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Colonial Wars that Shaped Africa for Independence

By Sebastiane Ebatamehi

Many years before the speeches and declarations that led to Ghana’s independence in 1957, there were revolutions, uprising, and wars between African tribes (or countries) and colonial powers. Often termed ‘rebellions’ when retold in history, these revolutions were resistance against slavery and colonialism.

Critics continue to contest what they argue as a conscious effort by western historians and scholars to promote misinformation by terming the wars won by the colonial masters as ‘victories’ and those won by Africans as ‘massacre’.

In the 1600s and 1700s, European powers such as the Dutch, the British, and the French began to take interest in Africa as a means to supply slaves to their American colonies. They brokered treaties with various local rulers along the West African coast and continued to oversee mass exodus of slaves from Africa up until the early 1800s.

As expected, the Africans were unwilling to work as slaves both in the continent and abroad; thus, the colonial era was filled with many conflicts and battles, the outcomes of some of which wound up having greater historical implications other than simply who was victorious.

Every uprising was more determined than the last, and although it led to many deaths, it shaped Africa for what was to come and planted the seed of independence. Critics believe that these revolutions helped to keep hope alive in rejecting colonialism. 

According to history, the first colonial wars in Africa occurred between the Portuguese and various coastal inhabitants as the former sought to expand its trading empire with Asia in the early 14 century. Despite their efforts, the Portuguese conquistadors were only able to establish limited territorial holdings in Sub-Saharan regions due to tropical disease and organized resistance from African warriors armed with iron weapons.

Here are some of the noteworthy battles that took place during the colonial era in Africa:

Battle of Adwa (March 1, 1896, in Ethiopia)

The crushing defeat of Italian forces at the hands of Ethiopian King Menilek’s troops is one of the first decisive victories by African forces over a European colonial power. 

Menilek’s victory gave him significant credibility with other European countries and bolstered his mandate at home, both of which helped to provide a period of peace in Ethiopia that allowed the country to flourish.

Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–36, in Ethiopia)

Almost four decades later, the sequel. Italy may have thought that it finally had vengeance when Italian forces invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and annexed the country the following year, but their unwelcomed stay was relatively short-lived, as World War II Allied powers liberated the country in 1941. 

This conflict is often considered to be one of the episodes that prepared the way for World War II. It demonstrated the weakness of the reigning international body at the time, the League of Nations, which could do little more than condemning the invasion and impose sanctions on Italy…sanctions that were largely ignored by other countries and therefore ineffectual.

Anglo-Zulu War (1879, in Southern Africa)

The British defeat of Zulu King Cetshwayo’s forces marked the end of an era of powerful Zulu kings. It also resulted in the Zulu kingdom being incorporated into British colonial holdings, eventually as part of the province of Natal, which later became the modern-day South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Gun War (1880–81, in Southern Africa)

The Sotho peoples’ victory over the Cape Colony is one of the few examples in Southern African history of black Africans’ winning a conflict with colonial powers in the 19th century. 

It’s also the reason why the country of Lesotho is surrounded by the country of South Africa, rather than being a part of it: because Basutoland (as Lesotho was then known) remained independent of the Cape Colony, it was not included when that colony and three others formed the Union of South Africa in 1910.

South African War (1899–1902, in Southern Africa)

The war between Great Britain and the Boer (Afrikaner) republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State, which ended with British victory and annexation of the two Boer republics, is noteworthy for several reasons. Here are just a few:

 -It was the largest and most costly war that the British fought during the 19th century.

 -It provided a preview of the type of warfare that would come to characterize World War I.

 -It was a war fought between two groups of white peoples—the British and the Dutch-descended Boers—in the subcontinent with a largely black African population that both sides generally sought to exclude from the fighting, although black Africans were certainly negatively impacted by the conflict.

 -The two annexed Boer Republics would, with the British colonies of Cape and Natal, later form the Union of South Africa in 1910, the forerunner of today’s Republic of South Africa.

Angolan War of independence (4 February 1961 – 1974)

The Angolan War of Independence, called in Angola the Luta Armada de Libertação Nacional, began as an uprising against forced cultivation of cotton, and it became a multi-faction struggle for the control of Portugal’s overseas province of Angola among three nationalist movements and a separatist movement.

The Portuguese arrived in present-day Angola in 1483. In the 17th and 18th century, Angola became a major Portuguese slave-trading area. The Portuguese government officially abolished the slave trade in 1836, and from 1885 to 1930 Portugal suppressed local resistance and consolidated its colonial control over the country. 

The Angolan independence war broke out in March of 1961 when revolts on coffee plantations against forced labor and inhumane working conditions left thousands dead. Among the groups taking up arms for independence were Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA); the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which was formed in 1958 and received financial and military support from the CIA, China, and the Congolese government; and the United Peoples of Angola (UPA) who launched their military actions from Zaire and merged with the FNLA in 1962. 

Mau Mau Uprising (1952 – 1960)

The Mau Mau uprising began in 1952 as a reaction to inequalities and injustices in British-controlled Kenya. The response of the colonial administration was a fierce crackdown on the rebels, resulting in many deaths. By 1956 the uprising had effectively been crushed, but the extent of opposition to the British regime had been demonstrated and Kenya was set on the path to independence, which was finally achieved in 1963.

Anglo-Ashanti wars (1824 – 1901)

The Anglo-Ashanti Wars were a series of five 19th-century conflicts that took place between 1824 and 1900, between the Ashanti Empire—in the Akan interior of the Gold Coast—and the British Empire and its allies. The wars resulted in the establishment of the British Gold Coast.

Between 1823 and 1873, the Ashanti Empire resisted British encroachment on their territory. … The Ashanti rebelled against British rule and the Empire was again conquered in 1896. After yet another uprising in 1900, the British deposed and exiled the Asantehene and annexed the Empire into their Gold Coast colony in 1902.

Kongo-Wara Rebellion (1928 – 1931)

The Kongo-Wara rebellion, also known as the War of the Hoe Handle and the Baya War, was a rural, anti-colonial rebellion in the former colonies of French Equatorial Africa and French Cameroon which began as a result of recruitment of the native population in railway construction and rubber tapping.

The Kongo-Wara rebellion was a widespread, though unsuccessful, the anticolonial uprising in the western and southwestern parts of the colony. After it was suppressed, its leaders were imprisoned and executed and populations of Central Africans were forcibly relocated to colonially designated villages.

Somali Land Campaign (1900 – 1920)

The Somaliland campaign also called the Anglo-Somali War or the Dervish War was a series of military expeditions that took place between 1900 and 1920 in the Horn of Africa, pitting the Dervishes led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan against the British. 

The fifth expedition of the Somaliland campaign in 1920 was the final British expedition against the Dervish forces of Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (often called the “Mad Mullah” derogatorily by the British), the Somali religious leader. Although the majority of the combat took place in January of the year, British troops had begun preparations for the assault as early as November 1919.

The British forces included elements of the Royal Air Force and the Somaliland Camel Corps. After three weeks of battle, Hassan’s Dervishes were defeated, bringing an effective end to their 20-year resistance.

Source(s): Britannica, Wikipedia, sahistory.co.za, Wikidata

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