Direct/Indirect Colonial Management

Foncha Ahidjo, West Cameroon (1960)

Foncha Ahidjo, West Cameroon (1960)

The European powers each managed their holdings differently, but the most utilized strategies were Indirect Rule and Assimilation, by the British and French colonies. Employed by the British, Indirect rule sought to dictate from London, and rule through local (loyal) “chiefs.” The French sought to assimilate Africa into their empire, and disseminate the French culture to Africans. The Portuguese, in contrast, made no effort at a teaching Africans to read, and literacy rates generations later reflect that—in 1945, less than 1 person in 100 in the Portuguese colonies could read.[1] The continent would be subject to European rule, save for countries of Liberia and Ethiopia which maintained their independence and self-governance.

The method of ‘Indirect rule’ was favored by the British, whereby the native group is left to administer locally. Chiefs were appointed, usually men loyal to the Empire, as Africa’s indigenous leaders were prone to capture and imprisonment. These chiefs were subjects to the Empire, installed by British Administrators to collect taxes and conscript labor for road and rail building projects, in addition to maintaining local order. In their role as agents of the empire, the chiefs would bear the brunt of local criticism for policies and mandates crafted in the colonial capital or elsewhere and acted as a buffer against anti-colonial sentiment; the chiefs were seen as transgressors, locally, for British crimes mandated upon them.[2] Africans were seen as a lesser species, and though Britain had ended its role in the Atlantic Slave Trade, their managers ruled with racism in mind. The British though that the ‘inferior’ African people, could never attain the level of culture and sophistication of a European nation, and preferred their arrangement with Africans to be one of master and servant.

The French chose to adopt the attitude of ‘assimilation’ in their colonial holdings. They incorporated their African colonies into their Empire, and sought to share the French culture, which they viewed as enlightened. [3] They allowed for any African to become a French citizen, by virtue of adopting French ways and customs. The French established schools to aid in literacy, and allowed for travel to France and education in universities. Exhibiting none of the racism of the United Kingdom’s colonial endeavors, the French also allowed representation in their national assembly. In Senegal, communes were established in Gorée, Dakar, Rufisque, and Saint-Louis[4] which exemplified their attempt at integrating the French culture into Africa, although most Africans living outside the communes had no access to schools. Davidson notes that by 1926, fewer than 50,000 out a regional population of 13 million acquired the status of French citizen.[5]  Many Africans, retained their native customs, and carried on their traditional way of life. However the culture was pervasive enough that the Franc survives as the currency and French as a predominant language, more than fifty years after Senegalese nationhood.[6]

The most devastating method of management from this time period employed by all European powers was the development of the cash-crop, or monoculture. These crops, exclusively for export, were grown to the exclusion of the regions basic food needs, and are responsible for famine to this day. In his book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” Walter Rodney illustrates how “in Gambia rice farming was popular before the colonial era, but so much of the best land was transferred to groundnuts that rice had to be imported on a large scale to try and counter the fact that famine was becoming endemic.”[7] This was a practice repeated all throughout Africa, and left Africans vulnerable not only to famine, but the ravages of crop failure and international price fluctuations.[8] According to Rodney, these land use practices are responsible for rendering the continent “helpless in the face of capitalist manoeuvres.”[9]

[1] Basil Davidson, “Modern Africa, 3rd Edition” 1994.

[2] Amii Omara-Otunu, Lecture, University of Connecticut, September 24th, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Maelenn-Kégni Touré “Black Past – Four Communes of Senegal (1887-1960)” accessed October 7, 2013:

[5] Basil Davidson, “Modern Africa, 3rd Edition” 1994, page 38.

[6] The CIA World Factbook, Entry “Senegal” accessed October 7, 2013:

[7] Rodney, Walter, and Abdul Rahman Mohamed Babu. 1974. How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Washington: Howard University Press.

[8] Amii Omara-Otunu, Lecture, University of Connecticut, September 24th, 2013.

[9] Rodney, Walter, and Abdul Rahman Mohamed Babu. 1974. How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Washington: Howard University Press.

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