The Berlin Conference (1884-5) was a meeting of fourteen powers (European, United States, and Ottoman Empire). Their mission: peacefully divide Africa and find a way to keep African colonial empires running smoothly. The only people not represented were the Africans themselves. Africa was divided, free trade was secured, and a promise was made to end African slavery. Not agreed upon: non-exploitation of the Africans themselves. Africa was a “white man’s burden” with Africans exploited in the process.
Africa: A Long Thriving History
Africa was the birthplace of humanity. Most famously, Ancient Egypt was a thriving empire for thousands of years. Many other great civilizations and empires also existed there.
Twenty thousand people lived in and around the capital city alone. The empire thrived for over five hundred years during the Middle Ages.
The so-called “dark continent” has a long, rich history, repeatedly more advanced than those in Europe. The balance of power, however, shifted to the Europeans by the 19th Century.
Scramble For Africa
Africa was a prime target of European powers for a variety of reasons. Europeans had overseas colonies for centuries. Colonies are land settled for many reasons, including to take advantage of the area’s natural resources.
Europeans settled in the Americas. Many parts became new nations (yes, partially talking about the United States).
European countries also established colonies and retained spheres of influence (control without directly governing the areas) in Asia and the coast of Africa. It also has many profitable natural resources, including mineral wealth. Slaves also largely came from Africa.
Europeans learned more about the African interior in the 19th Century. Explorations, including David Livingstone (Scottish missionary and doctor) and Henry Stanley Livingstone (American reporter and explorer), helped outsiders understand African geography, resources, and peoples.
Africa seemed ripe for the picking. It was rich in natural resources.
Europeans believed the Africans were primitives who needed to be “civilized,” including conversion to Christianity. Europeans had a paternalistic understanding of their “white man’s burden,” which often highlighted the control side of things. Africans having an equal role was not deemed an option.
Egypt’s financial problems helped the British to gain control of the Suez Canal, providing a convenient route to British-controlled India. King Leopold II (Belgium) started a private company to mine rubber and ivory in the Congo. France gained control of Algeria and Tunisia in North Africa and would eventually have significant power over Morocco.
A “scramble” for Africa was in full swing by the last quarter of the 19th Century.
Bismarck Plays Peacemaker
European countries in the 19th Century competed with each other. They formed various alliances while still having individual interests and concerns. A prominent new player in power politics of the day, led by Otto van Bismarck (1871-90), was a newly united German state.
The scramble of Africa introduced one more potentially explosive area of European conflict. German unification provided one more European power with interest in the area. A peaceful settlement would be in the interest of everyone.
Bismarck, at the request of Portugal (with significant colonial holdings) with support from Great Britain, called for the major powers to meet in Berlin for a conference (Berlin Conference) to settle things. The meeting began in November 1884.
The countries represented: were Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (unified from 1814 to 1905), the Ottoman Empire, and the United States of America.
France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal were the most important players. The African population was over one hundred million. Nonetheless, no African representation was present.
The two major concerns of the conference were a peaceful division of Africa and free trade. The representatives negotiated the details over a few months into 1885.
Not inviting any African representatives was a glaring deficiency. The European powers drew artificial lines on the map, which did not reflect the existing cultural and political boundaries of the Africans themselves. Britain obtained much of West Africa, France control of East Africa, Belgium retained control of the central region of the Congo, and so on.
Africa is the world’s most racially and ethically diverse area. Their people developed a peaceful coexistence over the centuries. The new map divided them in ways that caused many problems, including after they obtained independence.
The Berlin Conference also approved rules for free movement of goods on Africa’s major rivers, including the Niger River and the Congo River. Belgium had a significant interest in the Congo River because of its colonial territory. The conference protected free trade for all.
The countries also agreed to prohibit slavery in Africa. Slavery was strongly disfavored in international law by the 1880s, with the United States abolishing it in the 1860s, and Brazil doing so in 1888. The end of slavery, however, did not stop the cruel economic exploitation of Africans, infamously portrayed in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Belgian Congo).
The Berlin Conference helped to speed up the scramble for Africa. There were other agreements made between different nations. But, the conference helped to set the basic rules.
By 1914, the only countries still independent in Africa were Liberia (a 19th-century nation established by freed slaves) and Ethiopia. Mussolini’s Italy would conquer Ethiopia in the 1930s. Africa was divided into fifty countries, mainly for the interests of Europeans.
African independence would occur after WWII. Africans would be in control of their lands. However, the effects of the Berlin Conference, including national lines drawn by outsiders and continual significant European control of resources (neocolonialism), would linger.