Berlin Conference

Imagine the US in an alternate reality a couple of centuries ago where the states are independent countries. Now imagine representatives of overseas empires sitting together at a conference and deciding which parts of your land they will own, what waterways they will share with each other, and who gets to claim and conquer new areas. 

Berlin Conference Berlin Conference

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Table of contents

    No American has any right to complain because, according to the imperial powers, you don't have real governments so you have no valid claim to your land. You also mostly don't speak actual languages, have no history, are "backward," and, oh yes: they say you aren't as intelligent as them. It shouldn't surprise you to learn you aren't invited to this conference. (One of you, the sultan of a self-governing island, did ask politely, but he was laughed at).

    Welcome to Africa! The above actually happened to the continent in 1884-1885 and was one of the sorriest chapters in human history.

    Berlin Conference Purpose

    In the 1880s, 80% of Africa was under African control. The Kanem-Bornu Empire around Lake Chad, founded c. 800 AD, was still around, and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of independent nations of all types across the vast continent.

    Setting the Stage

    Europeans came and went in Africa since the times of the Roman Empire. Things worsened after the 1400s when Iberians, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks began to explore the coasts looking to trade for slaves, and powerful slave-trading coastal kingdoms such as Benin arose in response.

    The Portuguese, Spanish, English, Danes, Dutch, French, and Arabs set up small colonies all along the coasts to trade with African coastal kingdoms in enslaved people, ivory, gold, rubber, and other valuable products. To supply the demands, coastal kingdoms raided the interior. Due to Indigenous defenses, diseases, and difficult geographic access, the interior mainly stayed free of direct European control until the 1800s.

    The mostly navigable key to the heart of Africa was the Congo River. Sailing it meant bypassing trackless equatorial rainforests to make it over halfway across the continent, then crossing the Rift Valley savannas of the African Great Lakes region to the navigable Zambezi and other rivers and reaching the Indian Ocean.

    The Scramble Begins

    The Roman Catholic Kongo Kingdom, founded in the 1390s, had once possessed a formidable military but was overrun by the Portuguese in the 1860s from their base in Angola. With the Portuguese threatening to link Angola with Mozambique and claim the center of Africa, Great Britain realized its north-south trade link from South Africa to Egypt would be severed. Meanwhile, the German Empire was grabbing coastal colonies left and right in Africa and across the globe.

    Enter King Leopold of Belgium. His Association Internationale du Congo had slyly sent representatives to the Congo Basin, the most well-known of whom was Henry Morton Stanley, to map out routes and establish trade relationships with local nations. Leopold's mission, Stanley said, was humanitarian: the slave trade, though outlawed in Europe, was still raging in Africa. Native peoples, he intoned, needed "Commerce, Civilization, and Christianity" (the "3 Cs").

    On a Saturday in November of 1884, representatives from 14 nations, all white men, came together in Berlin for almost three months of wrangling over what would happen in the Congo Basin, addressing several other concerns as well.

    Berlin Conference German sketch StudySmarterFig. 1 - A German text depicts a typical day at the Berlin Conference

    The leading players were King Leopold/Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, France, and Portugal. Others who attended were Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, the US, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Sweden-Norway, and Russia.

    No Africans were present. The Sultan of Zanzibar asked to be allowed to attend, but he was spurned by Great Britain.

    What about the Africans?

    The world had entered the "new imperialism" phase, and Europe faced the rise of three new global powers: Russia, the US, and Japan. These were busy establishing far-flung maritime empires, but Africa was to belong to Europe. The Berlin Conference signaled to the world that Africa was European real estate.

    The question of African sovereignty was raised, but not at the Conference. Skeptics wondered how Africans would benefit. The fiction was that the conference was also about humanitarian concerns, but many at the time, as well as historians later on, saw it as a facade to appease critics.

    The reality was that the Berlin Conference set the rules of the game for what came to be known as the "Scramble for Africa": not just trading zones and pacts with local leaders, but wholesale colonization, by the 1930s, of almost 100% of the world's second-largest continent.

    Terms of the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885

    The General Act (agreements made at the conference) was lofty, wordy, and almost utterly without teeth. The agreements were mostly flagrantly violated or forgotten in the coming decades:

    • Ending slavery by Arab and Black African interests in Africa;

    • King Leopold's real estate in the Congo Basin belonged to him (see below for what this wrought);

    • The 14 countries present gained free trade access not only to the Congo Basin but across to the Indian Ocean;

    • The Congo and Niger rivers had freedom of navigation;

    • Principle of Effective Occupation (see below);

    • Spheres of influence established—areas where European countries had land access and could exclude other European countries;

    • New claimants to coastline areas needed to notify the other 13 countries.

    Berlin Conference Results

    Undoubtedly the most significant concrete result of the Conference was the formalization of King Leopold's holdings via a group known as the International Congo Society. A few months after the conference ended, a vast private holding called the Congo Free State was born. It was King Leopold's property, later immortalized in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Far from a humanitarian mission, King Leopold's land became the setting for one of the worst genocides in history. Around 10 million Congolese were killed or worked to death in the rush to extract rubber. Even by the standards of the time, the situation was so horrendous that Belgium was forced to take over the CFS in 1908 and rule it directly.

    Berlin Conference French cartoon StudySmarterFig. 2 - An enigmatic French political cartoon depicting the Berlin Conference asks, "When will the people wake up?" as King Leopold slices up the Congo, watched by Russia and Germany

    Berlin Conference Map

    The geographer E. G. Ravenstein, famous for his Laws of Migration, published a map that shows how little of Africa was colonized by Europeans before the Berlin Conference.

