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Africa During the Scramble: Four Months in Berlin

By Gary Oswald

The conference of Berlin, as illustrated in "Illustrierte Zeitung

The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 is probably the best known and most taught moment of the Scramble of Africa. It was a meeting of representatives from 14 countries who came together in Germany to decide the future of Africa. Famously the people invited included no Africans at all. The 14 countries who got to decide on the fate of a continent were Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, the UK and the USA. Around half those countries didn't even have land in Africa, but they still got a say in how it was to be governed.

But Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Madagascar, Zanzibar, Liberia, the Boer Republics etc.? Not worth considering. When the Berlin Conference is taught much is normally made of this lack of African representatives. This is especially notable because it hadn't been true of previous conferences, (Black Officials from both Freetown and Monrovia had spoken at the 1867 Paris Conference about Slavery in Africa and Ethiopian representatives had been invited by the Greeks to the negotiations around the 1877 war in the Balkans) and so represented a shift in European perspective.

The problem of course with studying the Scramble through Berlin is you're wearing the same blinders as Bismarck was when writing invitations. Instead of examining the actions and fates of the people on the ground, you're looking instead at the actions and opinions of a bunch of Europeans, who'd largely never even been to Africa and who care far more about European Politics than African ones. You're not going to find out what the Ethiopians or Liberians thought and did during this time by looking at Berlin because they weren't there and you're not even going to have that good an insight into the Imperial powers because there often was a huge difference between the orders from Europe and what local commanders actually did. The Anglo-Zulu war, for instance, happened despite orders from London to not invade the Zulu Kingdom. Same with the first German-Nama War and the Second French War with the Wassoulou Empire and quite a few more.

Which is why these articles have preferred to focus on the deeds of people on the ground in Africa. And people like me, and to be fair probably more importantly people like Sybil Crowe and Thomas Pakenham, have led a push back against the prominence of Berlin in the historiography, saying it's essentially useless to look at as most of the things agreed there just didn't actually happen.

Pakenham, a historian I have somewhat mixed feelings about, rather sums up this revisionist doctrine with the following dismissal of the importance of the Berlin treaties: "The race to grab a slice of the African cake had started long before the first day of the conference. None of the thirty-eight clauses of the General Act had any teeth. It had set no rules for dividing, let alone eating, the cake".

But a complete dismissal of Berlin is perhaps going too far the other way. So this Article is about Berlin and what was agreed there and how much those agreements were honoured in practice.

First of all, lets get the low hanging fruit out of the way. As Pakenham notes, the conference obviously did not start the Scramble. It happened from November 1884 to February 1885, whereas the increasing European interest in Africa had really taken off in the 1850s thanks to the combination of Quinine (an effective anti malaria drug) and the Steamship (which shortened travel times). This led to increases in both private exploration and government expansion, the latter mostly following the former and by the late 1870s the Governments were already fully involved. By November 1884, the German Empire in Africa already existed, the Italians had already set up in Eritrea and Somalia, the Portuguese had returned in strength to Angola and Mozambique, the British had already taken control of Egypt and fought the Zulu and Boer Wars for complete control of South Africa, the French had already annexed Tunisia and started the conquest of Madagascar and the Sahel empires and the British-French trade wars for control of the Niger Delta were in full flow.

The conference did lead to an acceleration of that imperialism, both before it sat, so various countries could strengthen their hand for the negotiation, and afterwards, now it had been legalised. But the conference was a way of formalising and controlling the invasions that were already happening rather than Bismarck going 'hey, I've just noticed there's a continent down there, lets steal some land'.

Which is the other point, Pakenham said that Berlin "set no rules for dividing, let alone eating, the cake". Bismarck's opening speech was very clear on this. The conference would not dictate which countries took which bits of Africa, just the procedure by which they could so.

So what was actually agreed? Well there were thirty eight clauses in the General Act agreed in Berlin but we'll just look at some of the main points.

First Agreement: The Congo

The most famous result of the Berlin conference was that it recognised the properties occupied by King Leopold's International Congo Society as belonging to that Society. I've seen it said this wasn't actually agreed at the main conference but in informal negotiations around it. But I don't really buy that. The International Association of the Congo was asked to sign the General Act at the end of the Berlin conference. And that was the recognition of their position as rulers of the Congo even though it was informal discussion with the great powers that led to that moment. And it's not a particularly relevant distinction, anyway, we can use the Berlin Conference as shorthand for the series of discussions that happened about Africa at that time, even if they didn't all actually take place in Berlin.

