The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, also known as the Congo Conference (German: Kongokonferenz) or West Africa Conference (Westafrika-Konferenz), regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period and coincided with Germany's sudden emergence as an imperial power. The conference was organized by Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany. Its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, can be seen as the formalisation of the Scramble for Africa, but some scholars of history warn against an overemphasis of its role in the colonial partitioning of Africa and draw attention to bilateral agreements concluded before and after the conference. The conference contributed to ushering in a period of heightened colonial activity by European powers, which eliminated or overrode most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.
Before the conference, European diplomacy treated African natives in the same manner as New World natives: by forming trading relationships with the indigenous chiefs. In the early 1800s, the search for ivory, which was then often used in the production of luxury goods, led many white traders further into the interior of Africa. With the exception of trading posts along the coasts, the continent was essentially ignored during that period.
In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium, who had founded and controlled the International African Association the same year, invited Henry Morton Stanley to join him in researching and 'civilizing' the continent. In 1878, the International Congo Society was also formed, with more economic goals but still closely related to the former society. Léopold secretly bought off the foreign investors in the Congo Society, which was turned to imperialistic goals, with the African Society serving primarily as a philanthropic front.
From 1878 to 1885, Stanley returned to the Congo not as a reporter but as an envoy from Leopold with the secret mission to organise what would soon after the closure of the Berlin Conference, in August 1885, become known as the Congo Free State. French intelligence had discovered Leopold's plans, and France quickly engaged in its own colonial exploration. In 1881, French naval officer Pierre de Brazza was dispatched to central Africa, travelled into the western Congo basin and raised the French flag over the newly-founded Brazzaville in what is now the Republic of Congo. Finally, Portugal, which had essentially abandoned a colonial empire in the area, long held through the mostly-defunct proxy Kongo Empire, also claimed the area. Its claims were based on old treaties with Restoration-era Spain and the Roman Catholic Church. It quickly made a treaty on 26 February 1884 with its former ally, Great Britain, to block off the Congo Society's access to the Atlantic.
By the early 1880s, many factors, including diplomatic manoeuvres; subsequent colonial exploration; and the recognition of Africa's abundance of valuable resources such as gold, timber, rubber, land, and markets, had dramatically increased European interest in the continent. Stanley's charting of the Congo River Basin (1874-1877) removed the last terra incognita from European maps of the continent, delineating the areas of British, Portuguese, French and Belgian control. The powers raced to push the rough boundaries to their limits and eliminate any potential local minor powers that might prove troublesome to European competitive diplomacy.
France moved to take over Tunisia, one of the last of the Barbary states, under the pretext of another piracy incident. French claims by Pierre de Brazza were quickly solidified by the French taking control of what is now the Republic of the Congo in 1881 and Guinea in 1884. Italy became part of the Triple Alliance, which upset Bismarck's carefully-laid plans with the state and forcing Germany to become involved in Africa.
In 1882, realizing the geopolitical extent of Portuguese control on the coasts, but seeing penetration by France eastward across Central Africa toward Ethiopia, the Nile, and the Suez Canal, Britain saw its vital trade route through Egypt to India threatened. Under the pretext of the collapsed Egyptian financing and a subsequent mutiny in which hundreds of Europeans and British subjects were murdered or injured, Britain intervened in the nominally-Ottoman Egypt, which it kept its control for decades.
The European race for colonies made Germany start launching expeditions of its own, which frightened both British and French statesmen. Hoping to quickly soothe the brewing conflict, Belgian King Leopold II convinced France and Germany that common trade in Africa was in the best interests of all three countries. Under support from the British and the initiative of Portugal, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany, called on representatives of 13 nations in Europe as well as the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference in 1884 to work out joint policy on the African continent.
The conference was opened on November 15, 1884 and continued until it closed on 26 February 1885. The number of plenipotentiaries varied per nation, but these 14 countries sent representatives to attend the Berlin Conference and sign the subsequent Berlin Act:
|Germany||German colonial empire||Otto von Bismarck|
Paul von Hatzfeldt
Heinrich von Kusserow
|Austria-Hungary||Austrian colonial empire||Emerich Széchényi von Sárvári Felsö-Vidék|
|Belgium||Belgian colonial empire||Gabriel August van der Straten-Ponthoz|
|Denmark||Danish colonial empire||Emil Vind|
|Spain||Spanish colonial empire||Francisco Merry y Colom, 1st Count of Beñomar|
|United States||Territories of the United States||John A. Kasson|
Henry S. Sanford
|France||French colonial empire||Alphonse de Courcel|
|United Kingdom||Great Britain||Edward Baldwin Malet|
|Italy||Italian colonial empire||Edoardo de Launay|
|Netherlands||Dutch empire||Philipp van der Hoeven|
|Portugal||Portuguese colonial empire||Antônio José da Serra Gomes|
António de Serpa Pimentel
|Russia||Russian Colonialism||Pyotr Kapnist|
|Sweden-Norway||Swedish colonial empire||Gillis Bildt|
|Ottoman Empire||Vassal and tributary states of the Ottoman Empire||Mehmed Said Pasha|
Uniquely, the United States reserved the right to decline or to accept the conclusions of the Conference.
