The United States in Africa: A Transimperial History


By the turn of the twentieth century, the British and U.S. Empires were intricately entangled throughout the world. Nowhere was this more evident than in Britain’s African colonies where Americans co-opted and collaborated with British imperial rule and its agents. Oxford’s archival and historical book collection reveal this history of transimperial careering in vivid detail.

‘Here can be found all the natural conditions that made the U.S. what it is today,’ enthused Frederick Russell Burnham from Bulawayo.[i] Burnham, the son of an American missionary working among the Dakota Sioux, had spent his career in the violent borderlands of the Arizona-Sonora copperbelt where he fought Apache raiders and prospected for minerals. In South Africa, he enlisted in the British South Africa Company’s Pioneer column and in 1893 crossed the Crocodile River to colonize Matabeleland. His imagination fired by the prospect of commercial opportunities and his heartrate quickened by the region’s fabled mineral wealth, Burnham wrote home that he would ‘like to see the Stars and Stripes float over this fair land.’[ii]

What brought an Arizonan cowpoke to Matabeleland? And what does Burnham’s journey reveal about the world of empires in the nineteenth century? Students, past and present, are presented with empires as stand-alone units, bordered by thickly drawn black lines and coloured in bright shades to indicate areas of national territorial sovereignty. Historians and historical geographers have long seen these maps for what they are: imagined projections of power that could not contain the flows of goods, people, and ideas across and between empires. It was entirely commonplace for empires to outsource some industrial tasks, send observers to learn from other empires, and exchange personnel and employ foreign nationals for many industrial, sanitary, and scientific projects. Such transimperial crossings and exchanges were especially vivid in the case of the American and British empires. For some Britons, this was a deeply parasitic phenomenon, for others, an effective means of sub-contracting expertise and technologies for the development of the empire’s mineral wealth.

 Misery loves company; - but they hope soon to be out of it

Figures 1 & 2. ‘Wireless Telegraphy,’ Puck, 29 November 1899; ‘Misery Loves Company,’ Puck, 20 March 1901. Late-nineteenth-century Americans were themselves increasingly alert to the increasing points of Anglo-American imperial convergence. As the United States began to assert itself more forcefully on the international stage in the 1890s, American statesmen, commentators, and cartoonists sought to understand world power through the lens of its closest rival and chief model: the British Empire. In print media, Anglo-American transimperial connections took on overtly militaristic tones, as the two national symbols appeared in their respective army’s uniforms, rather than the traditional uniforms of Union Jack waistcoat, and suit made from the Stars and Stripes. A month after the second Anglo-Boer war broke out on the Rand in October 1899, Louis Dalrymple depicted Uncle Sam on the cover of Puck sending ‘good will’ to John Bull as British troops were being rushed to relieve Boer sieges of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley; John Bull reciprocated while US troops took to consolidating rule over newly acquired territories in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Just over a year later Dalrymple returned to the same image, this time depicting to the two erstwhile imperialists mired in debt and colonial conflict in ‘Misery Loves Company.’ Source: &

Transimperial Careering

Transimperial careering brought Americans and Britons closer together throughout the colonial world.[iii] ‘Out in the broad world at large,’ wrote one American commentator, imperial Britons and Americans ‘understand each other, join hands, and work shoulder to shoulder … in a silent alliance.’[iv] These connection were especially striking in parts of Africa. Exploiting the porousness of British imperial formations in Africa, thousands of American entrepreneurs and researchers flooded the Continent to collaborate on transimperial projects.

American big game hunters and explorers such as Arthur Donaldson Smith and May French Sheldon explored its interior spaces; naturalists including the ornithologist Edgar Means of the Smithsonian Institute and Carl Akeley of the New York Museum of Natural History collected and classified its mammals, birds, and fauna for display to the American public; the U.S. Navy scoured its ports for trading opportunities and supported the research of Smithsonian scientists; and missionaries from a variety of American denominations proselytized among African peoples. After his Presidency, Theodore Roosevelt undertook a year-long hunting and collection expedition in East Africa with Smithsonian scientists, recorded on film by the British photographer Cherry Keaton and released as the silent documentary Roosevelt in Africa in 1910.

