At the start of the 20th century, France was still bitter about their loss of power in Egypt and continued fighting for African lands, including Morocco. Further fighting erupted over the canal, now between Britain and the newly alligned Germany and Turkey; however, the attempts at seizure were not successful. Soon after, France divided up a large portion of the Ottoman empire with Britain after the fall of Turkey in 1918.
The two rivals were still neck and neck in competition.
A New Imperialism and the "Scramble for Africa"
After a period in which the drive to conquer was partially put on the back burner (1860 -1880), a new lust for the expansion of empires took hold of Europe in the late 19th century. There were multiple reasons for this new wave among Europeans -- many of them similar to the reasons for the first rise of imperialism -- including: the need for raw materials, a desire to end the slave trade, a place to market new products, a desire to invest overseas, a need to protect the interests of trading companies, a place for soldiers, politics, prestige, power, pride, strategy, the desire to spread the message of Christianity, room to settle newly unemployed citizens (as a result of the Industrial Revolution), a desire to help fight disease with modern medicine, and limited areas left to conquer in Europe.
Known as the "New Imperialism," this time was marked by a frantic "scramble" for the lands of Africa
. In the span of twenty years, the race took European control of Africa from 10% to the exclusion of only Ethiopia and Liberia.
British motivations for this race were many, but primarily revolved around protection of the existing British Empire and its control of the Suez Canal. Other driving forces did include colonization and prestige, but Britain was mainly put on the defensive when France and Germany gained ground in Africa.
France and Britain engaged in a fierce competition for control of the Niger in 1883, ending with an agreement which gave Timbuktu to France and Lagos to Britain.
Then in 1888, after the Suez Canal humiliation at the hands of the British, France took an aggressive stab at Britain's control of the Nile, setting off more fireworks between the already-contentious nations. By 1893, France still had not recovered its pride and attempted again to sabotage the Nile basin.
In 1896, Philip Gilbert Hamerton remarked in an essay on the turmoil between Britain and France:
"Nor does the world-rivalry of France and England show any sign of coming to an end. Their policy at Constantinople and St. Petersburgh has quite recently been antagonistic. It is steadily antagonistic in Egypt, and although the wisdom of rulers (happily greater than that of populations) has led to an agreement about the Suez Canal and the New Hebrides, there may at any time arise the contention that leads to war. Although France is now incomparably inferior to England as a colonial power, the English are still as jealous of French influence as if it might ultimately regain Canada and India."
Jean-Baptiste Marchand did in fact lead French troops into the Nile city of Fashoda; Britain responded by sending Herbert Horatio Kitchener to overtake the Sudan and Khartoum in 1898.
He then proceeded to Fashoda, and war between the two rivals was narrowly avoided.
France would refuse to fully give up on reclamation of Egypt until 1902, when the French agreed to abandon the Sudan in exchange for full control of Morocco.
France's rush for control of African lands was mostly a matter of national pride. As author Michael Doyle explained in his book, Empires, the British and French motives during the New Imperialism were fundamentally different:
"After 1870, & #8230;all the European powers sought out extra-European conquests in the global periphery where increases in territory, resources, and military bases, each adding to power and prestige, could readily be acquired. For the British this impulse meant protecting the route to India through Egypt and the Suez Canal, which necessitated control over the headwaters of the Nile and a predominant position in East Africa. For the French and the Germans the impulse meant acquiring "places in the sun" to demonstrate national prestige. Colonialism, according to a.J.P. Taylor, became a "move" in the European game of the balance of power."
A Humiliated France
Still unsatisfied with her fallen status, France went on to wage yet another unsuccessful "battle" with British forces over the Niger River.
And following soon after, events in Morocco poured salt on France's already wounded ego when the French were forced to seek aid from the British against a determined Germany. This round was settled, but later, to add insult to injury, the Germans made another attempt at power over Morocco, and once again Britain stepped in to save the day.
This time, however, France was forced to concede control of her Congo colonies.
At the same time, domestic issues in France were no more successful, and in a final blow to their attempts at power in Africa, the Insubordinate Army began to rebel in Western Africa.
The Suez Crisis of 1956
By 1922, after another Egyptian uprising led by Saad Zaghlul, Britain was willing to hand the power over an "unprofitable" East Africa back to the Egyptians, on condition that British troops could remain there to protect the canal.
Yet even in 1936, when an Anglo-Egyptian treaty was signed, British troops remained and the Egyptian army was still commanded by the British.
More tensions led to another outbreak of violence, and in 1952 Cairo was burned at the hands of angry rebels.
In 1954, Gamal Abd al-Nasser usurped the presidency and signed a new treaty with Britain, forcing them to abandon the Suez Canal area "after 72 years of occupation."
The intense rivalry between Britain and France for control of Egypt was inevitable given the many blows to France's national pride over the years, from Britain's taking of "the jewel of the British crown (India)" in the early nineteenth century, to its sly seizure of the Suez Canal in 1875.
As the defeats accumulated thereafter, France's determination to ultimately steal back the "jewel" of India from British power and redeem herself became an all-consuming obsession. This obsession led the French to imagine fantastic scenarios in which they diverted the Nile into the Red Sea, crippling Egypt and "killing" Britain's power in India.
But as with so many previous lofty dreams, perhaps pioneered by Napoleon a century earlier, the French failed at their mission. Yet Egypt managed to break free from Britain anyway by 1956; but to what advantage? Today, in light of the recent revolution in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak, one must again consider the meaning and significance of the word "imperialism," particularly when history has shown how easily it can be applied at home rather than abroad.
Aldred, John. British Imperial and foreign policy. Heinemann, 2004.
Bell, Jeffrey. Industrialization and Imperialism. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.
Chamberlain, Muriel. The Scramble for Africa. Longman, 1999.
Chapman, J. The Westminster Review: Napoleon in Egypt. London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1898.
Cohen, Benjamin. The Question of Imperialism: The Political Economy of Dominance and Dependence. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Doyle, Michael. Empires. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Elgood, Percival. Egypt . Arrowsmith, 1935.
Ferro, Mark. Colonization: a global history. Psychology Press, 1997.