This Month, 130 years ago, Western countries met to discuss the future of Africa in what is known as the Berlin Conference. The result of the meeting saw the countries distributing portions of the continent to come under their control.
The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 produced the General Act of the Berlin Conference which began the Scramble for Africa. Called for by Portugal, the conference was organised by Germany first chancellor, Otto van Bismarck (during Germany’s rapid rise as a power) and signified a time of increased European colonialism which decimated most of Africa’s self-governance.
The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African Continent. By the time most of Africa regained its ‘independence’ after the late 1950s, it was extremely fragmented, almost beyond repair. Instead, while Africa celebrates freedoms and independence, there are more subtle ways that Europe still exerts its vast influence over the continent.
12 countries participated. Namely Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, The Netherlands, , Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Norway, the USA and Germany.
The initial task of the conference was to agree that the Congo River and Niger River mouths and basins would be considered neutral and open to trade. Despite its neutrality, part of the Kongo Basin became a personal Kingdom (private property) for Belgium’s King Leopold II and under his rule, over half of the region’s population died.
The General Act of the Berlin Conference formalized several points:
- Powers could only possess colonies if they maintained sufficient authority to administer and defend them;
- The Niger and Congo rivers were free and open to the traffic of trade; the Congo Free State was the private property of the Congo Society;
- Any new act of possession along the African coast would not be recognized unless reported to the other signatory powers. The phrase “spheres of influence” made its first appearance in an international agreement.
In the three months of the conference, the continent was divided into 50 countries through a mix of irregular geometric borders, ignoring the cultural and linguistic boundaries set by the native population’s leader. The scramble for Africa had begun.