Africa and the United Kingdom



Egypt under the British Influence

British rule over Egypt lasted from 1882, when the British succeeded in defeating the Egyptian Army during the Anglo-Egyptian War and took control of the country, to the 1952 Egyptian revolution that made Egypt an independent republic.

Learning Objectives

Describe changes in Egypt after the British began to take a strong interest in the country

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • British control of Egypt, which at first took the form of indirect and informal rule and later as an official protectorate, began in the 1880s.
  • In 1882 opposition to European control led to growing tension among notable natives, with the most dangerous opposition coming from the army. By June Egypt was in the hands of nationalists opposed to European domination of the country.
  • The British succeeded in defeating the Egyptian Army at Tel El Kebir in September and took control of the country.
  • The purpose of the invasion was to restore political stability and reinforce international controls which were in place to streamline European economic influence in Egypt.
  • 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 program of long-term investment in Egypt’s productive resources, especially the cotton economy, the mainstay of the country’s export earnings.
  • During British occupation and later control, Egypt developed into a regional commercial and trading destination.
  • In 1914, as a result of the declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire of which Egypt was nominally a part, Britain declared a protectorate over Egypt and deposed the anti-British Khedive, Abbas II, replacing him with his uncle Husayn Kamel, who was made Sultan of Egypt by the British.

Key Terms

  • Suez Crisis: An invasion of Egypt in late 1956 by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France. The aims were to regain Western control of the Suez Canal and remove Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power. After the fighting started, political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations led to a withdrawal by the three invaders. The episode humiliated Great Britain and France and strengthened Nasser.
  • Anglo-Egyptian War: An 1882 war between Egyptian and Sudanese forces under Ahmed ‘Urabi and the United Kingdom. It ended a nationalist uprising against the Khedive Tewfik Pasha and vastly expanded British influence over the country at the expense of the French.
  • Khedivate of Egypt: An autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman Empire, established and ruled by the Muhammad Ali Dynasty following the defeat and expulsion of Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces, which brought an end to the short-lived French occupation of Lower Egypt.

The history of Egypt under the British lasts from 1882, when it was occupied by British forces during the Anglo-Egyptian War, until 1956, when the last British forces withdrew in accordance with the Anglo-Egyptian agreement of 1954 after the Suez Crisis. The first period of British rule (1882–1914) is often called the “veiled protectorate.” During this time the Khedivate of Egypt remained an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, and the British occupation had no legal basis but constituted a de facto protectorate. This state of affairs lasted until the Ottoman Empire joined the First World War on the side of the Central Powers in November 1914 and Britain unilaterally declared a protectorate over Egypt. The ruling khedive was deposed and his successor, Hussein Kamel, declared himself Sultan of Egypt independent of the Ottomans in December 1914.

The formal protectorate over Egypt was brought to an end by the unilateral declaration of Egyptian independence on February 18, 1922. Shortly afterwards, Sultan Fuad I declared himself King of Egypt, but the British occupation continued in accordance with several reserve clauses in the declaration of independence. The situation was normalized in the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, which granted Britain the right to station troops in Egypt for the defense of the Suez Canal, its link with the Indian Empire. Britain also continued to control the training of the Egyptian Army. During the Second World War (1939–45), Egypt came under attack from Italian Libya on account of the British presence there, although Egypt itself remained neutral until late in the war. After the war Egypt sought to modify the treaty, but it was abrogated in its entirety by an anti-British government in October 1951. After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the British agreed to withdraw their troops and by June 1956 had done so. Britain went to war against Egypt over the Suez Canal in late 1956, but with insufficient international support was forced to back down.

Veiled Protectorate (1882–1913)

Throughout the 19th century, the ruling dynasty of Egypt spent vast sums of money on infrastructural development. However, in keeping with its own military and foreign origin, the dynasty’s economic development was almost wholly oriented toward military dual-use goals. Consequently, despite vast sums of European and other foreign capital, actual economic production and resulting revenues were insufficient to repay the loans. Consequently, the country teetered toward economic dissolution and implosion. In turn, European and foreign finances took control of the treasury of Egypt, forgave debt in return for taking control of the Suez Canal, and reoriented economic development toward capital gain.

