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Why was Africa colonized last of the continents in the Age of Discovery?

When the British colonized the Americas and Australia, they made sure to move normal civilians in and take over the land, pushing the original natives out of their way (either by killing them or by sending them west and/or to reservations).

This was different than the Spanish strategy of just plundering the occupied land for gold. Yet, when they colonized Africa, they never actually colonized the territories they claimed. Why not?

  • 9
    What exactly is your definition of "colonized"? Because I was under the impression that the majority of the African continent was under European control in the 19th century.
    – Orion
    Commented Oct 30, 2011 at 5:11
  • Who wants to live in the Sahara? or in Malaria prone tropical Africa? South Africa was tolerable and therefore settled.
    – Dale
    Commented Oct 30, 2011 at 5:17
  • @JoeHobbit Malaria and other tropical diseases were also present in South and Central America.
    – Orion
    Commented Oct 30, 2011 at 5:22
  • @NullUserExceptionఠ_ఠ My point is that while the Europeans had control, they didn't actually settle Africa (unlike America/Australia).
    – user39
    Commented Oct 30, 2011 at 5:56
  • 1
    Or Canada (Also by the British), or South America by the Spanish. It is actually a pretty good question. I've posted up some class notes and a theory, but would love to see a more well-researched answer.
    – Canageek
    Commented Oct 30, 2011 at 14:34

4 Answers 4


Transportation was a large issue: I unfortunately don't have a citation, but my notes from a class I took a couple years ago are as follows:

There were 2 ages of Imperialism: Pre-industrial and industrial, the 2nd age beginning in the late 19th century.

Important differences in overseas expansion efforts between the pre-industrial and the industrial eras

  • Material goods
    • In the pre-industrial era, European countries expanded overseas to seek precious metals, manufactured goods such as cotton and silk textiles, and luxury items such as spices (1st era)
    • In the industrial era, imperialism occurred to secure supplies of raw materials for European industrial enterprises and to secure markets for manufactured goods (2nd era)
  • Geographic Spread
    • In the pre-industrial era, limited technological capabilities generally forced Europeans to colonize very limited areas such as islands and coastal enclaves—only in North America could extensive areas be settled
    • In the industrial era, technical advancements and mechanical superiority allowed European, American and Japanese forces to physically conquer vast swathes of foreign territory

One reason could be that the late 19th century just isn't that long before WWI, and the beginning of the end of direct Imperialism. That isn't much time to set up colonies.On the other hand Britain managed to heavily colonize North America and Australia before this time, and likewise, Spain did South America.

If you look at Africa as well, there were instances of direct colonization, most notably the Boers of Orange Free State and Transvaal whom were of Dutch descent, and the colonization of South Africa.



The natives of Australia and the Americas were wiped out (some places seeing ~95% fatality rate) from smallpox and other diseases that the Europeans carried to them. In some places the germs went faster than proper colonisation. For example, the natives of the Mississippi seem to have been wiped out after a handful of Europeans made contact with them.[1]

Once the land is empty, it's much easier to settle.

Compared to the Americas, the Africans had their own diseases (malaria) that would have killed Europeans and had intermittant contact with Europeans for centuries (and so would have gotten contact with the diseases).

1. Mound builder (people), Reports of early European explorers. Wikipedia.

  • hmm.... Interesting. Why the europeans do not die out of american germs?
    – user4951
    Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 6:14
  • The germs in America weren't as harsh to the Europeans as the European germs were to the Americans. Likewise the African germs were harsh to the Europeans. Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 12:30
  • What are the african germs?
    – user4951
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 11:03
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    Malaria. It's responsible for about 2½% of all deaths globally per year. Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 13:28
  • 1
    @Jim Thio: Native americans have t-cells optimized for killing parasites - ameobas, worms, flukes, fungal infections, etc. Meanwhile, Eurasians/Africans have t-cells optimized for killing pathogens - bacteria and viruses. This made the europeans particularly susceptible to syphilis - but it made the americans overly susceptible to smallpox and plague. (See Charles C. Man's excellent book "1491") Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 12:11

Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations has a short section on this question. He explains that while Africa was "inhabited by barbarous nations" just like the Americas, the former were primarily shepherds while the latter, with the exception of Mexico and Peru, were hunters. Because a society dependent on shepherds can produce more food and sustain a higher population than that dependent on hunters, they were therefore more difficult to displace. The Dutch settlements in South Africa were possible because the area was "inhabited by a race of people almost as barbarous and quite as incapable of defending themselves as the natives of America." There is no mention of Australia because of when the book was published but the same logic could be applied there.


Just to expand on the disease angle, at its height, Zambia's population was 3% European. In contrast, Nigeria's European population was only 0.04% with West Africa in general described as "white man's grave" due to the large number of deaths caused by yellow fever and malaria. Even within Africa you can see the dramatic difference.