Europe is geographically much closer to Africa than America. Northern Africa has been part of the Eurasian culture since Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, over two millennia ago.
But the colonization of America by Europeans began just before the 1500s1, while they colonized Africa mostly after 1870, during a period of about 40 years called the Scramble for Africa that saw Europe’s colonization of Africa go from about 10% of its territory to about 90%. For 350 years, Europeans didn’t conquer the continent next door, crossing the Atlantic instead. Why?
For centuries, there was the Sahara barrier.
If you follow Uncharted Territories, you know that the Sahara is where it is because of the Horse Latitudes.
Beyond Northern Africa, you need to pass the Sahara to get to any fertile land. There are only three paths through the Sahara: by sea to the west, by sea to the east, or by land.
The path to the west of Africa had several disadvantages compared to the east: it was open ocean rather than a closed sea, it took a very long time to cross the dry part of the Sahara section without easy stops, and it didn’t have as much civilization as the east, which meant more support for travelers.
Traveling by sea through the east of Africa was easier, but still very hard.
There was no Suez canal to communicate by boat the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, it was hard to build and transport fleets from one to the other, the trade route was not as populated as the Mediterranean or India… Trade was possible, invasion nearly impossible.
Crossing the Sahara by land was impossible. The desert is massive. Miles and miles of nothing. The distance to cross it was just too great. The only way through it was through the Nile, but even then the Nile was not navigable as you entered the Sudan area.
So this is why, for centuries, Subsaharan Africa was out of reach to Europeans: their armies couldn’t cross the Sahara by land or through either coast.
But why was it out of reach once ships could sail all the way to America? Couldn't armies just sail past the Sahara, too?
It’s not like Europeans didn’t travel to Africa.
As Spain and Portugal had nearly finished the Reconquista against Muslims in the 1400s, Portugal didn’t have any more room for growth. So it looked to the sea. Portuguese sailors began exploring the coast of Africa and the Atlantic archipelagos around 1418, thanks to new maritime technologies such as the caravel. Soon, Europeans had a much better sense of Africa than of America.
The Portuguese were trying to find a sea route to India and the lucrative spice trade controlled at the time by Venice and other Eastern Mediterranean civilizations.
In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias of Portugal rounded the Cape of Good Hope2.
In 1498 Vasco da Gama (Portugal) reached India.
In 1500, either by an accidental landfall or by the crown's secret design, Pedro Álvares Cabral reached what would be Brazil.
So Europeans knew Africa well, especially the Portuguese. They split with Spain their areas of influence in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Everything east of a certain meridian was going to be in Portugal’s sphere of influence (since they knew Africa so much better than Spain). Everything west of that was in Spain’s.
This is why Brazil, the most eastward part of America, is the only part of that continent that speaks Portuguese: that’s the piece that Portugal controlled because of an obscure treaty signed by two European countries five centuries ago.
Portugal was the first to really explore Africa, but not the last. After them came the Dutch, and the English, and the French…
So Europeans knew about Africa and traveled there all the time. Why couldn’t they invade it?
Because of this guy.
The Anopheles mosquito carries malaria, endemic to most of tropical Africa3.
So the moment the Sahara ends, malaria takes the baton. And when malaria ends, the Kalahari desert carries it on.
Africa is an alternation between deserts and malaria-infested areas. It makes sense: with such a massive landmass around the equator, it’s either hot and dry like a desert, or hot and humid—perfect for mosquitoes.
Europeans and cattle putting a foot in Africa dropped dead. In the 1700s, only 10% of Europeans survived Africa. 60% died in the first year.
So for centuries, the European presence was limited to trade with North Africa, sometimes all the way to Ethiopia in the east, but that’s all.
As Europe’s economy and technology grew during the Enlightenment and the colonization period, it established forts and trading posts in Africa, but that’s about it.
Then, this happened:
When you go from a 90% death rate to about 17%, that’s a killer advantage.
This is the Scramble for Africa:
Within about 30 years or so, Africa went from mostly a continent of travel posts, to one completely colonized.
So these two maps of rainfall and malaria explain why Europeans didn't colonize Africa until the end of the 19th century: they show the desert barrier and the Malaria barrier, both of which are driven by rainfall. Malaria breeds where there's heavy rainfall, so the quick transition between Sahara and Malaria areas was crucial.
If you enjoy this GeoHistory series, here are the other articles I’ve written on the subject, about half free and half paid.
Geography Is the Chessboard of History, [the big patterns of GeoHistory]
Geography Is the Chessboard of History: Bonus Content
The Global Chessboard [the big patterns of GeoHistory, part 2]
A Space-Crafted Chessboard [how space determines geography, and hence history]
A Brief History of the Caribbean
A Brief History of the Caribbean, Part 2
A Brief History of India and the Indian Subcontinent
What China Wants and Why
The Dictatorship of the Nile [Egypt]
Egypt vs. Ethiopia
The Splintering of the African Horn [Ethiopia]
Fun fact: the competition with Portugal is what led Spain to find an alternate route to Africa, and the only direction left was west, which turned out to be very lucky for the Spanish Crown.