However, by 1882 Islamic and Arabic Nationalist opposition to European influence and settlement in the Middle East led to growing tension among notable natives, especially in Egypt which then as now was the most powerful, populous, and influential of Arab countries. The most dangerous opposition during this period was from the Albanian- and Mamluke-dominated Egyptian army, which saw the reorientation of economic development away from their control as a threat to their privileges.

A large military demonstration in September 1881 forced the Khedive Tewfiq to dismiss his Prime Minister and rule by decree. Many of the Europeans retreated to specially designed quarters suited for defense or heavily European settled cities such as Alexandria.

Consequently, in April 1882 France and Great Britain sent warships to Alexandria to bolster the Khedive amidst a turbulent climate and protect European lives and property. In turn, Egyptian nationalists spread fear of invasion throughout the country to bolster Islamic and Arabian revolutionary action. 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, and the new revolutionary government began nationalizing all assets in Egypt.

Anti-European violence broke out in Alexandria, prompting a British naval bombardment of the city. Fearing the intervention of outside powers or the seizure of the canal by the Egyptians, in conjunction with an Islamic revolution in the Empire of India, the British led an Anglo-Indian expeditionary force at both ends of the Suez Canal in August 1882. Simultaneously, French forces landed in Alexandria and the northern end of the canal. Both joined together and maneuvered to meet the Egyptian army. The combined Anglo-French-Indian army easily defeated 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 was to restore political stability to Egypt under a government of the Khedive and international controls that 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 program of long-term investment in Egypt’s agricultural revenue sources, the largest of which was cotton. To accomplish this, Cromer worked to improve the Nile’s irrigation system through multiple large projects such as the construction of the Aswan Dam, the Nile Barrage, and an increase of canals available to agricultural-focused lands.

During British occupation and control, Egypt developed into a regional commercial and trading destination. Immigrants from less-stable parts of the region, including Greeks, Jews and Armenians, began to flow into Egypt. The number of foreigners in the country rose from 10,000 in the 1840s to around 90,000 in the 1880s and more than 1.5 million by the 1930s.

Gathering of Egyptian, Turkish and British royalty in 1911. Queen Mary seated and King George V standing at extreme right.

The Veiled Protectorate of Egypt: A gathering of Egyptian, Turkish, and British royalty in 1911. Queen Mary seated and King George V standing at extreme right.

South Africa and the Boer Wars

Ethnic, political, and social tensions among European colonial powers, indigenous Africans, and English and Dutch settlers led to open conflict in a series of wars and revolts between 1879 and 1915, most notably the first and second Boer Wars. These would have lasting repercussions on the entire region of southern Africa.

Learning Objectives

Explain the events of the Boer Wars and how they impacted the British role in South Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Transvaal Boer republic was forcefully annexed by Britain in 1877 as part of the attempt to consolidate the states of southern Africa under British rule.
  • Long-standing Boer (Dutch-speaking farmers) resentment turned into full-blown rebellion in the first Boer War, which broke out in 1880.
  • The conflict ended almost as soon as it began with a decisive Boer victory at Battle of Majuba Hill (February 1881), leading to the founding of the South African Republic.
  • The Second Boer War started on October 11, 1899, and ended on May 31, 1902. Great Britain defeated two Boer nations in South Africa: the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State.
  • The British were overconfident and under-prepared; the Boers were very well-armed and struck first, besieging Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking in early 1900 and winning important battles at Colenso, Magersfontein, and Stormberg.
  • Staggered, the British brought in large numbers of soldiers and fought back with overwhelming force, forcing the Boers to revert to guerrilla warfare.
  • The British solution was to set up complex nets of block houses, strong points, and barbed wire fences, partitioning off the entire conquered territory and relocating civilians into concentration camps. Many of the latter group died of disease, especially children, who mostly lacked immunity. This caused scandal in England.
  • The Boers were eventually defeated, leading to the absorption of South Africa into the British Empire as the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Key Terms

  • Boer: The Dutch and Afrikaans word for “farmer.” In South Africa, it was used to denote the descendants of the Dutch-speaking settlers of the eastern Cape frontier during the 18th century. For a time the Dutch East India Company controlled this area, but it was taken over by the United Kingdom.
  • apartheid: A system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination in South Africa between 1948 and 1991, when it was abolished.

South African Wars

Ethnic, political, and social tensions among European colonial powers, indigenous Africans, and English and Dutch settlers led to open conflict in a series of wars and revolts between 1879 and 1915 that would have lasting repercussions on the entire region of southern Africa. Pursuit of commercial empire as well as individual aspirations, especially after the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886), drove these developments.

