The Berlin Conference and the Colonization of Africa: A Historical Overview

Berlin Conference: A Catalyst for Africa's Colonial Era

The Berlin Conference (November 15, 1884, to February 26, 1885), also known as the West Africa Conference or the Congo Conference, was a pivotal event in the colonial expansion of European powers into the African continent. It marked a significant moment during the period of "New Imperialism," where the desire for wealth, power, and geopolitical influence among various European nations led to a scramble to colonize Africa. 

The Berlin Conference, proposed by Portugal, aimed to regulate European colonization and trade in Africa to prevent conflict among competing powers. Its objectives included dividing Africa into economic spheres of influence, establishing free trade zones, and ensuring freedom of transportation on certain rivers. 

Otto von Bismarck, the founder and first chancellor of the German Empire, organized the Berlin Conference to settle disputes between the European powers with interests in Africa. After meeting for three and a half months, the Berlin Conference ended with an agreement that allowed European nations to draw artificial borders and claim ownership over almost the entire African continent. This included gaining control not just over the land itself, but also the resources and people living within these newly demarcated territories.

However, several factors contributed to an increased interest in the interior of the continent, including the Great Depression of 1873-1896, the discovery of valuable natural resources such as gold and diamonds, and the imperial ambitions and rivalries of the European powers. In the early 1880s, tensions over control of the Congo Basin and Central Africa among Belgium, France, Portugal, and Britain highlighted the need for cooperation and mutual trade, leading to the convening of the Berlin Conference with far-reaching consequences for Africa and its peoples. 

The image of the 1878 Congress of Berlin represents the meeting where European powers negotiated territorial claims, fueling the Scramble for Africa and New Imperialism.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Congress of Berlin, 13 July 1878

Fourteen countries attended the Berlin Conference, including Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Notably, no Africans were present at the Berlin Conference, as the Sultan of Zanzibar's request to attend was rejected by Great Britain.

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Prelude part of Colonization: From Portuguese Trade to Belgian Conquest

To understand about the Colonization of Africa more briefly, we must clarify what 'New Imperialism' describes that was mentioned earlier. "New Imperialism" refers to a period of intensified colonial expansion from the late 1800s until World War I (1914-1918). During this time, old colonial powers in Western Europe expanded, and new countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States joined in. 

The European colonial powers were engaged in a fierce competition, known as the "Scramble for Africa," to claim territory and resources on the African continent. Germany's growing involvement in this race for colonies alarmed the established colonial powers of Britain and France, who saw Germany as a rising threat.

Henry Stanley's Role in Belgian Imperialism in Congo:

Henry Stanley, a Welsh-American explorer, colonial administrator and politician, conducted expeditions in the Congo region in the 1870s-1880s. These expeditions helped King Leopold II of Belgium establish control over the area. Stanley, acting as an agent of King Leopold II of the Belgians, negotiated treaties with local leaders, enabling Leopold to claim the territory as his personal colony - the Congo Free State. Stanley's reports back to Europe generated public support for Leopold's imperialist ambitions. 

To resolve the tensions and prevent a potential conflict, Belgian King Leopold II convinced the governments of France and Germany that they could all mutually benefit from promoting common trade and economic interests in Africa.

Getting proposal from Portugal and support from the British, and seeking to capitalize on this opportunity for cooperation, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck then organized the Berlin Conference in 1884. Representatives from 13 European nations, as well as the United States, were invited to participate in this conference, with the aim of establishing a shared framework for the colonization of Africa.

This era was characterized by competition for resources, markets, and territories in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, facilitated by technological advancements from the Industrial Revolution such as steamships, railroads, telegraphs, and modern weaponry.  Colonial powers aimed to "civilize" and assimilate local populations, motivated by economic policies like "Free Trade" and geopolitical ambitions. The rivalries among these imperial powers significantly contributed to the outbreak of World War I, with the legacy of this period influencing international dynamics, including the eventual formation of the United Nations after World War II.

The Congo Basin has long been a region of strategic importance and contention among European colonial powers. The Portuguese were the first to establish a presence in the region, having made contact with the Kongo Kingdom in the late 15th century. Over the centuries, the Portuguese maintained a tenuous influence in the area, engaging in trade and attempting to expand their colonial control.

