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See also Congress of Berlin (1878) and Berlin Conference of 1954 (Cold War).
The conference of Berlin

The Berlineise Conference (German: Kongokonferenz or "Congo Conference") of 1884–85 regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period, and coincided with Germany's sudden emergence as an imperial power. Called for by Portugal and organized by Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany, its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, is often seen as the formalization of the Scramble for Africa. The conference ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity on the part of the European powers, while simultaneously eliminating most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.


Early history of the conference

In the early 1880s, European interest in Africa increased dramatically, due to Africa's abundance of valubles such as gold, spices, tea, opium and slaves. Henry Morton Stanley's charting of the Congo River Basin (1874–1877) removed the last bit of terra incognita from European 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 1885, 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, which would become known as the Congo Free State. At the same time, the French marine officer Pierre de Brazza traveled into the western Congo basin and raised the French flag over the newly-founded Brazzaville in 1881, in what is currently the Republic of Congo. Portugal, which also claimed the area due to old treaties with the Kongo Empire, made a treaty with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 26 February 1884 to block off the Congo Society's access to the Atlantic.

At the same time, other European countries gained colonial footholds in Africa. France occupied Tunisia and today's Republic of the Congo in 1881 — which partly convinced Italy to become part of the Triple Alliance and also Guinea in 1884. In 1882, the United Kingdom occupied the nominally Ottoman Egypt, which in turn ruled over the Sudan and what would later become British Somaliland.


King Leopold 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 Austria–Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (union until 1905), the Ottoman Empire, and the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference to work out policy. However, the United States did not actually participate in the conference.

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 (because of the terror regime established, it would eventually become a Belgian colony). It was primarily because of this point that Joseph Conrad sarcastically referred to the conference as "the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs"[1] in his novel Heart of Darkness.[1]
  • 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.
  • A Principle of Effectivity (see below) was introduced to stop powers setting up colonies in name only.
  • Any fresh act of taking possession of 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.
  • Africa was divided between the main powers of Europe.

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.

Principle of Effectivity

The Principle of Effectivity stated that powers could hold colonies only if they actually possessed them: in other words, if they had treaties with local chiefs, if they flew their flag there, and if they established an administration in the territory to govern it with a police force to keep order (see Uti Possidetis). The colonial power also had to make use of the colony economically. If the colonial power did not do these things, another power could do so and take over the territory. It therefore became important to get chiefs to sign a protectorate treaty and to have a presence sufficient to police the area.


  • Portugal - Britain The Portuguese government presented a project, known as the "Pink Map" (also called the "Rose-Colored Map"), in which the colonies of Angola and Mozambique were united by co-option of the intervening territory (land that later became Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.) All of the countries attending the conference, except for the United Kingdom, endorsed Portugal's ambitions. A little more than five years later, in 1890, the British government, in breach of the Treaty of Windsor (and of the Treaty of Berlin itself[citation needed]), issued an ultimatum demanding that the Portuguese withdraw from the disputed area.
  • France - Britain A line running from Say in Niger to Baroua, on the north-east coast of Lake Chad determined what part belonged to whom. France would own territory to the north of this line, and the United Kingdom would own territory to the south of it. The Nile Basin would be British, with the French taking the basin of Lake Chad. Furthermore, between the 11th and 15th degrees longitude, the border would pass between Ouaddaï, which would be French, and Darfur in Sudan, to be British. In reality, a no man's land 200 kilometres wide was put in place between the 21st and 23rd meridians.
  • France - Germany The area to the north of a line formed by the intersection of the 14th meridian and Miltou was designated French, that to the south being German.
  • Britain - Germany The separation came in the form of a line passing through Yola, on the Benoué, Dikoa, going up to the extremity of Lake Chad.


European claims in Africa, 1914

The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference, since even within areas designated as their sphere of influence, the European powers still had to take possession under the Principle of Effectivity. In central Africa in particular, expeditions were dispatched to coerce traditional rulers into signing treaties, using force if necessary, as for example in the case of Msiri, King of Katanga, in 1891.

Within A few years, Africa was at least nominally divided up south of the Sahara. By 1895, the only independent states were:

The following states lost their independence to the British Empire roughly a decade after (see below for more information):

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 republics were conquered by the United Kingdom in the Boer war 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, was under European rule.


  1. ^ "Historical Context: Heart of Darkness." EXPLORING Novels, Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Discovering Collection. Subscription required


  • Chamberlain, Muriel E. (1999). The Scramble for Africa. London: Longman, 1974, 2nd ed. ISBN 0582368812.
  • Crowe, Sybil E. (1942). The Berlin West African Conference, 1884–1985. New York: Longmans, Green. ISBN 0837132878 (1981, New ed. edition).
  • Förster, Stig, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson (1989). Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–1885 and the Onset of Partition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199205000.
  • Hochschild, Adam (1999). King Leopold's Ghost. ISBN 0-395-75924-2.
  • Petringa, Maria (2006). Brazza, A Life for Africa. ISBN 9781-4259-11980.

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