Maafa is a Kiswahili term for “disaster” or “terrible occurrence.” It describes more than five hundred years of exploitation of Africa through slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. A colony is a settlement in one land supported by another. Imperialism is the practice of building empires to support trade.

The brutal “triangle trade” ravaged West Africa from the 16th to the 19th century. Ships leaving Europe first stopped in Africa, trading weapons, ammunition, metal, liquor, and cloth for captives taken in wars or raids. The ships then traveled to North America and the Caribbean, where colonists exchanged sugar, rum, salt, and other island products for the enslaved people. The ships completed the triangle by returning to Europe loaded with products popular with the European people.

African Colonies in 1914


Triangle Trade (map)

The triangle trade

By the 1880s, a “scramble for Africa” occurred. Five European powers–Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy–colonized almost the entire continent by 1900. They exploited the great mineral wealth of Africa and sought to expand their borders by moving into the continent. The colonial rulers often had little regard for the Africans. King Leopold II of Belgium obtained personal title to the Congo in central Africa. He forced the native people of what he called the Congo Free State to work in his rubber plants under cruel conditions. Every village was required to donate four people a year to work for Leopold. Villagers who failed to complete their duties were flogged; others had their hands or heads cut off. When the Belgian government learned what was happening, they took Leopold’s grotesque colony from him and made reforms.

France attempted to annex Algeria in the 1830s but made little effort to understand the Muslim Berbers who lived there. The Algerians resisted, often violently. The French finally withdrew from the colony in 1962 after the Algerians voted 6,000,000 to 16,000 to ask the French to leave.

King Leopold II of Belgium

Leopold II (French: King Léopold II of Belgium (1835 – 1909) was the sole owner of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908.

Maafa Resources

Download this lesson as Microsoft Word file or as an Adobe Acrobat file.

Mr. Donn has an excellent website that includes a section on African History.

The End of African Colonialism

Colonialism ended surprisingly quickly and quietly in most of Africa after World War II. The British granted Gold Coast independence in 1957. The indigenous government of the former colony reached into Africa’s glorious past to rename itself Ghana. These factors contributed to the end of colonialism in Africa:

  • Mohandas Gandhi’s successful campaign to end British colonial rule in India inspired many African leaders.
  • The United States and the Soviet Union became military “superpower” nations after the war. Both sides sought to influence Africa by encouraging nationalist movements.
  • The colonial governments educated an elite class of Africans in western universities. The educated Africans saw how the colonial rulers exploited their nations.
  • Much of Europe’s economy was destroyed in the Second World War, and the European governments could not afford to send armies to Africa to suppress nationalist movements.