One thing that I always wondered is during the time where European powers were dividing up the world amongst themselves (1500-1900 roughly), why was it that Africa seemed to lag behind in colonization, compared to other continents such as the Americas?

  • Actually during the Age of Dicovery, Spain and Portugal divide the world by a treaty but never used it entirely. America was the main continent to be colonized, the others being only used as trade exchanges until 19th century Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 9:53

8 Answers 8


In fact during the Age of Discovery, Africa had been the principal objective.

It really begins with Prince Henry the Navigator, a son of the King of Portugal who had an intense fascination with Africa. In particular he was taken with the legend of Prester John, said to be a descendant of one of the Three Magi who presided over a magical land with marvels such as the Fountain of Youth. Prince Henry believed Prester John's kingdom to lay in Africa, somewhere around Ethiopia. He felt if the Portuguese could find a sea route around the Muslims they could find this fantastic land. Plus, he wanted to know where the African gold was coming from, and find a way to stop pirate attacks against Portugal.

Henry's passion led him to gather together some of the leading mapmakers and to seek out innovative ship designs and navigation techniques, with the objective of developing the technology of exploration for purposes of sea travel along the West African coast. He sponsored expeditions to nearby islands and down the coast until they achieved a route around the Sahara Desert. This enabled the establishment of a mercantile trade in slaves and gold.

Building on these discoveries, the Portuguese pressed on to East Africa and eventually India, and established a strong monopoly over the trade routes they established.

Spain also wanted in on the action, but the monopolies over the African routes didn't give them many options, until Columbus and his crazy ideas came along.

Columbus was from Genoa in North Italy but since childhood had been bouncing around the Mediterranean and Atlantic on various trading expeditions, eventually getting involved in some of the West African Portuguese trading. During this time he had been self-educating with whatever books he could find. He came up with some rather novel (and wrong) ideas including a misunderstanding of the exact size of the Earth. Like so many engineering errors, it was a units error: He used the shorter Roman mile instead of the Arabic mile, resulting in a circumference of 30,200 km rather than 40,000 km. He further estimated Asia as much larger than in actuality, and believed in the existence of the mythical land of Antilla with its Seven Cities.

So, due to compounding of various misconceptions and errors, Columbus underestimated the distance from the Canaries to Japan as 3,700 km, rather than the true distance of 19,600 km (or 12,000 km if North America didn't exist). He applied to the Portuguese king, but his experts correctly rejected his estimations as too low. Plus, the Portuguese had just discovered an eastern route to Asia thanks to Bartolomeu Dias, so what did they need Columbus' far-fetched ideas. The Spanish monarchs, looking for some sort of advantage in the European trade struggles but also doubting his calculations, weren't so picky. And thus America was discovered. Fortunately Columbus understood how the Trade Winds worked or he'd have never returned.

Spain had an advantage of a surplus of experienced soldiers following the Reconquista, although many of these adventurers were organized as mercenary groups and had history been different could well have been expected to sign on with the Portuguese.

Shortly thereafter it became clear that Spain and Portugal would be fighting over the new discoveries. With the Church's help the Treaty of Tordesillas was established in 1494, essentially giving Portugal rights to Africa and Asia and parts of South America, and Spain rights to most of North America and the rest of South America.

This did enable Portugal to colonize Africa, which they attempted in Angola, Mozambique, etc. Portugal also established a ton of small trading forts and territories along their trade routes, much as Spain was attempting in the New World.

The difference was germs. In Spain's case, whereever they landed the natives would contract European diseases and begin dying off in greater and greater numbers. They failed to find the valuable trade routes they were after, but found that enslavement of the locals and colonization could return similar profits. With the European diseases depopulating the natives and primitive firearms giving a military edge, Spain found that small numbers of European colonists could dominate large amounts of land. Portugal's holdings on the other hand were filled with people not nearly as susceptible to European diseases, and while they attained rather amazing routes eastward as far as Japan, they never managed to establish strong enough colonies to displace the natives; the one exception of course being their South American colony of Brazil. The two powers continued with their differing strategies - the Portuguese building better trade relations while the Spanish expanding through conquest.

As a consequence, Portugal never really needed to colonize Africa to achieve their aims.

Later, other European powers sought to get involved. Having been left out of the Treaty of Tordesillas they simply chose to ignore it and focus on whatever lands looked ripe for the taking. Thus the Dutch, Russian, French, and British took colonies in North America, Africa, and Asia, but only in North America - with foreign disease wiping out locals - were they particularly successful.

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    To add to this brilliant answer, I would mention that Portugal had a lot less manpower to sink into militarily dominating territory than Spain did.
    – Guy F-W
    Commented Sep 17, 2012 at 14:19
  • @Guy F-W, that's an interesting point, although my understanding of the conquistadors is that they were drawn from a range of nationalities, and were essentially private mercenary enterprises, and would have signed on with whomever was paying. Had Columbus somehow won over King John II, I could easily imagine Portuguese Conquistadors (still comprised of a mix of nationalities) as the ones taking on the Incas and Aztecs.
    – Bryce
    Commented Sep 19, 2012 at 17:27

Africa was relatively densely populated compared to North and South America. When Europeans landed in the Americas, they were sparsely populated, and the Indians often died from diseases brought by Europeans. The few that didn't were easily conquered by the Europeans, whom "advanced" cultures such as the Aztecs and Incas mistook for gods.

