History of Cameroon
Cameroon’s legacy of ethnic diversity dates back to 8,000 BCE with the migration of the Baka (Pygmies). They still inhabit the forests of the south and east provinces. By 200 BCE, an influx of Bantu-speaking tribes into the southern and eastern regions of the country had pushed the Bakas off arable land and into the nearby forests. Meanwhile, Arabic and Hamitic migratory groups began to settle in the dry, arid north. Several important civilizations grew in the north surrounding the Chad basin, including strongholds of power belonging to the Karem, Bournou, and Sou peoples. But at the beginning of the 15th century, these northern ethnic groups were joined by the nomadic, Islamist Fulani tribe who, by the 1700’s, had established a powerful presence in the region.
Europeans first arrived on Cameroonian soil in the 15th century, when Portuguese explorer Fernando Po led an expedition of explorers up the Wouri River in 1472. Due to the abundance of giant shrimps in the river, Po christened the river the Rio dos Camaroes (or the River of Prawns), the base of which forms the name Cameroon. Po’s arrival in Cameroon marked the beginning of a 400-year trading relationship between the Portuguese and local African chiefs primarily from Douala, Limbé, and Bonaberi. This trade, which consisted of slaves, foodstuff, and goods, eventually came to include the British, Dutch, French, and Germans in addition to the Portuguese. Yet, as was the case in most Afro-European relations, malaria and other tropical diseases restricted European presence to the costal regions.
The explosion of Euro-African trade increased the prominence of the coastal kingdoms, overtaking the pre-existing Bornou Empire. The power of the coastal kingdoms was balanced by the Fulani stronghold in the north, which was consolidated by the end of the eighteenth century through either conquering or expelling the region’s non-Muslim population. The Fulani themselves proceeded to establish a lucrative slave trade that sustained their hold on power, while the cessation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade forced southern ethnic groups to trade exclusively in gold and ivory in return for European guns, metals, cloth, and alcohol. These southern ethnic groups made lucrative profits off of their trade with the Europeans, mostly due to their role as middlemen in the exchanges.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the European Scramble for Africa radically changed power structures in Cameroon. The southern coastal tribes developed a fear that the interior ethnic groups would start trading directly with the Europeans, thus undercutting their powerful intermediary status. To avoid this, the Douala-centered chiefs sought a British protectorate that would cement their power; yet British delays in sending an envoy to meet with the chiefs forced the African leaders to turn to Germany instead. In 1884, Germany assumed sovereignty of the territory and, in exchange, conferred special trade privileges upon the chiefs of Douala and Bamiléké.
Beginning on July 5, 1884, all of present-day Cameroon and parts of several of its neighbours became a German colony, Kamerun, with a capital first at Buea and later at Yaoundé. From 1884 to 1919, all of present-day Cameroon was consolidated and administered as the German colony Kamerun, despite the multitude of ethnic groups with their individual histories, cultures, traditions, and governments. The Germans administered Kamerun intent on building the colony’s infrastructure and consolidating its rule by expanding into the interior and conquering tribal strongholds.
The Imperial German government made substantial investments in the infrastructure of Cameroon, including the extensive railways, such as the 160-metre single-span railway bridge on the South Sanaga River branch. Hospitals were opened all over the colony, including two major hospitals in Douala, one of which specialized in tropical diseases (the Germans wrote in an official report in 1919 that the population of Kamerun had increased significantly). However, the indigenous peoples proved reluctant to work on these projects, so the Germans instigated a harsh and unpopular system of forced labour. In fact, Jesko von Puttkamer was relieved of duty as governor of the colony due to his untoward actions toward the native Cameroonians. Jesko Albert Eugen von Puttkamer (2 July 1855 in Berlin; 23 January 1917 in Berlin) was a German colonial military chief, and nine times governor of Kamerun. Jesko Albert Eugen von Puttkamer left a splendid residential manor in Buea, Cameroon.
In 1911 at the Treaty of Fez after the Agadir Crisis, France ceded a nearly 300,000 km² portion of the territory of French Equatorial Africa to Kamerun which became Neukamerun, while Germany ceded a smaller area in the north in present day Chad to France.
In World War I, the British invaded Cameroon from Nigeria in 1914 in the Kamerun campaign, with the last German fort in the country surrendering in February 1916. After the war Neukamerun was partitioned between the United Kingdom and France under a June 28, 1919 League of Nations mandates (Class B). France gained the larger geographical share, transferred Neukamerun back to neighboring French colonies, and ruled the rest from Yaoundé as Cameroun (French Cameroons). Britain’s territory, a strip bordering Nigeria from the sea to Lake Chad, with an equal population was ruled from Lagos as Cameroons (British Cameroons). German administrators were allowed to once again run the plantations of the southwestern coastal area. A British Parliamentary Publication, Report on the British Sphere of the Cameroons (May 1922, p. 62-8), reports that the German plantations there were “as a whole . . . wonderful examples of industry, based on solid scientific knowledge. The natives have been taught discipline and have come to realise what can be achieved by industry. Large numbers who return to their villages take up cocoa or other cultivation on their own account, thus increasing the general prosperity of the country.”
Thus, Germany’s defeat in World War I halted any grand plans it might have had for the colony, for as a stipulation in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to surrender its overseas colonies to the victorious European powers. Under a mandate from the League of Nations, France assumed control of 80% of the colony, excepting a small sliver of territory in the west which Britain administered as North Cameroon and South Cameroon from Nigeria’s colonial capital in Lagos.
