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Scramble for Africa: Berlin Conference of 1884 -1885 to Divide Africa

March 30, 2013
The evolution of Africa since 1851

The evolution of Africa since 1851

After Stanley labeled much of the last terra incognita on the map of Africa in the 1870s, the continent became totally vulnerable to the imperial aspirations of European countries. In 1881 France alarmed Italy by seizing Tunisia. The next year Britain occupied Egypt, infuriating France – which had built and now co-owned the Suez Canal. To reduce the possibility of a general European conflict over these and numerous other disputes involving Africa, Germany organized the Berlin Conference in 1884.

15 November 1884- The Conference of Berlin and British ‘New’ Imperialism, also known as the “Congo conference” began. In 1884 at the request of Portugal, German Chancellor Otto von Bismark called together the major western powers of the world to negotiate questions and end confusion over the control of Africa.

Bismark appreciated the opportunity to expand Germany’s sphere of influence over Africa and desired to force Germany’s rivals to struggle with one another for territory.

The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one.

The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African Continent. By the time Africa regained its independence after the late 1950s, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily. The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy acquisitiveness during a period when Europe’s search for minerals and markets had become insatiable.

At the time of the conference, 80% of Africa remained under Native Traditional and local control.

Fourteen countries were represented by a plethora of ambassadors when the conference opened in Berlin on November 15, 1884 by the imperial chancellor and architect of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck to settle the political partitioning of Africa. Bismarck wanted not only to expand German spheres of influence in Africa but also to play off Germany’s colonial rivals against one another to the Germans’ advantage.

The countries represented at the time included Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (unified from 1814-1905), Turkey, and the United States of America. Of these fourteen nations, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal were the major players in the conference, controlling most of colonial Africa at the time.

The initial task of the conference was to agree that the Congo River and Niger River mouths and basins would be considered neutral and open to trade. Despite its neutrality, part of the Kongo Basin became a personal Kingdom (private property) for Belgium’s King Leopold II and under his rule, over half of the region’s population died.

At the time of the conference, only the coastal areas of Africa were colonized by the European powers. At the Berlin Conference the European colonial powers scrambled to gain control over the Interior of the Continent. The conference lasted until February 26, 1885 – a three month period where colonial powers haggled over geometric boundaries in the interior of the continent, disregarding the cultural and linguistic boundaries already established by the Native Indigenous African population. What ultimately resulted was a hodgepodge of geometric boundaries that divided Africa into fifty irregular countries.

This new map of the continent was superimposed over the one thousand Indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. The new countries lacked rhyme or reason and divided coherent groups of people and merged together disparate groups who really did not get along.

Following the conference, the give and take continued. By 1914, the conference participants had fully divided Africa among themselves into fifty unnatural and artificial States.

The General Act of the Berlin Conference formalized several points:
– 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; the Congo Free State was the private property of the Congo Society;

– any new act of possession along the African coast would not be recognized unless reported to the other signatory powers. The phrase “spheres of influence” made its first appearance in an international agreement.

The “scramble for Africa,” as historians have called it, had begun.


The Berlin Conference:
The General Act of Feb. 26, 1885

Chap. I [relating to the Kongo River Basin and adjacent territories]

I. The trade of all nations shall enjoy complete freedom

II. All flags, without distinction of nationality, shall have free access to the whole of the coast-line of the territories . . . 

III. Goods of whatever origin, imported into these regions, under whatsoever flag, by sea or river, or overland, shall be subject to no other taxes than such as may be levied as fair compensation for expenditure in the interests of trade . . .

IV. Merchandise imported into these regions shall remain free from import and transit duties [subject to review after 20 years]

V. No power which exercises or shall exercise sovereign rights in the . . regions shall be allowed to grant therein a monopoly or favour of any kind in matters of trade…

VI. All the powers exercising sovereign rights or influence in the aforesaid territories bind themselves to watch over the preservation of the native tribes, and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being and to help in suppressing slavery, and especially the Slave Trade. They shall, without distinction of creed or nation, protect and favour all religious, scientific, or charitable institutions and undertakings created and organized for the above ends, or which aim at instructing the natives and bringing home to them the blessings of civilization.
Christian missionaries, scientists, and explorers, with their followers, property, and collections, shall likewise be the objects of especial protection.
Freedom of conscience and religious toleration are expressly guaranteed to the natives, no less than to subjects and to foreigners . . .