The various wars of this era are usually studied as independent conflicts. They include the first and second Anglo-Boer War, the Anglo-Zulu War, the Basotho Gun War, the 9th Frontier War, and others. However, it is instructive also to see them as outbreaks in a far larger wave of change and conflict affecting the subcontinent,  beginning with the “Confederation Wars” of the 1870s and 80s; escalating with the rise of Cecil Rhodes and the struggle for control of gold and diamond resources; and leading up to the Second Anglo-Boer War and the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Background

The southern part of the African continent was dominated in the 19th century by a set of epic struggles to create a single unified state. British expansion into southern Africa was fueled by three prime factors: first, the desire to control the trade routes to India that passed around the Cape; second, the discovery in 1868 of huge mineral deposits of diamonds around Kimberley on the joint borders of the South African Republic (called the Transvaal by the British), the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony, and thereafter in 1886 in the Transvaal of a gold rush; and thirdly the race against other European colonial powers as part of general colonial expansion in Africa.

After the Battle of Blaauwberg, Britain had acquired the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa from the Dutch in 1815 during the Napoleonic Wars. Certain groups of Dutch-speaking settler farmers (“Boers”) resented British rule, even though British control brought some economic benefits.

The Trekboers were farmers gradually extending their range and territory with no agenda. The formal abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 led to more organized groups of Boer settlers attempting to escape British rule, some travelling as far north as modern-day Mozambique. The discovery of diamonds in 1867 near the Vaal River, some 550 miles northeast of Cape Town, ended the isolation of the Boers in the interior and changed South African history. The discovery triggered a diamond rush that attracted people from all over the world, turning Kimberley into a town of 50,000 within five years and drawing the attention of British imperial interests.

First Boer War

The First Boer War, also known as the First Anglo-Boer War or the Transvaal War, was fought from December 1880 until March 1881 and was the first clash between the British and the South African Republic Boers. It was precipitated by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, who annexed the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) for the British in 1877. The British consolidated their power over most of the colonies of South Africa in 1879 after the Anglo-Zulu War, and attempted to impose an unpopular system of confederation on the region, which resulted in protests from Boers.

Continued British indifference to Boer protests and increasing demands placed on the Boers triggered an all-out rebellion in late 1880. The issue that finally brought the conflict to a head was the seizure of a farm wagon over tax dues. The Boers held that the British seizure was illegal because they had never recognized the annexation of the Transvaal. 5,000 Boers assembled at a farm on December 8 and began deliberating a course of action. On December 13 they proclaimed the Transvaal’s independence and intent to establish a republican government, raising the Vierkleur, the old republican flag, and beginning the “war of independence.”

The battles of Bronkhorstspruit, Laing’s Nek, Schuinshoogte, and Majuba Hill proved disastrous for the British as they were outmaneuvered and outperformed by the highly mobile and skilled Boer marksmen. With the British commander-in-chief of Natal, George Pomeroy Colley, killed at Majuba, and British garrisons under siege across the entire Transvaal, the British were unwilling to further involve themselves in a war which was already seen as lost. As a result, William Gladstone’s British government signed a truce on March 6, and in the final peace treaty on March 23, 1881, gave the Boers self-government in the South African Republic (Transvaal) under a theoretical British oversight.

Second Boer War

The Second Boer War took place from October 11, 1899 – May 31, 1902. The war was fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (referred to as the Transvaal by the British). After a protracted, hard-fought war, the two independent republics lost and were absorbed into the British Empire.

The exact causes of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899 have been disputed ever since the events took place. Fault for the war has been placed on both sides. The Boers felt that the British intention was to again annex the Transvaal. Some feel that the British were coerced into war by the mining magnates, others that the British government manipulated the magnates into creating conditions that allowed the war to ignite. It appears that the British did not begin with the intention of annexation, but simply wanted to ensure that British strength and the regional economic and political stability of the British Empire remained unchanged. The British worried about popular support for the war and wanted to push the Boers to make the first move toward actual hostilities. This occurred when the Transvaal issued an ultimatum on October 9 for the British to withdraw all troops from their borders and recall their reinforcements, or they would “regard the action as a formal declaration of war.”