British and French colonial rule of Cameroon lasted past World War II, yet the war left the two imperialist nations economically and militarily crippled. Across Africa and the rest of the colonial world, movements for independence charged against the European powers, and Cameroon was no exception. In French Cameroon, rage at the French-imposed taxes and forced labor systems coalesced into anti-colonial political parties that advocated for independence and reunification. Most notable of these parties was the Union of Cameroonian Peoples (in French, Union des Populations du Cameroun, or the UPC), consisting mainly of the Bamiléké and Bassa ethnic groups, and the Bloc Démocratique Camerounais (BDC), led by Fulani native Ahmadou Ahidjo.
Cameroon nationalists headed by Ruben Um Nyobé, Dr. Félix-Roland Moumié, Ernest Ouandié, and Abel Kingué established the Union of Cameroonian Peoples (Union des Populations du Cameroon – UPC) in Douala on April 10, 1948. The UPC advocated the unification of British Cameroon and French Cameroon, and advocated the independence of Cameroon under the terms of the United Nations Charter. The UN Assembly approved a trusteeship agreement for French and British administration of the Cameroons in 1949. From the start, the UPC insisted upon immediate independence and reunification of the two Cameroons. When these demands were not met, the UPC resorted to armed conflict for an independent French Cameroon, a struggle that lasted past independence.
Legislative elections were held in March 1952, and the Cameroonian Democratic Bloc (Bloc Democratique Camerounais – BDC) won most of the seats in the Territorial Assembly. One individual was killed in political violence in May 1952. Government police and demonstrators clashed in Douala, Yaoundé, Bafoussam, Meiganga, and other cities on May 22-30, 1955, resulting in the deaths of 26 individuals. The French government issued a decree banning the UPC on July 13, 1955. On August 2, 1956, the French government agreed to allow the UPC to participate in legislative elections scheduled for December 23, 1956. But, Members of the Union of Cameroonian Peoples (Union des Populations du Cameroon – UPC) rebelled against the French government beginning on December 18, 1956.
Legislative elections were held on 23 December 1956 and the Cameroon Union (Union Camerounaise – UC) won 30 out of 70 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The Cameroonian Party of Democrats (Parti des Démocrates Camerounais – PDC) won 20 seats in the Legislative Assembly. The French government deployed additional troops to French Cameroon. Some 2,000 individuals were killed in political violence in the Sanaga maritime region between December 1956 and January 1957.
The Legislative Assembly convened on January 28, 1957, and the assembly approved the Statute of the Cameroon on February 22, 1957. The same Assembly passed a decree on 16 April 1957 which made French Cameroon a State. It took back its former status of associated territory as a member of the French Union. French Cameroon inhabitants became Cameroonian citizens, Cameroonian institutions were created under the sign of parliamentary democracy. Andre-Marie Mbida was appointed as prime minister (head of government) in French Cameroon on May 12, 1957. Seven individuals were killed in political violence near Bafoussam on December 15, 1957. Jean Ramadier was appointed as French High Commissioner for French Cameroon on February 5, 1958. The French National Assembly approved an amnesty for UPC rebels on February 7, 1958. Prime Minister Mbida resigned on February 17, 1958, and Ahmadou Ahidjo of the UC, formed a government as prime minister on February 19, 1958.
On 12 June 1958 the Legislative Assembly of French Cameroon asked the French government to: ‘Accord independence to the State of Cameroon at the ends of their trusteeship. Transfer every competence related to the running of internal affairs of Cameroon to Cameroonians`.
Ruben Um Nyobé, leader of the UPC, was killed by government police near Boumnyebel on September 13, 1958. Some 2,000 UPC rebels surrendered to French troops between September 14 and December 31, 1958. Some 75 civilians and 370 UPC rebels were killed in political violence between September 5, 1957 and October 31, 1958.
On 19 October 1958 France recognized the right of her United Nations trust territory of the Cameroons to choose independence. On 24 October 1958 the Legislative Assembly of French Cameroon solemnly proclaimed the desire of Cameroonians to see their country accede full independence on 1 January 1960. It enjoined the government of French Cameroon to ask France to inform the General Assembly of the United Nations, to abrogate the trusteeship accord concomitant with the independence of French Cameroon.
The UN General Assembly sent a four-member fact-finding mission (Haiti, India, New Zealand, US) headed by Benjamin Gerig of the U.S. to the Cameroons between October 29 and December 6, 1958. On 12 November 1958 having accorded French Cameroon total internal autonomy and thinking that this transfer no longer permitted it to assume its responsibilities over the trust territory for an unspecified period, the government of France asked the United Nations to grant the wish of French Cameroonians. On 15 December 1958 the United Nations’ General Assembly took note of the French government’s declaration according to which French Cameroon, which was under French administration, would gain independence on 1 January 1960, thus marking an end to the trusteeship period (Resolution 1282. XIII). The UN fact-finding mission issued a report to the UN General Assembly on February 20, 1959.
On March 13, 1959, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution calling for the independence of French Cameroon. On 13 March 1959 the United Nations’ General Assembly resolved that the UN Trusteeship Agreement with France for French Cameroon would end when French Cameroon became independent on 1 January 1960 (Resolution 1349. XIII).
On January 1, 1960, France granted its Cameroonian territory independence, followed a year later by a U.N.-sponsored referendum in the British Cameroons. The Muslim-dominated North Cameroon voted to join Nigeria while South Cameroon voted to join East Cameroon as one country.
- Background Note: Cameroon from the U.S. Department of State.
- Bullock, A. L. C. (1939). Germany’s Colonial Demands, Oxford University Press.
- DeLancey, Mark W., and DeLancey, Mark Dike (2000): Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cameroon (3rd ed.). Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press.
- Schnee, Heinrich (1926). German Colonization, Past and Future: The Truth about the German Colonies. London: George Allen & Unwin.