Scramble For Africa: History, Berlin Conference, Outcome, & Facts

The Scramble for Africa is generally defined as the period between 1881 and 1914 that saw European powers increase their stake in Africa from around 10 percent to about 90 percent. The continent of Africa was invaded, divided and then colonized by seven major Western powers, with France and Britain taking the lion’s share of the continent. Many of the boundaries that exist today on the African continent was drawn up during this conquest, which had lasting social, political and economic effects, often times negative, for many decades.

It’s worth mentioning the fact that European empires at the time, who were usually at each other’s throats, were able to smoothly carve up the continent without the need for a single major conflict among themselves. The share size of the loot (i.e. Africa’s vast natural resources) was enough reason for the kings and queens in Europe to put aside their differences and impose a direct rule over the continent.

In the article below WHE explores the rationale behind Europe’s conquest of Africa, the effects it had on Africans in general, and how that direct rule morphed into what some scholars see as neo-colonialism today.

The state of affairs before the Scramble for Africa

Before Imperial powers began imposing its direct rule over Africa in the late 19th century, the kind of relationship that existed between the European powers and the Africans was mainly economic. There was some bit of military ties however. For example it was not uncommon for Europeans, particularly businessmen, to establish both military and political ties with a the locals that inhabited close on the coasts of Africa. Those initial ties were aimed at boosting trade between the two parties. Initially, Europeans did not see the need in moving inland to explore. They appeared quite content with the trading relationship that existed. Besides, moving further inland came with a tremendous amount of risk aside the many tropical diseases that they could catch. There were however some European missionaries that braced it all and soldiered inland.

With increased competition among European countries that operated along the coast of Africa, powerful businessmen, in association with European monarchs, began organizing expeditions further and further into the heartland of Africa. The riches they discovered astonished them, and as a result, more expeditions were made. With this came increased knowledge of the continent. By the middle of the 19th century, European explorers had created detailed maps of the many parts of Africa, particular in East and Central Africa. Thereafter, Africa seemed ripe for a full-scale conquest and colonization.

Rationale behind Europe’s conquest and colonization of Africa

The first obvious reason for Western colonization of Africa was the vast trade opportunity that the continent presented Europe, whose markets at the time were suffering a bit from the decades of protectionist policies erected by each member country. Simply put, Europe needed to find new markets oversees as its markets were shrinking with each passing decade.

Therefore, Europe hoped to use Africa to revive its economy in ways never seen before. Raw materials would be taken from the continent, and Europe in turn would process those raw materials and then send the finished goods back to Africa and other parts of the world.

Aside the economic gains, European imperial powers like Britain and France hoped to use the various ports that they had established along the coast of Africa to facilitate their voyages to Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The latter was a massive gold mine that British businessmen and the Crown couldn’t wait to begin exploiting. It comes as no surprise that Queen Victoria of Great Britain became the Empress of India in 1877 (under the Royal Titles Act) having had the control of India transferred from the East India Company to the Crown.

In central Africa, more specifically today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, Leopold II of Belgium had set up the Congo Free State, a quasi corporatist state, to extract untold amounts of rubber, ivory and other minerals from the land. In about two decades, Leopold’s direct rule over the Congo decimated more than half of the local population (more on this below).

Therefore, in a way, the wave of imperialism that swept throughout the globe, particularly in Africa, did not only promote global capitalism, but it also made made many European monarchs unimaginably rich.

Europe’s scramble for Africa was also inspired by the growth of the naval and military strength of Western powers. Naval and military bases had to be set up along the coast of Africa in order to defend shipping routes that were vital in the global trade. Notable mention can be made of the Suez Canal, which was completed in 1869. This artificial sea-level waterway in Egypt was constructed in order to boost trade between Europe and Asia as merchants did not have to go round Africa before entering the Indian Ocean. By connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, the Suez Canal drastically shortened the distance for sea travel between those two regions.

The colonies that European nations established in Africa were also used as some sort of bargaining chips during negotiations among the Europeans. Territories in Africa often changed hands, from one European power to another. France and Britain together engaged in this act as a means to avert confrontations.

European countries that had colonies with sizable population ended up using the abled sections of the population to boost their military power. Having a colony in Africa also became a status symbol among Europeans. Take the case of the famous German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who was not so enthusiastic about having colonies. Bismarck, following the unification of the various small German states in 1871, gave into the prevailing internal political and public pressure to take active part in the scramble for Africa. Bismarck even helped organize the conference in Berlin in 1884 that set out the rules for European powers operating in Africa to follow in order to reduce the possibility of a conflict erupting among them.

