The Berlin Conference


The time was 1884 – 1885, 130 years ago and the place was Germany. During that period when Europe’s search for minerals and markets had become insatiable, greed and selfish acquisitiveness, supported by illusions of grandeur were also reasons for the Berlin Conference. One conquistador, protecting his ill begotten gains was the principal instigator; King Leopold II, and his gain was the Congo.

Before the conference, European diplomacy treated African indigenous people in the same manner as the New World natives, forming trade relationships with tribal chiefs. By the mid-19th century, Europeans considered Africa to be disputed territory ripe for exploration, trade, and settlement by their colonists. With the exception of trading along the coasts, the mineral, economic, and strategic worth of the Continent was essentially unidentified.

Historians generally agree, the Scramble for Africa began with King Leopold II of Belgium who had read a report in 1876, how the rich mineral resources and other natural treasures of the Congo Basin, could return an entrepreneurial capitalist substantial profits. Leopold founded the International African Association, followed in 1878 by the International Congo Society, with defined economic goals. Léopold secretly bought off the foreign investors in the Congo Society, to pursue his personal imperialistic goals, with the Society serving primarily as a philanthropic front, neatly concealing the driving corruption behind the facade.

Hidden behind that altruistic front Leopold ordered his minions to assume control over the Congo Basin. Concurrently fearing intervention or annexation by more powerful co-European competition, the wily Leopold pre-empted such actin and applied for international recognition of his property in the Congo. His application to ‘legalise’ and safeguard his stake, was the main reason for the Conference. It was however not that simplistic and many other parties and factors influenced the decision. The more important was the Portuguese manipulation, which played greatly in Leopold’s favour.

Other overlapping considerations for the ‘Scramble’ to divide Africa were, its size, riches, resources, and strategic importance, a prime candidate for conquest by ambitious European empires. Although Africa is remote from Europe and other continental powers, it is completely surrounded by oceans and could be invaded by other Nations from countless directions. That was a very important consideration.

Supported by Britain and Portugal, Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor, called on the following Countries’ representatives: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden–Norway (union until 1905), the Ottoman Empire and the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference in 1884; to formulate joint policies on the African continent.

The Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840) intensified the drive for overseas territories, cheap labour, raw material, and new markets which required rules for dealing with one another, to avoid constant bloodshed while competing for Africa’s resources. The Berlin Conference established those stabelising ground rules.

Another reason; left out of the European race for colonies till recently, Germany had also launched expeditions of its own, which scared the holies out of British and French statesmen. Hostility was flying high amongst the European Nations, which could have precipitated a major war. To avoid such a war was also reason for the conference to solve the African problems. As it turned out that prevention was temporary. The unavoidable tensions led to a succession of crises, which finally exploded in August 1914, when previous rivalries and alliances created a domino effect that drew the major European nations into the First World War, anyway.

Supported by Britain and Portugal, Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor, called on the following Countries’ representatives: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden–Norway (union until 1905), the Ottoman Empire and the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference in 1884, to formulate joint policies on the African continent.

Under the guise of harmonious collaboration, most delegates colluded among themselves, before and during the Conference, to jockey for position in this criminal race of dash & grab. Not surprising, the more powerful were the guiltier during these underhanded shenanigans, where lies and corruption were the only common denominators. Portugal first got into bed with Britain, then the French tried to go one up colluding with Britain. France changed sides and snuggled up to Germany, which Britain tried to outsmart and did the same with Germany. Then France trying to cover their wickets went and joined forces with Italy. Corruption on corruption, followed by corruption. In the end the two greatest conspirators also took the most prized bounty.

The crux to most problems created then, and still thriving, was the principle which allowed Europeans to “conquer” Africa and do the least possible to administer or develop it!

A smirking Europe gathered at the Berlin Conference to create policy on imperial claims. After much political wrangling, Leopold got what he wanted, he had his territory publicly endorsed, and renamed the ‘Congo Free State’. The Conference further decreed that for future imperialist claims to garner international recognition, “effective occupation” would be required:  no longer would plunging a flag into the ground, qualify land as occupied. It also created some definition for “effective occupation,” noting that significant “economic development” was required. More baloney.

