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Africa Without the Scramble

By Gary Oswald

I have written on and off about Africa during the 19th century on this blog for about three years in around 40 articles and over 150,000 words, and I have more articles like that to come. Most of those articles take the format of me describing an African people, their grim fate after being conquered by Europeans and some ways in which that could have gone differently. And they mostly take the presence of the European invaders as a fixed point of time, which the Africans must deal with, by either defeating militarily or be negotiating terms of surrender with. But this is unambitious, the Scramble of Africa caught a lot of people by surprise when it happened, it was far from inevitable. So before I finish that series, I want to have a look at Africa without that conquest at all.

It must be noted that the conquest of Africa was not universally popular among Europeans. There was quite a lot of moral opposition to imperialism, with communist parties in particular opposing it and there was also a lot of fiscal opposition to it, from governments who didn't see the financial benefits from the money conquest required. Many of the main statesmen of Europe were at best ambivalent about African imperialism. At the extreme Gladstone and Bismarck were both whole heartedly opposed, at least at first, though tellingly both would still end up knee deep in Africa. They were driven towards it by a combination of a fear of their rivals locking up the continent, the actions of a few genuine true believers such as King Leopold, Cecil Rhodes and Jules Ferry and pressure from the military and public for great victories in Africa. They also routinely ended up in wars they didn't intend to as European militaries based in Africa regularly broke treaties and started wars without bothering to ask for permission they knew wouldn't be granted.

This is not easy to avoid, there's something of a vicious circle where each act of imperialism encourages more and even those opponents of it ended up getting in to avoid missing out. The system was self perpetuating, once you have created the apparatus for a colonial war, it gets used and it spurs on itself. Governors on the ground and certainly settlers on the ground would constantly push for more land and more slave labour provided by new subjects. Tunisia leads to Egypt, which leads to the Congo which leads to Madagascar which leads to Zanzibar and so on. But it's also far from impossible to stop. Once the dominos start falling, every new domino is more vulnerable but likewise every domino that doesn't fall, protects the ones behind it. If you remove the loudest voices for expansion, Leopold, Rhodes, Lugard, Peters and Ferry then the moderates would feel less pressure to keep up and the mad rush for new territory could be avoided. Likewise the situation in Europe in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War with peace in Europe seemingly assured, but rivalries still intact, allowed this push, a different Europe could see easily see much less energy put into Africa as focus is drawn elsewhere. That doesn't mean no new conquest, areas such as Senegal, Angola and South Africa were firmly in the crosshairs already but it means much less of it and much more independent states surviving.

So what then of Africa? Which was changed on every possible level, cultural, political, environmental and economic by that conquest.

Well it wouldn't be a land of milk and honey. This doesn't remove the El Nino famines, the smallpox epidemics or the wars between African states encouraged by new weapons and crops within the 19th century and it leaves a lot of deeply unpleasant feudal regimes reliant on slaves in power. But it does remove the crimes of imperialism, and a lot of the worst famines and diseases and while the likes of Msiri were no less exploitative than the foreign powers that replaced them they were considerably weaker. The pre colonial Kings of Africa were much more likely to be overthrown and so had to play nicer to a much greater extent. Msiri married himself into local blood lines, Chiefs in Sierra Leone allowed their subjects to appeal to neighbouring Chiefs when they disputed their orders, etc. etc. African Kings were rarely strong enough to rule as Absolute Monarchs and so relied on the cooperation of their subjects whereas foreign governors could always call in reinforcement from Europe, meaning that crimes such as indiscriminate murder happened so often in Colonial Empires, despite these being, in theory, less feudal and warlike than the societies they had conquered. The most despotic governments in Africa, such as that of Dahomey are likely to be exceptions here, but they are also going to be at risk of overthrow from the bottom and will likely either reform or be removed. The French invasion of Dahomey came hand to hand with a massive slave revolt by the Yoruba slaves on the plantations in Dahomey and such a thing is likely to happen if ever the Government appeared weak, which all Governments eventually do.

