Interwar Africa

Interwar Africa

Africa in the Interwar Years


Africa in the interwar years (1920 – 1930s) reached a new height of European exploitation. Although Germany had lost its colonies of Togoland, Kamerun, Southwest Africa, and German East Africa, their former colonies were quickly divided and overtaken by the British and French. For their part, Africans would not govern themselves for several more decades, except for the Egyptians. The rest of the continent, particularly north and west Africa, continued to experience worker and resource exploitation by predominately British and French colonizers.


Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and why it was successful.
  • Evaluate European practices in Africa during the 1920s – 30s.
  • Evaluate Pan-Africanism and its goals.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Egyptian Revolution of 1919:  nationalist movement which led to Egypt’s independence

Marcus Garvey: Jamaican-born, African nationalist and leader of Pan-Africanism

Pan-Africanism: movement that promotes unity between all peoples of African descent


Egypt's Road to Independence


Since the 1800s, Egypt’s status had been complex and contested. At one point, it had been part of the Ottoman Empire, before breaking away. In the late 1800s, the British occupied the country and operated it as a protectorate of the British Empire. During World War I, the British had effectively occupied all of Egypt and declared martial law to use Egypt as a launchpad in their war against the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the course of the war, the British put significant demands on the Egyptians. They drafted half a million men into their army, requisitioned buildings, and supplies, and treated the Egyptians as second-class citizens. Although the war saw the demise of the Egyptians' former occupiers, the Ottomans, it saw the rise of Great Britain. Nationalism in Egypt spiraled upward against the British. Egyptians felt overwhelmingly betrayed by the British and denied rewards offered for their service in the war. In 1919, revolution broke out.


The Revolution and Independence


The Egyptian Revolution of 1919 was the only successful independence movement in Africa in the interwar era. Across the social classes and religions, Egyptians united in the name of overthrowing the British occupiers. Muslims and Christians stood side by side in the call for independence. Men and women alike protested the occupation of Egypt. At the head of the movement was the newly founded political party, Wafd. Comprised of academics and intellectuals, it was led by Sa’ad Zaghlul. Strikes, riots, and demonstrations broke out across the country. And the British felt forced to act. On March 8, 1919, they arrested Zaghlul and deported him to their island of Malta. Once there, he was kept as an exiled political prisoner.


Egyptian women protesting British occupation in 1919.

This maneuver by the British sparked outrage and increased desire for Egyptian independence. Violence spread through Egypt, culminating in over 800 deaths in the last two weeks of March.

In 1922, the British agreed to Egypt’s Declaration of Independence. The former sultan, Fu’ad, became the new Egyptian king, an Egyptian parliament was established, a new constitution created, and Sa’ad Zaghlul returned from exile to become Egypt’s first prime minister. But despite the achievements made by the Egyptians, the British did not relinquish total control. They refused to leave the Suez Canal area. Similarly, they maintained a military presence to protect their interests in other parts of Egypt and maintained that they would militarily defend Egypt in the event it was attacked by foreign powers. In many ways, the British remained a powerful influence in Egypt until after World War II.


Exploitation of West and South Africa


West Africa


West Africa was prime colonization for Europeans because of its temperate climate, arable farmland, access to Atlantic seaports and rivers, as well as the fact that there were fewer diseases than in Central Africa. In the late 1800s, the British, French, and Germans had secured colonies in West Africa. With Germany’s loss of its colonies in 1918, the British and French immediately claimed the territory. The Africans, who were typically Muslim, were treated as second-class farmers and forced to scrape a living from poor farm plots. Famine and drought plagued the countryside. The sale of cash crops was typically reserved for white farmers, thus most of the money poured into European pockets. Historian Kevin Shillington summarizes the situation best: “During the 1920s and 1930s, African farmers were paid less for what they produced, but had to pay more for what they bought.”

Far more profitable than farming in West Africa was mining. European-owned companies poured into Guinea and Nigeria during the 1920s. Companies hired African, particularly Nigerian, miners to undertake the most dangerous jobs; in return, they provided the lowest possible wages.


South Africa


In the interwar years, the white governments of South Africa passed multiple laws that established strong segregation. Wealthy white farmers and white owners of mining companies had pressured the government to enact segregation. These laws were the early steps in establishing what, after World War II, would become apartheid.

In mining, the skilled labor positions were reserved for whites; whereas, black South Africans were forced to work as unskilled laborers. This created a situation where the best pay was reserved for white workers. Likewise, the best land in the country was reserved for white farmers.

Although black South Africans did resist the new government measures, they had little political influence. As a result, they founded their first political party: the African National Congress. Decades later, the party would become the political party of Nelson Mandela.




In the 1920s, Africans experienced a surge of Pan-Africanism. This movement called for all peoples of African descent to unite to achieve economic and political independence. In the interwar years, the idea swept people in the Caribbean, Americas, and Africa. Four Pan-Africa conferences were held in Europe, most attended by internationally renowned writer W.E.B. Dubois.

Most famous of the interwar Pan-Africanists was a man who had never visited Africa, and yet, promoted the idea of “Africa for the Africans.” This man was a Jamaican-born intellectual and politician Marcus Garvey. He advocated for the expulsion of all Europeans from Africa, and a restoration of African political and economic power. Although his ideas resonated strongly, it would also be after World War II before Pan-Africanism saw any significant gains.


Marcus Garvey, 1922.




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