Historical Atlas of the British Empire
British West Africa or the British West African Settlements constituted during two periods (17 October 1821 until its first dissolution on 13 January 1850 and again 19 February 1866 till its final demise on 24 November 1888) an administrative entity under a governor-in-chief (comparable in rank to a Governor-general), an office vested in the governor of Sierra Leone (at Freetown).
The various colonies were established to aid the efforts of the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron wresting of control from various polities' resources, cultures and highly profitable exports. Coaling stations and depots were built in the coastal villages and because many people lost their lands, businesses and livelihoods, low wage jobs that were created as a result of resource exploitation were all that was left for many from the local population. Consequently, regional immigrants looking to start a new life joined the population, adding to the expansion of preexisting existing cities and villages.
The other colonies originally included in the jurisdiction were the Gambia and the British Gold Coast (modern Ghana). Also Lagos, western Nigeria, eastern Nigeria and northern Nigeria. The various parts of Nigeria were amalgamated into a single Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914.
After the First World War, the former German colonies of Togo and Kamerun were divided between Britain and France. British Togoland and British Cameroons were annexed in 1919 by the mandate system and governed by the Gold Coast and Nigeria respectively.
Click on the gallery of maps below of the British Empire in Africa to enlarge them.
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During the immediate post-war years the British focussed their attention on rebuilding the country, in particular the mining industry. By 1907 the mines of the Witwatersrand produced almost one-third of the world's annual gold production. But the peace brought by the treaty remained fragile and challenged on all sides. The Afrikaners found themselves in the ignominious position of poor farmers in a country where big mining ventures and foreign capital rendered them irrelevant. Britain's unsuccessful attempts to anglicise them, and to impose English as the official language in schools and the workplace particularly incensed them. Partly as a backlash to this, the Boers came to see Afrikaans as the volkstaal ("people's language") and as a symbol of Afrikaner nationhood. Several nationalist organisations sprang up. The system left Blacks and Coloureds completely marginalised. The authorities imposed harsh taxes and reduced wages, while the British caretaker administrator encouraged the immigration of thousands of Chinese to undercut any resistance. Resentment exploded in the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906, in which 4,000 Zulus lost their lives after protesting against onerous tax legislation.
The British meanwhile moved ahead with their plans for union. After several years of negotiations, the South Africa Act 1909 brought the colonies and republics - Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal, and Orange Free State - together. Given self-government in 1907, they were formed, with Cape Colony (self-governing in 1872) and Natal (self-governing in 1893), into the Union of South Africa in 1910. German South-West Africa was transferred to the Union of South Africa by League of Nations mandate in 1919 and the territory was absorbed into the Union in 1948. Under the provisions of the act, the Union remained British territory, but with home-rule for Afrikaners. The British High Commission territories of Basutoland (now Lesotho), Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Swaziland, and Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) continued under direct rule from Britain. English and Dutch became the official languages. Afrikaans did not gain recognition as an official language until 1925. Despite a major campaign by Blacks and Coloureds, the voter franchise remained as in the pre-Union republics and colonies, and only whites could gain election to parliament. Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company, chartered in 1889, extended British influence over Southern Rhodesia (a colony in 1923) and Northern Rhodesia (a protectorate in 1924); with Nyasaland, taken under British protection in 1891, the Rhodesias were formed into a federation (1953-63) with representative government. Uganda was made a British protectorate in 1894. Kenya, a protectorate, became a colony in 1920; coastal areas forming part of the sultan of Zanzibar's Dominions remained a protectorate. Rhodes’ plan was to create a British state in Africa stretching from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the continent to Cairo in Egypt, known as the ‘Cape to Cairo route’. The Rhodesias had been named after Cecil Rhodes.