The Scramble for Africa begins

The lands near the European trading posts that were established centuries ago steadily turned into the full-fledged European territories. By the late 1860s, Europe had amassed control of about 10 percent of the continent. French and British presence on the Gulf of Guinea along the coast of West Africa was very pronounced. Portugal wielded tremendous amount of influence on the coast of what is now Mozambique in East Africa. To the northwestern part of Africa, primarily what is today Algeria, France dominated as British traders and explorers made huge inroad into southern Africa.

Buoyed on by the growth of communication and transportation technology, more and more European nations entered the fray, and thus marking the beginning of the Scramble for Africa. With all that expansion in Africa, one would think that Europeans would have descended into an all-out conflict over the continent. None of that happened because Europeans had come together and agreed to a set of rules that governed the colonization of Africa.

The Berlin Africa Conference of 1884-85

As many European powers began to establish stronger foothold in many parts of Africa, it became absolutely crucial for Europe to have framework that would regulate Europe’s colonization efforts and trade in Africa. Having recently united and become an imperial power, Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, took upon itself to organize a conference in Berlin in 1884 to discuss major issues concerning Europe’s massive inroad into the Africa. Some scholars describe the Berlin Africa Conference (also known as the Congo Conference) as Europe’s formalization of its conquest and colonization of Africa. It must be noted that prior to the conference, bilateral agreements were signed among many European countries in order to avoid the breakout of conflict over territories in Africa.

All in all, fourteen countries participated in the Berlin Conference, which included the typical European powers France, Britain, Spain, Portugal as well other countries such as Denmark, the United States, Russia, the Netherlands, among others.

Other issues discussed at the conference included the ending of slave trade that still existed in some bits and forms, and the expansion of missionary activities on the African continent.

Above all things, the conference simply sought to steer imperial powers of the day away from any future conflict over division of Africa. Rules were established to govern territorial boundaries, trade, naval activities, and among others. Another very big takeaway from the conference was the imperial powers acknowledgment of Leopold II of Belgium’s administration of the Congo Free State (what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was also agreed that region along the Congo River was to be a neutral area and free of all trade restrictions and naval restrictions.

The 14 Participating countries at the conference also agreed to remain in constant communication with each other, especially when an imperial power intended to expand its colony in Africa.

Imperial powers at the Berlin Africa Conference in 1884 agreed to establish and maintain open channels of communication among themselves when it came to the issue of Africa. It was hoped that the rules agreed to would help avert conflicts among themselves.

European empires were able to put aside their differences to milk Africa so to speak. The conference in Berlin 1884 marked the point were informal imperialism began to turn into a more direct rule over Africa. Military influence and economic dominance gave way to direct rule. Image: German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck at the Berlin Africa Conference, 1884

Why were Ethiopia and Liberia never colonized?

It is often said that Ethiopia and Liberia were the two African countries that weren’t included during imperial powers scramble for Africa. Those two countries were already full-fledged independent countries. Liberia, for example, had declared its independence about four decades prior to the Berlin Conference of 1884. The West African country had a fledging system of government modeled on the United States Constitution.

As a matter of fact, Liberia was heavily influenced by American culture; the language, flag, system of governance, capital name, and the name Liberia itself bears strong semblance to the United States. Liberia’s was derived from the word “liberated” or “liberty”, which came about because freed slaves from the U.S. and other parts of Caribbean were encouraged to settle on the coast of West Africa. Liberia thus became a refuge for Blacks that wanted to return to their “ancestral home” so to speak. Owing to Liberia’s strong bond with the U.S., imperial powers in Europe did not include it in their colonization efforts as they did not want to get into a conflict with the Americans.

With regard to Ethiopia, the country’s powerful emperors and relatively strong military forces made it an unattractive target for European nations.

