4 AUGUST 1961, Page 20


Why Africa was Grabbed


THIS brilliantly objective analysis of the motives of British statesmen and their official advisers while Africa was being partitioned be- tween 1880 and 1900* is a deeply interesting and stimulating contribution to imperial history. Drawing primarily upon British and French public archives as well as upon the private papers of Gladstone, Salisbury, Rosebery and Joseph Chamberlain, the authors reach conclusions which are clearly and boldly stated, and they show skill in throwing facts and ministerial decisions into perspective while eliminating super- fluous narrative.

Mr. Ronald Robinson, fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, and lecturer on the expansion of Europe, and Mr. John Gallagher, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and lec- turer in history, with Alice Denny (Mrs. Robin- son), are not concerned about the ethics of im- perialism, or about African history, or about the long-term effect upon African tribes and nations of European conquest and exploitation. Their approach is ruthlessly empirical, and after studying the policy-makers' grammar they pro- ceed to construe their texts and to expose the few permanent factors in a large variety of suc- cessive local situations. They claim to have stripped those factors of an encrustation of sym- bolism and myth; and they conclude that 'from start to finish the scramble to partition tropical Africa was driven by the persistent crisis in Egypt.'

Throughout the nineteenth century. British statesmen regarded overseas expansion as much more than a physical necessity imposed by in- dustrial surpluses and shortages. They were con- vinced that they owed a duty to humanity to spread their gospel of progress as widely as pos- sible. Believing that moral improvement and intellectual enlightenment attended the growth of prosperity, and that all three depended upon political freedom, expressed in terms of private enterprise, and upon economic freedom, ex- pressed in terms of free trade, they used their prestige and the pull of their technology to spread their influence to the ends of the earth. They preferred to achieve their goals indirectly, but were prepared to use force when necessary, and they lent aid and comfort to rebels in South America, Texas, Greece, Belgium, Hungary and Italy.

The British were not the first and have not been the last people to project their image as a universal ideal, and they suffered the usual dis- illusionments. The Chinese and Ottoman em- pires, for example, mocked their blandishments and repelled their approaches; and the Indian empire, which they had conquered during the previous century, and which rested upon military might and State enterprise instead of upon in- fluence and laisser-faire, contradicted cardinal elements in their creed.

* AFRICA AND THE VICTORIANS. By Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher. with Alice Denny. (Macmillan, 45s.)

The existence of that Indian paradox did not trouble pragmatic Englishmen, who consoled themselves with theories of benevolent trustee- ship on behalf of the twin bastion of their wealth and strength. Statesmen discovered that power derived from India was useful, not merely in extending British trade and influence in the Far East and in the Antipodes, but also in freeing themselves from inconvenient trammels imposed by democratic pressures at home. The Indian taxpayer, with half the British army billeted permanently upon him, bore the whole of the cost of his own occupation; and in all global considerations of policy the security of the sea lanes linking India with the British Isles held the first priority. Every other consideration was subordinated to that primary objective, and before 1882 the huge unopened land mass of the African continent barely interested British statesmen because no threat had yet developed to the security of the vital sea lanes.

In 1882 a dramatic and extraordinary reversal occurred in British policy towards Africa. Against all precept, tradition and prejudice the British proceeded first to invade and occupy Egypt and, subsequently, the Sudan; then to stake out claims to a huge new tropical African empire; and finally to wage a full-scale and very costly sub-continental war in South Africa in order to smash what was popularly known as `Krugerism,' and to reduce to subjection two white anti-British Boer republics. Speaking at Glasgow -iii, May, 1891, when that new policy had already been pushed nearly half-way through, Lord Salisbury exclaimed: '1 do not exactly know the cause of this sudden revolu- tion, but there it is.' He added vaguely that it was 'a great civilising, Christianising' mission.

Is it conceivable that Lord Salisbury's charac- terisation of the motive for that sudden and puzzling reversal of British policy was the true one? Or was that motive instead, as most people believe today, an onset of arrogant imperialist ambition and of the corrupting lure of the profits and glittering pomps of governing Africa? Or was it, perhaps, as the authors of this fascinating book claim to have proved, an instinctive and cold-blooded application by British Ministers of rules for national safety, handed on by Pitt, Palmerston and Disraeli, to perilous situations created by upsurges of Egyptian and Boer nationalism which threatened British sea com- munications with India at their most sensitive points?