British Empire in the Middle East mostly lasted for a short time. Britain was interested in securing the trade route to India, particularly after the Suez Canal was built. The British Government wanted to achieve the securing of the trade route to India by annexing territories along the route between Britain and India. It began with the British annexation of Aden in 1839, which was later governed by the India Office. However, the main British interest over the Middle East grew when the British government bought shares in the Suez Canal in 1856. Britain subsequently occupied Egypt in 1882, in which British forces were led by Viscount Edmund Allenby. Cyprus was also annexed. In 1882 opposition to European control in Egypt led to growing tension amongst native notables, the most dangerous opposition coming from the army. A large military demonstration in September 1881 forced the Khedive Tewfiq to dismiss his Prime Minister. In April of 1882 France and Great Britain sent warships to Alexandria to bolster the Khedive amidst a turbulent climate, spreading fear of invasion throughout the country. Tawfiq moved to Alexandria for fear of his own safety as army officers led by Ahmed Urabi began to take control of the government. By June Egypt was in the hands of nationalists opposed to European domination of the country. A British naval bombardment of Alexandria had little effect on the opposition which led to the landing of a British expeditionary force at both ends of the Suez Canal in August 1882. The British succeeded in defeating the Egyptian Army at Tel El Kebir in September and took control of the country putting Tawfiq back in control. The purpose of the invasion had been to restore political stability to Egypt under a government of the Khedive and international controls which were in place to streamline Egyptian financing since 1876. It is unlikely that the British expected a long-term occupation from the outset, however Lord Cromer, Britain's Chief Representative in Egypt at the time, viewed Egypt's financial reforms as part of a long-term objective. Cromer took the view that political stability needed financial stability, and embarked on a programme of long term investment in Egypt's productive resources, above all in the cotton economy, the mainstay of the country's export earnings. Britain declared a full Protectorate over Egypt in 1914 at the ourbreak of the First World War to protect it against the neighbouring Turkish Ottoman Empire which was allied with Germany. Viscount Allenby became High Comissioner of Egypt, a position of governorship.
An uprising against British control in Egypt in 1919 led to independence for the country in 1922. Egypt was declared independent, but with Britain retaining responsibility for maintenance of communications, defence, protection of European interests and the question of Sudan. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 recognised the complete independence of Egypt and the termination of British military occupation. However, it provided for British troops to continue to guard the Suez Canal Zone until the 1950’s. The British High Commissioner in Egypt became the British Ambassador. Egypt had been officially part of the British Empire for only eight years (1914-1922), however British influence remained until after the Second World War.
The Cape of Good Hope in South Africa was occupied by two English captains in 1620, but initially neither the government nor the East India Company was interested in developing this early settlement into a colony. The Dutch occupied it in 1650, and Cape Town remained a port of call for their East India Company until 1795 when, French revolutionary armies having occupied the Dutch Republic, the British seized it to keep it from the French. Under the Treaty of Paris in 1814, the UK bought Cape Town from the new kingdom of the Netherlands for the equivalent of $6 million. British settlement began in 1824 on the coast of Natal, proclaimed a British colony in 1843. Meanwhile, the Boers had started to grow increasingly dissatisfied with British rule in the Cape Colony. The British proclamation of the equality of the races particularly angered them. The need to find new farmland and establish independence from British rule led a body of Boers (Dutch `farmers') from the Cape to make the Great Trek northeast in 1836, to found Transvaal and Orange Free State as independent republics, established in 1852 and 1854 respectively. Beginning in 1835, several groups of Boers, together with large numbers of Khoikhoi and black servants, decided to trek off into the interior in search of greater independence. North and east of the Orange River (which formed the Cape Colony's frontier) these Boers or Voortrekkers ("Pioneers") found vast tracts of apparently uninhabited grazing lands. They had, it seemed, entered their promised land, with space enough for their cattle to graze and their culture of anti-urban independence to flourish. Little did they know that what they found - deserted pasture lands, disorganised bands of refugees, and tales of brutality - resulted from the difaqane, rather than representing the normal state of affairs.
With the exception of the more powerful Ndebele, the Voortrekkers encountered little resistance among the scattered peoples of the plains. The difaqane had dispersed them, and the remnants lacked horses and firearms. Their weakened condition also solidified the Boers' belief that European occupation meant the coming of civilisation to a savage land. However, the mountains where King Moshoeshoe I had started to forge the Basotho nation that would later become Lesotho and the wooded valleys of Zululand proved a more difficult proposition. Here the Boers met strong resistance, and their incursions set off a series of skirmishes, squabbles, and flimsy treaties that would litter the next 50 years of increasing white domination. The Great Trek first halted at Thaba Nchu, near present-day Bloemfontein, where the trekkers established a republic. Following disagreements among their leadership, the various Voortrekker groups split apart. While some headed north, most crossed the Drakensberg into Natal with the idea of establishing a republic there. Since the Zulus controlled this territory, the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief paid a visit to King Dingaan. The Zulus, accusing the Boers of conspiring to overthrow the Zulu state, captured Retief. After receiving the specified cattle ransom, they sent an army to decimate Retief's settlement, killing 280 Boers and 250 black servants. At the Battle of Itala, a Boer army's attempt at revenge failed miserably.
