For 14 weeks and five days, between November 15, 1884, and February 26, 1885, European countries prepared and cooked their plans on how to share Africa…like a piece of cake. They called it…the Berlin Conference.
It was at this conference, in Berlin, present-day Germany, that African lands were divided on a map while the Africans themselves were exempted from the meeting. It was not an omission of invitation or a simple oversight. Rather, it was a large-scale legalised daylight robbery.
Africans were considered irrelevant and incapable of making meaningful decisions on what happened to or on their lands. Since they were uncivilised, according to these European invaders, they needed ‘help’ and the participants of the Berlin Conference were to be their saviours.
Towns, lands, and rivers were all portrayed on the map that hung on the wall. With just a ruler and pencil, borders were formed, territories claimed, and trade routes were created or removed while historical background, cultural laws, sovereignty, and traditional institutions of a people dating back thousands of years were completely ignored.
And just like a piece of cake, Africa, the second-largest continent in the world, was shared at a conference table.
The Berlin Conference: How it came to be
The Berlin Conference was organized by Otto Von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the new German Empire who was concerned with securing portions of the continent within which exploration had begun. The conference birthed the General Act of the Berlin Conference which has been nicknamed The Scramble for Africa.
The conference consisted of top European nations who were invested in exploring the resources that abound within the continent. This was justified under the guise of civilising or developing the countries which they considered barbarian and primitive. This paved the way for the colonisation of the African states by the western countries and eventually robbed the continent of its rich cultural heritage and linguistic diversity.
By the time most of these countries would gain independence from their colonial masters during the 20th century, great damage had already been done. The structures and systems that had been laid down by the colonising nations made inadequate provision for self-sufficiency and, thus, had a great dependency on their colonisers for survival.
So, how did the Berlin Conference come to be and what impact did it have on Africa as a whole?
King Leopold of Belgium’s “Civilisation” Agenda
There was the general belief by the Europeans that Africa belonged to no one in particular and had to be claimed and developed. When the Berlin conference took place, no African individual or leader was present. Ironically, Africa had experienced a great deal of development before the Europeans. By the 13th century, different empires within Africa had attained global prominence, drawing the attention and curiosity of the western world.
Some stories about the level of wealth contained within the continent seemed too good to be true but with the discovery of the Congo River Basin in 1874 by Henry Morton Stanley, there was certainty about Africa and its rich resources.
One of the leaders who were very interested in these discoveries was King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold had previously formed the International African Society which had a mission of ‘civilising’ Africa. He teamed up with Stanley and eventually created the International Congo Society. This was similar to the former society but had more goals added to be achieved by the society.
But Leopold was far from being a sincere man. He was a strategic and cunning leader who wanted to advance his personal wealth with Africa’s resources. He began sending explorers who doubled as his representatives in laying claims over a wide expanse of land at the centre of the continent.
In the course of his ‘civilisation agenda’ for Africa, he secretly bought off investors in the International Congo society. Stanley went to the area to try to establish the Congo Free state. This was while other European nations were also in the scramble for Congo.
France, on discovering Leopold’s hidden agenda, sent their explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who created Brazzaville and mounted the French flag while Portugal laid claims as well on the Congo area which they backed by treaties signed with leaders of the ancient Kongo Kingdom.
The Purpose of the Berlin Conference
Other European countries began taking interest in the continent of gold they had heard rumours about and this resulted in competition and great conflict between these nations that were claiming different regions of Africa. Great Britain and France were both having conflicts over West Africa, Portugal in Egypt and Britain in East Africa. Leopold and the French also had conflicts in Central Africa over the Congo area.
The German Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck, whose country was considered an imperial power, also picked up interest in laying claims to African lands. He sought to resolve these conflicts by calling for the Berlin Conference. Bismarck felt these conflicts arose because there was no equal distribution of access to the economic advantage Africa provided and called for the conference to resolve these irregularities. This proves that the purpose of the Berlin Conference was largely economical and not for developing the African states.
Countries such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden–Norway, and the Ottoman Empire were represented at the conference. The conference began on November 15, 1884, and went on for 14 weeks and five days ending on February 26 of 1885.
At the Berlin Conference, territories claimed by European countries were to be legalised, formalised and then drawn on the map to avoid further conflict. Trade routes were also agreed upon amidst colonies and a framework for colonising territories was created. Explorers were to be sent out to explore the African lands. Then, they would proceed to offer protection to the indigenous people of that land by signing treaties with them.
Finally, the European explorers or ambassadors would return to their home country with the treaties signed. Then the government of that country would inform or negotiate with other European countries so that their claim over the African territory would be recognised and uncontested.
In all of these establishments, Africans were not included or considered although it was their land which was being divided. They were regarded as incapable of ruling themselves. It would also be interesting to note that most of the time, the indigenous rulers did not even understand what the treaty was about or what they were signing. In some scenarios, these treaties were signed by makeshift leaders who did not exactly have the authority to do so.
