In the following video Rudyard Lynch, owner of the youtube channel "whatifalthist" claims that

Nearly every African colony cost the Europeans far more than they got out of it – the Europeans didn't even colonize Africa for money…

Top 11 Historical Misconceptions.

However Europe invested far more into Africa than it ever got out.

Top 11 Historical Misconceptions.

He references two books, John Gunther: "Inside Africa" (1955); Douglas Porch: "Wars of Empire" (2000).

Are there any recent studies which confirm this assertion? It totally goes against the narrative of the exploitation of Africa in the process of colonialism. Is it really a misconception?

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    European tax payers no, some small number of European industrialists yes?
    – Tomas By
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 21:57
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    I'd strongly suspect that @TomasBy's comment is strongly correct: the millions of peasants did not benefit, but a dozen or so high-rollers did... Commented May 6, 2022 at 22:44
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    The problem here is how to calculate it. It is true that, for the most part, colonial budgets had to be supported (sometimes heavily) by the colonizers, but Africa had resources (and land for newly introduced crops) which Europe either wanted or needed, and which the colonizers could turn into a profit at various stages (from extraction or harvesting to the final sale to the consumer). Although these profits largely went to private companies (as Tomas By alludes to in his comment), European governments did gain from taxes and duties. Commented May 7, 2022 at 1:04
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    I am not quite sure it makes much sense to talk of "Europe" in that context, because I rather suspect this will vastly differ by country. Germanys colonial drive was late and largely abortive, and even at the time it was justified with "building character" for the settlers rather than monetary gain. On the other hand, e.g. Belgium (totum pro parte, Congo was private property of the Belgian King) made a killing, very cruel pun intended, on rubber from the Congo. Commented May 7, 2022 at 8:28
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    The method of calculation sums pretty much the debate, and the possible answers. Let me give one unrelated example. Catalan goverment complains there is not enought investment from the Spanish gov in Catalonia. Then, Spanish gov argues that they do invest in Catalonia. As example, the Sanish gov says it assigns 19% of budget of Museo del Prado, located in Madrid, as "investment done in Catalonia", because its a state museum and Catalans (should) benefit from this museum, which is obviously not located in Catalonia, in a 19% proportion. This analysis is called monetary flux.
    – James
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 18:34

3 Answers 3


A number of valid objections to the question have been raised in the comments. To summarize, many different European countries and actors participated in the Scramble For Africa in diverse ways. What exactly should and should not be measured on the balance sheet for "Europe" as a whole? Implicitly the question seems to ask for an aggregate accounting of the public and private costs and benefits associated with colonization in Africa accruing to any individuals, companies, governments, etc. based in Europe during a period of multiple decades. This is simply too difficult and broad of an exercise and I'm unable to find any serious attempt to do so.

That said, I will raise two relevant points. First, a number of studies have shown that the profitability of European enterprises in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was similar on average regardless of where they were operating. O'Niel and O'Niel (2009) show this in the case of British enterprises for the period of 1870-1913. O'Brien (2004) looks more broadly at global trade 1815-1948 and finds that whether a territory was colonized or independent had no significant effect on profitability. So on the one hand, massive and easy profits were certainly not the primary motive of all Europeans in every single African colony. On the other, colonization may have expanded the overall opportunities for European companies to profit at average (or better) rates of return where it opened opportunities to invest that would not otherwise exist due to hostility from indigenous rule. (This is particularly clear in the case of the Belgian Congo.)

Second, there may have been important hidden economic benefits that supported profitability regardless of whether colonization itself was profitable. A common argument associated with dependency theory and related schools of thought is that colonization helped to ensure that peripheral areas focused their exports on cheap raw materials required by advanced industrial economies. If African producers took a loss on rubber, ivory, cotton, etc., those cheap materials subsidized European industries in ways which are difficult to measure.

In sum, while the overall balance sheet cannot be assessed in any meaningful way, it is far from proven that imperialism in Africa was pursued at a total economic loss to Europe as a whole.

