What was the Berlin Conference?

Involvement in Africa before 1884
Prior to the Berlin Conference, European colonization of Africa was present but limited, with only 10% of Africa under European control in 1870. In the 1870s, the “scramble for Africa” began in earnest, with 90% of Africa under European control by WWI.

Early European Colonization in Africa
Early European expeditions focused on colonizing previously uninhabited islands such as Cape Verde and São Tomé Island, or establishing coastal forts as bases for trade and to support the Cape route between Europe and Asia. These forts often developed spheres of influence along coastal strips,but with the exception of Senegal, The vast interior of Africa was not open to Europeans until the late 19th century.

As late as the 1870s, European states controlled only 10 percent of the African continent, with areas concentrated near the coast. The most important holdings were Angola and Mozambique owned by Portugal, Cape Colony owned by the United Kingdom, and Algeria owned by France. By 1914, only Ethiopia and Liberia were independent of European control.

Technological advances facilitated overseas expansionism. Industrialization led to rapid advances in transportation and communications, especially in the form of steam navigation, railroads, and telegraphs. Medical advances were also important, especially medicines for tropical diseases. The development of quinine, an effective treatment for malaria, enabled Europeans to access large areas of the tropics.

Around the 1870s, the growing trend of colonization in Africa began. The term “imperialism” is often associated with” colonialism “, but many scholars argue that each has its own definition. Historian and philosopher Edward Said stated that “‘imperialism’ involves the practice, theory, and attitudes of a dominant metropolitan center governing a distant territory,” while colonialism refers to “‘implanting settlements in a distant territory.'”

African Colonization in the 19th Century.
Prior to the Berlin Conference, European diplomacy treated African natives in the same manner as New World natives and established trade relations with their chiefs. By the mid-nineteenth century, Europeans viewed Africa as contested territory ripe for exploration, trade, and settlement by colonists. With the exception of trading posts along the coasts, the continent was essentially ignored.

In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium, who had previously founded the International African Society in 1876, invited Henry Morton Stanley to join him in exploring and civilizing the continent. In 1878, the International Congo Society was also founded, with more economic goals, but still closely related to the former society. Léopold secretly bought off the foreign investors in the Congo Society, which turned toward imperialist goals, while the African Society served mainly as a philanthropic front.

From 1878 to 1885, Stanley returned to the Congo not as a reporter but as Leopold’s envoy on a secret mission to organize the so-called Congo Free State. French intelligence discovered Leopold’s plans and France quickly undertook its own colonial exploration. French naval officer Pierre de Brazza was dispatched to central Africa, traveled to the western Congo Basin, and in 1881 raised the French flag over the newly founded Brazzaville in what is now the Republic of Congo. Portugal, which had a long but essentially abandoned colonial empire in the area through the largely dissolved Proxy State Congo Empire, also claimed the area. Its claims were based on old treaties with Spain and the Roman Catholic Church. In February 1884, it signed a treaty with its former ally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to block the Congo Society’s access to the Atlantic.

In the early 1880s, European interest in the continent increased dramatically due to many factors, including diplomatic maneuvering, subsequent colonial exploration, and recognition of Africa’s abundance of valuable resources such as gold, timber, land, and markets. Stanley ‘ s Charting of the Congo River Basin (1874-77) removed the last terra incognita from European maps of the continent and defined the areas of British, Portuguese, French, and Belgian control. The powers raced to push these rough boundaries to their extreme limits and eliminate local minority powers that might prove troublesome to European competitive diplomacy.

France moved to take over Tunisia, one of the last barbarian pirate states, under the pretext of another piracy incident. Pierre de Brazza’s French claims were quickly solidified, with France taking control of what is now the Republic of the Congo in 1881 and Guinea in 1884. Italy became part of the Triple Alliance, upsetting Bismarck’s carefully laid plans with the state and forcing Germany to become involved in Africa. In 1882, Britain recognized the geopolitical magnitude of Portuguese control of its coasts and French penetration eastward across central Africa toward Ethiopia, the Nile, and the Suez Canal, and saw its vital trade route threatened by Egypt and its Indian Empire.