The culmination came on 16 December 1838, at the Ncome River in Natal. Though only several Boers suffered injuries, they killed several thousand Zulus. So much bloodshed reportedly caused the Ncome's waters to run red, thus the clash is historically known as the Battle of Blood River. The Voortrekkers, victorious despite their numbers, saw their victory as an affirmation of divine approval. Yet their hopes for establishing a Natal republic, established in 1839, remained short lived. The British annexed the area in 1843, and founded their new Natal colony at present-day Durban. Most of the Boers, feeling increasingly squeezed between the British on one side and the native African populations on the other, headed north. The British set about establishing large sugar plantations in Natal, but found few inhabitants of the neighbouring Zulu areas willing to provide labour. The British confronted stiff resistance to their encroachments from the Zulus, a nation with well-established traditions of waging war, who inflicted one of the most humiliating defeats on the British army at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, where over 1400 British soldiers were killed. During the ongoing Anglo-Zulu Wars, the British eventually established their control over what was then named Zululand, and is today known as KwaZulu-Natal Province. The British turned to India to resolve their labour shortage, as Zulu men refused to adopt the servile position of labourers and in 1860 the SS Truro arrived in Durban harbour with over 300 people on board. Over the next 50 years, 150,000 more indentured Indians arrived, as well as numerous free "passenger Indians", building the base for what would become the largest Indian community outside of India.
As early as 1893, when Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Durban, Indians outnumbered whites in Natal. The Boers meanwhile persevered with their search for land and freedom, ultimately establishing themselves in various Boer Republics, eg the Transvaal or South African Republic and the Orange Free State. For a while it seemed that these republics would develop into stable states, despite having thinly-spread populations of fiercely independent Boers, no industry, and minimal agriculture. The discovery of diamonds near Kimberley turned the Boers' world on its head (1869). The first diamonds came from land belonging to the Griqua, but to which both the Transvaal and Orange Free State laid claim. Britain quickly stepped in and resolved the issue by annexing the area for itself. The discovery of the Kimberley diamond-mines unleashed a flood of European and black labourers into the area. Towns sprang up in which the inhabitants ignored the "proper" separation of whites and blacks, and the Boers expressed anger that their impoverished republics had missed out on the economic benefits of the mines. Long-standing Boer resentment turned into full-blown rebellion in the Transvaal (under British control from 1877), and the first Anglo-Boer War, known to Afrikaners as the "War of Independence", broke out in 1880. The conflict ended almost as soon as it began with a crushing Boer victory at Battle of Majuba Hill (27 February 1881). The republic regained its independence as the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek ("South African Republic"), or ZAR. Paul Kruger, one of the leaders of the uprising, became President of the ZAR in 1883. Meanwhile, the British, who viewed their defeat at Majuba as an aberration, forged ahead with their desire to federate the Southern African colonies and republics. They saw this as the best way to come to terms with the fact of a white Afrikaner majority, as well as to promote their larger strategic interests in the area.
In 1879 Zululand came under British control. Then in 1886 an Australian prospector discovered gold in the Witwatersrand, accelerating the federation process and dealing the Boers yet another blow. Johannesburg's population exploded to about 100,000 by the mid-1890s, and the ZAR suddenly found itself hosting thousands of uitlanders, both black and white, with the Boers squeezed to the sidelines. The influx of Black labour in particular worried the Boers, many of whom suffered economic hardship and resented the black wage-earners. The enormous wealth of the mines, largely controlled by European "Randlords" soon became irresistible for British imperialists. In 1895, a group of renegades led by Captain Leander Starr Jamesonentered the ZAR with the intention of sparking an uprising on the Witwatersrand and installing a British administration. This incursion became known as the Jameson Raid. The scheme ended in fiasco, but it seemed obvious to Kruger that it had at least the tacit approval of the Cape Colony government, and that his republic faced danger. He reacted by forming an alliance with Orange Free State.