The General Act fixed the following points:
The first reference in an international act to the obligations attaching to "spheres of influence" is contained in the Berlin Act.
The principle of effective occupation stated that powers could acquire rights over colonial lands only if they possessed them or had "effective occupation": if they had treaties with local leaders, flew their flag there and established an administration in the territory to govern it with a police force to keep order. The colonial power could also make use of the colony economically. That principle became important not only as a basis for the European powers to acquire territorial sovereignty in Africa but also for determining the limits of their respective overseas possessions, as effective occupation served in some instances as a criterion for settling disputes over the boundaries between colonies. However, as the Berlin Act was limited in its scope to the lands that fronted on the African coast, European powers in numerous instances later claimed rights over lands in the interior without demonstrating the requirement of effective occupation, as articulated in Article 35 of the Final Act.
At the Berlin Conference, the scope of the Principle of Effective Occupation was heavily contested between Germany and France. The Germans, who were new to the continent, essentially believed that as far as the extension of power in Africa was concerned, no colonial power should have any legal right to a territory unless the state exercised strong and effective political control and, if so, only for a limited period of time, essentially an occupational force only. However, Britain's view was that Germany was a latecomer to the continent and was assumptively unlikely to gain any new possessions, apart from territories that were already occupied, which were swiftly proving to be more valuable than those occupied by Britain. That logic caused it to be generally assumed by Britain and France that Germany had an interest in embarrassing the other European powers on the continent and forcing them to give up their possessions if they could not muster a strong political presence. On the other side, Britain had large territorial holdings there and wanted to keep them while it minimised its responsibilities and administrative costs. In the end, the British view prevailed.
The disinclination to rule what the Europeans had conquered is apparent throughout the protocols of the Berlin Conference but especially in the Principle of Effective Occupation. In line with Germany and Britain's opposing views, the powers finally agreed that it could be established by a European power establishing some kind of base on the coast from which it was free to expand into the interior. The Europeans did not believe that the rules of occupation demanded European hegemony on the ground. The Belgians originally wanted to include that "effective occupation" required provisions that "cause peace to be administered", but Britain and France were the powers that had that amendment struck out of the final document.
That principle, along with others that were written at the conference, allowed the Europeans to conquer Africa but to do as little as possible to administer or control it. The principle did not apply so much to the hinterlands of Africa at the time of the conference. This gave rise to "hinterland theory", which basically gave any colonial power with coastal territory the right to claim political influence over an indefinite amount of inland territory. Since Africa was irregularly shaped, that theory caused problems and was later rejected.
The conference provided an opportunity to channel latent European hostilities towards one another outward; provide new areas for helping the European powers expand in the face of rising American, Russian and Japanese interests; and form constructive dialogue to limit future hostilities. In Africa, colonialism was introduced across nearly all the continent. When African independence was regained after World War II, it was in the form of fragmented states.
The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference since even within areas designated as their sphere of influence, the European powers had to take effective possession by the principle of effectivity. In central Africa in particular, expeditions were dispatched to coerce traditional rulers into signing treaties, using force if necessary, such as was the case for Msiri, King of Katanga, in 1891. Bedouin- and Berber-ruled states in the Sahara and the Sub-Sahara were overrun by the French in several wars by the beginning of World War I. The British moved up from South Africa and down from Egypt and conquered states such as the Mahdist State and the Sultanate of Zanzibar and, having already defeated the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa in 1879, moved on to subdue and dismantle the independent Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
Within a few years, Africa was at least nominally divided up south of the Sahara. By 1895, the only independent states were:
The following states lost their independence to the British Empire roughly a decade after (see below for more information):
By 1902, 90% of all the land that makes up Africa was under European control. Most the Sahara was French, but after the quelling of the Mahdi rebellion and the ending of the Fashoda crisis, the Sudan remained firmly under joint British-Egyptian rulership, with Egypt being under British occupation before becoming a British protectorate in 1914.
Kwame Nkrumah once made the point that the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 was responsible for "the old carve-up of Africa". Other writers have also laid the blame for "the partition of Africa" on the doors of the Berlin Conference. But Wm. Roger Louis holds a contrary view, although he conceded that "the Berlin Act did have a relevance to the course of the partition" of Africa.