The more important correction is that this did not give King Leopold control of the Congo. It simply recognised the already de facto situation there. The International African Association was formed in 1876 by King Leopold and in 1879 this became the International Association of the Congo which hired Henry Morton Stanley to traverse the region, making deals which local kings. By the time of the Berlin conference, Leopold not only had men on the ground building a colonial infrastructure but he also had been recognised as the rightful ruler of the Congo by Chester Arthur, President of the USA. Arthur's recognition of the Association's sovereignty over its land in April 1884, was one of the reasons for the Berlin Conference in the first place. A desire for the Europeans to get their act together before everything was decided without them.

Moreover Arthur wasn't alone on this. Shortly after the US President announced his support, Jules Ferry of France had secretly also agreed to back Leopold, in return for Leopold promising that if his project failed, as many thought it would, he would offer to sell it first to France and not the UK. Bismarck, seeing the way the wind was blowing, then offered his own recognition to Leopold in June 1884 in return for a promise of free trade for German nationals in the Congo both by Leopold and by any country Leopold sold to. By the time the Berlin Conference opened, Leopold already had the support of France, Germany and the USA. The Conference was essentially a presentation of this 'fait accompli' to the British and Portuguese.

This was important because, worried by Leopold, the British and Portuguese had signed a treaty in February 1884, in which Portugal would control the mouth of the Congo. This in turn had spooked Germany and France, who had gone to Leopold as the only other power on the ground who could possibly block this and prevent Portuguese tariffs on the Congo. With Germany and France united, and threatening to challenge the UK in Nigeria and Egypt and Portugal in Angola, Britain and Portugal backed down, though Portugal only after Bismarck drafted an actual ultimatum.

This was a huge victory for Leopold, he'd been lobbying for British recognition for over a year, and it is a tempting point of diversion for him to be denied it but it was something that built on pre-existing victories, rather than the starting point for the Free State, as it is often framed. The Congo Free State certainly was not, as it is often presented, an invention of the Great Powers created at Berlin. It was an invention of Leopold's which was recognised by the Great Powers at Berlin thanks to year of lobbying to that end. If Leopold failed to achieve his goals at Berlin, the consequence is not no Free State, it's less recognition for the Free State and possibly less land included in it.

Moreover, this is a classic case where what was agreed at Berlin wasn't what happened. The idea of ceding the Congo to the International Association of the Congo was that it was to be an internationalised space. Instead within months of the conference, it was announced to be a new State with Leopold as its sovereign, which very much wasn't what had been pitched at Berlin.

And once the crimes of the Free State were uncovered, it ended up instead under Belgian Rule from 1908 onwards. This, control over such a large area of Africa by a single European country, was a complete reversal of the internationalised space that the Conference had decided on.

Second Agreement: Slavery

One of the ironies of the Scramble of Africa is the extent to which it was sold as humanitarian liberal intervention. The conference made much of guaranteeing fair treatment and solitude for the moral and physical welfare of the native races. They would be civilised and Christianised and no longer the victims of human sacrifices or slavery. The latter, in particular, was a major talking point.

The conference resolved to end slavery by African and Islamic powers and all powers signed an international prohibition of the slave trade throughout their spheres of influence. This was an extension of the existing bans of the Atlantic Slave Trade. And it was carried out, there were certainly major efforts to both shut down the Arabic slave trade and free slaves within Africa. Abolitionism was undoubtedly one of the results of colonial rule.

The anti slave trading Treaties of 1885 lasted five years until they were replaced and strengthened by the 1890 Brussels conference act which took further lines against the sale of slaves and also banned sales of firearms and alcohol to Africans, though actual enforcement of that law was spotty at best. The huge numbers of guns sold to Ethiopia attests to that.

The abolitionist nature of the Colonial powers does however come with a lot of caveats in terms of unfree labour within European colonies, in particular within the Congo Free State, where a far more brutal and prevalent type of slavery was introduced, though the same could also be said for a lot of other European colonies, such as French Ubangi Shari or German South West Africa.

This slavery generally took the form of brutal corvee labour demanded by colonists in place of taxes or from prisoners of war as retribution. But there were also numerous domestic slaves in most colonial empires that hadn't been freed by Europeans for fear of provoking rebellions. As previously mentioned, the last slaves freed in Sierra Leone happened in 1928, nearly a century after slavery in the British Empire was meant to have ended. The French in Senegal went so far as to pay their soldiers in the slaves they captured from sacked towns with those prizes then taxed.

The truth was, the extent that abolition happened depended far more on the nature of the rule on the ground than any declarations back in Europe. Even within Nigeria, Benin had their domestic slaves freed upon conquest where as Sokoto didn't until the 1920s due to different governing styles of the man on the ground and the different natures of the annexation. And likewise the history of strikes and revolts meant very different situations in terms of taxes and wages in say Zanzibar compared to Rhodesia.

