How accurate is it to suggest that men-on-the-spot were primarily responsible for the expansion of the African Empire in the years c1875-1914?
Between 1875 and the outbreak of World War One in 1914, British interests in Africa grew from a few small outposts and a large informal influence into a huge official empire. It is certainly true that the protection of markets and raw materials, became paramount, especially when such markets were threatened by deliberately expansionist European nations, however, it was often the actions of so called men-on-the-spot that expanded British holdings, inspired the European rivals, triggered the nationalist uprisings and ultimately created the “interest” that the British Government could not allow to be threatened.
It can be argued that the British became formally involved in Africa at this time for mostly political and strategic reasons. North and South Africa, in particular, were vital in securing both the route to India and control of the Southern Ocean. The need to prevent South Africa falling under Boer influence became far more pressing when the Germans annexed South West Africa and thus threatened the vital port of Cape Colony, provoking the British into annexing Bechuanaland in 1885 and, precipitating the Anglo-Boer struggles of the 1890s. A similar argument can be made that Egypt was annexed in order to protect the Suez Canal against Egyptian nationalism in the guise of the Arabi Pasha revolt in 1882 and French ambitions at Fashoda in 1895 when the British forced her European neighbour out of the region. In East Africa, the British government was determined to secure its position in the region since it provided protection for the Indian ocean and therefore, to India itself. As well as being a direct strategic asset, Africa represented the power struggle between Britain and her European rivals. It can be argued, therefore, that Britain's formal presence was caused by the expansion of other European powers in the region. This is perhaps most keenly seen in the partition of West Africa, which was prompted by French expansion into the Upper Niger region and Bismarck's desire to challenge Britain in the Congo.
However, despite the strategic benefits and prestige that Britain accrued from her assets in Africa, it would be wrong to suggest that the impetus for expansion came solely from Westminster. It may well be true that it was the desire to prevent other nations from gaining assets that pushed Britain into acting, but it is important to understand what exactly the British government thought it would be losing if the French and the Germans were to dominate the continent. The main reason that politicians in London felt the need to prevent European expansion in Africa was to protect British economic assets. In almost all cases, it was a so-called men-on-the-spot who had developed these 'British' assets and through 'creeping imperialism' made sure that British companies and traders dominated the region. In West Africa, George Goldie set up the National African Company and lobbied the government to protect trade on the Niger river from the threat that the French might cut off British traders from the African interior. There is a direct connection between Goldie's action and Britain's formal interest in the area and eventual “effective occupation” of a large swathe of territory that was legitimised by the Berlin conference in 1884. In East Africa it was the rivalry between William Mackinnon and the German man-on-the-spot Karl Peters which led to British intervention. After all, it was Mackinnon's Imperial British East Africa Company, set up in 1888, and its rivalry with Peter's own German company which created British and German “assets” in the region that both governments were extremely reluctant to defend, but that became important 'pawns' in the 'Great Game' that was being played out between the two imperial rivals. However, perhaps the best example of the actions of an individual drawing the British government in to protect an asset of his own making was Cecil Rhodes' annexation of Mashonaland in 1889. In all these cases, it was individuals in Africa who made it a threat to British interests for other European powers to expand their interests in the area.
It was not only in economic matters that men-on-the-spot played a role in influencing government policy. In the Sudan, in 1885, General Gordon made decisions 'on the spot' which although they did not cause the British to defend Khartoum, did sow the seeds of public discontent that would be the inspiration for Kitchener's invasion 12 years later. More importantly, Cecil Rhodes and James Milner in Southern Africa played crucial roles in shaping policy, by exacerbating tensions between the government of Cape Colony and the Boer government of the Transvaal. Tensions which eventually led to a vicious 3 year conflict that cost the lives of over 30,000 people.
In conclusion, whilst it cannot be said that men-on-the-spot were primarily responsible for the expansion of British actions in Africa in the years 1875 to 1914 it can certainly be argued that these individuals created and shaped the African context that heavily influenced the government back home. However, without Great Power politics, the perception of economic gain and the strategic benefits of the regions, it is hard to imagine the British government acting just to protect the private wealth and ambitions of a few individuals.