Was Africa ever colonized?
Yes, Africa was most voraciously colonized, especially after the early travelers there came in contact with the beautiful weather conditions in most parts of the continent, her agricultural wealth and potentials, and subsequently her mineral resources—Africa's natural wealth so to speak. It was a kind of "gold rush" as Western countries scurried and jostled against each other in an attempt to grab whatever they could of this continent's territories. European countries, through colonialism, transformed Africa into a source for raw materials, and, in time, the market for their finished products. As revealed by Adam Hochschild, even before returning finished goods back to Africa, colonizing nations made huge profits from Africa's raw materials abroad:
In 1897, for example, one of the companies, the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber and Exploitation Company, or A.B.I.R., spent 1.35 francs per kilo to harvest rubber in the Congo and ship it to the company's headquarters at Antwerp— where it was sold for prices that sometimes reached 10 francs per kilo, a profit of more than 700 per cent. (160)
Every aspect of the continent of Africa was exploited—the weather, the land, and the people themselves, on whom were visited shameful techniques to make them work for nothing, or at best next to nothing for pilfering Western nations. A good example is Belgium and the carnage King Leopold and his accomplices caused in the so-called Belgian Congo, which, ironically, was originally referred to as the Congo Free State. Bill Berkeley's words best sum up the cataclysmic dimensions of the abuse, loss, pain, sorrows— physical and psychological—Leopold caused the people in the name of colonialism:
The worst genocide in recorded African history was perpetrated not by the Africans but by the Belgians, in what came to be known as the Belgian Congo—Europe's richest colony in Africa and the actual setting for Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Between 1885 and 1912 King Leopold's private army, composed primarily of African conscripts led by European officers, shot, starved, and worked to death between 5 million and 10 million native inhabitants. (9)
It must be remembered that this was the activity of one man, representing one colonizing nation; one can only imagine what the picture would look like, were it possible to compile together the atrocities of all the colonizing nations. Yes, Africa was most painfully colonized.
What do they mean when they say Africa is being exploited?
This is a very intricate question, such that one can only attempt a rather vague answer here mindful of the scope of this work. By exploitation, we mean making productive use of someone, his talents and resources wrongfully; that is, without the person's consent or awareness. Therefore, to begin with, if one should go back to the slave trade era, then one would realize that some of Africa's best sons and daughters, a very significant portion of the continent's labor force, were forcefully carted off to Europe and the Americas. Shortly after the collapse of the slave trade, Africa's wealth in terms of raw materials and minerals was also carried away for free by different European nations—Belgium, Portugal, France, and Britain are some of the greatest offenders. Reader again paints a rather vivid picture of the exploitation of Africa in the name of trade with Europe:
The so-called 'legitimate trade' consisted of supplying Europe with raw materials and commodities that were expensive or unobtainable elsewhere: palm-oil, gold, ivory, hardwoods, rubber, wax, and gum Arabic; Africans were encouraged to grow introduced crops such as groundnuts, sugar, cocoa and tea, cloves and cinnamon for the European markets, as well as the indigenous coffee and coconuts. (435)
A lot more than Reader has presented was carried out of Africa by the West. Ironically, these are civilized nations that claimed they had gone into Africa to bring civilization to a part of the world where it was yet to arrive. Belgium's Leopold II was a pioneering brain in this deceit of the world. At a come-together that he had organized—the Brussels Geographical Conference of 12-14th September 1876 as it was referred to—during which Leopold II was able to present himself as a philanthropist instead of the ambitious, pilfering opportunist he was, he lied to those present at the opening session: Gentlemen.
The subject which brings us together today is one of those which deserve to take a leading place in engaging the attention of the friends of humanity. To open up to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness in which entire populations are enveloped, is, I venture to say, a crusade worthy of this age of progress, and I am happy to perceive how much the public feeling is in favor of its accomplishment; the tide is with us. (Reader, 531)
Leopold had thus started a trend that was to survive for generations after him—presenting Africa in any light as a means to achieving personal and national wealth in the name of philanthropy for the backward suffering black peoples of the continent. But Leopold's skeletons were, before long, exposed when his true exploitation of the wealth of the Congo was in full force. By this time, it was already late, as other philanthropic-cum-pilfering efforts like those by the French, were already in place. The atrocities of the Belgian venture in the Congo, to say the least, were criminal. According to Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, The Portuguese and the Belgian colonial regimes were the most brazen in directly rounding up Africans to go and work for private capitalists under conditions equivalent to slavery. In Congo, brutal and extensive forced labor started under King Leopold in the last century. So many Congolese were killed and maimed by Leopold's officials and police that this earned European disapproval even in the midst of the general pattern of colonial outrages. When Leopold handed over to the Belgian government in 1908, he had already made a huge fortune; and the Belgian government hardly relaxed the intensity of exploitation of the Congo. (182-183)
What a lesson in civilization for the Africans! John Reader highlights the lesson further:
Leopold displayed exceptional generosity in the disbursement of his newfound wealth. The Congo profits were used to fund a grandiose policy of public works and urban improvement— in Belgium. The magnificent Arcade du Cinquantenaire in Brussels, the famous Tervuren Museum, extensions to the Royal Palace, public works at Ostend, various urban building schemes — all were funded by the Congo Free State.
In 1901, the flow of funds from the Congo was even institutionalized. The 'celebrated' Fondation de la Couronne was established and granted a land concession in the Congo that covered 250.000 km2 - a tenth of the entire state, eight times the size of Belgium. The products of the concession— mainly wild rubber—brought in a very high annual income, which the Foundation applied exclusively to public works in Belgium itself. A programme of long term and 'truly magnificent' projects was embarked upon. The face of Brussels was to be transformed, and large tracts of urban land were acquired for the purpose. On completion, the buildings immediately became the property of the Belgian State, along with all the land which the Foundation had purchased. In all, the Belgian nation received property worth more than £ 2,400,000 from the Foundation. (544)
Today, the problem of exploiting is still rife, but with a significant modification: in addition to material exploitation, there is now the dimension of brain-drain, as Africa's best brains that ought to assist in the genuine effort to "develop" the continent are forced to flee their countries because of corrupt Western-backed dictatorial regimes that have left so many true patriots dead.
The exploitation of Africa, it is now obvious, is a reference to the predatory and immoral practice of foreign individuals, organizations, and nations, invading Africa—aggressively or subtly, overtly or covertly—and making away with the continent's resources without thinking of the inhabitants and the consequences this could have on them during and after the perpetration of such crimes. And they do this whilst damning Africa as poor, backward, uncivilized, and with nothing to offer.