Discounting platform and parliamentary speeches, Messrs. Robinson and Gallagher have analysed in detail the actions of Ministers, their private correspondence and the minutes which they exchanged with their permanent officials in order to deduce the true motives for every British advance undertaken in Africa during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. They find that north of Rhodesia 'the broad impera- tive which decided which territory to reserve and which to renounce, was the safety of the routes to the East'; and that in South Africa the need to conserve British influence by satisfying the territorial demands of self-governing colonials was an important additional motive.

That negative objective of safeguarding the sea routes to India had been pursued successfully before 1880 without annexations of territory upon any significant scale. Influence and co- operation with other powers had secured strategic points in North Africa; and control of coastal regions had sufficed in the South The great change was caused by Arabi Pasha's nationalist revolt against the Khedivt. in 1882, which threatened the Suez life-line by plunging Egypt into anarchy, and by the unprecedented and fantastic rise of the Transvaal to an eco- nomic supremacy, based upon gold and diamonds, which threatened to pull the whole of South Africa out of its British orbit

The nationalist outbreak in Egypt caused Gladstone to embark upon an action which was so much out of character as to have ap- peared incredible if it had not occurred. He dispatched an army to capture Cairo and ordered church bells to be pealed in London in celebration of the victory of Tel-el-Kebir. He had planned to withdraw immediately after liberating the progressive and chastening the dis- ruptive elements, and the bitter disappointment which he suffered when he found that retreat was impossible helped to drive him into formal personal retirement for a time.

Failure to reconcile the nationalists or to dis- cover an adequate number of collaborators among members of the charming but idle and incompetent Egyptian ruling class preceded failure to allay French fears. The accident of a political convulsion in France had prompted England to launch the invasion on her own, and the unappeasable jealousy and hostility aroused in Paris switched European rivalries into Africa overnight. Thereafter the scramble to partition tropical Africa raged, by a leapfrogging process, un- checked until 1900 when nothing more was left to divide; and the tensions provoked among the European powers became a contributory cause of the partition itself. The British, who continued to nurse their traditional obsession about the Cape and Suez sea routes to India, were haunted also by a well-founded apprehension that the long-term balance of world power was being transformed inexorably to their disadvantage.

British statesmen were engaged throughout the nineteenth century in the lordly task of engineer- ing their country's expansion, and despite ap- pearances to the contrary the outlook of the late Victorians was not more imperialistic than that of their predecessors. The enormous and disproportionate additions made between 1880 and 1900 to the amount of red splashed upon maps was, by comparison with the earlier period, an empty and superficial achievement. Vast re- gions were annexed which added little or nothing to British wealth and strength, and the formal partition of Africa preceded its invasion by European planters, traders and officials Ministers had publicly justified the extension of territorial claims with appeals to imperial pride,' and with promises of African progress; and 'after 1900 something had to be done to fulfil those aspira- tions, when the spheres allotted on the map bad to be made good on the ground.'

Such in brief outline is the argument, and the authors, being young, regret that 'the old men who sat at the head of affairs—as old men usually do'—should so often have been 'fuddled' and short-sighted. They emphasise the detach- ment of patrician Ministers and officials from African realities, and from the opinions of 'the man in the street and the man in the Stock Ex- change'; and they exaggerate, I think, the sig- nificance of the fact that policy 'was still made at house parties' by 'peers and great landowners' who shared an esoteric code of honour 'with the aristocratic castes of Europe.' Ministers and bureaucrats may be aristocrats or commissars, but will always appear detached to some extent from the masses affected by their decisions. They are liable to suffer from an occupational disease and, in the search for objectivity, historians, too, have to guard against the risks of excessive intellectual detachment.

Gladstone complained constantly in public about 'the fiend of Jingoism' which he believed

to be incarnate in some of his colleagues and most of his opponents; and he complained pri- vately and with good reason that Queen Victoria —that mirror of her age—was an even greater 'Jingo' than Disraeli. I have always thought that in addition to 'Jingoism,' and to traditional con- siderations of national safety which the authors stress here above all others, a pure spirit of ad- venture inspired most decisions taken between 1880 and 1900 to advance in Africa. Those de- cisions were taken by Ministers who, despite a weight of years, retained the hearts of school- boys; but that, I must emphasise, is a purely personal impression; and this exciting and impor- tant book is of outstanding and quite exceptional interest.