Colonial rule helped pave the way for the rapid expansion of many African cities after 1960. Some older towns remained important centers of commerce and cultural life, while others were completely transformed by changing economic and political developments. Still other cities, from Bangui in the Central African Republic to Nairobi, Kenya, and Windhoek, Namibia, began as small colonial administrative centers that eventually became gigantic settlements. The evolution of cities in colonial Africa varied a great deal, especially between settler colonies in southern and eastern Africa in comparison to other regions. The motivations of migrants, city planners, and urban communities also differed considerably from one locale to the next. However, the formation of cities reflected a series of challenges and innovations in African everyday life throughout the continent, especially from roughly 1880 to 1960.

Europeans established settlements in colonial coastal enclaves before the late nineteenth century. During the heyday of Atlantic slavery, a range of European countries established small forts on the East and West African coasts. These fortifications usually were built on the site of already existing towns, and thus local communities played a key role in providing these fledging municipalities with supplies. From Cape Coast in modern Ghana to Luanda in Angola, founded in 1579 by the Portuguese, Atlantic port towns nominally under European control helped to foster a cosmopolitan society where European and African bloodlines and influences merged. Historian Ira Berlin has called members of these communities Atlantic Creoles because of their connections to different African and European social and political networks.

The export of slaves and natural resources served as the main business of these towns. Urban inhabitants often went by both European and African names, celebrated indigenous religious ceremonies and attended Christian services, and adopted elements of European clothing. Signares, female traders who formed intimate and social alliances with visiting Europeans in the Senegalese port of Saint Louis, became themselves important leaders in the town’s social life. European governments did not try to radically reshape these settlements. Even in the Swahili town of Mombasa (Kenya), which the Portuguese controlled from the early sixteenth century to 1694 and the site of the enormous Portuguese Fort Jesus, indigenous people rather than Europeans controlled how the city was organized.

On the coast of East Africa, the eighteenth century brought a new innovation in colonial cities that was unique in African history. Rulers of the Omani sultanate established control over Zanzibar Island (now part of Tanzania) in 1698 by driving out the Portuguese. Zanzibar became a major trading center for ivory and slaves from the East African interior during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as well as a major producer of cloves through local slave plantations.

Omani rulers, Indian merchants, local Swahili elites, visiting European traders, and the burgeoning numbers of slaves living on Zanzibar helped to create a fluid and multicultural town identity. Slaves sought to demonstrate their equality with free Zanzibaris through adopting Islam and the dress of free townspeople.

By 1800, a stone town had been built with a blend of local and Middle Eastern architectural styles. Sultan Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid (1790-1856), ruler of Oman, even moved his capital to Zanzibar from the Arabian Peninsula in 1840. Omani rulers in the nineteenth century brought in mirrors, plates, and even mechanical clocks featuring wind-up Austrian soldiers to show off their wealth and their prestige. Although Zanzibari leaders eventually surrendered their independence to England in 1890, the struggles for rights and shifting identities brought on in Zanzibar town in the nineteenth century continued well into the following century. Through songs, public dance performances, dress, and the formation of soccer clubs, descendants of slaves claimed their rights and challenged the power of well-off aristocratic families backed by the British.

Another regional urban heritage developed in southern Africa in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Dutch colonialists established a small colony run by the Dutch East India Company in 1652. Like Zanzibar, this small colony’s towns developed an international flavor early in their history. Cape Town, the capital of the colony, housed a mix of sailors from around the world, as well as slaves brought from India and Indonesia by the Dutch, French Huguenots, and members of Khoi and San African communities who lived either as free people or as dependent clients of Boer families.

Dutch settlers to Cape Town drew from their homeland for architectural styles, but these went through local alterations. Fires, often set by slaves, influenced the building patterns of Dutch residents of the town. Afrikaans, the Dutch dialect that developed in Cape Town and other South African cities, owed much of its vocabulary to the slaves who spoke it. Once the English occupied the colony in 1814, British adventurers and missionaries also moved to the city. Although some mission-educated Africans managed to claim some political rights in Cape Town in the nineteenth century, racial tensions and struggles between Dutch and English groups provoked conflict within the city as well.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought on the creation of new colonial coastal settlements. The British government, increasingly opposed to the international slave trade, established a small port named Freetown in Sierra Leone in 1787. Former slaves who had fled American masters during the American

Revolution moved to Freetown, as did captives rescued from slave vessels by the British navy in later decades. Yoruba, Kru, and other ethnic communities formed in the town, and the pidgin form of English spoken in the town became the lingua franca of much of Sierra Leone. Female traders from nearby African communities as well as of foreign descent ran businesses and became leaders in town life.

In the early 1840s, French naval officers established a fort on the Gabon Estuary that briefly became a refuge for slaves rescued from Spanish vessels. The fort, Libreville, remained a small port for over a century, but it housed West African artisans, Vietnamese convicts, and Senegalese soldiers, and it attracted Africans from all over Gabon.

The decision of European governments to support invasions of much of Africa affected cities after the 1860s. Such towns as Accra (Ghana), Saint Louis, Lagos (a Nigerian port city annexed by the English in 1860), and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) became administrative centers of imperialist expansion. In some cities, European governments moved very slowly in trying to remake the laws and spatial organization of cities. For example, British officials only gradually tried to ban slavery and engage in disputes over local leadership in Accra.

