Berlin Conference

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For the Cold War conference see Berlin Conference of 1954.

The Berlin Conference of 188485 regulated European colonisation and trade in Africa. Its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, is often seen as the formalisation of the Scramble for Africa. In German it is referred to as Kongokonferenz ("Congo Conference").


Early history of the conference

In the 1880s, European interest in Africa increased dramatically. Henry Morton Stanley's discovery of the Congo River Basin (18741877) removed the last bit of terra incognita from the maps of the continent. In 1878, King Léopold II of Belgium, who had previously founded the International African Society in 1876, invited Stanley to join him. The International African Society had the goal of researching and "civilizing" the continent. In 1878 the International Congo Society was also formed, having 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 1879 to 1884 Stanley returned to the Congo, this time not as a reporter, but as an envoy from Léopold with the secret mission to organize a Congo state. At the same time, the French marine officer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza traveled into the western Congo basin and raised the French flag over the newly-founded Brazzaville in 1881. Portugal, which also claimed the area due to old treaties with the native Congo Empire, made a treaty with Great Britain on February 26, 1884 to block off the Congo Society's access to the Atlantic.

At the same time, various European countries tried to get a foothold in Africa. France occupied Tunisia and today's Republic of the Congo in 1881 and Guinea in 1884. In 1882, Great Britain occupied the nominally Ottoman Egypt, which in turn ruled over the Sudan and parts of Somalia. In 1870 and 1882, Italy took possession of the first parts of Eritrea, while Germany declared Togo, Cameroon and Southwest Africa to be under its protection in 1884.

The conference

Léopold II was able to convince France and Germany that common trade in Africa was in the best interests of all three countries. On the initiative of Portugal, Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor, called on representatives of the United States of America, Austria–Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, SwedenNorway (union until 1905) and Zanzibar to take part in the Berlin Conference to work out policy.

The Conference met on November 15, 1884. Stanley took part as a technical consultant for the American delegation, but had little influence. The Conference ended on February 26, 1885, with the signing of the "General Act of the Berlin Conference" (also called the "Congo Act") by representatives of the countries. All the signatory powers except for the United States later issued official confirmations of the act. For Léopold II, this was a great triumph, as he achieved a private state on African soil. Bismarck showed himself to be an "honest broker", as his interest in colonialism was dominated by interior politics and European considerations.

The General Act

The General Act fixed the following points:

  • The Free State of the Congo was confirmed as private property of the Congo Society. Thus the territory of today's Democratic Republic of the Congo, some two million square kilometers, was made essentially the property of Léopold II.
  • The 14 signatory powers would have free trade throughout the Congo basin as well as Lake Niassa and east of this in an area south of 5° N.
  • The Niger and Congo Rivers were made free for ship traffic.
  • An international prohibition of the slave trade was signed.
  • The principle was set down that powers could only possess colonies if they actually possessed them (Principle of Effectivity).
  • Any fresh act of taking possession on any portion of the African coast would have to be notified by the power taking possession, or assuming a protectorate, to the other signatory powers.

It is also noteworthy that the first reference in an international act to the obligations attaching to "spheres of influence" is contained in the Berlin Act.


The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference. Within a few years, Africa was at least nominally divided up south of the Sahara. By 1895, only the settlements in Liberia, Orange Free State and Transvaal remained independent. Abyssinia was able to break free of Italian domination in 1896, becoming the only free native state, but this was an exception in the continent of Africa. By 1902, 90% of all the land that makes up Africa was under European control. The large part of the Sahara was French, while after the quelling of the Mahdi rebellion and the ending of the Fashoda crisis, the Sudan remained firmly under joint British–Egyptian rulership.

The Boer states were conquered by Great Britain in the Boer wars from 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. By this point, all of Africa, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia were under European rule.

See also

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