home | history

Impulse to empire in North and West Africa, 1830-80

In 1830, France invaded Algeria, took power in its capital city, Algiers and rapidly took control of other coastal communities. The French claimed it was a civilizing mission. In 1840 more French troops arrived, and they described Algeria as an outlet for France's surplus population and a needed market for France's manufactured products in exchange for Algerian agricultural products.

Bordering Algeria to the west was Morocco. For centuries the Moroccans had succeeded in fighting off potential foreign rulers, including the Ottoman Turks. Now the Moroccans were supporting their Muslim brothers in Algeria fighting the French intrusion. Morocco's sultan recognized that a shift in military strength now favored the Europeans. He had wanted peace and trade with Europe in order to modernize his realm. But the war in Algeria spilled into Morrocco. Three months later the Moroccans were forced to agree to the Treaty of Tangiers that recognized the French sovereignty over Algeria. Morocco's stability was reduced. It fought a losing war with Spain in 1859-60. European countries demanded economic concessions and intervened to protect their investments.

By the 1850s the French were also active in the extreme west of Africa. Commercial interest inspired the establishment of inland forts along the Senegal River. The French clashed with and conquered the Kingdom of Waalo (today Senegal and Gambia), and in 1860 they established civil administration and banking in the area around the Senegal River that France would control.

In the 1850s, French investors, in cooperation with Egyptians, were pursuing the creation of a 106-mile long canal between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, a canal that was opened for navigation in 1869, with access promised the ships from all nations for a fee. Giuseppe Verdi wrote an opera for canal's opening celebration: the opera Aida.

The canal provided British merchant and warships a shorter route to India and points farther east, including Australia.

Britain still had Egypt's Ottoman rulers (in name at least) as an ally. Britain's major concern was stability in the region.

Britain's interest in international trade included it buying the Danes on the Gold Coast (on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa). There the British created a colony in 1867. In the early 1870s the British bought out the last of the Dutch and Danish trading forts and established a trading monopoly in the area. The British moved inland and fought a war against the Kingdom of Asante, which claimed jurisdiction all the way to the coast. The British won. The Asante people were shocked and their kingdom destabilized, with civil wars and rebellions to follow in the years to come.

Meanwhile, the French lost its war with Germany (the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71) but continued with its interest in empire. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878 the French were offered rule in Tunisia and Britain obtained control of Cyprus. French forces spilled into Tunisia eastward from Algeria in 1881. The king (or bey) of Tunisia accepted the imposition, but the French had to battle an insurrection in the south of the country. It was defeated in a few months. The British accepted French rule in Tunisia while the Italians protested in vain.

During the 1870s economic depression arrived in Europe, and the British became more concerned over their ability to trade internationally. With older machinery, British felt threatened by the rising economies and the newer machinery of the Germans, French and the United States. Britain wanted to continue as "the workshop of the world." Financial houses in Britain favored more control in international affairs. Some manufacturers involved in large-scale exports such as metals and textiles turned to their government for help. Missionaries and religious organizations agreed that in non-European societies more control should be applied. The conservative Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister in 1874 for the second time, and he pursued British interests abroad with a new vigor, promising Britain more imperial grandeur.

Through Disraeli's manipulations, the British managed to acquire shares in the enterprise that had belonged to the Ottoman's viceroy to Egypt, Ismail Pasha. Pasha had borrowed from international bankers and had exhausted his credit, and in 1876 he declared Egypt as bankrupt. In response, Britain and France set up a Joint Control Board to regulate Egypt's economy, creating cost-saving measures for Egypt such as reducing the size of its army. Many Egyptian army officers lost their jobs, creating resentment among them toward the British and French.

By 1880 there was still an economic depression, and many in Britain were unhappy with Disraeli for having raised taxes and unhappy over the cost of military operations. The liberal William Gladstone launched his election campaign for another go at being prime minister. He promised to reverse the Conservative Party’s jingoistic, imperialist foreign policy, and he spoke of favoring peace, liberty and fairness. His Liberal Party won a substantial majority in Parliament, which returned Gladstone as prime minister.

In Egypt, a member of the Egyptian army, Ahmad Urabi, led a revolt against Ottoman rule. He was a galvanizing speaker and hostile toward Europeans in Egypt. A new constitution and parliament were formed. It demanded that Egypt control its own finances. By late June 1982, powers on the European continent were treating the Urabi regime as an accomplished fact. But British foreign policy refused to deal with Urabi. The British demanded that Urabi withdraw from Egypt's government. There were riots in Alexandria and Britain used the riots as an excuse to move warships into Alexandria’s harbor. French warships also came. More rioting resulted in the deaths of something like 50 Europeans, and the British ships unleashed their big guns and bombarding coastal forts.

The revolt led by Urabi was a threat to Britain's prestige — British prestige an issue in India and elsewhere in the East. (A claim exists that protecting the Suez Canal as the issue in 1882 is been an exaggeration.) The Gladstone government may also have been a concerned about British public opinion, which was wedded to imperial prestige. And it has been mentioned that by 1872 37% of Gladstone’s personal wealth was invested in Egyptian stocks, but that Gladstone would forsake his convictions for paltry personal gain is easily doubted. He was opposed invading Egypt into late March 1882. The invasion began in July. Professor Dan Halvorson of the Griffith Asia Institute offers his opinion:

Alarmed by the potential hostility an Egyptian nationalism posed, Prime Minister Gladstone reluctantly agreed to commit troops to rescue the deteriorating situation. Thus, a ‘crisis on the periphery’ precipitated a British presence in the region to restore order, secure property rights, protect ‘Christian’ life from harm’s way and safeguard the strategically important passage to India.

In September, 1882, the British army defeated Urabi's army at the Battle of Tell al-Kabir, thirty miles south of Cairo. The British losing 57 killed, 382 wounded and 30 missing. Then the army occupied Cairo, where it captured Urabi. The British tried him on December 3 and sentenced him to death, but it was thought best to change the sentence to exile in Ceylon.

The British stationed some of their troops at the Suez Canal. They re-established the friendly Tewfiq Pasha as the Ottoman viceroy to Egypt, and they made themselves responsible for Egypt's external relations. Queen Victoria spoke of the viceroy as having no army and only a few utterly unreliable police. There was concern among the British about protecting Egypt's Christians. Exercising her power to consult with and advise the government on matters of war and peace, Victoria complained that for the sake of a "more dignified position" British troops should remain in Egypt. "Once any troops are withdrawn," she complained, "we shall have no pretext for replacing them."

As Egyptians were to see it, their country had become a colony, with Egypt importing British manufactured goods and exporting to Britain its raw cotton.


Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.