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date: 05 December 2022

African Populations and British Imperial Power, 1800–1970locked

African Populations and British Imperial Power, 1800–1970locked

  • Karl IttmanKarl IttmanDepartment of History, University of Houston

Summary

British views of African populations from 1800 to 1970 reflected the larger discourse about Africa in this period. These views shaped how the British state and private groups attempted to measure and influence African population trends. In the precolonial era, travelers painted a picture of an underpopulated continent ravaged by war and slavery. Malthus used these accounts in his depiction of African populations limited by insecurity, low productivity, and primitive customs. Malthus’s view would dominate British ideas of African population into the colonial era. Prior to that, missionary groups and antislavery activists invoked these ideas to justify efforts to change African customs through conversion and free labor.

In the colonial era, the belief in underpopulation rationalized state interventions in African societies through forced labor and public health. Colonial regimes attempted to measure and classify their populations to facilitate taxation and administration. These early surveys failed to produce adequate results and estimates of African populations remained unreliable. Despite the absence of data, British officials and demographers continued to argue that lack of population represented a fundamental obstacle to development. Efforts to address this concern made little headway before the late 1930s, when the international criticism of empire forced British officials to embrace a more interventionist colonial state.

Beginning in the late 1930s, British officials and demographers warned of signs of overpopulation, even though reliable census data remained elusive. As part of the postwar drive for development, officials used resettlement programs and agricultural schemes to improve productivity and to address presumed population pressure. In the late colonial era, the British allowed the creation of birth control clinics in African colonies. These private efforts became the basis of an international effort of population control focused on Africa that began in the late 1960s.

Since the 1980s, scholars have created alternative explanations of African historical demography, relying on a variety of sources to challenge the existing paradigm.

Subjects

  • Colonial Conquest and Rule

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