The Berlin Conference of 1884

The Berlin Conference of 1884


“The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time independence returned to Africa in 1950, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily.”

Harm J. de Bli in “Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts”


The Berlin Conference of 1884–85, also known as the Congo Conference or West Africa Conference, established formalized agreements for European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period and coincided with Germany’s sudden emergence as an imperial power. The conference was organized by Otto von Bismarck, the 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 contributed to ushering in a period of heightened colonial activity by European powers, which eliminated or overrode most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.


Before the conference, European diplomacy treated African natives in the same manner as New World natives: by forming trading relationships with the indigenous chiefs. In the early 1800s, the search for ivory, which was then often used in the production of luxury goods, led many white traders further into the interior of Africa. With the exception of trading posts along the coasts, the continent was essentially ignored during that period.

By the early 1880s, many factors, including diplomatic maneuvers; subsequent colonial exploration; and the recognition of Africa’s abundance of valuable resources such as gold, timber, rubber, land, and markets, had dramatically increased European interest in the continent. Henry Morton Stanley’s charting of the Congo River Basin (1874–1877) removed the last of the unknown areas of Africa from European maps, detailing the areas of British, Portuguese, French and Belgian controlHenry Morton Stanley would later work for King Leopold II of Belgium to scout the Congo, which would become the Congo Free State soon after the closing of the Berlin Conference. The powers raced to push the rough boundaries to their limits and eliminate any potential local minor powers that might prove troublesome to European competitive diplomacy.

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 12 nations in Europe—France, Great Britain, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Austria–Hungary, Sweden–Norway, Denmark, Italy, Turkey, and Russia—as well as the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference in 1884 to work out joint policy on the African continent.

The Conference

The conference was opened on November 15, 1884 and continued until it closed on 26 February 1885. Diplomats from the 14 countries were sent to attend the Berlin Conference and sign the subsequent Berlin Act.

Central points of the conference:

  • To gain public acceptance, the conference resolved to end slavery by African and Islamic powers. Thus, an international prohibition of the slave trade throughout their respected spheres was signed by the European members. That point made the writer Joseph Conrad sarcastically refer to one of the participants at the conference, the International Association of the Congo (also called “International Congo Society”), as “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” in his novella Heart of Darkness. The first name of this Society had been the “International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of Central Africa”.
  • The properties occupied by Belgian King Leopold’s International Congo Society, the name used in the General Act, were confirmed as the Society’s and hence Leopold’s private property. On August 1, 1885, a few months after the closure of the Berlin Conference, Leopold’s Vice-Administrator General in the Congo, Francis de Winton, announced that the territory was henceforth called “the Congo Free State”, a name that in fact was not in use at the time of the conference and does not appear in the General Act.
  • The 14 signatory powers would have free trade throughout the Congo Basin as well as Lake Malawi and east of it in an area south of 5° N.
  • The Niger and Congo rivers were made free for ship traffic.
  • The Principle of Effectivity was introduced to prevent powers from setting up colonies in name only (see below).
  • Any fresh act of taking possession of any portion of the African coast would have to be notified by the power taking possession, or assuming a protectorate, to the other signatory powers.
  • Definition of regions in which each European power had an exclusive right to pursue the legal ownership of land.

The principle of effective occupation stated that powers could acquire rights over colonial lands only if they possessed them or had “effective occupation”: if they had treaties with local leaders, flew their 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 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 that fronted on the African coast, European powers in numerous instances later claimed rights over lands in the interior without demonstrating the requirement of effective occupation, as articulated in Article 35 of the Final Act.


The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference, resulting in atrocities, such the Congo and Namibia genocides. Having to prove effective occupation of claimed territories, 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. By the beginning of World War I, the French overran Bedouin– and Berber–ruled states in the Sahara and the Sub–Sahara after several wars. 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. By 1902, 90% of all the land that makes up Africa was under European control.

The conference provided an opportunity to 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 to limit future hostilities. When African independence was regained after World War II, it was in the form of fragmented states.


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