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Pre 20th Century History of Cameroon

Little is known about Cameroon before 1472 when the Portuguese arrived shouting 'Camarões, camarões!' in amazement at the many giant shrimp - hence the country's name. For the next 400 years, southern Cameroon's history, like that of the rest of West Africa's Atlantic seaboard, revolved around the slave trade.


Northern Cameroon, by contrast, was a battleground for various empires, notably the Kanem-Bornu in Chad. When the Germans arrived in the late 19th century, 'feudal' northern Cameroon was under the control of the Fulani empire in Sokoto (Nigeria).

Although the Portuguese arrived on Cameroon's coast in the 1500s, malaria prevented significant European settlement and conquest of the interior until the late 1870s, when large supplies of the malaria suppressant, quinine, became available. The early European presence in Cameroon was primarily devoted to coastal trade and the acquisition of slaves.

Despite an invitation from a Douala chief to set up a protectorate over the area in the 1850s, Great Britain dillied and dallied for decades and finally lost to the Germans in 1884, who were intent on forging their own African empire, and who beat the British to an agreement by five days.

The Germans were active colonisers, building schools, railways and plantations. But German rule was harsh: at one plantation a fifth of the labourers died in a single year from overwork.

The northern part of Cameroon was an important part of the Muslim slave trade network. The slave trade was largely suppressed by the mid-19th century. Christian missions established a presence in the late 19th century and continue to play a role in Cameroonian life.

From German Colony to League of Nation Mandates

In the 19th century, palm oil and ivory became the main items of commerce. The British established commercial hegemony over the coast in the early 19th century, and British trading and missionary outposts appeared in the 1850s; but the English were supplanted by the Germans, who in 1884 signed a treaty with the Douala people along the Wuori estuary and proclaimed the area a protectorate.

Beginning in 1884, all of present-day Cameroon and parts of several of its neighbors became the German colony of Kamerun, with a capital first at Buea and later at Yaounde.

The Germans began constructing the port of Douala and then advanced into the interior, where they developed plantations and built roads and bridges. An additional area was acquired from France in 1911 as compensation for the surrender of German rights in Morocco. Two years later, German control over the Muslim north was consolidated. French and British troops occupied the region during World War I.

After World War I, this colony was partitioned between Britain and France under a June 28, 1919 League of Nations mandate. France gained the larger geographical share, transferred outlying regions to neighboring French colonies, and ruled the rest from Yaounde. Britain's territory--a strip bordering Nigeria from the sea to Lake Chad, with an equal population--was ruled from Lagos.

Little social or political progress was made in either area, and French labor practices were severely criticized. Both mandates, however, remained loyal to the Allies in World War II.

In 1946 they became UN trust territories. In the 1950s, guerrilla warfare raged in the French Cameroons, instigated by the nationalist Union of the Peoples of the Cameroons, which demanded immediate independence and union with the British Cameroons. France granted self-government to the French Cameroons in 1957 and internal autonomy in 1959.

Last Updated on Friday 13th November 2009