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The British and Others in Africa

The British were the second people to be interested in Africa, for the Spaniards lost interest after they tried, but failed, to conquer the Muslims of Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis. The British had always been rather friendly with the Portuguese -- their great prince, Henry the Navigator, was half an Englishman, for he was a cousin of our Henry V. Englishmen went with Portuguese sailors on some of the early voyages to the west coast of Africa. But when Spain annexed Portugal, England felt free to act strongly.

Elizabeth gave charters to merchants, who laid the foundations of our colony on the Gambia River, and trading companies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries spread English trade and made English settlements.

And yet not much, at that time, came of these activities. The climate prevented the growth of English-speaking provinces in Africa like those in America, while the strong African states prevented great tracts of country and millions of people from falling under the companies' rule, as was happening in India. By the end of the eighteenth century it did not look as if the English would ever rule much of West Africa.

Englishmen were, in fact, much more interested in buying Africans than ruling them. It was not in search of colonies, but in search of slaves, that they went to the Guinea coast and the Niger country. The merchants who had gone to West Africa for spices found it more profitable to buy people and carry them over the Atlantic. The quickest way to a fortune was by engaging in the slave trade. Sir John Hawkins, a typical seaman of Elizabeth's time, has the unpleasant distinction of being the first who traded in African slaves under the British flag, a practice of which few people thought ill in those days.

The Muslims on the east coast had for a long time captured and sold slaves. Charles V (Luther's time) arranged to supply African slaves to the Spanish colonists in South America, as the natives there were dying out and other labourers were wanted to take their places. But it was not until the British had colonies in the hotter part of America that the slave trade reached its height, for the Spaniards tried to keep the supply of slaves for their colonies in their own hands. When Britain obtained some of the West Indies, and had prosperous cotton-growing estates in America, she had a great slave traffic with our own colonists. In the eighteenth century about two million slaves were shipped over.

Even in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the British possessions in Africa were only a few small settlements on the west coast. For Britain did-not set out to conquer an African empire at the beginning of the nineteenth centurey any more than in the sixteenth.

Time after time men who had been anxious to spread British rule, thinking it less cruel than that of the native princes and less intolerant than the rule of other white races, were snubbed for their pains if they were private citizens, and sometimes disgraced if they were officials.

But if this be true, why did Britain come to win so much in the end? Because British influence did not depend only or chiefly on what the government happens to wish. Because British explorers, sportsmen, traders, and missionaries pushed through unknown parts of Africa, some to see if the old stories about mighty rivers and cities were really true, some to shoot big game, some to sell goods from Manchester, some to stop the slave trade, and some to preach the Gospel.

All these motives made Britons wander farther and farther into the interior. Then, when quarrels broke out, and perhaps white men were murdered, Britain felt obliged to protect its subjects, to restore order, or to save trade.

And so by degrees much of the continent of Africa came under British rule.

“Satan will object, Thou art a great sinner. We may answer, Christ is a strong saviour.”
–Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax