The Crowning Chapter of Geography: The Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the Scramble for Africa 1884-18931

J. J. V. Kuitenbrouwer*

The Scramble for Africa between the European powers at the end of the nineteenth century has always struck people as quite an extraordinary process. It has played an important role in the debate about European overseas expansion, and still does. This article is about the discussion surrounding the partition of Africa which took place within a geographical society in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS). In those days, as the expansion reached its zenith, the question of how the British Empire should be organised was one of the most important political issues. The debate about imperialism continued after Africa had been partitioned, and the nature of the debate changed in the light of two World Wars and the era of decolonisation. As time went by, scholars who mainly focused on the economic and political motivations for European overseas expansion dominated the imperialism debate. The role that groups such as geographical societies played became obscured as their ideas were seen as outdated. In recent years there has been a growing interest in the ways societies like the RSGS contributed to the metropolitan culture of imperialism.


1 This article is based on the dissertation with which I graduated at the History Department of the University of Amsterdam in October 2002.

* Vincent Kuitenbrouwer graduated in October 2002 at the University of Amsterdam on a dissertation [MA level] about the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Currently he is a PhD student at the Institute of Culture and History at the University of Amsterdam. He has published several reviews in ‘Skript, historisch tijdschrift’. He can be reached at