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READ: The Berlin Conference

The Berlin Conference gathered a bunch of Europeans to plot ways to divide up Africa. It may not have been the “start” of colonialism, but it sure accelerated the process.

The Berlin Conference

Painting of an ornate room full of men wearing military uniforms conversing and shaking hands.
By Trevor R. Getz
The Berlin Conference gathered a bunch of Europeans to plot ways to divide up Africa. It may not have been the “start” of colonialism, but it sure accelerated the process.

A picture worth 1000 words

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Look below and you’ll understand the Berlin conference of 1884-1885 as if you had just read several screens of text. All of the elements are there. It is a conference about Africa, but happening in a room in Berlin, Germany. There are zero Africans, and only two of the attendees had ever stepped foot on that continent—which is about three times larger than Europe. Instead, it was a bunch of European men representing twelve countries in Europe, plus an American representative and one from the Ottoman Empire. The room was dominated by a gigantic map of Africa. Why? Because the job the men at the conference had taken upon themselves was to divide up Africa between their respective countries.
Drawing of a room full of men, most seated at a long table, talking and looking over papers.

Leopold’s big swindle

The immediate reason for the Berlin Conference was the jealousy of the king of a small country, Belgium, towards his cousin, Queen Victoria of Great Britain. King Leopold II of Belgium considered himself to be an important man. Yet in the 1870s, Leopold had no territory other than the small state of Belgium itself. His cousin, Queen Victoria, on the other hand, was not only Queen of Great Britain but also Empress of India and had a whole empire besides.
So, Leopold set out to get himself an empire. To do that, he swindled his fellow Europeans, and also a lot of Africans. Leopold pretended to be a great humanitarian and an abolitionist. He claimed a huge territory in Central Africa, and called it the “Congo Free State,” declaring that he would allow free trade and also eliminate slavery there. Instead, he set about building a state that would work the local population mercilessly for his own profit.
Illustration of the Belgian Congo in 1896, with several shaded areas.
Map of the “Belgian Congo,” which began as the “Congo Free State,” King Leopold II’s personal territory. Note Portuguese Angola to the south and French Equatorial Africa to the north. Public domain.
Although Leopold managed to confuse most Europeans for a while, his fellow rulers gradually caught on to his trick. The French immediately sent out expeditions to claim the territory to the north. Meanwhile, the British convinced their old ally, Portugal, to expand their claims to the territory to the south, Angola, in order to block Leopold.
This race for control in the Congo region was just one of many that were happening in the 1880s as Europeans turned their attention and efforts to violently conquering African societies. Soon they were edging toward fights with each other. The German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, saw these potential conflicts as threating his plans for Europe. It was for this reason that he invited European leaders to come to Berlin in 1884 to work out a policy for their expansion on the African continent.

The Conference

The Berlin Conference took about three and a half months, from November 15, 1884 to February 26, 1885. It resulted in an act that did three things. The first was to recognize the territory that King Leopold claimed as his private property. The second was to recognize some existing territorial claims in different parts of Africa.
The third, and most important, result of the conference was to set up a way for Europeans to claim and annex territory in Africa. This process was essentially to have three steps in itself. First, European countries would send out explorers. These explorers would sign treaties with local leaders who would accept the “protection” of the European state. Second, the explorers would head home to Europe, where they would submit the treaty to their governments. Third, the government of each European country would negotiate with the other European states to have them recognize that this “protection” really meant that they now owned that territory.
Like Leopold’s initial swindle, this was all a gigantic scam, really. For starters, those treaties were often meaningless. They were usually printed in English or French, and often the local leaders didn’t know what they said. Sometimes, the explorers would get just about anyone to sign the treaty, including leaders who didn’t really have the power or authority to sign them. Finally, the whole thing was based on a racist idea—that all of this land was “unclaimed,” and that local societies could not simply rule themselves.

Menelik in the middle

One African leader who figured this out early was Menelik II, future Emperor of Ethiopia. In 1884, Menelik was not yet emperor but was an important leader of this state. He knew about the conference, although neither he nor any other African leader had been invited.
Menelik decided to write a letter to the European states at the conference, in which he asked them to take Ethiopia seriously as a military and political power. He wrote, “I have no intention at all of being an indifferent spectator, if the distant Powers hold onto the idea of dividing up Africa… Since the All-Powerful has protected Ethiopia up until now, I am hopeful that he will keep and enlarge it also in the future, and I do not think for a moment that He [God] will divide Ethiopia among the other Powers.”1
Some historians have argued that Menelik was in an interesting position. On the one hand, Ethiopia was a powerful state that was looking to build an empire of its own in the surrounding territory. On the other hand, they knew that Europeans were dividing up the continent and they feared being divided themselves. The Ethiopians could clearly see that Italy, Britain, and France all wanted to reach the nearby headwaters of the Nile River and to claim that territory – but Ethiopian leaders dreamed of claiming that territory for themselves.
An elaborately dressed Emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik II with government dignitaries in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia. Photo from L’Illustrazione Italiana, XXXVI, no. 7, February 14, 1909. © Getty Images.
In the end, Menelik’s letter was largely ignored, and though Ethiopia escaped “protection,” the Europeans went about chopping up the rest of the continent among themselves.

Continuity and change

How important was the Berlin Conference? To what degree did it lead to change, including the colonization of Africa? Historians and legal scholars who study this question don’t all agree on an answer. Look at the two maps below and you can see different ways to answer the question.
Two maps side-by-side of the African continent. The map on the left reads "1880" and has many small territories and lots of grey space. The map on the right has several large territories with straight borders covering the entire continent.
Africa, 1871 (prior to the conference) and 1914 (post conference). Note that in the 1871 map, European nations controlled just a few regions along the coast, but by 1914, European nations controlled all of Africa except Liberia and Ethiopia. © OER Project.
On the one hand, the map on the left shows that many regions of Africa had already been claimed by Europeans by 1880, four years before the conference even began. In North Africa, you will see that France had conquered Algeria. Although not entirely clear, Italy was already partially controlling Libya and Britain had a great deal of power over Egypt. In the West, you will see small colonies like French Senegal and British Gold Coast and Sierra Leone. In southern Africa, you will see the Portuguese territories of Angola and Mozambique. Even further south is the Cape Colony, ruled by Britain. So, one could say that lots of colonization was already happening prior to the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885.
Yet these colonies were still quite small. Contrast this with the map of Africa in 1913, two decades after the conference. In this second map, all of Africa’s nearly twelve million square miles is colonized by European states, except for Ethiopia and the tiny state of Liberia. So clearly this vast territory was acquired following the conference.
One thing is clear—the Berlin Conference established the legal claim by Europeans that all of Africa could be occupied by whomever could take it. It also established a process for Europeans to cooperate rather than fight with each other. This cooperation played a huge role in the division and conquest of Africa. It was a form of legal violence practiced upon the whole continent and all of its people. It is for this reason that we tend to see the Berlin Conference as a significant event in world history.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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