Read more: The two African countries stayed independent during the Scramble for Africa

Other interesting facts about the Scramble for Africa

  • The askari for example referred to a local soldier who served in the armies of the European colonial empires in Africa. Askaris served in British, Italian, Portuguese, German, Belgian and French armies. As they were familiar with the environment, colonial askaris helped the colonial powers conquer more territories in Africa. The colonial powers would later deploy the askaris into the security apparatus of their African colonies.
  • Germany was third largest colonial power in Africa, behind Britain and France. Much of the country’s rise came during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who actively promoted a foreign policy that turned Germany into a global power with a large navy. By 1915, the Germans wielded control over 2.6 million square kilometers of the continent. There were about 14 million inhabitants in the German colonies in Africa, which included Tanganyika (present day Tanzania), parts of the Cameroon, Southwest Africa (modern-day Namibia), and Togoland (present day Togo in West Africa).
  • Similar to Germany, Italy, following its unification in 1861, began making huge inroads into Africa. The Italians took possession of some parts of Eritrea in 1870. Large parts of the south of the horn of Africa fell into Italy’s control. Soon, the Italians started having a very strong appetite for taking possession of Ethiopia, a nation that was relatively independent at the time. The Italians hoped to capitalize on the slight disunity in Ethiopia following the death of Emperor Yohannes IV in 1889. And so the First Italo-Ethiopian War began in 1895. The Italians were defeated with a numerical superior Ethiopian army, which also received ample support from the French and the Russians. Following a brief war with the Ottoman Empire in 1911, Italy took possession of some parts of Libya – i.e. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – which united to form the Italian colony called Italian Libya (1934-1943).
  • In the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1937), Ethiopia struggled to repel an invasion by Fascist Italy under the leadership Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie even had to flee his nation as the capital Addis Ababa was overran by the Italian forces. Following its annexation, Ethiopia became part of the Italian province of East Africa, which included other Italian colonies such as Somaliland and Eritrea. Italy would occupy Ethiopia until 1942, when the British and its allies intervened and forced Italy out of Ethiopia.
  • As Leopold II of Belgium carved himself a large swathes of what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo, French explorers, led by Pierre de Brazza, had raised the French flag over a territory that is now Brazzaville. France would therefore go on take possession of French Congo (today’s Republic of the Congo).
  • Initially, the Egba United Government the Egba people – a subgroup of the Yoruba people in western Nigeria – was recognized by Britain as independent. However, that all changed in 1914, when the region was annexed by Britain and later incorporated into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria.
  • During the 10-year construction of the vital waterway the Suez Canal in the mid-19th century, it’s been estimated that several tens of thousands of workers lost their lives. Workers typically died of cholera, malnutrition and even fatigue. Owing to the huge debt that then-Egyptian ruler Isma’il Pasha had stacked up, he was forced to relinquish control of Egypt to Britain and France. Isma’il abdicated the throne in favor of his eldest son Tewfik Pasha. The new Egyptian ruler, who soon had to contend with a Sudanese rebellion (the Mahdist War, from 1881 to 1889) led by Muhammad Ahmad, sought the financial and military assistance from Britain. And thus began Britain’s rule over Egypt. After the 7-year Mahdist War, Britain took control of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, which corresponds largely to today’s Sudan and South Sudan.
  • Britain had many possessions in Southern Africa, including what is today South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Eswatini. Having taking possession of Egypt, the British tried to link (by rail) its Southern African possessions with places along the Nile, as such the famous British miner and later Prime Minister of the Cape Colony Cecil John Rhodes came up with the phrase “Cape to Cairo” empire.
  • From its West African colony in present day Senegal, the French headed eastward and took possession of many places in the Sahara, including modern day Mali, Chad, and Niger. France tried to establish a trade route from the Niger River to the Nile.
  • Some imperial powers in Europe rode on anti-slavery theme to justify their colonization of Africa. About four years after the Berlin Africa Conference, the Brussels Anti-Slavery Conference 1889-90 was held to discuss ways to completely eradicate slavery from Africa. The coming of colonial powers, who abolished all kinds of slave trade, resulted in the emancipation of millions of slaves in Africa. Independent territories in Africa, including the Ethiopian Empire, followed suit and abolished slavery in their territories.
  • To put into perspective just how much land area Europe acquired during its colonization of Africa. It’s been estimated that Europe acquired close to 9,000,000 square miles (23,000,000 kilometer square) of overseas land around the globe. That figure is the equivalent of 20% of the land area of the globe. Britain’s colonies in Africa alone accounted for about 30% of Africa’s population, with significant portion of that coming from Britain’s Nigeria colony. France held about 16%, Portugal had 12%, and Germany had about 7%.
  • Although the imperial powers were able to avoid any serious conflict among themselves over the Scramble for Africa, the tensions that came from their overseas colonial possessions ultimately gave birth to further political crisis in Europe, which in turn resulted in the breakout of World War I.
  • The Germans had colonies in the African Great Lakes region, which included present-day Burundi, the Tanzania mainland, Rwanda, and among others.

The Berlin Africa Conference of 1884-85 is also known as the Congo Conference or the West Africa Conference

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