During colonial times, cities, whether ancient or modern, underwent enormous changes. Urban life can be seen as a story of continuity and change, of invention and adaptation. Multiple constraints were imposed by colonial rule (e.g., spatial framework and mobility regulations, sanitation policy, control of the use of time, and so on), but new opportunities also presented themselves, professionally or otherwise, for example, in terms of defining one’s identity. Older inhabitants, as well as newcomers flowing to the main cities, especially from the 1930s, formed the foundation for a new, urbanized society. To frame the study of “urban life” within the political context of “French West Africa” presupposes both that there is something specific to the cities in the eight colonies, which, eventually, constituted FWA (French West Africa) plus the Togo mandate, and that there is something common to all these western African cities under French colonial rule. None of this is really valid. There are as many similarities with urban life in British West Africa as there are differences between the cities. When discussing urban life within the French colonial cities, one can mention the disproportionate allocation of space and resources aimed at satisfying the needs of the colonizers, or the will to rule and control all aspects of urban life. What is common between more than one-thousand-year-old Tombouctou and Conakry, a little more than a century old? Between Saint-Louis du Sénégal, which served as a main entrepôt for international trade from the mid-17th century, and Lomé, with Bè villages in the hinterland, founded by local merchants in the 1880s to escape British customs taxes? But despite the shortcomings of this methodological framework, one can form a general idea of urban life in colonial cities, provided that it be nuanced and contextualized, always bearing in mind a broader comparative framework encompassing British and French policies elsewhere in the empires. Urban life can be understood as the ways city dwellers organize their everyday activities: work, social interactions, but also leisure activities or political involvement. All these aspects changed over time, as city dwellers asserted themselves and, gradually, obtained more legal rights.
The urban history of Africa is as ancient, varied, and complex as that of other continents, and the study of this history shares many of the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of urban history generally. Knowledge of Africa’s historic cities is based on archaeological investigation, analysis of historic documents, linguistics, and ethnographic field methods. The historiography of cities in Africa has debated what constitutes a city, how urbanization can be apprehended in the archaeological record and in documentary sources, why cities emerged, and how historic cities have related to states. The great impact colonization had on African urbanization is a major topic of research, including in the study of postcolonial cities. The “informality” of much contemporary urbanization, both in terms of economic activities and architecture, has been a major topic of research since the 1970s. With few exceptions, prior to the 20th century cities were relatively small, with no more than 20,000–30,000 inhabitants. Religion, trade, and the concentration of power were major factors in the rise of cities across the continent. The largest and most well-studied cities were often the capitals of important states. At times networks of city-states flourished, as in Hausaland, Yorubaland, and along the Swahili coast. The cities of northern Africa shared many morphological characteristics with other cities of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, being characterized by a high density of population, masonry architecture, and encircling city walls. South of the Sahara, cities tended to be multinucleated, with low densities of population and built-over surfaces, and they tended to merge with surrounding agricultural landscapes in an urban–rural continuum. Perishable construction materials such as earth, wattle, and thatch were widely used for both domestic and public architecture.
Colonial settlement at the southern tip of Africa was pre-dated by 150 years of occasional encounters with European mariners. They touched on the coast to refresh water barrels, barter for meat with the local pastoralists, and repair their crafts, or in some cases found themselves wrecked and desperate on the shores of the “Cape of Storms.” It became the “Cape of Good Hope” after fleets of European ships profiteered from the sea route to the resources of India and Asia, among them the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British. The formal date for permanent foreign occupation of the Cape is 1652, when a Dutch East India Company (VOC, the Company) force anchored in Table Bay and, with some basic tools, materials, and supplies, set up camp. After the decline and bankruptcy of the VOC in the late 18th century, a brief military occupation by the British (1795–1802), and an interim Dutch (“Batavian”) administration (1803–1806), the Cape became a British colony. By 1820 the Cape Colony stretched northward as far as the Orange River, and eastward to the Fish and Tugela rivers. Colonial settlement expanded with the arrival of traders, pastoralists, missionaries, and emigrants and created volatile zones in which settlers and African hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers contested with one another over land and resources. The colonial project continued into the later 19th century, spurred by the discovery of gold and diamonds far inland where independent Boer republics and Griqua states had been established. British imperialism and the lure of mineral wealth led to wars of annexation. Following the Second South African (“Anglo-Boer”) War (1899–1902) and subsequent attempts to reunify the country, in 1910 the “Union of South Africa” became a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, gaining formal independence in 1934. Thus, colonial settlement at the Cape covers a 250-year period and a vast area (roughly equivalent to the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape Provinces, and parts of North West Province). From an archaeological perspective, studies encompass the city of Cape Town and sites fanning out from there chronologically and spatially, such as grazing grounds, military outposts, the towns and villages of the coast and hinterland, arable and pastoral farms, sites of conflict and interaction, missions, and mines.