The Games Empires Play

Mohammed Ali, the Turkish governor who wrested control of Egypt from the tyrannical Turkish Mameluke Slave Dynasty in 1811, is credited with many successes –  the introduction of Arabic as a language for the first time being one of them, but the Suez Canal was not one of them. It was his son, Said, who came to power in 1854 who saw the power of building a canal to connect the two bodies of water.

The French had been eager to build such a canal to thwart Britain‘s imperialism ever since Napoleon’s “sojourn” in Egypt but it was Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat’s friendship with Said Pasha that finally sealed the deal. Half the money for building the canal came from France and Said Pasha put up another 60 million francs. And Britain did all it could to prevent it from being built.  After 10 years and two million cubic miles of excavated earth and rock, the Suez Canal was ready. The year was 1869 and the East and West were linked forever.

Said Pasha’s descendants lavished Egypt with European and American weapons, buildings, piped water, gas and even Italian opera! Soon they bankrupted the country and in a desperate bid to shore up their finances, sold their majority stake in the Suez Canal to Britain! From having no part in the project, Britain suddenly became the main shareholder … And when Ismail Pasha proved to be a handful, Britain and France prevailed on the Sultan in Istanbul to simply replace him.

In the 1870’s, nationalism swept through Europe. First came the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel – the King of Piedmont – ably assisted by Cavour, his Prime Minister and Giuseppe Garibaldi, his general. Next came the reunification of the Germanic states, orchestrated by Otto von Bismarck who made the King of  Prussia the German Emperor, William I.

The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles. Bismarck appears in white. The Grand Duke of Baden stands beside Wilhelm, leading the cheers. Crown Prince Friedrich, later Friedrich III, stands on his father's right. Painting by Anton von Werner.

And so there it was – the birth of another European nation with imperialist aspirations, just like England and France. A thirst for new territories to invade, occupy or annex made Bismarck lead the three into a contest for what later came to be called “the Scramble for Africa”.

The first Europeans to establish settlements in Africa were the Portuguese in the 15th Century in what is now Angola and Mozambique. In the 19th Century more Europeans came to map out the vast continent and by the end of the century the Europeans had charted the length of the Nile, the Congo, the Zambezi and the Niger … And realized the vast resources available to them in Africa.

The empires needed cheap raw materials like gold, copper, tin, cocoa and diamonds from Africa. They needed to sell their manufactured goods to their colonies and they needed military bases to protect their sea routes, maintain communications lines and to build coaling stations to fuel their new steam ships.

By 1881 France had occupied Tunisia, parts of western Africa and a portion of Congo. Britain had occupied Ottoman Egypt, its critical Suez Canal and later Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Cape Colony and Transvaal. Italy took possession of Eritrea,  Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (modern Libya). Leopold II of Belgium took possession of the rest of Congo and unleashed a reign of terror on its colonized people reportedly killing eight million people. And Germany took control of Togoland, Kamerun, a part of Southwest Africa (now Namibia) and in the East – Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

In the last 59 years of the 19th century, the imperialists stopped pretending to be traders with military influence and took up direct rule of their occupied territories. The Industrial Revolution had given European armies machine guns and other superior weaponry. It was an unequal fight the African rulers and states had no hope of winning.

By the end of the 19th Century Europe had acquired 9,000,000 square miles of Africa. That included nearly the entire African continent except EthiopiaLiberia, and Saguia el-Hamra. Above is a French map of Africa c. 1898 showing colonial claims: British possessions are in yellow; French possessions in pink; Belgian in orange; German in green; Portuguese in purple; Italian in striped pink; Spanish in striped orange; independent Ethiopia in brown. Britain got the lion’s share of the population and France a fraction more of land.

Tensions between the various imperial powers in Europe finally exploded in the First World War. Germany’s African colonies in the west were not well protected and soon Kamerun fell to the British, French and Belgian combined forces. The British enlisted the help of the Boers in South Africa to defeat the Germans in Namibia. German East African colonies could not be defeated by the British but by then Germany had surrendered in the World War and her African colonies were divided up between England, France and Belgium.

The years after the First World War was a time for the Europeans to consolidate and build more effective colonial administrations; for Africa it was a time to call for more say in how things should be run. Political activity and movements began but then came the Second World War. Africa decided to put aside her grievances and make a military contribution. When the Second World War ended it was Africa’s turn to fight for their own freedom.


When India won her Independence in 1947, the inspiration for self-rule roiled through the imperial colonies. Everywhere in Africa the mood was one of hope for a society free of European control. At first there were only three independent countries – Liberia, founded by freed slaves that declared itself independent in 1847; Ethiopia, a nation never colonized by any European power; and Egypt who gained independence in 1922.

In 1951, war-worn Italy gave up Libya; Egypt gave up control of Sudan forcing England to grant her freedom in 1956. Morocco and Tunisia gained freedom from France soon after. A Pan-African movement later saw 15 other countries gain their freedom in quick succession including Malawi, Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya.

In the West, America wanted an end to colonialism in order to gain free and easy access to African markets. On the other side, the Soviet Union wanted an end to capitalism and colonialism to spread its own Communist ideology. The mighty Empires may have crumbled but the “games” they played continue to this day.

“Andre has a red flag, Chiang Ching’s is blue
They all have hills to fly them on except for Lin Tai Yu
Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games
Hiding out in tree-tops shouting out rude names
Whistling tunes we hide in the dunes by the seaside
Whistling tunes we piss on the goons in the jungle.
It’s a knockout!
If looks could kill they probably will
In games without frontiers-wars without tears”

Games Without Frontiers, Peter Gabriel

 

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One response to “The Games Empires Play

  • devaki

    the map shows a good representation of the control that all these other countries had over countries in africa, and you did a great job of explaining their story. 🙂
    I enjoyed your looonng continuations of this story 😉

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