Although leaders in many coastal cities lost their previous ability to act as middlemen between Europeans and interior trade networks, townspeople in older colonial cities could also find work through their privileged access to education and their familiarity with colonial administrations. Urban settlement also altered in locales taken over by colonial governments. The defeat of the Sokoto caliphate by British forces between 1900 and 1903 left English administrators in charge of Hausa cities like Kano in Nigeria. Clerks, railroad workers, and other migrants from southern Nigeria moved to Kano. However, for decades British officials did little to disturb the institutions of slave officials or push for emancipation in Kano and other Northern Nigerian cities. Likewise, British officials in Zanzibar tried to favor slave-owning merchant families over slaves well after colonial conquest.

However, the growth of colonial authority also led to dramatic changes in some cities. European authorities pushed for segregated European and African neighborhoods in cities like Conakry (Guinea) and Freetown. Officials, strongly influenced by the growth of biological racist doctrines and associations between disease, poor hygiene, and Africans, promoted segregation on health grounds. This ”sanitation syndrome,” as Maynard Swanson has called this conjuncture of racial prejudice and public health, also became a means of justifying the destruction of African neighborhoods and the strict separation of neighborhoods by racial categories in South African cities.

Cape Town, South Africa. The coastal city of Cape Town, founded by the Dutch in 1652, is now home to South Africa's legislature. The parliament building appears in the foreground of this photograph.

Cape Town, South Africa. The coastal city of Cape Town, founded by the Dutch in 1652, is now home to South Africa’s legislature. The parliament building appears in the foreground of this photograph.

Concerns about bubonic plague inspired turn-of-the-century South African city planners to promote segregation, while their counterparts in the Belgian Congo after 1908 argued that the creation of separate neighborhoods based on race was needed to protect Europeans from malaria. These ideas also fit with changing notions of city management in European cities that administrators sought to apply in African colonies. However, this push for segregation based on health issues did not occur everywhere. In Libreville, for example, efforts to segregate the small city into African and European sections never came to pass, thanks largely to protests launched by mission-educated Gabonese living in the city.

From the late nineteenth century through the 1950s, the greatest move toward urbanization on the entire continent took place in South Africa. The discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1860s and 1870s led to the creation of cities, most notably Johannesburg. These cities attracted a range of Europeans, Africans, and South Asians. After British forces defeated the independent Dutch settler republics in the second Anglo-Boer War between 1900 and 1902, officials struggled to maintain order and racial hierarchies in South Africa. Between the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and the Nationalist Party’s 1948 electoral victory, city planners helped to prepare the way for the apartheid era. African farmers and herders migrated to cities by the thousands, often motivated to the massive appropriation of land by white settlers, as well as the close proximity of giant mines always in need of African labor. City officials promoted the use of passes for African men and women, and the creation of separate African-only townships, and they banned the making of beer by Africans so that customers would patronize municipally-owned bars.

Many of these policies were designed to limit the ability of women to support themselves independently in cities. City governments and some rural African leaders formed an alliance to keep women in rural areas away from cities. Economic opportunities deteriorated in overcrowded African reserves in the countryside, and often rural women found that their husbands and relatives who had left to find work in cities did not send enough support home. Many women chose to brave government opposition and police persecution by working in cities, whether as prostitutes or bar owners, or by selling food at the markets. Some men who moved to cities formed evangelical prayer groups, while others formed gangs that battled police and robbed other Africans.

At the same time, Boer farmers hit hard by agricultural recessions in the 1920s and 1930s also moved to cities, often seeking government help to limit competition for jobs from Africans. A lively urban culture of music, cinema, and sports like football and cricket emerged from this strife. However, the willingness of many to support apartheid policies by 1948 came from European fears of African migration as well.

Historians have long taken South African urbanization as the model by which to understand the growth of African cities as a whole, although there are many differences as well as similarities. Cities in settler colonies like Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Kenya did resemble South African cities in certain respects. Much like in South Africa, city planners often tried to block the permanent resettlement of women and families to Nairobi and Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe). Administrators were convinced that Africans ultimately belonged in rural locations and feared the supposedly destabilizing effects that city life had on indigenous people. Coercing Africans back to rural areas also, not coincidentally, pushed the cost of health-care and social services onto African families rather than city governments.

Many women, however, moved to these cities. Some sold produce at market. Others sought to escape restrictive marriage practices in their home communities by resettling in cities. Luise White (1990) has demonstrated how prostitutes could use their earnings to buy homes and live independently of men in cities like Nairobi. Still other women developed careers as domestic help, even while many European families preferred to hire men as cooks and domestics. The uneven growth of state, missionary, and independently run African schools in cities by the 1920s also created some job opportunities for educated Africans of both sexes. Many officials throughout settler colonies feared the formation of urban African communities that could challenge institutionalized discrimination against Africans through violent and nonviolent protest.

