European Colonization of Africa

Europeans turned their attention to the colonization of Africa in the 1800’s. First they merely explored, then they began to trade (including the slave trade), and finally they wanted to control.  Some historians have called this human desire to conquer and control the “Conquest Paradigm”.  Nearly every nation and people on Earth has participated in this philosophy and behavior, not just the Europeans.

The Conquest of Africa

Slowly various European nations explored, then claimed, nearly all of Africa. Some of the first to go in were Christian missionaries with the result that now much of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is Christian.

This is the early settlement of Leopoldville. It was founded by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley in 1881 as a trading post. He named it after King Leopold II of Belgium who personally owned the territory the city was located in. Today the city is called Kinshasa and is the third largest city in Africa.

In some instances Europeans governed well, but in most cases, the opposite was true. The native Africans were treated horribly. The Belgians under King Leopold II were particularly bad, exploiting the resources and the people of the area they controlled mercilessly. But the Europeans weren’t the only ones causing grief to Africa at this point. The Arabs relentlessly attacked small villages, murdering many in their quest for slaves. The Africans themselves weren’t all virtuous either though. Many tribes warred on their neighbors in order to gain captives to sell to Arab or European slavers.

This is a picture based on a story told by the explorer Livingstone of Arab slave traders who would kill their captives if they became too tired or weak to keep up on the march from central Africa to the east coast of Africa.

Library List

All of these books are affiliate links, but we’ve read and enjoyed them all; we wouldn’t recommend them otherwise.  It can be a little tough to find information about this time period, especially for kids.  One great book is Leopold II: Butcher of the Congo.  This is part of the fascinating “Wicked History” series.

Also look for biographies of David Livingstone, the famous explorer and Christian missionary. He was a truly great man, who loved and did his best to understand the Africans he met.


Get some background information from an encyclopedia or online.  We like the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History.  Kingfisher is a little more in depth than the Usborne.  We use both constantly in our homeschool.

Map of African Colonies

Then color a Scramble For Africa map showing the colonies divided between European powers.

Additional Layers

  • Learn more about the major biomes in Africa: Savannah, Jungle, Desert, and Mountain. What animals and plants live in these places?
  • Compare the colony map you drew with a modern map of Africa. Can you see how some of the modern boundaries got their shape?
  • Learn more about the major religions of Africa: Christianity and Islam are the two biggies, but there are many tribal beliefs still practiced there.
  • Read some tales and fables of Africa. One story book we like is Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain. We also love tales of Anansi the Spider.
  • Some famous books for high school and up that take place in Africa include Tarzan of the Apes, King Solomon’s Mines, and Heart of Darkness. All three take place during the age of European exploration of Africa.
  • Think more about the conquest paradigm.  What has been the normal relation of humans between one another through history?  Generally people have accepted that if you are strong enough to take it, then it is yours.  This has been true of peoples as diverse as African tribes, the German Reich, American Indians, Chinese Emperors, and nomads of Central Asia.  In the modern day, philosophers have rejected this paradigm. The first to do so were the Enlightenment thinkers of Europe, who really based their ideas on Christian teachings.  The first people to put it into practice was the United States of America.  And though it still exists today, as we see Islamic militants and Russian troops make war on their neighbors, it is not the prevalent philosophy of the west.

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