Under the pretext of collapsed Egyptian finance and a subsequent revolt in which hundreds of Europeans and British subjects were murdered or injured, the United Kingdom intervened in nominally Ottoman Egypt. The United Kingdom also ruled Sudan and what would later become British Somaliland.

Berlin Conference
This rapid increase in exploration and colonization of Africa eventually led to the Berlin Conference of 1884. Established empires, notably Britain, Portugal, and France, had already claimed vast areas of Africa and Asia, and rising imperial powers such as Italy and Germany had also done so on a smaller scale. With the dismissal of the aging Chancellor Bismarck by Kaiser Wilhelm II, relatively orderly colonization became a frenzied scramble known as the “Scramble for Africa. “The Berlin Conference, initiated by Bismarck to establish international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory, formalized this “New Imperialism.” ” Between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, Europe added nearly 9 million square miles-a fifth of the world’s land area-to its overseas colonial possessions.

European Consensus on Africa
The Berlin Conference sought to end competition and conflict among European powers during the “Battle for Africa” by establishing international protocols for colonization.

The Berlin Conference: “Peaceful” Colonization
The Berlin Conference of 1884-85, also known as the Congo Conference, regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period, which coincided with the sudden emergence of Germany as an imperial power. Demanded by Portugal and organized by Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor, its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, formalized the struggle for Africa. The conference ushered in increased colonial activity by European powers that eliminated or overrode most existing forms of African autonomy and self-government.

As the nineteenth century had witnessed the political and economic rivalries between European empires, the formal division of Africa prevented European countries from fighting each other. The conference provided an opportunity to externalize latent European hostilities, create new areas for European expansion in the face of rising American, Russian, and Japanese interests, and engage in constructive dialogue to limit future hostilities. In the late nineteenth century, the transition from “informal imperialism” through military influence and economic dominance to direct rule occurred and led to colonial imperialism.

Colonies were seen as assets in “balance of power” negotiations, useful as exchange items in international negotiations. Colonies with large indigenous populations were also a source of military power; Britain and France used British Indian and North African soldiers in many of their colonial wars. In the age of nationalism, an empire was a status symbol; the idea of “greatness” became associated with the sense of duty that underlay the strategies of many nations.

Because of the European race for colonies, Germany launched its own expeditions that startled both British and French statesmen. The occupation of Egypt and the acquisition of the Congo were the first major steps in a steep scramble for African territory. Hoping to quickly calm this scalding conflict, King Leopold II persuaded France France and Germany that joint trade in Africa was in the best interests of all three countries. With the support of the British and the initiative of Portugal, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck called on representatives of 13 nations in Europe, as well as the United States, to attend the Berlin Conference in 1884 to work out a common policy on the African continent.

While the number of voting participants per nation varied, the following 14 countries sent representatives to participate in the Berlin Conference and signed the following Berlin Act: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, Great Britain, and the United States. There were no African representatives at the conference, although their rhetoric emphasized the benefits to Africa.

November 1884 convened at Bismarck’s official residence on Wilhelmstrasse. The main dominant powers at the conference were France, Germany, Britain, and Portugal. They readopted Africa without taking into account the cultural and linguistic boundaries that already existed. At the end of the conference, Africa was divided into 50 colonies. The companions determined who had control over each of these new divisions. They also made non-binding plans to end the slave trade in Africa.

“The General Act of the Conference”
The” General Act of the Berlin Conference ” established international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory.

In 1884, Otto von Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference to discuss the African problem. Its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, formalized the scramble for Africa.

The diplomats in Berlin laid down the rules of competition by which the great powers were to be guided in their search for colonies. No nation was to make claims in Africa without informing other powers of its intentions. No territory could be officially claimed until it was effectively occupied. However, rivals ignored the rules when convenient and multiple wars were narrowly avoided.

According to some critics, diplomats employed a humanitarian façade to gain international support by condemning the slave trade, banning the sale of alcoholic beverages and firearms in certain regions, and expressing concern about missionary activities. Writer Joseph Conrad sarcastically referred to the conference in his novella Heart of Darkness as “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.”