Conflict between the British government, which claimed sovereignty over those areas (since the settlers were legally British subjects), and the Boers culminated, after the discovery of gold in the Boer territories, in the South African War of 1899-1902, which brought Transvaal, led by President Paul Kruger, who had been a prominent Boer resistance leader against British rule, and Orange Free State definitely under British sovereignty. The situation peaked in 1899 when the British demanded voting rights for the 60,000 foreign whites on the Witwatersrand. Until that point, Kruger's government had excluded all foreigners from the franchise. Kruger rejected the British demand and called for the withdrawal of British troops from the ZAR's borders. When the British refused, Kruger declared war. This Second Anglo-Boer War lasted longer than the first, and the British preparedness surpassed that of Majuba Hill. By June 1900, Pretoria, the last of the major Boer towns, had surrendered. Yet resistance by Boer bittereinders continued for two more years with guerrilla-style battles, which the British met in turn with scorched earth tactics. By 1902 26,000 Boers had died of disease and neglect in concentration camps. On 31 May 1902 a superficial peace came with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging. Under its terms, the Boer republics acknowledged British sovereignty, while the British in turn committed themselves to reconstruction of the areas under their control. This had been an Imperial war as forces from all over the British Empire - Canadian, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians and British South Africans fought together to defeat the Boers.
British East Africa which became a protectorate covering roughly the area of present-day Kenya. It grew out of British commercial interests in the area in the 1880s and lasted until 1920, when it became the colony of Kenya. European missionaries began settling in the area from Mombasa to Mount Kilimanjaro in the 1840s, nominally under the protection of the Sultan of Zanzibar. In 1886 the British government encouraged William Mackinnon, who already had an agreement with the Sultan and whose shipping company traded extensively in East Africa, to establish British influence in the region. He formed a British East Africa Association which led to the Imperial British East Africa Company being chartered in 1888. It administered about 150 miles of coastline stretching from the river Tana via Mombasa to German East Africa which were leased from the Sultan. The British "sphere of influence", agreed at the Berlin conference of 1885, extended up the coast and inland across the future Kenya, and after 1890 included Uganda as well. However, the company began to fail, and on July 1, 1895 the British government proclaimed a protectorate, and in 1902 made the Uganda territory part of the protectorate also. In 1902, the East Africa Syndicate received a grant of 500 square miles in order to promote white settlement in the Highlands. The capital was shifted from Mombasa to Nairobi in 1905, and on July 23, 1920 the protectorate became the Kenya Colony. The high ground of the area made it far more suitable for settlement by white colonists than the colonies in the west. Once again, private companies under charter from the British government pioneered the way, establishing their control over Kenya in 1888 and Uganda in 1890. Somaliland came under direct control of the British government in 1884 and in 1890 Germany, which had already relinquished its interests in Uganda, ceded Zanzibar to Britain in exchange for Heligoland, an island off the German coast. After first losing to the Mahdi of Sudan in 1885, then a victory over him in 1898, a condominium between Britain and Egypt was established over the territory, known from then on as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. German East Africa was transferred to British administration by League of Nations mandate, and renamed as Tanganyika, in 1919, thus completing the Cape to Cairo route. Britain occupied and administered Italian colonies of Italian Somaliland and Eritrea from 1945 to 1952.
Click on this link to view a video of the history of early British colonialism in Kenya from an African point of view
The end of the nineteenth century saw the ‘Scramble for Africa’ with the annexation of large stretches of the African continent. In 1815, Britain had only toeholds in the Cape of Good Hope and in west Africa. In 1882,Britain occupied Egypt and the major African additions soon followed. The Berlin Conference of 1884 was a large meeting of European leaders to decide how to carve up Africa among the European powers. No Africans were represented or had any input. In 1889, Cecil Rhodes established the British South Africa Company which opened up the territory of Rhodesia and governed it until 1923. Throughout the 1880’s and 1890’s, Britain’s west African possessions were expanded and a great north-south corridor of British rule was created up the east side of Africa ultimately connecting the Cape of Good Hope with Egypt under the guidance of Cecil Rhodes and his ‘Cape to Cairo’ plan with the annexation of Rhodesia, Nyasaland, British East Africa, Somaliland and the Sudan. This ended with the annexation of the Boer Republics of theTransvaal and the Orange Free State on the conclusion of the Boer War in 1902. In 1910, these were united with the Cape Colony and Natal to form a new Dominion known as the Union of South Africa. Only German East Africa then stood in the way of the completion of this ‘Cape to Cairo’ corridor. In 1908, Britain laid claim to a large section of Antarctica, immediately south of the Falkland Islands. Australia also claimed part of the Antarctic in 1933.
