The Question of Africa


[The Independent, February 23, 1918]

The greatest territorial stake in the war is Africa. "Whichever side "wins and however complete the victory there will be no very extensive changes of boundaries in Europe. Asia Minor may be more altered, but Asia Magna, the two Americas, and Australasia will not be materially affected. But the entire continent of Africa is involved in the war and the larger part of it may form the victor's spoils. The partition of Africa had been accomplished, with the exception of Abyssinia, just before the war, but now the map may be altogether rearranged.

All countries now realize the potential value of tropical possessions as sources of raw materials and visions of Africa dazzle the eyes of the Chauvinists of every nationality. The Germans dream of establishing in Africa "an enticing Garden of Eden for all the Germanism on the earth which is weary and opprest and has had its courage broken in this unhappy world-catastrophe by English and North American persecution." To quote further from Herr Zimmermann in the November Preussische Jahrbucher:

The Great War will establish the development of mankind for the next hundred years. If it makes Central Africa German, fifty years hence, 500,000 and more Germans can be living there by the side of 50,000,000 blacks. Then there may be an army of 1,000,000 men in German Africa, and the colony will have its own War Navy like Brazil. It will be a valuable ally for South America against North American aggressions, and with such a sphere of power the United States will have to reckon.

On the other hand the British press and Government have declared that never again shall any of the poor natives be put back under German tyranny. Italy, as we learn from the secret treaty, published by the Bolsheviki, was promised by England and France a free hand in Abyssinia, the last of the independent African states, except Liberia. But recently there has been growing a conviction that the African question might be settled in some better way than "the good old rule, the simple plan that those should get who have the power and those should keep who can." The British Labor Party last year published and approved the plan of Morel's pamphlet, "Africa and the Peace of Europe," which proposes putting all the central African colonies under the permanent control of a League of Nations. This proposal was brought forward in the House of Commons, May 16, 1917, by Commander Wedgwood as follows:

Is there not a possibility of safeguarding the situation and yet safeguarding the face of the German nation by internationalizing the tropic colonies in Africa? It seems to me that if the Germans give up the same area as we gave up, and the French gave up, and also the Belgians,, and the Portuguese, possibly, and you put that area as a belt right across Africa, under international control, preferably with an American executive head, so that every nation could trade alike in that area and the blacks would be treated with the greatest possible consideration, as they always are treated by the Americans—because after all the Philippines are possibly better run under America than are the best of our colonies—you will safeguard the native races and at the same time prevent that scrambling for raw materials coming from tropical Africa which exists at the present time.

The Bolsheviki propose to treat the African savages the same as the Alsatians and Poles and have them settle their sovereignty by a popular referendum. This is reducing democracy to an absurdity. Equally absurd and equally characteristic of the opposite type of mind is the German counter proposal that certain African tribes having fought on the side of the Germans, this fact should be regarded as conclusive proof of their desire to remain subjects of the Kaiser. Hardly less absurd is Lloyd George's proposal that the native chiefs should decide the question of the future of the country. In the old days it was easy for German, British or French agents to get native chiefs to sign away any desired territories for a handful of gewgaws and a bottle of rum. That is the way Africa was formerly partitioned, but both the Premier and the President now agree that the African claims ought to be settled by an impartial international conference with special reference to the interests of the natives.

We must recognize three facts:

First, that Africa cannot much longer remain in savagery. All the waste places of the world will have to be cleared up and their natural resources developed by industry and spread by commerce for the benefit of every land.

This may be done by one nation, by various nations or by international organization.

Second, that the uncivilized natives of Africa cannot, in their present state of development, be expected to compare the various types of administration, existing or-proposed, and determine which would be to the greatest advantage to their posterity and. the outside world. The question of sovereignty must be settled soon and settled for the present by Europe and America with little help from Africa.

Third, as the President says, "in determining such questions of sovereignty the interests of the population must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined."

This points the way to a settlement of the African problem by some sort of international organization. Whether this organization shall determine merely the fate of the German colonies or whether it shall consider other readjustments conducive to peace or whether it shall assume permanent jurisdiction, of part or all of central Africa are questions yet to be answered. The seven powers that have taken part in the colonization of Africa are England, France, Spain, United States, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Portugal. These of course should have seats around the council table, but probably also an invitation should be extended to other belligerent or neutral powers. There should also be representatives of Union of South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, Tripoli, Liberia, Abyssinia and other African countries, which can send spokesmen qualified to set forth their interests. Such a conference called after the war might be actuated by more soberness and less selfishness than the African conferences in which America formerly took part, that of Berlin in 1884 and that of Algeciras in 1906. Altho Africa affords the greatest danger of international conflicts it also offers the best opportunity for international adjudication, for the continent is still so sparsely settled and the boundaries still so elastic that rival claims can be adjusted by compromise without the wrongs and resentment that would follow such readjustments in Europe.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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