. Africa had a lot of cattle already and most European Empires could simply move them from their pre-existing colonies elsewhere in Africa. It was the weakness of the Italian position that led to the Epizootic and that is very easily butterflied away.

However, even without external conquest, the droughts will probably make internal conquest by other African polities more likely as desperation drives them to capture more cattle, as demonstrated by the Mahdists in Sudan. Removing the Scramble will probably still see those years being marked by an increase in warfare and that period of warfare might actually last longer, though it'll likely be less decisive. A longer war between the Nama and the Herero may well see the latter eventually be conquered but it's unlikely to end with the industrial genocide of the Herero that happened in OTL after their defeat by the German Army.


Discuss this Article


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.