The conference of Berlin, as illustrated in Die Gartenlaube
The conference of Berlin, as illustrated in Illustrirte Zeitung

The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, also known as the Congo Conference (German: Kongokonferenz, pronounced [ˈkɔŋɡoˌkɔnfeˈʁɛnt͡s]) or West Africa Conference (Westafrika-Konferenz, pronounced [ˌvɛstˈʔaːfʁika ˌkɔnfeˈʁɛnt͡s]),[1] met on 15 November 1884, and after an adjournment concluded on 26 February 1885, with the signature of a General Act,[2] regulating the European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period.

The conference was organized by Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of Germany, at the request of Leopold II of Belgium.[3] The General Act of Berlin can be seen as the formalisation of the Scramble for Africa that was already in full swing.[4] Some scholars, however, warn against an overemphasis on its role in the colonial partitioning of Africa, and draw attention to bilateral agreements concluded before and after the conference.[5][6][7] According to a 2024 study, the conference only set the borders for the Congo region (those borders were later revised).[8] The study finds that "most of Africa’s borders were not initially formed until after the 1884–85 Berlin Conference... most did not take their final form until over two decades later."[8]

The conference contributed to ushering in a period of heightened colonial activity by European powers, once made the point that the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 was responsible for "the old carve-up of Africa". Other writers have also laid the blame in "the partition of Africa" on the doors of the Berlin Conference. But Wm. Roger Louis holds a contrary view[which?], although he conceded that "the Berlin Act did have a relevance to the course of the partition" of Africa. Of the fourteen countries being represented, seven of them – Austria-Hungary, Russia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden–Norway, the Ottoman Empire and the United States – came home without any formal possessions in Africa.


Cartoon depicting Leopold II and other imperial powers at the Berlin Conference

Prior to the conference, European diplomats approached African rulers and the French leaders had already invaded some parts of Lagos in the same manner as they had in the Western Hemisphere, by establishing a connection to local trade networks. In the early 1800s, the European demand for ivory, which was then often used in the production of luxury goods, led many European merchants into the interior markets of Africa.[citation needed] European spheres of power and influence were limited to coastal Africa at this time as Europeans had only established trading posts (protected by gunboats) up to this point.[9]

In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium, who had founded and controlled the International African Association the same year, invited Henry Morton Stanley to join him in researching and "civilising" the continent. In 1878, the International Congo Society was also formed, with more economic goals but still closely related to the former society. Leopold 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.[10]

From 1878 to 1885, Stanley returned to the Congo not as a reporter but as Leopold's agent, with the secret mission to organise what would become known as the Congo Free State soon after the closure of the Berlin Conference in August 1885.[7][11][5] French agents discovered Leopold's plans, and in response France sent its own explorers to Africa. In 1881, French naval officer Pierre de Brazza was dispatched to central Africa, travelled into the western Congo basin, and raised the French flag over the newly founded Brazzaville in what is now the Republic of Congo. Finally, Portugal, which had essentially abandoned a colonial empire in the area, long held through the mostly defunct proxy Kingdom of Kongo, also claimed the area, based on old treaties with Restoration-era Spain and the Catholic Church. It quickly made a treaty on 26 February 1884 with its old ally, Great Britain, to block off the Congo Society's access to the Atlantic.

By the early 1880s, many factors including diplomatic successes, greater European local knowledge, and the demand for resources such as gold, timber, and rubber, triggered dramatically increased European involvement in the continent of Africa. Stanley's charting of the Congo River Basin (1874–1877) removed the last terra incognita from European maps of the continent, delineating the areas of British, Portuguese, French and Belgian control. These European nations raced to annex territory that might be claimed by rivals.[12]

France moved to take over Tunisia, one of the last of the Barbary states, using a claim of another piracy incident. French claims by Pierre de Brazza were quickly acted on by the French military, which took control of what is now the Republic of the Congo in 1881 and Guinea in 1884. Italy became part of the Triple Alliance, an event that upset Bismarck's carefully laid plans and led Germany to join the European invasion of Africa.[13]

In 1882, realizing the geopolitical extent of Portuguese control on the coasts, but seeing penetration by France eastward across Central Africa toward Ethiopia, the Nile, and the Suez Canal, Britain saw its vital trade route through Egypt to India threatened. Because of the collapsed Egyptian financing and a subsequent mutiny in which hundreds of British subjects were murdered or injured, Britain intervened in the nominally Ottoman Khedivate of Egypt, which it controlled for decades.[14]


The European race for colonies made Germany start launching expeditions of its own, which frightened both British and French statesmen. Hoping to quickly soothe the brewing conflict, Belgian King Leopold II convinced France and Germany that common trade in Africa was in the best interests of all three countries. Under support from the British and the initiative of Portugal, Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany, called on representatives of 13 nations in Europe as well as the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference in 1884 to work out a joint policy on the African continent.

