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The Berlin Conference also "Congo Conference" (German: Kongokonferenz) or Berlin West Africa Conference  (German: Westafrika-Konferenz) 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, first Chancellor of Germany, its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, can be seen as the formalization of the Scramble for Africa. The conference ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity by European powers, while simultaneously eliminating most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.
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Prior to the conference, European diplomacy treated African indigenous people in the same manner as the New World natives. By the mid-19th century, Africa was considered disputed territory ripe for exploration, trade, and settlement. With the exception of trading posts along the coasts, the continent was essentially ignored. This changed as a result of King Leopold of Belgium's desire for glory.
In 1878, King Léopold II of Belgium, who had previously founded the International African Society in 1876, invited Henry Morton Stanley to join him in researching and 'civilizing' the continent. In 1878, the International Congo Society was also formed, with 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 1878 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 what would become known as the Congo Free State. French intelligence had discovered Leopold's plans, and France was quickly engaging in its own colonial exploration. French naval officer Pierre de Brazza was dispatched to central Africa, 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. Finally, Portugal, which already had a long, but essentially abandoned colonial Empire in the area through the mostly defunct proxy state Kongo Empire, also claimed the area due to old treaties with its old proxy, the Kingdom of Spain, and the Roman Catholic Church. It quickly made a treaty with its old ally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 26 February 1884 to block off the Congo Society's access to the Atlantic.
By the early 1880s, due to diplomatic maneuvers, subsequent colonial exploration, and recognition of Africa's abundance of valuable resources such as gold, timber, land, markets and labour power, European interest in Africa had increased dramatically. Stanley's charting of the Congo River Basin (1874–1877) removed the last bit of terra incognita from European maps of the continent, thereby delineating the rough areas of British, Portuguese, French, and Belgian control. The powers raced to push these rough boundaries to their furthest limits and eliminating any potential local minor powers which might prove troublesome to European competitive diplomacy.
France moved to occupy Tunisia, one of the last of the Barbary Pirate states under the pretext of another Islamic terror and piracy incident. French claims by Pierre de Brazza were quickly solidified with French taking control of today's Republic of the Congo in 1881 and also Guinea in 1884. This, in turn, partly convinced Italy to become part of the Triple Alliance, thereby upsetting Bismarck's carefully laid plans with Italy and forcing Germany to become involved. 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 and its Indian Empire threatened.
Under the pretext of the collapsed Egyptian financing and a subsequent riot which saw hundreds of Europeans and British subjects murdered or injured, the United Kingdom intervened in nominally Ottoman Egypt, which, in turn, ruled over the Sudan and what would later become British Somaliland.
Owing to the upsetting of Bismarck's carefully laid balance of power in European politics caused by Leopold's gamble and subsequent European race for colonies, Germany felt compelled to act and started launching expeditions of its own which frightened both British and French statesmen. Hoping to quickly soothe this brewing conflict, King Leopold II was able to convince 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, 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 both because it had an inability to take part in territorial expeditions as well as a sense of not giving the conference further legitimacy.
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.
To counter the argument that Africa's modern day borders were strategically planned and dictated to the benefit of European powers, Olusoga and Erichsen states the following:
It is a common misconception that the Berlin Conference simply 'divided up' the African continent between the European powers. In fact, all the foreign ministers who assembled in Bismarck's Berlin villa had agreed was in which regions of Africa each European power had the right to 'pursue' the legal ownership of land, free from interference by any other. The land itself remained the legal property of Africans.:44
The principle of effective occupation stated that powers could acquire rights over colonial lands only if they actually possessed them: in other words, if they had treaties with local leaders, 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. The colonial power could also make use of the colony economically. This principle became important not only as a basis for the European powers to acquire territorial sovereignty in Africa, but also for determining the limits of their respective overseas possessions, as effective occupation served in some instances as a criterion for settling disputes over the boundaries between colonies. However, as the Berlin Act was limited in its scope to the lands on the African coast, there were numerous instances where European powers claimed rights over lands in the interior without demonstrating the requirement of effective occupation articulated in Article 35 of the Final Act.
The conference provided an opportunity to both channel latent European hostilities towards one another outward, provide new areas for helping the European powers expand in the face of rising American, Russian, and Japanese interests, and form constructive dialogue for limiting future hostilities. For Africans, 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.
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. Bedouin and Berber ruled states in the Sahara and Sub-Sahara 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 conquering Arabic states such as the Mahdist State and the Sultanate of Zanzibar and defeating the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa, before moving on to the independent Afrikaaner republics of Transvaal and 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. 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 with Egypt being under British occupation before becoming a British protectorate in 1914.
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.
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