  • As a very broad brush observation, in modern times European countries are rich and African ones are poor. Poor people in Africa are poorer than poor people in Europe. I'd be willing to bet that the standard of living in Europe for the bottom 20% increased rapidly from 1880 to 1914 - even as it declined (!) for the newly colonised people of Africa. No proof so not an answer, but unfortunately I doubt that we can make people like Cecil Rhodes take all the blame and totally exonerate ordinary people in Europe.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 14:04
  • +1 by the way...
    – Ne Mo
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 14:13
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    @NeMo but is that actually the case? As an example, Nigeria is extremely rich, from oil etc. That none of this cash reaches the poor is not the point. It is not the fault of Joe Taxpayer in Europe if Joe President in another country is corrupt.
    – RedSonja
    Commented May 10, 2022 at 10:02
  • If poor Africans fell further behind poor Europeans between the onset of colonisation and the end of it, then it's reasonable to propose that colonisation was the cause of the decline in poor Africans' living standards and the relative increase in Europeans' living standards. That would help to explain why e.g. ordinary people in late 19th century Britain voted for a Conservative party that campaigned on imperial glory (about 3 fifths of adult men could vote at that time, including a large number that were poorer than average). I've no problem blaming corrupt modern politicians too, though.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented May 10, 2022 at 12:02
  • @NeMo your whole argument relies on "I bet" and "I have no proof but".
    – Bartors
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 11:58

To focus on a specific example, whole countries in Southern Africa were built/founded/stolen by people like Cecil Rhodes, but bands of free-booting adventurers are not to be compared to "the Europeans".

Rhodes was largely bank-rolled not by government, by commerce in general or by public subscription but by the Cecil family, which had been immensely prominent in first English then British politics since before the first Queen Elizabeth and still stands out today, but land-owners powerful enough to be running countries are not to be compared to "the Europeans."

Their home at Hatfield House remains one of the largest palaces in Europe and although it is much bigger than even any state building in the Republic of Zimbabwe that developed from the Rhodesia which bore his name, it was and remains one family's private residence. People living for hundreds of years before and since "The Scramble for Africa" in stately piles of which almost every room is larger than most people's houses are not to be compared to "the Europeans."

It's sometimes pointed out that Walmart is controlled by a billionaire family, yet huge numbers of employees are on benefits. Though not really European, isn't that the same perspective?

Between Walmart and the landed gentry sit people like John Lewis, who turned his empire into a partnership with the staff when he decided it was unfair that his family should be taking out of the business more than the entire pay-roll; that being not merely more than even the best-paid staff, but more than the entire staff combined.

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    Re "Rhodes was largely bank-rolled [...] by the Cecil family": Citation needed. In a ten minute search, I could not find any indication of this.
    – njuffa
    Commented May 15, 2022 at 16:58
  • @njuffa Sorry I can't give you a citation… I think I learnt that while touring Hatfield House about 1966-7 but I never thought to seek provenance. I don't suggest this an excuse, but here, it hardly matters. Even without a single, wealthy patron, Rhodes still wasn't "the Europeans", nor by any manner of means "the British." Commented May 15, 2022 at 19:41

The Europeans went west to the Americas. They imported slaves from Africa for two centuries in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These European immigrants benefited immensely from the "scramble of Africa".

The Belgian Congo was immensely lucrative to the King Leopold II for rubber at the estimated cost of 10 million native Congolese under a cruelly exploitative yoke.

The list can go on and on ...

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    The "Scramble for Africa" was the 30 years prior to the outbreak of WWI. The slave trade had long since been banned and then suppressed by the British.
    – user55099
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 11:17
  • @Martin: When you are raiding the peoples of Africa then to my mind that is a scramble for Africa ... Commented May 9, 2022 at 11:18
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    My question is: Were African colonies eonomically beneficial APART from the slave trade. It's not disputed that slave trade was and still is economically beneficial. History isn't about conflating causes but separating them. No I don't see your point. Is it wrong to ask for exact numbers? If they invested 1 trillion and got out 1trillion &1 you could say they got out more than they invested. That's why quantification is important... Commented May 9, 2022 at 11:50
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    It is implied in the term Scramble for Africa..If you know studies, which quantify the economic gain feel free to provide the sources (and possibliy collect the bounty). Commented May 9, 2022 at 11:58
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    So your not familiar with the term scramble for africa. It's also explained in the video I have linked at youtu.be/cjkJ6YuEoE4?t=644 . The title is part of the question, so it is implied... Commented May 9, 2022 at 12:09

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