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READ: African Resistance to Colonialism

The initial resistance to colonialism in Africa often took the form of military confrontations. This article discusses three of these campaigns, which had different results.

African Resistance to Colonialism

Painting depicting a battle with lines of soldiers on both sides. Those on the right wear green uniforms and red and green hats while those on the left wear stripped clothing.
By Trevor R. Getz
The initial resistance to colonialism in Africa often took the form of military confrontations. This article discusses three of these campaigns, which had different results.


Historians of Africa have lots of debates about the nature of colonialism, but two things are clear: colonialism caused a great deal of change, and the vast majority of that change was not good for Africans. For that reason, Africans, like other people around the world who found themselves under foreign rule, found ways to resist.
However, we need to think clearly about African resistance to colonialism. It is easy to imagine people constantly fighting guerilla wars. In reality, this kind of resistance is difficult, if not impossible, for big populations. Instead, the evidence points us towards a few overall conclusions about resistance to colonial rule:
  1. Most resistance wasn’t really aimed at something big and abstract like “colonialism.” Instead, acts of resistance were usually prompted by some new colonial policy – like taking away land, or forcing people to pay a tax, or forcing them to work for free on roads or railways.
  2. Most people under colonialism lived their lives normally until a policy like this came about. Then they resisted the policy as much as possible. But whether they won or lost, they returned to their lives as best as they could afterward.
  3. Most resistance is invisible to us today. It didn’t take the form of big battles or dramatic campaigns. It happened when workers slowed down their work, or people gave fake directions to visiting colonial officials and got them lost, or clerks sabotaged or lied on forms. Things like this don’t often appear in documents or records, but they probably happened a lot.
However, that does not mean societies didn’t use military campaigns to resist colonialism; they often did, at least in the beginning of a colonial conquest. Military resistance also emerged in many cases when, after the conquest, conditions became particularly difficult or people organized around a particularly skilled or charismatic leader. And if you were just about to ask for three examples of this sort of resistance, this is your lucky day!

The Battle of Adwa

By 1895, Europeans were rushing to claim African colonies across the continent. In northeast Africa, the Italians saw an opportunity to conquer the vast, fertile territory of Ethiopia. They had already occupied some territory along the coast, and they hoped both to build their national reputation and to use Ethiopia as a place to resettle poor, landless Italians. Never mind the fact that Ethiopia was already fully populated by a vast and multi-cultural state led by Emperor Menelik II. The Italians first tried to trick Menelik by having him sign a treaty that said different things in Italian than in Amharic (the main language of Ethiopia). They also tried to divide Ethiopians with promises that appealed to ethnic minorities such as the Oromo people. When this failed, however, they sent an army to conquer Ethiopia.
Map of Northeast Africa with lines showing territorial divides between coastal British, coastal Italian and inland Abyssinian land, of which Abyssinia is the largest.
An 1899 map of Northeast Africa shows Italian and British territory along the coast, as well as independent Ethiopia, which is labelled “Abyssinia”. Public domain.
Emperor Menelik II responded immediately. He was helped immensely by the Empress Taytu, who was both strongly suspicious of the Italians and had relatives among the Oromo. Taytu reportedly stated that “we will slaughter those who come to invade us. There is no Ethiopian who will not plant his feet in the sand and face death to save his country.”
Together, Menelik and Taytu managed to mobilize the entire nation. They brought together an army of 100,000 men from all of the ethnic and religious groups of Ethiopia and all of the regions. Meanwhile, Ethiopian peasants melted into the forests and harassed the approaching Italian army. On March 1, 1896, the two armies met at Adwa. The Italians were divided into three groups, each of which was surrounded and attacked by Ethiopian cavalry, artillery, and finally infantry. By 9:30 in the morning, the Italian force had been defeated.
Photo of a yellow tapestry divided into three levels with each showing a battle with horses, soldiers, guns, and spears.
An Ethiopian tapestry depicting the Battle of Adwa. Original by Joshua Sherurcij, updates by Zheim.