The crux to most problems created then, and still thriving now, was the principle which allowed Europeans to “conquer” Africa and reap willfully, without requiring that they do even the least possible, to assist or develop the inhabitants of the Continent!

In the Magna Carta of 1215, “the greatest constitutional document of all times — the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot” by which the competing Nations’ own governments were purportedly shaped, was completely disregarded.

Fourteen European Nations met at the Berlin Conference to decide how Africa was to be divided; among themselves, of course. Not a single African delegate was invited, or present.

The Focus of the Conference
The conference was held in Berlin between November 15, 1884 and February 26, 1885, under the leadership of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Although ‘controlling the slave trade and promoting humanitarian idealism’ were promoted robustly as the focus of the conference. Those were glanced over and the conference only passed empty resolutions vaguely referring to ending the slave trade and providing for the welfare of Africa. As seen, the result of the Conference, the ‘Berlin Act’ was solely a means of dividing the continent of Africa between the European powers, for selfish gain:

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 other 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.


Fourteen European Nations met at the Berlin Conference to decide how Africa was to be divided; among themselves, of course. Not a single African delegate was invited, or present.

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 them without considering the desires of the indigenous peoples. The Berlin Conference and its resultant Law are the clearest examples of the assumptions and preconceptions of this era, and its effects on Africa explicit today.

The Results
Of the 14 represented Nations and coalitions, only six basically shared the spoils. Great Britain desired a Cape-to-Cairo collection of colonies and almost succeeded though their control of Egypt, Sudan (Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), Uganda, Kenya (British East Africa), South Africa, Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe (formerly North- & South Rhodesia) .The British also controlled Nigeria and Ghana (Gold Coast). 

France took much of western Africa, from Mauritania to Chad (French West Africa) and Gabon and the Republic of Congo (French Equatorial Africa). Belgium and King Leopold II controlled the Democratic Republic of Congo (Belgian Congo).

Portugal took Mozambique in the east and Angola in the west. Italy’s holdings were Somalia (Italian Somaliland) and a portion of Ethiopia.  Germany took Namibia (German Southwest Africa) and Tanzania (German East Africa). Spain claimed the smallest territory – Equatorial Guinea (Rio Muni).

When African nations began to gain independence during the Post World War II Era, their post-colonial economic structures remained undiversified and linear. In most cases, the bulk of a nation’s economy relied on cash crops or natural resources. The decolonization process kept independent African nations at the mercy of colonial powers due to structurally-dependent economic relations. Structural Adjustment Programs lead to the privatization and liberalization of many African political and economic systems, forcefully pushing Africa into the global capitalist market. The economic decline in the 1990s fostered democratization by the World Bank intervention in the political and economic affairs of Africa once again. All of these factors led to Africa’s forced development, still under Western ideological systems of economics and politics. Is Africa free yet?

In the era of globalization, many African countries have emerged as petro-states. These are nations with an economic and political partnership between Transnational Oil Companies and the ruling elite class in oil-rich African nations. During this oil-glut  period numerous International Petro Conglomerates used their unlimited fortunes to invest in controlling land internationally, and contracted much of Africa, again, into an imperial, albeit neo-imperial subservient position.

The most apparent of the petro-powers are the Chinese state oil companies which entered Africa’s highly competitive oil sector. China National Petrol Corporation purchased 40% of Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company. Furthermore, Sudan exports 50-60% of its domestically produced oil to China, making up 7% of China’s imports. China has also been purchasing equity shares in African oil fields, invested in industry related infrastructure development and acquired continental oil concessions throughout Africa.

Apart from oil, China has contracted to and bought every metal Africa could offer, including our scrap, producing goods exporting finished steel products back to Africa, at prices which Africa could not even compete at production level. That is causing job and securities losses to the point, South Africa’s major steel producers have, or are on the brink of closure, with a quarter million people facing retrenchment.

This article was written by FREDERICK ERASMUS


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