Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
One may have doubts about the appositeness of treating the fifteen or sixteen years between 1870 and 1886 as a phase in the evolution of West Africa. These dates are significant only in the context of the beginning of the colonial era, by which 90 per cent of the area was still untouched at the end of our period. It could be said that the decline in Saharan trade, the growth in imports of European products and increased production of export crops, foretold the imminent end of free Africa, by making certain areas dependent on the world market. But, as Lord Salisbury pointed out, before 1880 no one in Europe was aware of this, let alone anyone in the savannas of the Sudan. It is only with hindsight that we see these things as premonitory signs.
The same applies to the date of 1870, even in the perspectives of colonisation. It is clear to us today that the upsetting of the balance of power in Europe as a result of the Franco-Prussian war acted as a catalyst of economic and social evolution, impelling Europe to occupy Africa, by taking advantage of its technological superiority. But nobody foresaw this at the time, and in fact 1870 opened a period of colonial retrenchment. It was only after 1875, with the Belgian and French activities on the lower Congo, followed by those of the French on the upper Niger, that the imperialist advance began; and the reluctance of Great Britain in this respect is well known.