In terms of death tolls, there were few states on the continent capable of industrial level genocide such as happened in South-West Africa or Cyrenaica and in terms of labour rights, it's unlikely that all of central Africa would be turned into a slave plantation the way it was under the Congo Free State. Against that, a lack of threat of invasion would certainly not make feudal empires which killed children in ritual sacrifices suddenly concerned about needless deaths so Human Sacrifices and Domestic slavery would almost certainly endure longer as would the small scale wars for slaves and sacrifices that supported that. Various independent states were banning Slavery and sacrifices due to either British pressure, as happened with the Fante for instance, changing economic needs or moral principles but there was certainly resistance to these changes, as the uses of slaves and sacrifices were hugely important, economically and religiously, in a lot of polities and so any abolition will be massively resisted. But the deaths caused by this are fewer than in large scale colonial wars such as the African front of WWI so you'd still imagine a quicker increase in total population numbers in Africa than happened in our reality.

Because of that larger population, you probably see smaller game park areas with limited human populations. A lot of the Safari areas where there are thousands of wild animals in Kenya and Tanzania were created by massacres and famines and might well be cattle land and villages in this timeline instead. Having said that, less isolated game parks does not have to mean less animals in total.

It is generally agreed than pre colonial environment management in Africa was less damaging than colonial environmental management thanks to the view of forests and other wild areas as things to live in and feed from, rather than log and remove. There is no guarantee at all that this will last, the drive towards infrastructure and urbanism had already happened in parts of Africa but with more pastoral nomads and subsistence farmers, there is probably slower habitat defragmentation even if centralised polities, like Ethiopia, still do large scale logging.

New crops, such as cotton and rice, will still be introduced into Africa this scenario, but there will be less pressure to switch and so native crops will not be abandoned to the extent they were in otl, meaning different diets will form and different land use will be required. Larger plantations replacing family farms was a pattern even in pre colonial states such as Morocco but there will be more capacity for resistance in a non colonial society, so the trends will likely be less drastic.

In more political news, you'd have greater continuity of institutions avoiding the formation of post colonial states with no trained elite or countries where local democracy had been wiped out by centralising and old elites kept in power as proxy rulers were able to establish absolutist rule with the help of foreign backers. Democracies and decentralised power in places like Abeokuta are likely to continue for longer without being removed so that the UK had one guy to talk to. And these intact countries are going to have more resources to exploit as the land and mines won't be handed out to Europeans instead.

However those polities are likely to be still be somewhat reliant on foreign companies to handle that resource extraction. An inability to control their own resources or their own borders is why wealth is still primarily moving from the global south to the global north and while colonialism established that rule of foreign capital, this trend would happen to some extent anyway. We know this because it did in Liberia, Morocco and Egypt as African based rulers relied on borrowing from foreign banks and inviting in foreign companies even while independent, due to the differences in the quality of African and European manufacturing. However it would likely be a less total victory for foreign companies.

You'd more likely see native restrictions on foreign companies respected such as happened in pre conquest Madagascar, more land owned directly by native families and more African traders being able to make money as middlemen, rather than that niche being taken by Asians such as the Lebanese due to Africans being unable to acquire capital through borrowing directly. The direct stripping of land from conquered people such as happened in Namibia, Libya and Zimbabwe is also likely to be far less common, meaning you have less landless peoples. Some conquest and land seizing will likely still be happening when one African polity conquers another, but traditionally this was much less of a priority for African rulers.

But dealing with these foreign companies is going to become an increasingly large issue regardless and there will be increasing pressure for trade on damaging terms. African interaction with Europe had changed drastically over the 19th century for four reasons that would remain even if the Scramble did not happen. First was the decline of the Atlantic Slave Trade thanks to increasing European abolitionism, which led to the search for other types of trade. Second was the increasing efficiency of Quinine (an effective anti-malaria drug) as better forms were found, which allowed European expeditions inland to take less causalities from diseases. Third there was the increasing use of the Steamship, which shortened travel times and allowed trade between Africa and other continents to be more effective. And Fourth the invention of the Machine Gun gave Europe a military advantage it had not previously had. All of this is still true and it is going to lead to Africa still being dragged into the World system and be a target of punitive missions, for not paying debts or allowing trade on European terms, even if direct conquest is off the table.