However, one African leader saw through the tricks of the Europeans. Menelik, an important leader in Ethiopia who would eventually become emperor, wrote a letter to the participants of the conference clearly stating that Ethiopia would not be needing their “protection”. A part of the letter read:
“Since the All-Powerful has protected Ethiopia up until now, I am hopeful that he will keep and enlarge it also in the future, and I do not think for a moment that He [God] will divide Ethiopia among the other Powers.”
Although his letter was ignored, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African states that were not colonised in the Scramble. The Sultan of Zanzibar begged to be present at the conference but to no avail. Little did he know that he was to be part of the main topic of discussion.
The General Act
The General Act was the outcome of the Berlin Conference and it made provisions for different trade routes and the framework for colonization. It addressed different issues bordering on the colonization of the African states. It confirmed the Congo Free State as the private property of King Leopold II and also confirmed the free trade proposal by making the Niger and Congo Rivers free for ship traffic.
The General Act also included the signing of the international prohibition of the slave trade. More importantly, it established the Principle of Effectivity which stated that powers could only possess colonies if they actually possessed them. This also meant that any country which wanted possession of any territory in Africa would notify other signatory powers for formalisation and recognition.
The Berlin Conference was a glaring disregard for Africans. The Europeans saw their views, opinions and ownership over their lands as irrelevant. Fourteen countries were duly represented at the conference and at its conclusion, eight out of the fourteen countries started possessing different parts of the African regions. The six other participants such as Austria-Hungary, Russia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, and the United States did not take any formal possession of any part of Africa. However, by the end of the 19th century, all African states, except Ethiopia and Liberia, had been colonised by the Europeans.
The Scramble for Africa
After the Berlin Conference ended in 1885, it led to the creation of African countries by forcefully merging differing ethnic groups, cultures, languages, and people. This, of course, overrode the existing groupings, boundaries, and regions within the continent. The conference legalised what was not legal and created a ground for cooperation between the European countries on taking over the African states. The European countries claimed to offer protection to the countries they overtook.
The 1884/1885 Berlin Conference would not only be the birthplace of colonisation but also conflicts within and without countries, states and ethnic groups that still exist to this day. The robbery did not only end with lands and territories but also cultural artefacts, treasures, and resources yet to be regained by the continent.
It was obvious that the Europeans were wolves in sheep’s clothing fueled by the desire for acquiring Africa’s natural resources for the betterment of their countries. As such, there was a need to secure their portions to maintain their industrial sector which was just starting to grow. To achieve this, they had to secure African territories that would readily provide them with the resources they needed and a market for the goods they produced.
A total of 50 countries were carved out of the Scramble for Africa.
Great Britain took control of Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), Botswana, Nigeria, and Ghana.
France took a better part of western Africa, from Mauritania to Chad, and also Gabon and the Republic of Congo.
Belgium and King Leopold II controlled the Democratic Republic of Congo while Portugal took Mozambique in the east and Angola in the west.
Italy got hold of Somalia (then known as Italian Somaliland) and a portion of Ethiopia later on.
Germany took Cameroon, Namibia, and Tanzania while Spain got the smallest territory, which was Equatorial Guinea – the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa.
Shortfalls of the Berlin Conference
The Berlin Conference which lasted for over three months still evaded serious problems and questions that were left unanswered. Many of the representatives had not stepped foot on African soil and somehow assumed they could understand and manage the complexities of the African states.
The sovereignty of the African states was not recognised. Yet, treaties were needed to be signed to legalise the relationship between both parties. This in itself was contradictory to the claims of the European states.
Although the General Act seemed to prohibit the slave trade, it is on record that over ten million Africans in the Congo area died under Leopold’s leadership due to starvation, diseases, and war. The Act was used to gain approval and legitimacy in the public eye by the European countries but did not in any way alleviate the sufferings and conditions of the locals under their colonial masters. The locals were brutalised and used to further his selfish interests.
The concept of free trade was unrealistic as many of the colonising countries would not readily allow free trade within countries they had invested heavily in colonising.
For instance, the Congo was operated as a monopoly under Leopold’s rule. The conference which tried to curb the Scramble for Africa further enhanced it. It was presented as a means of creating a platform for peaceful claiming of African states by European states but it also had its hidden agenda.
Germany and Britain were interested in Africa to promote their ambitions and retain their position as the number one global power over the others and not for peaceful colonisation as assumed.
The Aftermath of the Berlin Conference
The Berlin conference holds entirely different consequences for the continents involved. For Europe, it was just a failed enterprise. While in Africa, it created long-lasting damage that is still visible to this day.
Some of the damages done by colonisation have been said to be too large to be repaired. Even after gaining independence, most of these colonised African countries are still ill-equipped to be well-run by themselves. Greed and corruption are the order of the day and conflicts still exist within the African borders.
Some African diplomats have called for redrawing the African map and redefining the boundaries laid by the colonial masters, but there are also fears that this might aggravate an already politically-tense climate. These fears have created another group of the opinion that the colonial boundaries be respected. Nevertheless, this does not suffice for the damages that run deeper in the cracks within the continent.
It has been 137 years since the Berlin Conference ended and one can only help but wonder if Africa would ever recover from the effects of the European invasion and plunder.
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