The Africans had no such illusions. True, their weaponry was less advanced than that of the Europeans. But in places, well organized local groups fought back, in Niger against the French, in South Africa against the British and in Ethiopia against the Italians.

Also, the climate and diseases were more hostile to Europeans in most of Africa than in North and South America.

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    The technological advancement of sub-Saharan Africa was really no greater (and in many cases lesser) than that of the Meso-American and South American cultures at that the time. It simply would have taken a lot more manpower to defeat the much larger African population. Not to mention, the Americas were perhaps more resource-rich.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 0:54
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    @Noldorin the American cultures were stone-age cultures. The only metals they used were for decoration. Sub-saharan Africa had iron and other metals. They lagged behind both Asia and Europe, but saying that they lagged behind the Americas is definitely not true. Commented Nov 24, 2013 at 9:47
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    @LennartRegebro: But (some of) the American cultures had writing long before the sub-Saharan African ones did! So it's not as simple as this... They were ahead in some respects, behind in others. Overall, it gets a bit subjective to judge.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Nov 24, 2013 at 14:11
  • Also I can't find a date for when Sub-Saharan African cultures began metalworking, but American cultures began around 2000 BCE it seems. Whether they only used it for decoration is a different matter; they had the ability from then at least.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Nov 24, 2013 at 14:18
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    @Noldorin: No, that they only worked silver and gold for decorations is the matter. They never had metal tools. They were stone age cultures. Sub-saharan Africa was not. (Writing is also not technology, it's administration. ;-) ) Commented Nov 24, 2013 at 22:04

Very poor terrain (harsh deserts, heavy rain forests) and very frightening diseases. Later advances in technology and especially medicine made the process tolerable and possible.



I'd actually leave it at that, if the posting software let me.

But to elaborate, Europeans actually did actively try to colonize Africa continuously during the Age of Discovery. The problem was that Malaria killed them off quicker than more could be sent. The only place it really worked was in South Africa, which was too temparate for Malaria to be a big problem.

Native Africans tend to have a better resistance to malaria (in part due to the same genetic trait that causes sickle-cell anemia).

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    I wonder if the tsetse fly would have been a contributor as well, among other illnesses Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 22:51
  • @canadiancreed - Oh yeah. Sleeping sickness, yellow fever, the works. But Malaria was always the biggest killer.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 2:59
  • conspiracy theory note, some people guess that the reason there are tribes in africa with high rates of genetic trait that causes sickle cell anemia, that they are actually the descendants of the lost tribes of isreal who were scattered by one of the early middle astern empires. as the jews are essentially the only Caucasian group that is afflicted by sickle-cell anemia.
    – Himarm
    Commented Jan 7, 2015 at 17:22
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    @Himarm - The Hebrew language is from a family called "Semitic", which is a branch of Afro-Asiatic. Most branches of that family hail from Africa, and its ultimate origin is thought to be either on the upper or lower Nile. These are areas where both Malaria, and the sickle-cell trait that protects against it, are endemic. So it really shouldn't surprise anyone that this trait is at large in an Afro-Asiatic descended people (no matter how pale their skin).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 15:09

Let me add one more reason: when the discovery age began, large parts of Africa was already "colonized" by the Muslims.


The New World was much easier. European diseases spread rapidly, wiping out the local population, and 'clearing the land'. In Africa, the locals had the same immunity to the likes of smallpox as the Europeans, so it wasn't 'cleared' as quickly. It also has diseases of it's own (e.g. malaria) that would hinder someone coming in.

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    Disease always seems to be the hidden weapon of European colonization, without it the advances were technology and tactics. Africa had the diseases equalized, and their own as damage to the Europeans so it sort of evened out.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Oct 17, 2011 at 12:27
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    @MichaelF - More than evened out. Malaria and friends made most of Africa uninhabitable to Europeans until quite recently.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 21:58

Africans also offered military resistance and they did in fact defeat European armies on numerous occasions. Often times Europeans were relegated to the status of vassals to African kings, who confined them to small coastal enclaves. It wasn't until the Europeans developed the maxim machine gun and other advanced weapons that they were able to do anything in Africa. The development of the steamboat was also critical as African waters were generally unnavigable without it.

European colonization in the late 19th century also coincided with the decline of some very powerful African kingdoms. So it was a combination of many elements.


I'm surprised that no one has mentioned what seems to be an obvious factor in the initial colonization of the Americas: gold. The Aztecs and Inca had lots of it, enough to more than pay for maintaining a military establishment a long way away, and for eventual colonization. Compare the first couple of centuries in Mexico and Peru, versus the really limited attempts to colonize a much more hospitable North American East Coast.

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    Ghana and South Africa had gold too...
    – Evargalo
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 9:52
  • @Evargalo: Not, AFAIK, a lot of it that had been collected by the natives. Don't know about Ghana, but South African gold mines these days require advanced hard-rock mining techniques, while much of the original American gold could be mined with low-tech placer techniques, like the stereotypical '49er with his gold pan.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 18:07

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