European interaction with sub-Saharan Africa in the pre Scramble 19th century went from a small number of traders in forts outside major ports trading slaves, who’d been an established part of local politics for hundreds of years without ever becoming dominant, to a much more extensive relationship with missionaries, explorers and traders pushing throughout the continent by the 1850s. This drove the proliferation of weapons and so state building among the Native Africans, driving the wars of the period but it also encouraged European interest in the continent as reports from those travellers made it back to Europe and encouraged public interest. Private exploration was followed by government expansion, as the traders asked for protection from their countries. We can prevent some of the government interventions but not all of it and the private exploration will still have it's own effects.

Therefore Europe, even in a no scramble scenario, is going to be a huge influence with missionaries, traders and diplomats heading into newly opened up African Kingdoms to make deals, a lot of resources are not going to be exploited without foreign capital, and as Tewodros II of Ethiopia discovered, these visitors will still have imperial backing if mistreated. Africa is still going to be much poorer than the rest of the world and so you will likely see some sort of neo colonialism such as happened in Latin America, again Egypt, Morocco and Liberia are good guides in terms of powerful foreign companies and banks dictating a lot of policy and possibly funding coups, the switch of the Scramble was between indirect Empire to direct Empire, not Empire emerging from nowhere. A Françafrique is still likely and to some extent native elites will still be co-opted by foreign powers due to interference in civil strife even without direct control, such things happened in Zanzibar and Egypt prior to direct conquest and this could stick provoke nationalist rebellions like the anti foreigner riots in North Africa or the Boxer Rebellion in China. But even the likes of Liberia, whose elite were most affected by Western pressure, are going to be much less cowed, without Europe provably conquering everywhere else and so having far more visible guns pointed at them.

And there is evidence that native traders and polities could compete with foreign companies and grow during this larger trade. There was a reason why trading companies ended up calling in the Colonial Powers to defeat their rivals. Jaja of Opobo, was not arrested by the British Empire because the Royal Niger Company was confident they could out compete him on the palm oil market fairly. Avoiding direct colonisation allows people like that to compete on much more even terms. South Korea and Singapore were desperately poor in 1900, it is not impossible for a native African Kingdom to see similar explosive economic growth.

What this likely includes is the hiring of foreign experts as advisors such as the Brazilians who worked with Dahomey or the white farmers who worked with the Zulu. In particular this will probably include a number of Black New Worlders who returned to Africa during the scramble anyway.

Education is likely to be much worse without colonial schools, though in West and North Africa, Islamic Teachers will probably step up to some extent, and so literacy will be far lower and to compensate you'd probably see some voluntary adaption of education through missionaries. In this way some European culture in terms of sport, technology, law, politics and entertainment will still trickle through, though likely far less than in OTL. While there'll be far more native governments and cultures left untouched by imperialism, these will still face pressure to conform to globalised norms. Likewise while Christianity is not going to be as popular without state support, you'd still likely see a lot of converts, you did in pre colonial states like Buganda and Madagascar and this will likely result in state persecution of Christian converts like what also happened in Buganda and Madagascar.

Religious wars will doubtless flare up again as they had done all century in Africa, due to the emergence of political Islam and Christianity. Secular wars are also likely to rage for some time between different polities until firm borders are eventually established, especially if machine guns and other European weapons become available to buy, as less direct conquest would probably see less European bans on supplying weapons to Africans. The 19th Century was a bloody time in Africa even before the Scramble started after all and those trends are likely to continue. In particular there will be inevitable conflict between settled and nomadic people over land use.

