How did Europeans try to justify their actions in Africa?

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The Europeans developed a number of justifications for their interventions and annexations in Africa. One of the oldest of these was the perceived need to spread Christianity in the region so as to undermine native belief systems that were viewed as “pagan” and “heathen.” One of the most famous episodes of this period (i.e. the 19th century) was British reporter Henry Stanley’s search for Dr. David Livingstone, who had disappeared in central Africa while establishing Christian missions in the area. Related to the desire to spread Christianity was the campaign to end slavery, which was still common in many regions of Africa.

Another justification, especially amongst the French and Belgians, was the spread of “civilization” to what were seen as primitive, barbaric cultures. A key way to civilize them was to coerce native peoples to work in resource extraction, including the growing of cash crops and the mining of precious metals and other mineral resources. Coercion was seen as necessary because native cultures encouraged, in European eyes, laziness and slothfulness that prevented the natives from developing themselves in the image of Europeans.

It was the British who developed another justification, the idea that the Western powers were obliged to hold African territories in “trust” for the native population – both for their own benefit and that of Europeans. Europe had a duty to educate and protect the natives until their cultures had risen to the same level as that of Europeans. At the same time, however, the natives were obliged to allow Europe to extract resources from their territories, since the natives were not using them and Europe needed them to maintain its standard of living.

Another reason used to defend European imperialism in Africa was to protect defenseless natives from other hostile natives, or to protect missionaries and traders who lived in “lawless” areas. Later in this period, it was also deemed necessary to replace one European power with another European administration to protect native populations from the ravages of the original power. The conclusion of the First World War provided the best example of this type of action, when the Treaty of Versailles transferred the German colonies of Togoland, Kamerun (Cameroon), German South-West Africa, and German East Africa to the rule of Britain and France.

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