Even just in terms of the slave trade, European colonies often had a labour shortage and would obtain labour from local chiefs in return for goods, which meant slaves, though that wasn't how they were recorded. Dahomey sold slaves to Germany and the Free State in the 1890s and Spain and Portugal bought slaves from Liberia as late as the 1920s.

But, despite those caveats, this is an issue where the Conference did achieve something and the laws it established were enforced. The picture on the ground was often more complicated but slavery in Africa, by African and Islamic powers, was indeed mostly abolished by the Colonial powers, though Berlin was only one of many conferences on this issue.

Third Agreement: Free Trade

The Niger and Congo rivers were to be made free for ship traffic and free trade was to be established throughout Central Africa.

This one simply did not happen and is the best argument for the irrelevance of Berlin. Highly monopolistic systems of trade were set up in both those regions, by the British on the Niger and by the Free State and later Belgians in the Congo. Indeed when the Free State in 1890 announced a 10 percent duty on imports, the Americans complained that this essentially made the Berlin Treaties defunct. As far as they were concerned, what had been agreed was a free trade treaty and without that it was useless.

Fourth Agreement: Peace

Henry Shelton Sanford, the US representative at the conference, was one of the most influential people there. Picture by Mathew Benjamin Brady.

Berlin was a rationalisation for war and invasion but it also aimed to ensure no war in Africa between Europeans. Many people within the Arthur Administration viewed the American Civil War as a particular tragedy because so many white men had died over a disagreement over black men and they were worried a similar war would happen in Africa. Sanford, Arthur's representative, pushed for Africa to be neutral. To an extent, this was the point of the conference. To sort out potential trouble spots in Africa and thus prevent a new European war breaking out due to colonial fights.

Did it work? Well, no European war did start in Africa so, to some extent at least, yes. Though given the war scares at Fashoda and Agadir, that possibly had less to do with the Berlin agreements and more the general European balance of power.

However the idea was more than just no war starting in Africa, it was no war between Europeans in Africa at all. When in 1914, Europe broke out into war, initially the Belgian Congo, British East Africa and German East Africa attempted to stay out of it, obeying the neutrality clauses negotiated at Berlin. This lasted only weeks until orders came from Berlin and London demanding that both sides use their forces to again an advantage in the overall war. The Germans, who viewed the Americans as having guaranteed the treaty at Berlin, asked for the USA to intervene on their behalf after British troops crossed the border, thus breaking the promise of neutrality within Africa, and were told no. That essentially marked the point wherein the Berlin Treaties were defunct.

German East Africa would go on to become the site of some of the most fierce and brutal fighting of the entire war and the treaties that ended World War One ended up replacing the Berlin Treaties in their entirety. Which, among other things, meant that a treaty which took for granted, as an unstated assumption, the rightness of all Europeans to rule over Africans, was replaced by one that acknowledging some small sense of noblesse oblige. In that the Treaty of Versailles grandly declared that the Germans had proven themselves unfit for the responsibility of African colonies due to their cruelty and thus would have their colonies instead handed to the, allegedly less cruel, Belgians and South Africans.

Fifth Agreement: Sphere of Influences

As part of the effort of ensuring no armed conflict, various powers claimed areas of influence where the other powers had to stay clear. This mostly worked. For instance, the British never sent any troops into German South West Africa until World War I, despite the actual German presence there being minimal for years and some demand from the Cape Colony for expansion there.

The principle agreed in Berlin was that if a European country wished to annex more of the African coast, they'd have to notify the other members of the Conference before taking action so that it could not happen without general agreement thus avoiding conflict. However, and critically, they didn't have the same responsibilities when expanding inland, where maps were much less accurate, leading to races of one country against another to get to desired real estate like Katanga or South Sudan first and ultimately the war scare at Fashoda.

The British and Portuguese conflict over Zimbabwe, which Portugal had claimed at Berlin but Cecil Rhodes wanted led to the 1890 British Ultimatum which saw Portuguese humiliatingly back down from territories they'd claimed for centuries and even some undeclared fighting between the two sides, an event memorialised in the angry song 'A Portuguesa', the current Portuguese National Anthem.

Nor did recognition of the Italian sphere of influence in the Horn of Africa, stop Russia from sending armed men to fight alongside Ethiopia at Adwa.

But cases with such obvious losers are quite rare, largely Africa was divided up relatively smoothly.

Having said that, while this concept certainly did ultimately form the basis for how the Scramble played out, the actual agreements on borders didn't happen in Berlin. They were worked out by bilateral side treaties by the powers in question, throughout the colonial period. Treaties like that were signed before, during and after Berlin and so proved far more relevant than the General Act. Again to an extent this is nit-picking, part of the point of Berlin was to create an atmosphere where these kind of agreements could happen, but the General Act was overruled regularly by these side agreements.