Chap. II Documents relative to the Slave Trade

IX. …………the Powers which do or shall exercise sovereign rights or influence in the territories forming the .. basin of the Congo declare that these territories may not serve as a market or means of transit for the trade in slaves, of whatever race they may be. Each of the Powers binds itself to employ all the means at its disposal for putting an end to this trade and for punishing those who engage in it.

Chap. IV Act of Navigation for the Kongo

XIII. The navigation of the Kongo, without excepting any of its branches or outlets, is, and shall remain, free for the merchant ships of all nations equally . . . the subjects and flags of all nations shall in all respects be treated on a footing of perfect equality . . . no exclusive privilege of navigation will be conceded to Companies, Corporations, or private persons whatsoever . . .

Chap. V Act of Navigation for the Niger.

XXVI. The navigation of the (River) Niger, without excepting any of its branches and outlets, is and shall remain entirely free for the merchant ships of all nations equally . . .[both Britain and France which had parts of the region of the Niger under protectorate status also undertook to apply the principle of free trade in their territories]

Chap. VI [Regarding new occupations on the coasts of Africa]

XXXIV. Any power which henceforth takes possession of a tract of land on the coasts of the African Continent outside of its present possessions, or which, being hitherto without such possessions, shall acquire them and assume a protectorate. . . shall accompany either act with a notification thereof, addressed to the other Signatory Powers of the present Act, in order to enable them to protest against the same if there exists any grounds for their doing so.

XXXV. The Signatory Powers of the present Act recognize the obligation to insure the establishment of authority in the regions occupied by them on the coasts of the African Continent sufficient to protect existing rights, and, as the case may be, freedom of trade and of transit under the conditions aggreed upon.

XXXVII. The Powers signatory to the present general Act reserve to themselves the right of eventually, by mutual agreement, introducing therein modifications or improvements the utility of which has been shown by experience ………………………………..

Done at Berlin, the 26th day of February, 1885.

Berlin Act Article 43

Article 34 of the Berlin Act states that any European nation that took possession of an African coast, or named themselves as “protectorate” of one; had to inform the signatory powers of the Berlin Act of this action.  If this was not done then their claim would not be recognized. This article introduced the “spheres of influence” doctrine, the control of a coast also meant that they would control the hinterland to an almost unlimited distance.  Article 35 determined that in order to occupy a coastal possession, the nation also had to prove that they controlled sufficient authority there to protect existing rights such as freedom of trade and transit.  This was called the doctrine of “effective occupation” and it made the conquest of Africa a less bloody process.

The Berlin Act was an important change in international affairs.  It created the rules for “effective occupation” of conquered lands, ensuring that the division of Africa would take place without war among the European powers.  Through the Berlin Act, the European powers justified dividing a continent among themselves without considering the desires of the indigenous peoples.  While this appears extremely arrogant to us now, it seemed to them to be the obvious extension of their imperialism.  The Berlin Conference is one of the most clear examples of the assumptions and preconceptions of this era, and its effects on Africa can still be seen today.  The arbitrary boundaries the Europeans imposed often divided an ethnic group and also brought enemies under the same government causing strife that still exists today.

The boundaries of present day Africa were largely determined at the Congress of Berlin.


From → Africa, Uncategorized

  1. joseph tonya permalink

    I thank the one who did this writing.It has been a big help for me and my learners.


  2. apollo permalink

    well detailed notes.thanks


  3. Am proudly South Africana and pioneer of the African renaisance, Mayibuye iAfrica!


  4. god source materia


  5. eunifa burton permalink

    good explanations,it help me to understand more than i did,keep on it


  6. I’m happy for the person that gives us some information i needed this this had helped, because i have this pay i have to do at school and i have found the answer thank you whoever was writing this, thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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