King Leopold II of Belgium was particularly determined to establish a personal colony in the Congo Basin, because it’s rich natural resources and minerals, such as ivory and rubber. Through a combination of diplomacy and subterfuge, he was able to gain control over the territory, which he established as the Congo Free State under his private rule in 1885. Notably, the United States recognized the independent Congo Free State, ruled by King Leopold of Belgium, in 1885 when President Grover Cleveland wrote a letter acknowledging its independence.

To maintain his stranglehold over the Congo Free State, King Leopold II assembled a formidable private army known as the Force Publique. This paramilitary force, numbering up to 19,000 troops at its peak, was composed predominantly of European mercenaries hired by the Belgian monarch to defend his commercial interests in the region. This army, with all officers being white and the rank-and-file soldiers being press-ganged or bought from tribal leaders, served as both an occupying force and a police force to defend the king's commercial interests. The Force Publique was responsible for putting down several rebellions with horrifying savagery, as the Congo Free State effectively became an enormous concentration camp.

The colonial administration imposed a regime of terror on the native population, leading to mass killings, mutilations, and the deaths of an estimated 5 to 10 million Congolese people. Leopold financed development projects with money loaned from the Belgian government, but the stated goal of bringing civilization to the region was a facade for the systematic exploitation and oppression of the Congolese people. Although international outcry eventually forced Leopold to hand over the Congo Free State to Belgium in 1908, the legacy of this brutal colonial rule would have long-lasting and devastating consequences for the people of the Congo.

Berlin Conference: Mapping and Legalizing European Claims in Africa

At the time of the Berlin Conference, the world was entering a new phase of imperialism. Europe had to contend with three emerging global powers: Russia, the US, and Japan. These countries were also building significant overseas empires. However, Europe decided that Africa belonged to it. The Berlin Conference made it clear to the world that Europe viewed Africa as its own territory. 

The conference established agreements that allowed European nations to claim and annex African territories systematically. The process involved explorers signing treaties with local leaders, submitting these treaties to their governments, and negotiating recognition among European states. This systematic approach facilitated the extensive colonization of Africa, drastically transforming the territorial control from 1880 to 1913.

The 2005 Congo Basin Wilderness Area map depicts the vast, biodiverse Congo Basin - the world's second-largest tropical forest covering over 500 million acres, a critical remaining wilderness.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Congo Basin

The importance of the Berlin Conference is highlighted in its role in mapping and legalizing European claims over African lands. Prior to the conference, European colonization was primarily limited to coastal areas. However, the post-conference map of Africa in 1913 shows nearly the entire continent under European control, with the exceptions of Ethiopia and Liberia. 

The conference's agreements allowed for organized territorial acquisition, reducing conflicts among European powers and accelerating the division and conquest of Africa. This legal and strategic mapping process played a crucial role in the almost complete colonization of Africa, marking the Berlin Conference as a significant event in world history due to its profound and lasting impact on the African continent and its peoples. American journalist Daniel De Leon characterized the Berlin Conference as "an event unique in the history of political science...Diplomatic in form, it was economic in fact," (Source: Al Jazeera, Nov 15, 2019).

After the conference, the map of Africa changed dramatically. The map from 1871, before the conference, shows that European nations only had small colonies along the coasts of Africa. But the map from 1914, after the conference, shows that almost all of Africa was now divided up and controlled by European powers, except for Ethiopia and Liberia. So the Berlin Conference was a turning point that led to much more extensive colonization of Africa by European countries. It also helped the European powers cooperate with each other, rather than fight, in dividing up Africa. 

Importantly, the agreements made at the Berlin Conference were grand and lengthy, but they were mostly ignored or broken in the years that followed. The European powers who attended the conference made all these detailed rules, but they didn't actually stick to them. For example, the conference aimed to end slavery in Africa, but this practice continued. However, the Berlin Conference effectively declared Africa as "European real estate”.

European's Dominance in African Colonization: 

European powers aggressively expanded their control over Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, carving up the continent among themselves in a scramble for resources, strategic advantage, and prestige. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 formalized this division, leading to the establishment of European colonies across nearly the entire continent.


