Royal Charters and the Scramble for Africa

Royal Charters and the Scramble for Africa

The colonization of Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, often referred to as the Scramble for Africa, saw European powers vying for territorial control and economic dominance on the continent. Royal charters played a pivotal role in facilitating this colonization, providing the legal and administrative framework for private European companies to establish dominion on behalf of European monarchies.

This article explores the history of royal charters, their significance in the colonization of Africa, and the role they played in enabling companies like the British South Africa Company and the Dutch East India Company to secure effective territorial control.

I. The History of the Royal Charter

A royal charter is a formal document issued by a monarch, granting a right or power to an individual, group, or corporation. Throughout history, royal charters have been used for various purposes, ranging from establishing universities to creating trading companies. The history of the royal charter can be traced back to medieval England, where monarchs granted charters to towns, guilds, and corporations, formalizing their rights and privileges.

The use of royal charters expanded during the Age of Exploration, as European powers sought to capitalize on new trade opportunities and establish overseas colonies. The charters served as legal instruments that conferred exclusive rights and responsibilities to individuals or companies, often in return for financial support or services rendered to the crown.

II. What Did the Royal Charter Say?

A royal charter typically outlined the specific rights, privileges, and responsibilities granted to the recipient. In the context of colonization, these charters were instrumental in authorizing private companies to undertake colonial ventures on behalf of the European monarchies. The provisions of a royal charter for colonization included:

  1. Territorial Rights: The charter defined the geographical boundaries within which the company was authorized to operate and establish colonies. This provided a legal basis for territorial expansion and control.
  2. Monopoly: Many royal charters granted monopolistic rights to the chartered company within the specified territories. This exclusivity gave the company a competitive advantage in trade and resource extraction.
  3. Administrative Authority: Charters often conferred administrative and judicial powers on the chartered company, allowing them to govern the colonies and settle disputes. This decentralized approach to governance facilitated efficient management on behalf of the European monarchies.
  4. Financial Arrangements: Charters specified the financial obligations of the chartered company, including taxes, tributes, or a share of profits to be remitted to the crown. This financial support was crucial for funding colonial expeditions and maintaining control over distant territories.

III. What is a Royal Colonial Charter?

A royal colonial charter is a specific type of royal charter that pertains to the establishment and governance of overseas colonies. These charters were granted to companies or individuals with the explicit purpose of encouraging exploration, trade, and settlement in newly discovered or targeted regions. The European powers utilized royal colonial charters as a means to delegate the responsibility of colonial administration and development to private enterprises.

The issuance of royal colonial charters marked a shift from direct state control to a more decentralized approach, enabling private companies to act as agents of the state in overseas territories. This approach was particularly evident in the colonization of Africa, where European powers sought to exploit the continent’s vast resources and establish strategic footholds.

IV. Who Gave a Royal Charter?

Royal charters were issued by European monarchs, who held the authority to grant specific privileges and powers to individuals or corporations. In the context of African colonization, various European monarchs played a role in granting royal colonial charters to companies tasked with establishing and managing colonies on the continent.

  1. British Monarchy: The British crown was actively involved in granting royal charters for African colonization. One notable example is the British South Africa Company, chartered by Queen Victoria in 1889. Led by Cecil Rhodes, this company played a significant role in the colonization of present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia.
  2. Dutch Monarchy: The Dutch East India Company, although primarily associated with Asian trade, also received a charter from the Dutch Republic in the early 17th century. While not directly focused on Africa, the company’s activities had broader implications for the European presence in various parts of the world.
  3. French Monarchy: The French monarchy also issued royal charters for colonial endeavours in Africa. These charters facilitated French exploration and exploitation of resources in regions like West Africa.

V. Royal Charter Colonies and the Berlin Africa Conference

The Berlin Africa Conference of 1884-1885 marked a crucial turning point in the colonization of Africa. European powers convened to establish guidelines for the division of Africa among themselves and to regulate the competition for colonial territories. Royal charters played a significant role in shaping the dynamics of this scramble for Africa.

  1. British South Africa Company (BSAC): Chartered in 1889, the BSAC received a royal charter from Queen Victoria, granting it expansive rights in the region known as Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia). The charter empowered the BSAC to establish law and order, collect taxes, and exploit natural resources. The BSAC’s activities aligned with British imperial interests and contributed to the expansion of the British Empire in Africa.
  2. Dutch East India Company (VOC): Although primarily associated with Asian trade, the VOC’s early activities in Africa laid the groundwork for later European colonization. The company’s trading posts and forts along the African coast established Dutch influence, contributing to the broader European presence in the region.

VI. Legacy and Impact

The legacy of royal charters in the colonization of Africa is complex and multifaceted. While these charters facilitated European powers in asserting territorial control and economic dominance, they also laid the groundwork for the exploitation and subjugation of indigenous populations. The decentralized governance structure established through royal colonial charters allowed private companies to pursue profit-driven agendas, often at the expense of local communities.

The impact of the Scramble for Africa is still evident in the socio-political landscape of the continent today. The arbitrary borders established during this period, often disregarding ethnic and cultural divisions, continue to contribute to conflicts and challenges faced by African nations. The economic legacy of resource extraction and exploitation also persists, shaping the dynamics of global trade and development.


In conclusion, royal charters played a crucial role in the colonization of Africa, providing the legal framework for European powers to delegate colonial administration to private companies. The British South Africa Company and the Dutch East India Company are just two examples of entities that used royal charters to secure territorial control and advance the interests of European monarchies during the Scramble for Africa. The history of royal charters reflects the evolving nature of colonialism, marked by a shift from direct state control to the delegation of authority to private enterprises.

Understanding the impact of these charters is essential for comprehending the historical roots of contemporary challenges faced by African nations.