Teddy in the African Jungle

Figure 3. ‘Teddy in the African Jungle,’ photochemical print, 1909. In East Africa, Roosevelt encountered a large American footprint. On his journey from Mombassa to the interior, Roosevelt took the recently completed Ugandan Railroad, travelling over the 27 railway viaducts constructed by the American Bridge Company over the Mau Escarpment. Later he encountered the American Missions stations at Machakos, Kijabe and on the Sobat River, and an American ostrich farmer living near Lake Hannington (named for the Bishop James Hannington who visited the lake in 1885, but now Lake Bogoria). Source:

Individual CVs reveal that some moved between imperial careers with ease. William Harvey Brown, a naturalist from Kansas, for example, first arrived in Africa on board the USS Pensacola. Brown was part of a team sent to observe a solar eclipse in the Congo but dispatched to collect specimens of Africa biota for three Smithsonian’s collections. En route up the west and east coasts of the Continent, “Curio Brown” collected 33 mammals from 16 species, more than 100 molluscs, and 250 species of insect for the museum’s collections. After settling in Southern Africa in 1890, Brown joined the British South Africa Company’s invasion of Mashonaland. In 1893-4, Brown then fought, alongside Burnham, in the First Matabele War. For his service, Brown as awarded 13,000 acres of arable land outside Salisbury. Three years later was wounded by Shona soldiers in the Second Matabele War before returning to the United States to write On The South African Frontier, before once again returning to Salisbury.

Such transimperial careering was a systemic feature of empires in the late nineteenth century. The culture of memoirs, reminiscences, periodical articles, and stereograph images generated by transimperial careering, examples of which are listed below, were the primary way in which Americans consumed information about Africa in the late nineteenth century and exerted an out-sized influence on U.S. perceptions; reifying the continent as both a pristine wilderness and a place of resource fecundity, and a place both fossilized in time and the scene of modern civilisation’s apogee.[v]

The Migration of Expertise

Anglo-American collaborations were perhaps densest in the Cape where diamonds and gold lured close to 10,000 Americans to Southern Africa.[vi] Just as American travellers, researchers, and adventurers were the conduits of knowledge about Africa for domestic audiences, American engineers were prized  by British imperial corporations for the knowledge they could bring to the development of the diamond and gold mines of Southern Africa.

Figure 4. Americans in Southern Africa, c. 1890s. ‘Johannesburg … is like an American city’, marvelled one mining expert in 1887 – just a year after the gold rush began.[vii] American migrants felt they belonged to an ‘American colony’ in Southern Africa.[viii] These migrants established an American Society of South Africa to acclimatise new arrivals to life in the camp-come-city of Johannesburg, and American travellers and prospectors might seek the comforts of home in the American Hotel or the California House, and might also join the local American baseball club.[ix] Though an overwhelmingly male city, the wives of Americans in Johannesburg founded the Martha Washington Club in the early twentieth century.[x] This world of American institutions maintained connections with US national culture, celebrations, and provided a familiar waypoint in an alien land. Or as William Hammond Hall, a San Franciscan civil engineer, put it to overcome the ‘the deuced far-off-ed-ness and danged long-time-ed-ness-of the-I-no-see-you-ed-ness of the situation.’[xi] Source: Created by the author.

Cecil Rhodes was a central node in this transimperial network, appointing Americans in every aspect of his interest: Kimberley diamonds, Rand gold, and Rhodesian land.[xii] Rhodes businesses (De Beers Consolidated Mines Co. and Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa) were staffed by American experts as the Weston’s collections reveal. While Rhodes was, according to one biographer, ‘careless with the details of management, and left to others … the business of production and finance,’[xiii] ever the shrewd capitalist he made two critical appointments to DeBeers and Gold Fields that shaped the direction of imperial affairs in South Africa. To DeBeers Rhodes appointed Gardner F. Williams, who had experience of quartz and hydraulic mining for silver and gold across the American west. Williams revolutionized the technological management of the diamond industry, introducing safer and more effective means of sinking shafts and shoring up the deep underground tunnels and became a trusted manager of DeBeers’ closed compound system. Williams’ son Alpheus succeeded him as General Manager at De Beers and was also appointed U.S. Consul to Kimberley.