    Berlin Conference Ravenstein Africa map StudySmarterFig. 3 - Africa in the 1880s

    The map helpfully shows the "Limits of the Commercial Basin of the Congo as decided at the Berlin Conference," stretching from the Congo Basin itself across to Zanzibar and modern-day Tanzania and Mozambique.

    Causes and Effects of the Berlin Conference

    Since many of its goals were never accomplished, the Berlin Conference's significance is still debated by historians. Still, as a symbolic moment in human history, it has become synonymous with the ills of colonialism and imperialism.


    The leading cause of the Berlin Conference was economic competition. European nations saw nearly unlimited riches available in interior Africa and did not want their interests violated by others.

    Geopolitically, long-time African colonizers Great Britain, France, and Portugal were not only worried by each other's rapid inroads to the interior but also the rise of imperial Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy, Turkey, and North African Arab powers.

    That the humanitarian concerns given as a cause were nothing but window dressing was born out by the genocide in the Congo along with numerous other atrocities committed by Europeans against African nations.


    A major misconception is that European nations drew lines on the map that divided up Africa, but that occurred later. The Conference simply set the stage for this by establishing some of the ground rules.

    Principle of Effective Occupation

    The Conference's main legacy was codifying the idea that claimed lands had to be used. This meant one or both of the following: a white settler colony, such as that founded in Kenya: white administrators directly present to establish the presence of the imperial claimant within Indigenous territories.

    Rule over Africans could be primarily direct, with little political say of local people, or indirect, with administrators exerting their bosses' wills through local rulers and leaving most pre-existing systems in place.

    The extent to which colonial rule was direct or indirect depended on factors such as how desirable the climate was for Europeans (they preferred the cooler temperatures of highlands), levels of local armed resistance, and what level of "civilization" the Europeans perceived local people to have. For example, societies with written traditions, such as northern Nigeria, were seen as more civilized and thus less in need of occupation (probably related to this, such local powers were highly politically and militarily organized) and more in need of "protection" (from enemy European powers, for example, or Arabs).

    "Scramble for Africa"

    The Conference did not blow the starting whistle on that mad dash to grab colonies, but it certainly provided the impetus. By the early 1900s, only Liberia and Ethiopia were not yet European-ruled in some fashion.

    Spheres of Influence

    The idea that each European power could expand inland from its coastal holdings and exclude other European powers in the process popularized an idea that continues to this day, wherein certain regions are naturally within the exclusive purview of more powerful states. The modern world has seen numerous interventions and invasions based on the idea of spheres of influence.

    Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine is an example of a powerful nation protecting its sphere of influence. Similarly, the US has intervened numerous times in Latin America, a sphere of influence dating back to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine.

    Terra Nullius and Neocolonialism

    The 49 independent countries with land areas on the African continent (five more are island nations) suffer to a lesser or greater extent from the legacy of the Berlin Conference and the Scramble for Africa.

    Africa at one time had not had negative connotations in Europe. Still, as a moral justification for the slave trade, a series of pernicious racist myths about Africans had been built up by the 1800s. The idea that they could not govern themselves morphed into the idea that they had no history and no actual claim to the land. Africa was, in essence, a terra nullius. The same arguments had been applied to continents such as Australia. The legal concept of "terra nullius" means that an area is vacant and can be claimed by outsiders; those who happen to live there do not have a prior claim if they cannot show ownership documents such as written deeds.

    Once you establish this for an entire continent, it gets treated as a no man's land free for the taking. Its riches are drained away to foreign bank accounts, foreign corporations control the mines, and foreign military outfits patrol them. This continues today as a part of neocolonialism.

    Africa's colonial legacy is not only nonsensical national boundaries that divide ethnic groups while joining others that hold long-term mutual animosities (e.g., in Rwanda and Nigeria). It's also an economic structure dependent on Europe and the establishment of elite classes among Africans that grabbed the reins of power after independence in the 1950s to 1980s, often to the detriment of their nations' citizens.

    Berlin Conference - Key takeaways

    • The 1884-1885 Berlin Conference was convened to decide on trading rights for European countries in Africa and principally the Congo Basin.
    • The Congo Free State was a result, and it went on to be the setting for one of the worst genocides in history.
    • Legacies of the conference include the Principle of Effective Occupation, the Scramble for Africa, spheres of influence, and many aspects of the economic dependence of Africa on Europe as a part of neocolonialism.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Berlin Conference

    What is the Berlin Conference and why is it important? 

    The Berlin Conference was a 1994-1885 meeting of representatives from 14 European nations and the US to negotiate trade access to parts of Africa, including the Congo Basin.

    What was the purpose of the Berlin Conference? 

    The Berlin Conference's purpose was to divide Africa into economic spheres of influence while establishing free trade zones and freedom of navigation on certain rivers.

    How did the Berlin Conference affect Africa? 

    After the conference, colonizers moved quickly in the Scramble for Africa to claim as much land as possible, without input from local people.

    What agreements came out of the Berlin Conference?

    The General Act established 7 major terms: ending slavery; recognizing King Leopold's Congo claim; free trade in Niger and Congo basins; freedom of navigation on Congo and Niger rivers; Principle of Effective Occupation; spheres of influence; and that new European land claimants had to notify the 13 other countries. 

    How was Africa divided after the Berlin Conference? 

    The Berlin Conference did not divide up Africa; this came later in the Scramble for Africa.

    What were the 14 countries at the Berlin Conference? 

    Belgium, German, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Denmark, the US, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Sweden-Norway, and Russia. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following was not part of the General Act of the Berlin Conference?

    Which country was NOT present at the Berlin Conference?

    Since _____ seemed poised to gain colonial territory from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans, _____ was worried that their own north-south corridor would be severed.

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    Team Berlin Conference Teachers

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