The conference opened on 15 November 1884 and closed on 26 February 1885.[15] The number of plenipotentiaries varied per nation,[16] but these 14 countries sent representatives to attend the Berlin Conference and sign the subsequent Berlin Act:[17]

State Colonial empire Plenipotentiaries
 Germany German colonial empire Otto von Bismarck
Paul von Hatzfeldt
Clemens Busch
Heinrich von Kusserow [de]
 Austria-Hungary Austrian colonial empire Imre Széchényi von Sárvár-Felsővidék
Congo Free State International Congo Society International Congo Society Gabriel August van der Straten-Ponthoz [de]
Auguste, Baron Lambermont
 Spain Spanish colonial empire Francisco Merry y Colom, 1st Count of Benomar
 Denmark Danish colonial empire Emil Vind [da]
 United States American colonial empire John A. Kasson
Henry S. Sanford
Henry Morton Stanley (as Technical Adviser)[2]
 France French colonial empire Alphonse de Courcel
 United Kingdom British colonial empire Edward Baldwin Malet
 Italy Italian colonial empire Edoardo de Launay [it]
 Netherlands Dutch colonial empire Philip van der Hoeven
 Portugal Portuguese colonial empire Antônio José da Serra Gomes [pt]
António de Serpa Pimentel
 Russia Russian colonialism Pyotr Kapnist
 Sweden–Norway Swedish colonial empire Gillis Bildt
 Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire Mehmed Said Pasha

Uniquely, the United States reserved the right to decline or to accept the conclusions of the conference.[18]

General Act

The General Act fixed the following points:

The first reference in an international act to the obligations attaching to spheres of influence is contained in the Berlin Act.

Principle of effective occupation

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The principle of effective occupation stated that a power could acquire rights over colonial lands only if it possessed them or had effective occupation: if it had treaties with local leaders, flew its flag there, and established an administration in the territory to govern it with a police force to keep order. The colonial power could also make use of the colony economically. That principle became important not only as a basis for the European powers to acquire territorial sovereignty in Africa but also for delimiting their respective overseas possessions, as effective occupation served in some instances as a criterion for settling colonial boundary disputes. However, as the scope of the Berlin Act was limited to the lands that fronted on the African coast, European powers in numerous instances later claimed rights over interior lands without demonstrating the requirement of effective occupation, as articulated in Article 35 of the Final Act.

Comparison of Africa in the years 1880 and 1913

At the Berlin Conference, the scope of the Principle of Effective Occupation was heavily contested between Germany and France. The Germans, who were new to the continent, essentially believed that as far as the extension of power in Africa was concerned, no colonial power should have any legal right to a territory unless the state exercised strong and effective political control and, if so, only for a limited period of time, essentially an occupational force only. However, Britain's view was that Germany was a latecomer to the continent and was assumptively unlikely to gain any possessions beyond those it already held, which were swiftly proving to be more valuable than British territories.[citation needed] That logic caused it to be generally assumed by Britain and France that Germany had an interest in embarrassing the other European powers on the continent and forcing them to give up their possessions if they could not muster a strong political presence. On the other side, Britain had large territorial holdings there and wanted to keep them while it minimised its responsibilities and administrative costs. In the end, the British view prevailed.

The Great Powers' disinclination to rule their territories is apparent throughout the protocols of the Berlin Conference but especially in the Principle of Effective Occupation. In line with Germany and Britain's opposing views, the powers finally agreed that it could be established by a European power establishing some kind of base on the coast from which it was free to expand into the interior. The Europeans did not believe that the rules of occupation demanded European hegemony on the ground. The Belgians originally wanted to include that effective occupation required provisions that "cause peace to be administered", but Britain and France were the powers that had that amendment struck out of the final document.

