French African v British African

Colonial Days of Future Past:

A Brief Examination of British African rule and French African rule

The African continent cannot escape the colonial legacy left behind by European powers between the 18th-20th centuries. The European powers divided and colonized the African territory rapidly in the late 1800s, called by scholars the “scramble for Africa.” In 1870, 10 percent of Africa was under European control; by 1914 it had increased to almost 90 percent of the continent. The only African territories to avoid colonization are Ethiopia (Abyssinia), the Dervish state (present-day Somalia) and Liberia. This time period (late 19th to mid 20th century) is also known as the period of New Imperialism.

To understand and contextualize the magnitude of the colonization of Africa, you need not look any further than the present day geographical map of the world; with a few exceptions, the entire African continent and its borders remain identical to when the European powers (Belgium, Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal) convened in 1884 in Berlin, Germany to officiate the dividing process. This became known as the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 and it regulated European colonization and trade in Africa and can be seen as the formalization of the great scramble.

These seven European nations implemented different policies and practices in governing and enforcing the rule of law over their territories. Britain and France followed two very distinct approaches in establishing law and the use of force, the spreading of culture and ideologies, education and organization of the cities. These differences contributed to the development of an entire history worth of culture that bleeds into the present.

In the book ‘Things Fall Apart,’ Chinua Achebe tells the story of pre- and post-colonial life in the late 19th century Nigeria. The book stands as a testament to how the colonial legacy sculpted the destinies of billions of human beings. Nigeria was colonized by Britain and became a British protectorate in 1901. Colonization lasted until 1960, when an independence movement succeeded in gaining Nigeria its independence. Life for Africans under colonial rule can be divided into three distinct time periods: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial.

The British Empire established its colonial practices based on trade and mining. Scholars have named the British style “indirect rule” whereby the British allowed the colonists to be ruled by natives who established a hierarchy of European officials alongside the native administration. The British divided some 33,000 square miles of land with populations up to 2,000,000. ‘Residents’ were appointed who essentially acted as mini-kings that acted as judges, mayors, police captains, etc. This “not only functions wells, it operates at a low cost,” explains Derwent Whittlesey in the January 1937 edition of Foreign Affairs.


Photo: OXOSI

Additionally, Britain maintained a small contingent of British (male) colonial masters dispersed among their territories. 1,300 were in Lagos, the capital of British West Africa, and hundreds more were spread out. The white population amounted to 11,000 people among these English colonies; the men stayed about 18 months at time.

The majority of infrastructure (trains, police, army, hospitals, schools) were operated by Africans with minimal British supervision. The British raised a local volunteer army, and when not occupying the army was used for drilling and mining. The British did not require the people under their rule to learn the English language. This led to shortages of literacy among the ruled.

The French theory of colonial rule involved assimilating Africans towards the French way of life and French attitudes and ideologies. “France is in Africa to make Frenchmen out of the Africans,” explains Whittlesey. This is has been called “direct rule” by scholars. The French viewed their possessions as an extension of France. “All land is French, except that which an individual African registers with the French authorities,” Whittlesey writes. The French sent some 12,000 Frenchmen to govern their larger territories. The total white French population was 31,000 in these territories.

Educating (brainwashing/manipulating) the population was of great importance for the French colonies; the imposed education systems required all Francophone African children to learn the French language, alongside French customs and traditions. Churches therefore encouraged Africans to adopt Christianity. Additionally, forced conscription into the military was adopted for 5 year terms. 200,000 West Africans fought for France/Allies in Europe and North Africa during World Word II.


The French invested more resources into their colonies because it was reasoned that their territories were extensions of their country. With more structural involvement meant a greater involvement in society and the daily lives of their colonists. The French Empire expected Francophone Africans to die for France, if required. Interestingly, French citizenship was offered although it is unknown how many Francophone Africans became French citizens.

French is a dominant language in Africa (Niger, Cameroon, Gabon, Benin, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso all speak the French language). Understanding how contemporary Africans speak and use language is integral in understanding the greater legacy of colonialism as well as the theories that formed British rule and French rule. As an example, African words are not often interspersed in their French. In contrast, Ghanaians usually do not speak anything resembling the “King’s English.” Pidgin English is used or their native language is used.

It is worth noting that there are noticeable idiosyncrasies between Francophone African women and French women in the same way that there are idiosyncrasies between Anglophone African women and English women (further case studies: reference South Africa/Algeria). This cannot be understated: an entire continent’s culture (both past, present, and future) is tangled in this colonial legacy.