Outside of settler colonies, urbanization varied greatly. East African cities like Kampala (Uganda) and Dar es Salaam remained fairly small. Many cities in thinly populated parts of Central Africa were centered around administrative posts or economic centers. Officials in the German colony of Kamerun, French Equatorial Africa, and the Congo Free State (later the Belgian Congo) of King Leopold II (1835-1909) set up posts such as Brazzaville, Yaounde, Leopoldville (Kinshasa), Stanleyville (Kisangani), and Elisabethville (Lubumbashi) that emerged as cities in Central Africa. These settlements gradually attracted men and women for a range of reasons. They provided economic opportunities for skilled workers, a sanctuary for women trying to leave family difficulties, and better educational and health-care facilities than most rural locations.

These cities became cultural centers as well. Soccer clubs, new musical and dress styles, and independent African-run religious movements flourished. Especially in larger cities, officials often had trouble monitoring and controlling the activities of urban residents. Given that many residents of rural Central Africa faced forced-labor obligations and limited chances for social advancement between the 1890s and the 1950s, urban growth was not surprising. In some areas where the rural economy did offer profits for some Africans (in, for example, the timber industry in Gabon), the speed of urbanization lagged behind other places.

The growth rate and organization of cities in West Africa also differed from city to city. Lagos and Accra blossomed into booming cities by the 1920s and 1930s. They served as the foundation for new understandings of community as older ties based on village and clan merged into larger constructions of ethnic identity. Descendants of early African settlers often struggled through petitions, recourse to land claims, and control over ceremonies associated with the supernatural to assert their primacy despite the fact that they often were greatly outnumbered by newcomers.

These cities also became centers of political action. Africans in such cities as Abidjan in Cote d’lvoire (Ivory Coast), Porto-Novo in Dahomey (now Benin), and other French cities joined French human rights groups and pushed for reforms in the 1920s and 1930s. Saint Louis and Dakar (Senegal) had actually been given representation in France during the mid-nineteenth century, and Senegalese politicians like Blaise Diagne (1872-1934) and Lamine Gueye (1891-1968) pushed for African political rights.

Women’s protest movements also became a feature of such cities as Lagos and Onitsha (Nigeria), where market women often took to the streets to protest taxes and state interference from African state-appointed chiefs. Unlike in Central Africa, where most cities did not have a large popular press, newspapers, plays, and popular fiction were widely read in West African cities by the early twentieth century. However, large West African cities shared with their Central African counterparts a vigorous music scene. Highlife, a popular style of music that blended local percussion with horns, flourished in Anglophone cities in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nigeria.

Major international conflicts in the twentieth century had a great impact on African cities. World War I (1914— 1918) brought a sharp rise in food prices in many West African cities as German submarines and the disruption of international trade greatly reduced shipping traffic. Between 1939 and 1945, urban life again was again transformed; World War II brought on an economic boom in many cities in southern Africa as Allied forces needed a tremendous amount of natural resources, which usually left Africa through port cities. In Dakar, the capital of French West Africa, pro-Nazi followers of Vichy France successfully battled an Allied raid in 1940. Portuguese Africa, though officially neutral in World War II, exported tea and cash crops to England and other countries.

Urbanization thus grew in Lourenfo Marques (now Maputo, Mozambique) and Luanda. British and French officials became more concerned with urban development during and after the war, especially in efforts to create a stable and docile urban workforce. Efforts by colonial governments to build closer ties between metro-pole and empire after 1945 also remade urban space. French development money paid for the construction of apartment complexes, canals, and port facilities at Abidjan, Libreville, and elsewhere. Strikes in Mombasa, Lagos, Dar es Salaam, and other cities between 1945 and 1950 led colonial municipal governments to push for more social benefits for African city residents. Belgian officials promoted European notions of hygiene, health services, childcare, and household management through welfare programs, while British and French authorities considered providing limited social welfare for some city dwellers in the 1950s. Municipal bureaucratic structures backed by increased budgets after 1945 became the foundation for postcolonial city governments after independence.

Although most African cities became independent by the early 1960s, southern African cities remained under colonial rule for several more decades. Portuguese officials and military leaders employed the use of the secret police and security forces to maintain control over cities in their African colonies, which largely remained under their control until Portugal’s withdrawal from Africa in 1975. The apartheid regime’s decision to purge South African cities of most of their African urban population through forced removals in the 1960s brought widespread misery to city residents. Many African neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for all-white housing complexes. City inhabitants played a key role in pushing for African rights from the cooperative movements of the 1940s through the nonviolent ”defiance campaigns” of the following decade.

The Soweto neighborhood of Johannesburg, entirely made up of Africans, became the center of antiapartheid resistance from 1976 through the early 1990s. Street gangs, youth groups, police, and migrant workers’ associations all used violence against one another, which left many Africans living in a state of endemic insecurity. In many cases, South African security forces allowed organized criminal organizations, like the Marashea gangs, to operate unchecked in many African neighborhoods. The legacy of lawlessness and brutality of the apartheid era explains much behind the extremely high crime rates of South African cities in the early twenty-first century. Just as the flourishing popular culture in African cities marks a positive development extending to the colonial period, the stark legacy of brutality in South African urban settlements also shows the impact of the colonial past today.

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