That principle, along with others that were written at the conference, allowed the Europeans to conquer Africa but to do as little as possible to administer or control it. The principle did not apply so much to the hinterlands of Africa at the time of the conference. This gave rise to hinterland theory, which basically gave any colonial power with coastal territory the right to claim political influence over an indefinite amount of inland territory. Since Africa was irregularly shaped, that theory caused problems and was later rejected.[24]



European claims in Africa, 1913. Today's boundaries, which are largely a legacy of the colonial era, are shown.
  Belgium   Germany   Spain   France
  Great Britain   Italy   Portugal   Independent (Liberia and Ethiopia)

The conference provided an opportunity to channel latent European hostilities towards one another outward; provide new areas for assisting the European powers expand in the face of rising American, Russian and Japanese interests; and form constructive dialogue to limit future hostilities. In Africa, colonialism was introduced across nearly all the continent. When African independence was regained after World War II, it was in the form of fragmented states.[25]

The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference since even within areas designated as their sphere of influence, the European powers had to take effective possession by the principle of effectivity. In central Africa in particular, expeditions were dispatched to coerce traditional rulers into signing treaties, using force if necessary, such as was the case for Msiri, King of Katanga, in 1891. Bedouin- and Berber-ruled states in the Sahara and the Sahel were overrun by the French in several wars by the beginning of World War I. The British moved up from South Africa and down from Egypt and conquered states such as the Mahdist State and the Sultanate of Zanzibar and, having already defeated the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa in 1879, moved on to subdue and dismantle the independent Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

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. Most of the Sahara was French, but after the quelling of the Mahdi rebellion and the ending of the Fashoda crisis, the Sudan remained firmly under joint British–Egyptian rulership, with Egypt being under British occupation before becoming a British protectorate in 1914.[26]

The Boer republics were conquered by the British in the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902. Libya was conquered by Italy in 1911, and Morocco was divided between the French and Spanish in 1912.

Motives and David Livingstone's Crusade

Slave traders and their captives bound in chains and collared with 'taming sticks'. From Livingstone's Narrative

One of the chief stated justifications "was a desire to stamp out slavery once and for all".[27] Before he died in 1873, Christian missionary, David Livingstone, called for a worldwide crusade to defeat the Arab-controlled slave trade in East Africa. The way to do it was to "liberate Africa" by the introduction of "commerce, Christianity" and civilization.[28]

Crowe, Craven, and Katzenellenbogen are authors who have attempted to soften the language and therefore the intent of the conference. They warn against an overemphasis on its role in the colonial partitioning of Africa, extensively justifying it by ignoring the motivations and outcomes of the conference by only drawing attention to bilateral agreements concluded before and after the conference, regardless of whether they were finalized and followed in practice.[5][6][7] For example, Craven has questioned the legal and economic impact of the conference.[6]

However, the countries that ultimately participated in the Final Act ignored requirements set forth within it to establish their satellite governments, rights to the land, and trade for the benefit of their national, and domestic economies.[29]

Analysis by historians

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Historians have long marked the Berlin Conference as the formalisation of the Scramble for Africa[30] but recently, scholars have questioned the legal and economic impact of the conference.[6]

Some have argued the conference central to imperialism. African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1948 that alongside the Atlantic slave trade in Africans a great world movement of modern times is "the partitioning of Africa after the Franco-Prussian War which, with the Berlin Conference of 1884, brought colonial imperialism to flower" and that "[t]he primary reality of imperialism in Africa today is economic," going on to expound on the extraction of wealth from the continent.[31]

Other historians focus on the legal implications in international law and argue[32] that the conference was only one of many (mostly bilateral) agreements between prospective colonists,[33] which took place after the conference.