Britain was one of the most dominant colonial powers in Africa during the era of "New Imperialism," exerting significant control over regions such as Egypt, East Africa, South Africa, and West Africa. In Egypt, Britain established a protectorate, securing the Suez Canal and dominating trade routes to Asia. In East Africa, the British built the Uganda Railway, cementing their influence over Kenya and Uganda. South Africa saw British dominance through conflicts like the Anglo-Zulu War and Boer Wars, leading to the Union of South Africa. In West Africa, Britain consolidated numerous states into the colony of Nigeria, focusing on resource extraction.

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The British Empire's presence in Africa brought infrastructural development and Western governance, education, and legal systems, but also resulted in exploitation and marginalization of indigenous populations. Arbitrary borders drawn by the British ignored ethnic and cultural boundaries, leading to ongoing conflicts. The legacy of British colonialism is complex, marked by both advancements and enduring challenges across the African continent.


France was another major colonial power in Africa, establishing control over vast territories in North, West, and Central Africa. In North Africa, France ruled Algeria as a settler colony from 1830 and later expanded its influence over Tunisia and Morocco. In West Africa, the French formed the Federation of French West Africa, encompassing modern nations such as Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, and Niger. 

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Central Africa saw French control over Gabon, Chad, and the Congo. French colonial rule focused on assimilation policies, promoting French culture, language, and governance while exploiting local resources and labor.


Germany entered the colonial race later than Britain and France but quickly established territories in East Africa/German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi), Southwest Africa (Namibia), and parts of West Africa (Togo and Cameroon). German colonial administration was characterized by harsh exploitation and military repression, most particularly in the brutal campaign against the Herero and Namaqua people in Namibia. 

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Another major atrocity was committed by German colonizers against the Herero people in Namibia, where over 80,000 Hereros were killed between 1904-1915, with many being forced into the desert to die. Germany's colonies were lost after World War I, redistributed among the victorious Allied powers under the League of Nations mandates.


Italy's colonial ambitions in Africa were concentrated in the Horn of Africa and North Africa. Italy established control over Eritrea and Somalia in the late 19th century and later expanded into Libya after defeating the Ottoman Empire in the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912). 

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Italy's most significant and brutal colonial endeavor was the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, resulting in the brief establishment of Italian East Africa, which included Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Italian rule in these territories was marked by repression and attempts at cultural assimilation.


In the 1480s, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish a physical presence in Africa. However, through the 1870s, European outposts were restricted to ports along the African coasts, focusing on trade and diplomacy. Portugal's colonial presence in Africa dates back to the 15th century, making it one of the oldest European colonial powers on the continent. By the time of the Berlin Conference, Portugal controlled Angola in the west and Mozambique in the east. 

Portuguese colonial rule was characterized by a focus on resource extraction, forced labor, and assimilation policies known as Lusotropicalism, which promoted the idea of Portuguese colonialism being more humane due to racial mixing. However, the reality involved significant exploitation and resistance movements that eventually led to independence in the mid-20th century.


Belgium's colonial empire in Africa was centered on the Congo Free State, personally owned by King Leopold II from 1885 until it became a Belgian colony in 1908. The Congo Free State was notorious for its brutal exploitation of rubber and ivory, leading to the deaths of millions of Congolese people due to forced labor, disease, and violence. International outrage over these abuses eventually forced the Belgian government to take over administration, renaming it the Belgian Congo. Despite some improvements, exploitation and paternalistic policies continued until Congo's independence in 1960.

Netherlands (Dutch):

The Dutch colonization of Africa, beginning in the 16th century, was marked by the exploitation of natural and human resources, including the brutal slave trade and massacres, such as those of the Khoikhoi tribe. The Dutch established colonies in Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, and Namibia, utilizing coastal areas for their lucrative trade routes and resources. However, by the 18th century, the Dutch had lost much of their African territories to the British and French. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 formalized the division of African lands among European powers, highlighting the longstanding impact of earlier Dutch colonial activities on the continent.