It was said that the ‘sun never set on the British Empire’ because the empire was so vast and far-flung that it was never out of daylight somewhere. In 1904, celebration of Empire Day throughout the British Empire on 24 May, the late Queen Victoria’s birthday, began. Queen Victoria’s birthday was chosen for Empire Day as she was the sovereign who reigned over the largest expansion of the Empire during the 19th Century and she became the first Empress of India. The Empire Day holiday usually consisted of fireworks, parties, flags and patriotic songs. This lasted until 1958 when it was renamed as Commonwealth Day. In the 1970’s, Commonwealth Day was moved to the second Monday in March to mark a break from the imperial past. Empire Day continues to be celebrated in Canada as Victoria Day.
The Berlin Conference (German: Kongokonferenz or "Congo Conference") of 1884–85 regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period, and coincided with Germany's sudden emergence as an imperial power. Called for by Portugal and organised by Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany, its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, is often seen as the formalization of the Scramble for Africa. The conference ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity on the part of the European powers, while simultaneously eliminating most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.
Portugal - Britain The Portuguese Government presented a project known as the "Pink Map" in which the colonies of Angola and Mozambique were united. All the countries but United Kingdom agreed with this project. In 1890 the British Government, in breach of the Treaty of Windsor and of the Treaty of Berlin itself, launched an ultimatum forcing the Portuguese to withdraw from this area.
France - Britain A line running from Say in Niger to Baroua, on the north-east coast of Lake Chad determined what part belonged to whom. France would own territory to the north of this line, and the United Kingdom would own territory to the south of it. The Nile Basin would be British, with the French taking the basin of Lake Chad. Furthermore, between the 11th and 15th degrees longitude, the border would pass between Ouaddaï, which would be French, and Darfur in Sudan, to be British. In reality, a no man's land 200 kilometres wide was put in place between the 21st and 23rd meridian.
France - Germany The area to the north of a line formed by the intersection of the 14th meridian and Miltou was designated French, that to the south being German.
Britain - Germany The separation came in the form of a line passing through Yola, on the Benoué, Dikoa, going up to the extremity of Lake Chad.
France - Italy Italy was to own what lies north of a line from the intersection of the Tropic of Cancer and the 17th meridian to the intersection of the 15th parallel and 21st meridian.
The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference, since even within areas designated as their sphere of influence, the European powers still had to take possession under the Principle of Effectivity. In central Africa in particular, expeditions were dispatched to coerce traditional rulers into signing treaties, using force if necessary, as for example in the case of Msiri, King of Katanga, in 1891. Within a few years, Africa was at least nominally divided up south of the Sahara. By 1895, the only independent states were: Liberia, founded with the support of the USA for returned slaves; Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the only free native state, which fended off Italian invasion from Eritrea in what is known as the first Italo-Abyssinian War of 1889-1896. The following states lost their independence to the British Empire roughly a decade after: Orange Free State, a Boer republic founded by Dutch settlers; South African Republic (Transvaal), also a Boer republic.
By 1902, 90% of all the land that makes up Africa was under European control. The large part of the Sahara was French, while after the quelling of the Mahdi rebellion and the ending of the Fashoda crisis, the Sudanremained firmly under joint British–Egyptian rulership. The Boer republics were conquered by the United Kingdom in the Boer war from 1899 to 1902. Morocco was divided between the French and Spanish in 1911, and Libya was conquered by Italy in 1912. The official British annexation of Egypt in 1914 ended the colonial division of Africa. By this point, all of Africa, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia, was under European rule. Abyssinia (Ethiopia) was occupied by Italy in 1936.