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The Berlin Conference


For centuries, African people had contact with Europeans, especially in areas around the Nile River and the most northern part of the continent. They traded and exchanged goods to benefit both parties. However, as European countries grew they became hungrier for land and resources. It is well known that Europeans sailed across the world-laying claim to land whether it was inhabited or not. The only difference is if the land had native people they killed, enslaved, or converted them then took the resources.


In the 1880s, several countries were fighting to gain more stability in Africa. On November 15, 1884, the Berlin Conference birthed the colonization of Africa and was a precursor to World War 1. When the British and French began to fight over Egypt the first chancellor of Germany, Otto Van Bismarck, driven by greed and power called a meeting in Berlin with the 13 European nations, known as the superpowers, to discuss their plans for Africa (OXFORD REFERENCE). These nations were 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. The United States did not join the conference, assuming because of their inability to have expeditions at the time (SA HISTORY). In this meeting, they sat down to carve up Africa for themselves to expand their empires. To be clear, none of the native African people were considered or invited to speak at this conference. Likely because they were not seen as whole people (think the United States ⅗ compromise) and they were not using the land in a way that Europeans respected.

Prior to the Berlin Conference, also known as the Congo Conference or West Africa Conference, most of Africa was still under tribal control but Europe saw that as uninhabited. Chimamanda Adichie stated, “I am Nigerian because a White man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am Black because the White man constructed Black to be as different as possible from his whiteness. But I was Igbo before the White man came.” White people came into tribal lands and killed, enslaved, and converted people, and then told them who they would be with no regard for their identity or traditions. For example, the Belgium King Leopold II secured control over Congo as personal land. Prior to contact with White explorers Congo was an empire that survived over 500 years and became a federation in 1568. The transatlantic slave trade weakened the country making it easier for King Leopold II to enslave. In 1885, after the Berlin conference, he announced the establishment of the Congo Free State, under his direct control. By 1908 over 10 million Congo people were dead due to terrible treatment and conditions, especially as they mined rubber and ivory for his use. King Leopold II was pressured to sell Congo to Belgium with hopes to improve the situation. However, it was minimally successful. Africa is rich with natural resources such as gold, diamond and copper which Belgium began to mine when they were discovered in the country. After decades of fighting for rights, Congo finally gained independence in 1960 only to find Belgium left large debts and refused to remove their troops in hopes to regain control (congo reform association). Congo still struggles with peace and has not returned to the great kingdom they once were as a direct result of the slave trade and the Berlin Conference. The horrible nature and mismanagement of their rule left native Africans even to this day in poverty, starvation, and economic ruin.


Imperialism was in full swing and according to “World War One – Causes”, History on the Net, “By 1900 the British Empire extended over five continents and France had control of large areas of Africa. With the rise of industrialism, countries needed new markets. The number of lands ‘owned’ by Britain and France increased the rivalry with Germany who had entered the scramble to acquire colonies late and only had small areas of Africa.”  These disagreements were the beginning of future problems to come between the colonizers which resulted in World War 1 and the subsequent positioning of power by continuing to strip Africa of its natural resources and the future economic disaster of most indigenous Africans. 


Africa is a huge continent so we can’t naively think it would be easy to unite a country that big.  However, if it was possible to settle or temporarily put aside internal wars and come together against a common enemy, this could have been a different story which would have made a present unlike what we know today. As we see how the United States has invaded countries rich in oil, it is clear we are witnessing history repeat itself. Most people learned the romanticized version of this in grade school, but what they do not discuss is what happened when the slave trade was abolished and African tribes were more advanced. Europeans did not give the land back to the natives or support them in their quest for independence. Instead, they hindered them and formalized their wrong doing.


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