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Dutch settlers, known as Boers, played a significant role in the region's history, eventually leading to conflicts with the British and indigenous peoples. The Dutch legacy in South Africa includes the first colonial country which came to South Africa and the Afrikaans language, which evolved from Dutch, and the establishment of the apartheid system, which was later institutionalized by the British.

Other Remarkable Powers:

Several other European nations also held smaller colonies in Africa. Spain controlled small territories in the north, including Spanish Morocco and Western Sahara. The Ottoman Empire, although in decline, maintained nominal control over parts of North Africa until European intervention. Sweden-Norway and Denmark had minor colonial interests but did not establish significant African territories.

Berlin Conference: One of the Overlooked Catalysts behind WWI

One lesser-known cause of World War I is the intense competition among European powers to colonize Africa, known as the Scramble for Africa, which spanned from 1881 to 1914. The start of World War I in 1914 was no coincidence, as tensions were high among European nations vying for African territories. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 was an attempt by these countries to avoid conflict over Africa by dividing the continent among themselves.

The contrasting maps of Africa from 1880 and 1913 visually demonstrate the dramatic territorial changes and colonial expansions that resulted from the Berlin Conference and the subsequent Scramble for Africa by European powers.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Scramble for Africa 1880-1913

At the Berlin Conference, European powers met to regulate colonization and trade in Africa to prevent conflicts among themselves. They drew lines on a map, allocating regions to different countries: France received most of West Africa, Belgium the Congo, Britain East and South Africa, Portugal two colonies in South Africa, and Germany small colonies in various regions. This arbitrary division, however, sowed seeds of discord as nations raced to expand their empires and assert dominance.

The intense rivalry over African territories contributed to the buildup of tensions among European powers. These tensions spilled over into broader geopolitical conflicts, ultimately playing a significant role in the outbreak of World War I. The desire to protect and expand their colonial possessions added to the complexity of alliances and rivalries in Europe. For instance, Germany's colonial ambitions and subsequent losses after World War I underscore how colonial competition was intertwined with the causes of the war. The Berlin Conference, by formalizing the scramble for Africa, thus acted as a catalyst for the hostilities that erupted in 1914.

The Berlin Conference: A Symbolic Moment in Imperialism

The Berlin Conference, held in 1884-1885, was a symbolic event that encapsulated the ills of colonialism and imperialism in Africa. The primary cause of the conference was economic competition, as European nations vied for the riches of the African interior and sought to secure their interests against rivals.

While the conference did not directly divide up Africa, it set the stage for the "Scramble for Africa" that followed, as European powers rushed to colonize the continent and establish their spheres of influence. The conference's main legacy was the establishment of the "principle of effective occupation." This principle stipulated the criteria that colonial powers had to meet in order to claim rights over colonial territories in Africa. Specifically, the colonial powers could only assert control over lands if they had negotiated treaties with local leaders, raised their flags in the claimed regions, and set up an administrative system with a police force to maintain order.

The consequences of the Berlin Conference were far-reaching, contributing to the outbreak of World War I through the rivalries it fostered among the European powers. It also popularized the idea of "spheres of influence," which has continued to shape international dynamics, as seen in modern examples such as Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the United States' interventions in Latin America, a region under its influence since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine.

Despite the fact that many of its stated goals were never achieved, the Berlin Conference remains a significant moment in history, symbolic of the exploitative and destructive nature of European colonialism in Africa.


The Berlin Conference is often seen as the formal start of the Scramble for Africa. However, recent research questions its true impact. Some argue the conference was key to imperialism, with historians like W. E. B. Du Bois highlighting its role in the economic exploitation of Africa, similar in importance to the Atlantic slave trade. Du Bois emphasized that the primary driver of imperialism in Africa was economic gain through wealth extraction. By the early 20th century, European colonial powers had established control over more than 90% of the African continent.

Others focus on the legal side, suggesting the Berlin Conference was just one of many agreements between European powers. These historians point out that many crucial treaties shaping Africa's colonization happened after the conference, indicating it was part of a larger process of negotiation among colonial powers. Thus, while the Berlin Conference was significant, it was one piece in the broader puzzle of European imperialism in Africa. Apart from slavery, both transatlantic and Arab, no other event in modern African history has had such terrible consequences for the continent as the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.