In all, the war cost around 75,000 lives — 22,000 British soldiers (7,792 battle casualties, the rest through disease), 6,000-7,000 Boer Commandos, 20,000-28,000 Boer civilians (mostly women and children due to disease in concentration camps), and an estimated 20,000 black Africans, both Boer and British allies alike.

The Boers fought bitterly against the British, refusing to surrender for years despite defeat. They reverted to guerrilla warfare under generals Louis Botha, Jan Smuts, Christiaan de Wet, and Koos de la Rey. As guerrillas without uniforms, the Boer fighters easily blended into the farmlands, which provided hiding places, supplies, and horses. The British solution was to set up complex nets of block houses, strong points, and barbed wire fences, partitioning off the entire conquered territory. The civilian farmers were relocated into concentration camps, where very large proportions died of disease, especially the children, who mostly lacked immunities.

The last of the Boers surrendered in May 1902 and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in the same month. The war resulted in the creation of the Transvaal Colony which in 1910 was incorporated into the Union of South Africa. The treaty ended the existence of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State as Boer republics and placed them within the British Empire.

The British rule of South Africa would have lasting impact throughout the 20th century. Among other harsh segregationist laws, including denial of voting rights to black people, the Union parliament enacted the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, which earmarked only eight percent of South Africa’s available land for black occupancy. White people, who constituted 20 percent of the population, held 90 percent of the land. The Land Act would form a cornerstone of legalized racial discrimination for the next nine decades, which reached its height during the period of apartheid from 1948-1991.

Photo of Boer soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes, armed with rifles and ammunition.

Boer Commandos: As guerrillas without uniforms, the Boer fighters easily blended into the farmlands, which provided hiding places, supplies, and horses.

Competition with France

During the Scramble for Africa, tensions between Britain and France were high. At several points the two nations reached the brink of war, but the situation was always diffused diplomatically.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the French and British Empires in Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the Scramble for Africa in the 1870s and 1880s, the British and French generally recognized each other’s spheres of influence. Their imperial aims were mainly complementary, except in some areas of vital importance that led to major conflict.
  • The British aimed to assert their influence on a North-South axis, from “Cape to Cairo,” as it was often called, from their colonies in South Africa to Egypt.
  • This dream was largely supported by Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman who served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.
  • On the other hand, the French aimed to dominate Africa on a East-West axis to have an uninterrupted link between the Niger River and the Nile, hence controlling all trade to and from the Sahel region.
  • These two aims intersected in Fashoda, which led to the climax of their conflicts in the Fashoda Incident.
  • In 1898, French troops tried to claim an area in the Southern Sudan when a British force purporting to be acting in the interests of the Khedive of Egypt arrived.
  • Under heavy pressure, the French withdrew and Britain took control over the area, leading to embarrassment for the French and an end to British-French conflict.

Key Terms

  • Entente Cordiale: A series of agreements signed on April 8, 1904, between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the French Third Republic, which saw a significant improvement in Anglo-French relations. Beyond the immediate concerns of colonial expansion addressed by the agreement, their signing marked the end of almost a thousand years of intermittent conflict between the two states and their predecessors.
  • Fashoda syndrome: A tendency within French foreign policy in Africa to assert French influence in areas that may be susceptible to British influence.
  • Fashoda Incident: The climax of imperial territorial disputes between Britain and France in Eastern Africa in 1898. A French expedition to Fashoda on the White Nile river sought to gain control of the Upper Nile river basin and thereby exclude Britain from the Sudan. The French party and a British detachment met on friendly terms, but back in Europe, it became a war scare. The British held firm as both nations stood on the verge of war with heated rhetoric on both sides. Under heavy pressure the French withdrew, securing Anglo-Egyptian control over the area.
  • Cecil Rhodes: A British businessman, mining magnate, and politician in South Africa who served as prime minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. An ardent believer in British imperialism, he and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), which the company named after him in 1895.

French-British Relations

During the late 19th century, Africa was rapidly being claimed and exploited by European colonial powers. After the 1885 Berlin Conference on West Africa, Europe’s great powers went after any remaining lands in Africa that were not already under another European nation’s influence. This period is usually called the Scramble for Africa. The two principal powers involved were Britain and France, along with Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.During this era, tensions were high between France and Britain, especially over African issues. At several points, these issues brought the two nations to the brink of war, but the situation was always diffused diplomatically. One brief but dangerous dispute occurred during the Fashoda Incident when French troops tried to claim an area in the Southern Sudan, and a British force purporting to be acting in the interests of the Khedive of Egypt arrived.

