The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 marked the culmination of European competition for territory in Africa, a process commonly known as the Scramble for Africa. In the 1870s and early 1880s, European nations such as Britain, France, and Germany sought natural resources for their growing industrial sectors as well as a potential market for the goods these factories produced. As a result, these governments sought to protect their commercial interests in Africa and began sending scouts to the continent to secure treaties from indigenous peoples or their supposed representatives. Similarly, Belgium’s King Leopold II, seeking to increase his personal fortune through the acquisition of African territory, hired agents to lay claim to vast tracts of land in central Africa. To protect Germany’s commercial interests, the otherwise disinterested German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck felt compelled to assert claims to African land.
Inevitably, The scramble for territory led to conflicts among European powers, particularly between the British and French in West Africa; Egypt, the Portuguese, and British in East Africa; and the French and King Leopold II in Central Africa. The rivalry between Britain and France prompted Bismarck to intervene, and in late 1884 he called a meeting of the European powers in Berlin. In subsequent meetings, Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, and King Leopold II negotiated their claims to African territory, which were then formalized and mapped. During the conference, the leaders also agreed to allow free trade between the colonies and to establish a framework for negotiating future European claims in Africa. Neither the Berlin Conference itself nor the framework for future negotiations gave the peoples of Africa a say in the division of their homelands.
The Berlin Conference did not initiate European colonization of Africa, but it did legitimize and formalize the process. Moreover, it stimulated new interest in Africa. After the conference concluded, European powers expanded their claims in Africa such that by 1900 European states had claimed nearly 90 percent of African territory.