See also


  1. ^ Berlin West Africa Conference at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ a b The Belgian Congo and the Berlin act, by Keith, Arthur Berriedale, 1919, p. 52.
  3. ^ De Belgische Koloniën - Documentaire over het Belgisch Koloniaal Rijk (English: The Belgian Colonies - Documentary on the Belgian Colonial Empire) timestamp 10:40 to 10:52)
  4. ^ Bruce Gilley: In Defense of German Colonialism, September 1, 2022
  5. ^ a b c d Katzenellenbogen, S. (1996). "It didn't happen at Berlin: Politics, economics and ignorance in the setting of Africa's colonial boundaries.". In Nugent, P.; Asiwaju, A. I. (eds.). African Boundaries: Barriers, Conduits and Opportunities. London: Pinter. pp. 21–34.
  6. ^ a b c d e Craven, M. (2015). "Between law and history: the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 and the logic of free trade". London Review of International Law. 3: 31–59. doi:10.1093/lril/lrv002.
  7. ^ a b c d Crowe, S. E. (1942). The Berlin West African Conference, 1884–1885. London: Longmans Green.
  8. ^ a b Paine, Jack; Qiu, Xiaoyan; Ricart-Huguet, Joan (2024). "Endogenous Colonial Borders: Precolonial States and Geography in the Partition of Africa". American Political Science Review: 1–20. doi:10.1017/S0003055424000054. ISSN 0003-0554.
  9. ^ Chamberlain, Muriel E., The Scramble for Africa (1999).
  10. ^ Acherson, Neal, The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1999).
  11. ^ a b Cornelis, S. (1991). "Stanley au service de Léopold II: La fondation de l'État Indépendant du Congo (1878–1885)". In Cornelis, S. (ed.). H.M. Stanley: Explorateur au Service du Roi. Tervuren: Royal Museum for Central Africa. pp. 41–60 (53–54).
  12. ^ Förster, Stig, Wolfgang Justin Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson, eds. Bismarck, Europe and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–1885 and the Onset of Partition (1988).
  13. ^ Langer, William L., European Alliances and Alignments: 1871–1890 (1950), pp. 217–220.
  14. ^ Langer, European Alliances and Alignments: 1871–1890 (1950), pp. 251–280.
  15. ^ Rosenberg, Matt. "The Berlin Conference: Where a Continent Was Colonized". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
  16. ^ Wang, Shih-tsung (31 July 1998). "The Conference of Berlin and British 'New' Imperialism, 1884–85" [柏林會議與英國「新帝國主義」,1884–85] (PDF) (Report). 王世宗. Taipei: Department of History and Research Institute of National Taiwan University (國立臺灣大學歷史學系暨研究所). Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 September 2020. Also available here, original here.
  17. ^ General-Akte der Berliner Konferenz [Acte Général de la Conférence de Berlin], 26 February 1885.
  18. ^ "Between law and history: the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 and the logic of free trade". London Review of International Law. 10 March 2015. Archived from the original on 16 October 2015. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  19. ^ David, Saul. "BBC – History – British History in depth: Slavery and the 'Scramble for Africa'". BBC. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
  20. ^ "Historical Context: Heart of Darkness." EXPLORING Novels, Online Edition. Gale, 2003. Discovering Collection. (subscription required)
  21. ^ Stengers, Jean, "Sur l'aventure congolaise de Joseph Conrad". In Quaghebeur, M. and van Balberghe, E. (eds), Papier Blanc, Encre Noire: Cent Ans de Culture Francophone en Afrique Centrale (Zaïre, Rwanda et Burundi). 2 Vols. Brussels: Labor. Vol. 1, pp. 15–34.
  22. ^ Thomson, Robert (1933). Fondation de l'État Indépendant du Congo: Un chapitre de l'histoire du partage de l'Afrique. Brussels. pp. 177–189.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  23. ^ Moniteur Belge / Belgisch Staatsblad. Brussels. 1885–1886. p. 22.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  24. ^ Herbst, Jeffrey. States and Power in Africa. Ch. 3, pp. 71–72.
  25. ^ de Blij, H.J.; Muller, Peter O. (1997). Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 340. ISBN 9780471119463.
  26. ^ Roger Owen, Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul (Oxford University Press, 2005).
  27. ^ "BBC - History - British History in depth: Slavery and the 'Scramble for Africa'". Retrieved 13 November 2022.
  28. ^ "BBC - History - British History in depth: Slavery and the 'Scramble for Africa'". Retrieved 13 November 2022.
  29. ^ Adem, Gurminder K. Bhambra, Yolande Bouka, Randolph B. Persaud, Olivia U. Rutazibwa, Vineet Thakur, Duncan Bell, Karen Smith, Toni Haastrup, Seifudein (3 July 2020). "Why Is Mainstream International Relations Blind to Racism?". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 13 November 2022.((cite web)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  30. ^ Matua, Maka Wu (1995). "Why Redraw the Map of Africa: A Moral and Legal Inquiry". Harvard Law School. 16 (4).
  31. ^ Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt (July 1943). "The Realities in Africa: European Profit or Negro Development?". Foreign Affairs. Vol. 21, no. 4. ISSN 0015-7120.
  32. ^ Aghie, Antony (2004). Landauer, Carl (ed.). Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law. Cambridge University Press.
  33. ^ Hargreaves, John (1963). Prelude to the Partition of West Africa. Macmillam.


Further reading