The end result would almost certainly be more smaller countries than OTL, and so less centralisation in terms of languages and culture but still a lot less than in the 19th century and as such multi ethnic countries are inevitable. Without French and English to act as lingua francas, Swahili and Yoruba might end up filling the same role, Arabic certainly will. Some ethnic strife will be avoided without colonial impact, I suspect the Hutu-Tutsi tension will be much less murderous for one, but it's pretty inevitable, particularly in large Empires like Ethiopia, that nationalism will come home to roost once borders are settled even without colonialism. It is a fairy tale to pretend ethnic strife in Africa was entirely a result of foreign imperialism but ethnic strife will likely be less complicated by white and Asian settlers, most of whom arrived due to the empires. Some immigration will still happen to non empire controlled areas, but it will be much less. Having said that, Kenya, Libya and Zimbabwe might be spared settlers but this POD is too late to save Zanzibar, South Africa and Algeria from the same fate, so a certain amount of violent decolonisation is still on the table. We are only minimising imperialism in this scenario, not eliminating it.

You'd probably see less radicalism in terms of pan-Africanism and communism being wildly adapted as those currents emerged in a very real sense due to the combined effects of the degradation of colonialism and the existing elite proving themselves unable to handle those changes, resulting in an emergence of political radicals. Feudal Monarchies will still face left wing challenges, as Ethiopia proved, and Pan-Africanism will still find some areas of growth simply due to poverty but it's likely to remain far more of a diaspora thing with nationalism being a far more larger current within Africa itself. The exception here might be within the few colonially controlled areas, whose history would resemble Jamaica far more than their unconquered African neighbours and so might reach for solidarity more with them. The Pan-African Diaspora will likely still aim to return to Africa, as they did in real life through the efforts of men like Marcus Garvey and find less difficulty doing so due to less powerful colonial powers but the History of Liberia indicates the difficulties such a return faces even without colonial control. Without a common enemy, the feudal slave owning nationalist Kingdoms are less likely to be seen as natural allies of Caribbean radicals, an Ashanti King is not going to be Kwame Nkrumah. Of course this didn't stop the likes of Benito Sylvain from aligning themselves with Ethiopia in OTL but that was a situation where Ethiopia was the only game in town. In this timeline, Ethiopia is much less rare and so important, likely we never see any form of Rastafarianism develop.

Transport infrastructure, often held up as a silver lining of colonialism, would almost certainly be less extensive in this scenario. European colonists had motives to build roads and railway to move troops around and extract resources and extra resources to do so from their external properties. They also regularly used forced labour to achieve it and while there's little reason to think African polities wouldn't do the same, they'd be more vulnerable to rebellions and so would likely tread more carefully about demanding labour instead of tax.

Having said that, Railways and Roads were built in independent countries such as Tunis, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia and the Boer states. Pre Colonial Egypt, in fact, had more railways per square mile than any other country in the world. Building of new infrastructure will still happen and might actually be built in way which allowed travel around the continent to be easier, rather than focusing on easing the extraction of goods. The isolation of areas of the continent will almost certainly end during this time period anyway, with more trade and diplomacy between both various African polities and the outside world. This will have negative consequences in terms of disease spread but also positive ones in terms of the spread of ideas.

The 19th Century is always going to the century in which Africa is dragged into the world system, it's just that collision doesn't have to be as violent and one sided as it ultimately proved to be.

On less general terms, some of the states we have covered in this series of articles, such as Msiri's Yeke Kingdom, would have almost certainly been conquered or collapsed anyway even without European involvement. Others such as the Rif Republic, only emerged due to European involvement, and so would likely never form at all. But some such as the Zulu Kingdom or Tunis are likely to endure and change if they are not conquered and how they adapt and change would be interesting and would owe more to their own individual circumstances than any universal continent wide rule.

This scenario, no Scramble for Africa, is one that fascinates me because of how broad and interesting it is, you could write another article the same length as every one in this series about it. It's an idea which feels worthy of exploring and which I hope to do something with myself, at some point.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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