The French thrust into the African interior was mainly from the continent’s Atlantic coast (modern Senegal) eastward, through the Sahel along the southern border of the Sahara, a territory covering modern Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Their ultimate goal was an uninterrupted link between the Niger River and the Nile, hence controlling all trade to and from the Sahel region by virtue of their existing control over the caravan routes through the Sahara. France also had an outpost near the mouth of the Red Sea in Djibouti (French Somaliland), which could serve as an eastern anchor to an east-west belt of French territory across the continent.

The British, on the other hand, wanted to link their possessions in Southern Africa (modern South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Zambia), with their territories in East Africa (modern Kenya), and these two areas with the Nile basin. Sudan, which then included today’s South Sudan and Uganda, was the key to the fulfillment of these ambitions, especially since Egypt was already under British control. This proposed railway through Africa was made most famous by the British and South African political force Cecil Rhodes, who wanted Africa “painted [British] Red.”

A cartoon depicting Cecil Rhodes standing over Africa, with one foot in South Africa and the other in Egypt.

A cartoon depicting Cecil Rhodes standing over Africa, with one foot in South Africa and the other in Egypt.

Cecil Rhodes spanning “Cape to Cairo,” symbolizing the British imperial ambitions of the late 19th century.

If one draws a line from Cape Town to Cairo (Rhodes’ dream) and another line from Dakar to French Somaliland by the Red Sea in the Horn (the French ambition), these two lines intersect in eastern South Sudan near the town of Fashoda (present-day Kodok), explaining its strategic importance. The French east-west axis and the British north-south axis could not co-exist; the nation that could occupy and hold the crossing of the two axes would be the only one able to proceed with its plan, leading to the Fashoda Incident (discussed below).

During the 1870s and 1880s, the British and French generally recognized each other’s spheres of influence. The Suez Canal, initially built by the French, became a joint British-French project in 1875, as both saw it as vital to maintaining their influence and empires in Asia. In 1882, ongoing civil disturbances in Egypt (Urabi Revolt) prompted Britain to intervene, extending a hand to France. France’s expansionist Prime Minister Jules Ferry was out of office, and the government was unwilling to send more than an intimidating fleet to the region. Britain established a protectorate, as France had a year earlier in Tunisia; popular opinion in France later considered this duplicity. It was about this time that the two nations established co-ownership of Vanuatu. The Anglo-French Convention of 1882 was also signed to resolve territory disagreements in western Africa.

Fashoda Incident

The Fashoda Incident was the climax of imperial territorial disputes between Britain and France in Eastern Africa in 1898. A French expedition to Fashoda on the White Nile river sought to gain control of the Upper Nile river basin and thereby exclude Britain from the Sudan. The French party and a British detachment met on friendly terms, but back in Europe, it became a war scare. The British held firm as both nations stood on the verge of war with heated rhetoric on both sides. Under heavy pressure the French withdrew, securing Anglo-Egyptian control over the area. The status quo was recognized by an agreement between the two states acknowledging British control over Egypt, while France became the dominant power in Morocco. France had failed in its main goals. P.M.H. Bell says:

“Between the two governments there was a brief battle of wills, with the British insisting on immediate and unconditional French withdrawal from Fashoda. The French had to accept these terms, amounting to a public humiliation…Fashoda was long remembered in France as an example of British brutality and injustice.”

It was a diplomatic victory for the British as the French realized that in the long run they needed the friendship of Britain in case of a war between France and Germany. In March 1899, the French and British agreed that the source of the Nile and the Congo rivers should mark the frontier between their spheres of influence.

The Fashoda incident was the last serious colonial dispute between Britain and France, and its classic diplomatic solution is considered by most historians to be the precursor of the Entente Cordiale. It gave rise to the Fashoda syndrome in French foreign policy, or seeking to assert French influence in areas that might be susceptible to British influence.

A map of central and east Africa, 1898, during the Fashoda Incident. It shows the various spheres of influence of different European powers, a North-South line indicating the British ambitions and a East-West line indicating French ambitions.

Fashoda Incident: Central and East Africa, 1898, during the Fashoda Incident.