The most significant period in history when the Europeans started to have contacts with Africa was during the European Age of Exploration, a period when the European explorers embarked on the task of finding other parts of the world, especially a sea route to India. The first Europeans to have contacts with Africa were the Portuguese in the early 14th century, who on their way of searching a sea route to India, reached the coastal areas of West Africa. It was with this achievement that a trade began between the Portuguese traders and West African coastal traders. And this trade later turn out to be the famous ‘trans Atlantic slave trade’ that became the main feature of relationship between Europeans and the Africans for about 4 century.
However, after about four hundred years of the slave trade, the Europeans abolished it and turn their attention to extending their trade into the interior of African continent which was rarely penetrated by them. This was why, the European nations sponsored a number of explorers into the interior of Africa in order to get information and discover the geographical characteristics of the African interior. For example, in England, an association of explorers was formed in 1788 for the purpose of exploring the interior of Africa, with special priority to finding the mouth of River Niger. Thus, different explorers like Mungo Park, Hugh Clapperton, David Livingstone have penetrated the African continent.
Therefore, by 1870, the European nations have acquired a good information and map of Africa. And between 1884 to 1885, the Europeans held a conference in Berlin which was famously known as the ‘Berlin Conference‘ in 14 European nations convened and shared the African continent between them.
After the Berlin Conference, the European nations embarked on claiming and conquering African states as their colonies, and by 1914, the 90% of the African continent was under the European rule.
The First Stage
The first stage of Europeans presence in Africa started around the early 15th century, and was confined to the coast. The first Europeans to come to Africa in that time were the Portuguese, who landed at the coastal areas of west Africa. From that time, a trade relationship was being established which attracted other traders from European nations such as England, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and others to the Atlantic coast of Africa.
At first instance, these European traders, brought their manufactured goods like firearms, beads, textiles, and alcohol to Africa and exchanged them with the African goods like gold, ivory, palm oil, or slaves. But, after the accidental discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the European nations carved out large number of plantation farms in the newly discovered America. Therefore, the European nations started purchasing slaves in order to work for them in those plantation farms. Thus, by the year 1530, purchasing black African slaves from the African slave traders known as the ‘Atlantic slave trade’ became the main feature of the European contacts with Africa for almost four hundred years.
The second stage of contacts between the Europeans and the African continent started after the decline of the Atlantic slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th century. This time around, the European traders and their respective home governments, wanted to explore the interior of the African continent for the purpose of extending the market for their finished goods. Therefore, this made European countries like Great Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and others to sponsored different explorers to the interior of Africa. For example, in Great Britain an association of explorers was formed in 1788, in order to explore the hinterland of Africa.
Between 1795 to 1805, a British explorer called Mungo Park have explored the River Niger from Segou in modern day Senegal to Bussa in modern day Nigeria where he was killed by the natives in his search of where the River started and ends.
In 1830, Richard Lander together with his brother John Lander continued the work of Mungo Park of finding the mouth of the River Niger. They sailed down south from Bussa and at the end they reached the ‘Oil Rivers ‘ and finally ended to the coast of Atlantic which proved them where the mouth of River Niger was.
Central and East Africa
A well organized exploration of the central and east Africa started around the year 1841 when a Christian missionary called David Livingston explored the Orange River. Livingston also, explored the waterways of the Upper Zambezi River, and in 1855 he explored the Victoria Falls.
The third stage of Europeans contact with Africa was the work of the Christian missionaries.
A well known Christian mission to have sent to Africa started in 1790s. In 1795, Wesleyan Mission Society (W.M.S) have organized and sent a group of missionaries to Sierra Leone and Gambia in order to preach and converted Africans into Christianity.
From 1800 to 1860, European Christian Missionary Association have sent different missions in different parts of Africa, who apart of spreading the Christianity, have also tried their best in establishing trade contacts with the local communities. For example, in 1863, Church Missionary Society (C.M.S) have established West Africa Company in Nigeria.
Therefore, by the end of the 19th century, the work of European Christian mission reached everywhere in Africa.
The Europeans in Africa has been an issue of much debate. Because, many scholars have agreed that the European activities in Africa have been one of the factors responsible for the growth of the European economy. Why ?, because the European activities in Africa around that periods periods, has always been of extracting the abundant natural resources of Africa. For example, the Europeans used Africa as the source of raw materials to their home industries, as well as the market for their finished goods.