5 Fascinating Battles of the African Colonial Era

Trying to colonize an unwilling population rarely goes well. Not surprisingly, the colonial era was filled with conflicts and battles, the outcomes of some of which wound up having greater historical implications other than simply who was victorious. Here are some of interesting and noteworthy battles that took place during the colonial era in sub-Saharan Africa.

5. Battle of Adwa (March 1, 1896, in Ethiopia) 

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.The crushing defeat of Italian forces at the hands of Ethiopian King Menilek’s troops is one of the first decisive victories by African forces over a European colonial power. Menilek’s victory gave him significant credibility with other European countries and bolstered his mandate at home, both of which helped to provide a period of peace in Ethiopia that allowed the country to flourish.

4. Italo-Ethiopian War (1935–36, in Ethiopia)

Italian soldiers during Italo-Ethiopian WarLibrary of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Neg. no. LC-USZ62-59754)Almost four decades later, the sequel. Italy may have thought that it finally had vengeance when Italian forces invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and annexed the country the following year, but their unwelcomed stay was relatively short-lived, as the World War II Allied powers liberated the country in 1941. This conflict is often considered to be one of the episodes that prepared the way for World War II. It demonstrated the weakness of the reigning international body at the time, the League of Nations, which could do little more than condemn the invasion and impose sanctions on Italy…sanctions that were largely ignored by other countries and therefore ineffectual.

3. Anglo-Zulu War (1879, in Southern Africa)

Cetshwayo, king of the Zulu, under British guard in Southern Africa, 1879.Photos.com/ThinkstockThe British defeat of Zulu King Cetshwayo’s forces marked the end of an era of powerful Zulu kings. It also resulted in the Zulu kingdom being incorporated into British colonial holdings, eventually as part of the province of Natal, which later became the modern-day South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

2. Gun War (1880–81, in Southern Africa)

LesothoEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.The Sotho peoples’ victory over the Cape Colony is one of the few examples in Southern African history of black Africans’ winning a conflict with colonial powers in the 19th century. It’s also the reason why the country of Lesotho is surrounded by the country of South Africa, rather than being a part of it: because Basutoland (as Lesotho was then known) remained independent of the Cape Colony, it was not included when that colony and three others formed the Union of South Africa in 1910. 

1. South African War (1899–1902, in Southern Africa)

The war between Great Britain and the Boer (Afrikaner) republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State, which ended with British victory and annexation of the two Boer republics, is noteworthy for several reasons. Here are just a few:

  • It was the largest and most costly war that the British fought during the 19th century. 
  • It provided a preview of the type of warfare that would come to characterize World War I.
  • It was a war fought between two groups of white peoples—the British and the Dutch-descended Boers—in a subcontinent with a largely black African population that both sides generally sought to exclude from the fighting, although black Africans were certainly negatively impacted by the conflict.
  • The two annexed Boer Republics would, with the British colonies of Cape and Natal, later form the Union of South Africa in 1910, the forerunner of today’s Republic of South Africa.
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