How Europe Divided Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884

As Europe discovered many of the natural resources within Africa, it became clear that war was likely the outcome as European nations tried to control this vast continent. To avoid ongoing conflict and its significant financial implications, the countries met in Berlin to negotiate questions and end any confusion regarding control of Africa.

It is interesting to note that none of the ruling parties of Africa were part of this conversation. Instead, it was only Western powers. The result was a continent divided, as tribes and cultures were split by the borders created thousands of miles away from their homes and communities.

Why did the Western nations feel empowered to impose their will on this continent? More importantly, how has that impacted Africa in the decades since that conference?

The Berlin Conference

Purpose of the Berlin Conference of 1884

Expansion was the name of the game in the 1800s. Many European countries, particularly France, Spain, and Germany, saw Africa’s vast resources and wanted their share. In 1884, German Chancellor Otto von Bismark called together the major Western powers to discuss Africa.

While Portugal had requested that he do so, von Bismark appreciated that this allowed him to increase Germany’s influence over the rich continent.

The scramble and partitioning of Africa had been well underway before the conference. While it appeared to create new boundaries and countries, the deeper implications were that the ground rules were set for how these Western nations would interact in this playground of natural resources, including mineral wealth.

There was no talk about whether it was legal for them to lay claim to someone else’s resources and land. Historically, Europe had already stolen land from the indigenous peoples in North America, South America, chunks of Asia, and Australia.

So, it was no surprise that they felt a moral high ground as they turned their sights to Africa.

As the conference convened, 80% of Africa was under local and traditional control, a fact that these nations wanted to change. Europe had some influence, but it was evident that these Western nations wanted to change that.

The Berlin Conference of 1884 resulted in a random division of Africa, creating 50 irregular countries and putting borders across over 1,000 indigenous cultures and regions. These new countries put enemies into the same country while dividing allies and tribes. Coherent groups were split up, and disparate groups were merged.

Who played a role in creating these rules for Africa’s conquest and partition, and how did they benefit?

Representation Matters

There were 14 countries represented by many ambassadors, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Great Britain, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (who were united at this point in history), Turkey, and the United States.

Notice that of all these countries, there were no representatives from Africa. The Sultan of Zanzibar tried to invite himself to the conference and was laughed off by the British.

France, Great Britain, Portugal, and Germany controlled most of colonial Africa at that time, so they took on a significant role at the conference.

The Berlin Conference of 1884 gave them legal standing to expand their control and solidify their power over territories claimed throughout Africa. While it might have appeared diplomatic, the conference was focused on economics. The Lagos Observer said, “the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.”

Trade was a priority, so the initial task was to agree on neutral areas open to trade. These included the Congo River and Niger River, both mouths and basins. It was meant to create the Congo Free State, the only nation actually created from this conference. Despite this agreement, Belgium’s King Leopold made a part of the Congo basin his personal kingdom. That was disastrous for the people there, as under his rule, over half of the region’s population died.

Another part of the conference was to determine control of the African interior. When the Berlin Conference of 1884 began, the coastal areas of Africa were the primary areas colonized by Europe and Western nations. The interior was largely unclaimed, but there was a desire to grab resources to increase their power.

Over three months, geometric boundaries were created to divide natural resources, with no regard for cultural and linguistic boundaries. The General Act was signed and ratified by 13 nations.

The United States, uniquely enough, refrained. Although the map from that point on defined who was in charge of what, it eventually became the map of the nations of Africa, as borders were enforced, and the influence of the European colonizers shaped governments.

Results of the Berlin Conference of 1884

Although the conference created boundaries, the haggling between countries about those boundaries and their holdings continued. Great Britain, for instance, wanted to create a route from the Cape to Cairo. They nearly succeeded, having control of Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. They also had control of what was known as the Gold Coast (Nigeria and Ghana).

This robbery of the African people’s land and resources was legalized by the Berlin Conference of 1884. Africans were seen as meaningless, incapable of making critical decisions about their lands and the natural resources they contained.

Europeans saw themselves as the bastion of “civilization” and deemed Africans uncivilized. They needed help, and these nations felt the best way to give that help was to take over, imposing their will in the name of “civilization.”

Many ambassadors and representatives had never set foot in Africa, but somehow, they thought themselves experts on the complexities of African states and cultures. African states did not have recognized sovereignty, but that sovereignty was necessary for treaties to be implemented. Somehow this conundrum never ended up being a cause for concern for those powerful Western countries.

The General Act also seemed to prohibit the slave trade. Still, it was clear that the colonial masters cared little for the suffering and horrible conditions imposed on the Africans under their care. Instead, families and communities were torn apart to enrich the pockets of these Western powers.

The Aftermath Lingered On

While the conference allowed Europe to wield influence over the resources of Africa for a few more decades, there was also a great deal of political damage.

Even after the African nations gained independence from Europe, they were left ill-equipped to run themselves. No investments had been made in building the political infrastructure, so these nations struggled with in-fighting. The supposed help from Europe was no help at all, simply plundering Africa’s resources. Stealing seems to be a core part of how European civilization functions.

The divisions from this theft created a politically intense environment. Plus, although these European nations technically do not run these countries any longer, they still have a significant economic hold over them. Additionally, European influences can still be felt in many aspects of these countries, including who remains in power and who doesn’t.

As Africa tries to reclaim its heritage and also reset its political landscape, the damage from the Berlin Conference of 1884 continues over a century after the nations gathered to divvy up a rich continent.

Today, Africa is still seen primarily as a source of raw materials, and African heads of state are seen begging for favors and foreign capital. Perhaps it is time for Africans to debate and decide their future instead of continuing to allow the rest of the world to dictate that future for them.

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