For instance on multiple occasions France, Germany and Italy attacked polities which the British had treaties of protection with. Madagascar, Zanzibar, Ethiopia and the Mossi Kingdoms of Burkina Faso all fit that description. And at Berlin, the British had explicitly negotiated for protectorates such as that to be recognised as off limits for other colonisers.

But in every case, instead of the attacker backing off due to breaching the Berlin treaties, they simply sat down with the British and offered them something else in turn for turning a blind eye and the invasion went ahead. In the Mossi case, the British Army ordered to guard them literally withdrew back to Nigeria so the French Army could move to attack.

Sixth Agreement: Effective occupation

Part of the reason the Portuguese did not get their entire Pink Map and had to back down to the 1890 British Ultimatum was the introduction of the new principle of effective occupation. This meant that you could not simply claim you owned land because you'd always owned it, or because you'd signed agreements with some native kings who didn't know what those treaties meant. You had to have boots on the ground that were flying your flag for your control to be recognised.

Portugal didn't have that in Zimbabwe and so when they moved troops to gain effective control, the British took that as a new aggression and asked them to withdraw. The Portuguese felt they were putting down a rebellion within their already claimed territory but they did not have effective occupation and so they lost that land.

The same happened to Liberia. Monrovia had agreed treaties with many of the cities of modern day Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Mali. But they didn't have men on the ground and so Europeans just ignored it and moved in themselves, often denying that the Liberians had even ever been there before.

But, well this principle was not enforced equally. Liberia and Portugal were weak countries who could be pushed around. When France or Germany or the UK claimed land they didn't actually have control over, they tended to keep it even if that land was essentially self governing like the Sokoto caliphate or actively hostile to Colonial control like the Dervish state in Somalia. All treaties are limited by the extent to which they can be enforced and what Portugal would back down over, the British wouldn't.

This concept was important, it was the single most lasting effect of the Berlin Conference and it formed the excuse for land grabs by the great powers but it justified landgrabs which they already wanted to make. The reason the French took the Liberian towns in Guinea was because they wanted to cut off Samori Ture from the Monrovian gunsmiths he was buying from, not because of the agreements at Berlin. Likewise Zimbabwe became British because of Cecil Rhodes' ambitions and his rivalry with the Transvaal Boers.


The Berlin conference was not irrelevant, it set out the terms in which Africa was governed from 1885 until 1914, but it also isn't hugely important to African History, because so much of it was ignored when the great powers wanted something different. For those studying European History, the conference is probably more useful for showing what the various countries there wanted and how they represented themselves. You could point to the increasing bad blood between French and German delegates at the conference, for instance.

But in Africa, it was the power on the ground that counted not what was agreed in Europe. A POD set at the conference might lead to a different treaty but still the same results. Ultimately it was decisions made by the men in the spot (both African and European) that led to modern Africa more than those made at Berlin. Full support of the Portuguese position at Berlin, probably doesn't stop Salisbury and Rhodes from going for that area anyway. You can't really change how the continent was divided up there, you need to do it on the ground.

But well does this matter?

When Labour MPs argue that we should be teaching British children about the Berlin conference what they mean is they we should teach about them that the Scramble happened. Not everyone has the time or inclination to read tens of thousands of words about the details of late 19th century Africa or wants to think about counter factuals. Berlin has become a shorthand, an easily teachable moment, about the way imperialism worked for people without pre-existing knowledge. It was people in Europe making decisions for how people in Africa lived. And that is a thing that happened and all my nit-picking can't deny.

Yes, a lot of the details arranged at Berlin, in terms of what the trading policies should be and how conflict should be dealt with, weren't honoured in the breach. But the fundamental point remains that this was a conference wherein the complete conquest of the continent was accepted and approved of by all of the great and good of Europe.

Shouldn't that be taught?

The problem is that by focusing on Berlin, a conference in Europe attended by Europeans and Americans, and maps and treaties, you miss exactly what that meant. You talk about the conquest of Africa, but you do it in a bloodless way where what that actually means, in terms of deaths and humiliation isn't really focused on.

Thomas Pakenham, for all his dismissal of Berlin, is someone who is often guilty of this. His book on the Scramble of Africa focuses more on the Europeans involved, on the politics that meant this country got that colony rather than this other country and less on the land and people they were conquering.

There is a reason I have only written this article now, after writing a lot of other articles about the Scramble on the ground first. Berlin tells you what Europe wanted to do in Africa, but it's images of labourers in the Congo Free State with their hands chopped off or of French Soldiers destroying industrial equipment, tearing out light bulbs and destroying medicine when Guinea voted for independence so they would gain no benefit from it or of the emancipated bodies of the victims of British and German concentration camps that tell you what Europe actually did do in Africa.


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Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.

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