E. Belfort Bax


(28 July 1888)

E. Belfort Bax, Africa, Commonweal, 28th July 1888, p.3. (leading article)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We are witnessing to-day a striking phenomenon in the history of the middle-class world – to wit, the struggle among the European nations over the partition of Africa. It seems strange that the great continent lying immediately south of Europe, so much nearer the home of civilisation than America, not to speak of Australia and other regions of the Antipodes, should, up till our own time, have remained not merely in the undisputed possession of its aboriginal inhabitants, save for one or two trifling exceptions, but should have been to a great extent unexplored. Whatever the causes why civilisation has until recently neglected the greater part of the “dark continent” in favour of the “new world;” of remote parts of Asia and the Southern seas, civilisation seems determined to make up for it now by extending its blessings under every variety of national flag over the whole of those benighted regions. England has been for the last ten years steadily working up from the south, absorbing territory after territory , Germany has within a year or two seized the enormous region of the Cameroons (so-called) on the East coast; Portugal, hard by, seeks to establish claims hitherto vague, and for the most part merely nominal. If we carry our eye further North we come to Zanzibar, where several Powers are struggling for supremacy. Further north still, in Abyssinia and on the Red sea coast, Italy is openly preparing to make annexations; while in the Northern Soudan and Egypt, the future lies visibly between the hands of England and France. That Tripoli will one of these days be united to the French dependency of Algiers there is little doubt, only provided that the Italian Government does not forestall such a move. Morocco, which is also at present independent, is being jealously eyed by half-a-dozen vulture-States, the balance of chances being probably in favour of Spain. The Northern half of the West Coast is for the most part absorbed by settlements of various powers, England largely preponderating, while Portugal occupies most of the coastline between the equator and the tropic of Capricorn. To the north of the latter the new Congo State opens out into the interior, a “vague potentiality” (as Carlyle might have expressed it), a hideous cancer, at present merely embryonic and sluggish, but liable to become virulent and throw out at any moment ramifications which may eat the heart out of Central Africa.

Should any one unversed in the matter take up the map of Africa after reading the above statements, he may experience a feeling of anti-climax – as though I had been exaggerating the state of affairs – when he surveys the great white mass representing the bulk of an enormous continent comprising millions of square miles, as yet untrodden by the European. Let him reflect, however, on the rapidity with which capitalism advances – let him think of the convergence from all sides of the coast upon the interior, of expeditions of all kinds and sizes, and he will begin to realise that the “civilising” of Africa is by no means a very remote contingency. Given a Trans-Continental railway from the Congo to Zanzibar, and the end of Barbaric Africa is only a question of a few years. This railway it is true is not talked of yet, but one into the Congo territory is, and if unhappily Mr. Stanley and his expedition should ever come safely to hand, there is little doubt that it will be begun before long, and from this to the Zanzibar railway spoken of and to the complete reduction of Central Africa under the sway of modern capitalistic exploitation is a very measurable distance indeed.

Few people probably realise what the opening up of Africa means It means this: untold mineral, vegetable, and animal wealth placed at the disposal of the modern commercial system; a new world of markets; limitless cheap labour; practically boundless territories for emigration; etc., etc. Russia has just completed the conditions of the opening up of Central Asia. But Central Asia is a poor region, sparsely populated, inhospitable and worthless, compared to Central Africa (understanding by this term the whole of the interior of the African continent).

The problem presents itself, What influence will the new territories now beginning to be tapped – first and foremost among which stands that new world its itself, Africa – have on the course of economic development? This is undoubtedly one of the crucial questions in all speculations as to the immediate future of the human race. It is all very well to talk about the modern system of production and distribution breaking down by its own weight. This would be true enough if it could not gather strength from anywhere, but unfortunately it can do so, and its votaries are actively preparing the conditions by which, as far as may he, it shall do so. It is hardly going too far to say that the hope of the present commercial system lies in Africa There are parts of Asia, extensive territories in some cases, parts of America, and islands in the southern seas, all of which may, and probably will be, sucked in; but the mainstay of capitalistic hopes lies in Africa. I do not wish to be pessimistic or to dash the hopes of enthusiasts, still less to dogmatise in matters economic, when I confess the dread possibility does present itself to me occasionally of the capitalistic world taking a new lease of life out of the exploitation of Africa. How long or how short that lease may be, if it obtains at all, none can say. We know the Social Revolution is written in history in terms which are hidden in no cryptogram. But the time when the change shall come is not within the bounds of human science to foresee. This is that secret which the day shall reveal when it comes, and which no genius can make known beforehand. We meet beware of confounding the Logical with the real sequence of things. Logically the principle of Individualism has reached its extreme limits in the nineteenth century – is played out, in fact. The next definite stage in human evolution must be the beginning of Socialism. But it is quite conceivable, to say the least; that the present stage should be prolonged in a slightly changed form even for another century by means as these indicated in the present article.

E. Belfort Bax


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