The Berlin conference of 1884 was the gathering of the major European superpowers to negotiate the division of the African continent.

Berlin Conference
A cartoon representing German Chancellor, Bismarck sharing Africa

The Berlin conference also referred to as the Congo Conference or West African conference came into being as a result of the interest of the Europeans in the vast amount of treasured raw materials scattered all around Africa.

Berlin conference
Africa’s Vast Resources

Before the conference, European diplomacy treated African indigenous people in the same manner as the new world natives, forming trading relationships with the indigenous chiefs. In the early 1800s, the search for Ivory, which was then often used in the production of luxurious products, led many white traders further into the interior of Africa. By the early 1800s, due to varying factors including diplomatic maneuvers, subsequent colonial exploration, and recognition of Africa’s abundance of valuable resources such as gold, timber, rubber, land and markets, European interest in the continent increased dramatically. Britain, Germany, Belgium, France now looked to Africa for natural resources for their growing industrial sectors as well as a potential market for the goods their factories produced. As a result, they all sought to safeguard their commercial interest in Africa and began sending scouts to Africa. Belgium’s King Leopold sent secret agents to lay claims to vast tracts of land, followed by Germany’s Otto Von Bismarck.

Otto Von Bismarck- Berlin Conference
Chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck
leopold Berlin conference
Leopold II, King of Belgium

The abundance of valuable raw materials in various African territories led to a fierce conflict among European powers, particularly between Britain and France over West Africa, the Portuguese and British in East Africa, France, and Leopold II over central Africa.

Berlin conference
Scramble for Africa

Each of these European powers wanted to totally dominate and control an entire territory without any external influence. In an attempt to put an end to this conflict and have each European power lay claim to a particular territory, a conference was opened on November 15, 1884, in Berlin, Germany and continued till 26 February 1885. 14 European countries without any single representative from Africa were in attendance; Portugal, Russia, France, Germany, Britain, etc. These countries came together to “share” geometric boundaries in the interior of Africa, disregarding the cultural and linguistic boundaries already established by the indigenous African population. At the conference, Great Britain got control of Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Nigeria, and Ghana. France took some parts of West Africa, Mauritania, Chad, Gabon, Republic of Congo. Germany claimed Namibia, Tanzania, while Spain claimed Equatorial Guinea.

Berlin Conference
Map of Africa, after the Berlin Conference

After the various European powers had claimed their territories, they came up with a general act to guide their action and dominance over their territories. The General Act of the Berlin conference formalized several points;

  • European powers could only possess colonies if they maintained sufficient authority to administer and defend them.
  • The Niger and Congo rivers were free and open to the traffic of trade.
  • Any new act of possession along the African coast would not be recognized unless reported to other signatory powers.

The Berlin conference of 1884 helped to divide up Africa among the various European powers that had interests in exploiting its resources by forming colonies and destroying most of the indigenous African autonomy, self-governance, and way of life. Adding to the misery for the people of Africa and Africa itself, by 1902, 90% of all the land that made up Africa were already under European control as a result of the Berlin conference.

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