The General Law decided on the following issues:

The conference resolved to end slavery by African and Islamic powers. Thus, an international ban on the slave trade in their prestigious areas was signed by the European members.
The Congo Free State was confirmed as the private property of the Congo Company, which supported Leopold’s promise to keep the land open to all European investment. The territory of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, some two million square kilometers, was essentially confirmed by the European powers as the property of Léopold II. It was later organized as a Belgian colony under state administration.
The 14 signatory powers would have free trade throughout the Congo Basin as well as in Lake Malawi and east of it in an area south of 5°N.
The Niger and Congo rivers were made free for shipping.
A principle of effectiveness was introduced to prevent powers from establishing colonies in name only.
Any new act of taking possession of any part of the African coast would have to be notified by the power taking possession or by the other signatory powers in a protectorate.
Regions were defined in which each European power had the exclusive right to “pursue” legal ownership of land in the eyes of the other European powers.
The first reference in an international law to obligations arising from “spheres of influence” is contained in the Berlin Act.
Principle of effective occupation
The principle of effective occupation said that powers could acquire rights over colonial land only if they owned it or had “effective occupation”: in other words, if they had treaties with local leaders, if they flew their flag there, and if they established an administration on the territory to govern it with a police force to keep order. The colonial power could also use the colony economically. This principle became important not only as a basis for the acquisition of territorial sovereignty by European powers in Africa, but also for defining the boundaries of their respective overseas possessions, as effective occupation served in some cases to settle disputes over boundaries between colonies. However, because the Berlin Act was limited in its scope to those countries located on the African coast, the European powers later claimed rights over inland lands in numerous cases without demonstrating the requirement of effective occupation as articulated in Article 35 of the Final Act.

At the Berlin Conference of 1885, the scope of the principle of effective occupation was strongly contested between Germany and France. The Germans, who were new to the African continent, essentially believed that for the expansion of power in Africa, no colonial power should have a right to territory unless the state exercised strong and effective political control, and if so, only for a limited period of time. Britain, however, viewed Germany as a laggard on the continent that would gain little possession except for already occupied territories, which quickly proved to be more valuable than British-occupied territories. Given this logic, it was widely believed by Britain and France that Germany was interested 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 hand, the United Kingdom had large territorial “possessions” on the continent and wanted to keep them while minimizing its responsibilities and administrative costs. In the end, the British view prevailed.

This principle, along with others written at the conference, allowed Europeans to ” conquer ” Africa while managing or controlling as little as possible. The principle of effective occupation did not apply so much to the hinterlands of Africa at the time of the conference. This led to a “hinterland theory,” which basically gave any colonial power with coastal territory the right to claim political influence over an undefined inland area. Since Africa was irregularly shaped, this theory caused problems and was later rejected.

Consequences of the Conference
The scramble for Africa accelerated after the conference, as the European powers also had to take possession within their spheres of influence according to the principle of effectiveness. In Central Africa in particular, expeditions were sent to force traditional rulers to sign treaties, using force if necessary, as in the case of Msiri, king of Katanga, in 1891. Bedouin and Berber ruled states in the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa were overrun by the French in several wars early in World War I. The British moved from South Africa to Egypt and conquered Arab states such as the Mahdist State and the Sultanate of Zanzibar. After defeating the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa in 1879, they moved on to subjugate and dismantle the independent Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State.

Within a few years, Africa was at least nominally divided south of the Sahara. By 1895, the only independent states were Morocco, Liberia, Ethiopia, the Majeerteen Sultanate, and the Hobyo Sultanate.

By 1902, 90% of all African land was under European control. Much of the Sahara was French, while Sudan remained firmly under British-Egyptian rule after the suppression of the Mahdi uprising and the end of the Fashoda crisis. Egypt was under British occupation before becoming a British protectorate in 1914.

The Boer Republics were conquered by the United Kingdom in the Boer War of 1899 to 1902. Morocco was divided between the French and Spanish in 1911, and Libya was conquered by Italy in 1912. The official British annexation of Egypt in 1914 ended the colonial division of Africa.

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