Samori Ture

In densely populated West Africa, many different states and independent societies resisted colonialism. One important example of military resistance came from the Mandinka state led by Samori Ture. Samori, as he is known, was a Muslim leader although – unlike many other resistance leaders – he was not himself a trained religious figure. He also did not inherit a kingdom. Rather he created one himself: the Wassoulou Empire.
Engraved portrait of Samori Ture, a bearded man wearing a traditional Muslim garb.
Samori Ture (c. 1830–1900), founder of the Wassoulou Empire. © Getty Images.
Samori managed to bring together two powerful groups – long-distance trading merchants and traditional rulers in the region. Samori had become a soldier as a young man in the 1840s, and he waged a military campaign in the 1860s and 1870s, before Europeans really began to push into the interior of West Africa. By the 1880s, he had created a military state that allowed for religious freedom and supported trading in the region. It had an army of 30,000 to 40,000 men.
When the French first began to push into his territory in 1881, Samori did try to negotiate. He also pursued a strategy to balance the British and the French against each other. He was a careful student of the military, and constantly tried to update his weapons. Unfortunately, he had no artillery. Thus, his forces were defeated in several battles. As a result, he agreed to a treaty with the French that gave them some of his territory in return for peace. However, the French military consistently broke this treaty and encouraged Samori’s people to rebel against him. Therefore, Samori was forced to fight the French again. In 1892, the French army and Samori’s army waged a huge battle that was very closely fought, but eventually Samori was defeated.
At this point, Samori decided to uproot everyone in his empire. Burning everything man-made behind him, he moved his entire population eastward. However, this brought him into conflict with the British as well. The French eventually captured him in 1898, after he had fought them off for almost eighteen years.


In East Africa, resistance to colonial invasion in the 1890s was at first very fragmented. For example, in Tanganyika, the Germans fought campaigns against coastal city-states like Kilwa and large communities in the interior. Along the coast, a Muslim leader named Abushiri defended his city by attacking the Germans with 8,000 men in 1888. However, this kind of fragmented resistance was not strong enough to stop the well-organized and well-armed German forces.
By 1905, Tanganyika was largely under German rule and about 300 settlers had taken over much of the best land. Many of the indigenous people had been turned into poorly paid laborers who also had to pay taxes. Many were required to work for free on cotton plantations for twenty-eight days a year. As resentment grew, a prophet named Kinjikitile Ngwale used religion to unify people of different communities. He claimed that God had told him that if everyone unified and fought for their freedom, their ancestors would return to help them. He built a large shrine, and soon attracted followers from many different communities – as many as twenty ethnic groups, according to some accounts. Many leaders of the movement told their people that they would be immune from German bullets. One, Selemani Mamba, told his followers: “We shall not die. We shall only kill”.
German bullets, however, proved deadly. In a few mass battles, the Tanganyikans were badly defeated. As a result, the mass uprising was relatively short lived. But because conditions were so bad, resistance nevertheless continued. New groups, including a number of Muslim brotherhoods, joined in. The strategies of the rebels became more effective. They turned to ambushes and guerilla warfare to make German weapons less effective. In the end, German forces managed to put the rebellion down, but it took two years. Perhaps as many as 100,000 people were killed.
A gruesome battle scene of armed rebellion against German colonial soldiers and the indigenous population in East Africa.
A German depiction of events in the Tanzanian uprising sometimes known as the Maji Maji Revolt. © Getty Images.


In the early period of formal colonialism in Africa, military resistance could sometimes be effective, but this was rare. In general, Europeans had the weapons and organization to defeat African armies and conquer their societies. Overt battles like this subsided for much of the next half-century, while subtler, more underground types of resistance endured. But military resistance reemerged strongly after the Second World War, when changing global politics and new weapons and tactics made it possible for Africans to eject Europeans from the continent.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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