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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Berlin Conference: When Europe Carved Up Africa to Devastating Effect

Written by Laura Davies


In 1884, 20 white men sat in a room pretending to be humanitarians who wanted to free Africa from the remnants of slavery and bring Christianity, technology, and the western idea of development to the native people. These intentions were not just racist, they were total lies. The men in that room wanted nothing more than the means to steal as much of Africa for themselves as they could, and they were in it purely for financial gain.

The decisions made over the course of the Berlin Conference would open the floodgates for the 90% colonisation of the continent by Europeans, but would ultimately fail as, one by one, each country would regain their independence.

For the men, this was nothing more than a failed endeavour. For every man, woman, and child in Africa, it was a theft of their resources, communities, culture, and often their lives. Millions have died as a result of the act written at the conference and the terrifying thing is that we haven’t even reached the final death toll.

Early European Colonisation

Pre-1880, Europeans would cling to the coastlines of Africa, establishing outposts for slavery and trade. They were too scared to venture into the continent’s interior for fear of tropical diseases and hostile locals. And, in fairness, they weren’t wrong to be worried. Famous explorers, the Kardashians of the 1800s, were frequently reporting their horrific experiences of journeying away from the coast.

Even the most famous, Dr David Livingstone, wasn’t immune. His 2-year expedition to find the source of the Nile had taken six, and he had to be retrieved by Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley tracked him to a remote village where he’d been living in a hut after suffering robbery, disease, and desertion, and spoke his most famous line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.” Ridiculously, Livingstone chose not to return with Stanley but used the resupply as an opportunity to keep hunting for the Nile’s source. He died just over a year later from malaria and dysentery.

Unfortunately, the Europeans wouldn’t be stuck and the coast forever. With the industrial revolution came advancements in technology, transportation, communication, and medicine. Telegraphs could be sent, malaria could be treated, and tribes armed with traditional weapons were a whole lot less scary when you could be armed with a machine gun. So, inevitably, the sights of the Europeans turned to the riches that lay inland.

The Charting of the Congo

Following the successful rescue mission and his newfound celebrity, exploring Africa became Henry Morton Stanley’s main focus. So, in 1874, he set off again, through the heart of the continent and the Europeans’ last piece of ‘unknown territory’. When he came across a river he believed to be the Nile, he followed it. 3,000 miles later, he reached the Atlantic and became the first European to map the Congo river from source to mouth.

Today, this might sound like something that’d only excite someone wearing a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, but in 1877, this was huge. Without reliable roads or rail, rivers were the primary source of transportation for all the resources the Europeans intended to rinse from Africa. A river as massive as the Congo, that flowed right through the heart of the continent, was the key to both wealth and power. Revealing this portion of a previously blank part of the map had them salivating.

King Leopold II


While Stanley was busy fighting off malaria and Tsetse flies, King Leopold II of Belgium was becoming increasingly frustrated at his lack of a colony. His cousin, Queen Victoria, had an empire so large it covered almost a quarter of the Earth’s landmass, controlled almost a quarter of the world’s population, and was described as “the empire on which the sun never sets” because it was always daytime in at least one of her territories. Leopold had Belgium.

He tried and failed a number of times to claim a colony, but was defeated at every turn. Nothing was left in the Americas or Asia, and his last hope of seizing anything substantial was Africa. So, in 1876, he founded the International African Society with the goal of “researching and civilising the continent.” To us, this sounds horrifically racist, in the 1800’s this was positively philanthropic. Leopold was positioning himself as a saviour of the African people and the ideal choice of ruler should any portion become available.

Of course, when he received word about Stanley and the Congo River, he was excited. The river gave access to uncolonised parts of the interior and his dream of a colony finally seemed within his grasp. So, he changed the name of his society to the International Congo Society and recruited Stanley to his cause. Then, in 1879, he sent Stanley back to Africa, this time as his envoy with a secret mission. To organise a Congo State for him to colonise. 

Unfortunately for Leopold, he wasn’t the only one to see the potential of the region. First, the French, who saw what Leopold was trying to do, sent marine officer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to the western Congo Basin where he claimed Brazzaville for France. Then, Portugal suddenly remembered that they’d actually been the first Europeans to visit the mouth of the river. I mean, it had been an accident, and almost 400 years previously, but even so, they decided it gave them a legitimate claim to the territory.

But Leopold was determined, and reportedly confided in his aide, “I do not want to risk losing a fine chance to secure for ourselves a slice of this magnificent African cake.”

Belgium had no chance of beating France and Portugal by force, so instead, he used lies, bribes, and propaganda. He began a publicity campaign in Britain, slamming Portugal for their involvement in slavery and pledging that, if he were to colonise the Congo Basin, he’d drive out any remaining slave traders. He also promised multiple countries the most favoured nation status while simultaneously promising Germany he’d provide equal trade agreements to all. He even told France he’d give them full control of the Congo if it turned out he couldn’t afford to keep it, which seemed a sure thing.

Finally, he lied to get the then US President, Chester A. Arthur, on his side by sending edited copies of treaties he’d had Stanley negotiate with native leaders. They painted him as a hero, entirely disinterested in using the Congo Basin for personal gain. He simply wanted to administer the locals until they were civilised and ready for the responsibility themselves, at which point he’d relinquish control.

Most importantly, he wasn’t in it for profit and he would not tax trade.


Otto Von Bismarck


The Congo Basin wasn’t the only part of Africa that the Europeans had begun fighting over. France occupied Tunisia, and was pushing Eastwards, Portugal had seized a huge majority of the coast, Britain was concerned their Indian Empire trade route through the Suez would be threatened and Germany wanted a share for themselves. Tensions were rising, and those in power saw that fighting over distant parts of another continent would only leave them stretched and weakened.

So, when Portugal approached German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to help settle matters, he had no choice but to help. You know, before something crazy like a war broke out.

With the support of Portugal and Britain, he summoned representatives from 14 states including, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States. They met at an international conference in Berlin on the 15th of November 1884 to try to agree on a policy for how the colonisation of Africa should continue. You’ll notice that no African nations were included in that list.


The Berlin Conference.


The conference was held in Bismarck’s private residence, around a horseshoe-shaped table with a 5-metre-high map of Africa hanging on the wall. It had only a few place names, many blank spots, and huge areas where no European had ever set foot. They didn’t know what they were fighting over, just that they all wanted as much of it as possible.

A simplified history will tell you that this is the point where they all got out pencils and rulers and started drawing arbitrary lines, dividing up the continent, taking a slice for each of the respective nations. However, that came later. The Berlin conference was simply a meeting to decide the rules everyone would have to use when they started claiming it at a later date.

After more than 3 months, the conference concluded and the representatives emerged with their colonisation rule book entitled “The General Act”. The gist of which covered four main topics. There should be free trade for all signing parties, the rivers are to remain freely navigable, the native tribes should be preserved, with improvements to their well-being and morale, and if anyone acquired any new coastal territory they must notify the others. It also gave much of the Congo river basin to Leopold’s International Congo Society.

At first glance, the Act might not look too sinister. No one was given any slice of Africa apart from King Leopold’s lovely, anti-slavery, pro-Christian charity, and it not only supported the abolition of slavery but insisted that the well-being and morale of the local populations should be improved. However, it’s the implications and legitimisations made by the act that did the damage. Damage that many African nations are yet to fully recover from.



The Principle of Effective Occupation

In essence, what the Act did was completely legalise the colonisation of an entire continent. It’s like writing rules for committing a good burglary: don’t make too much mess, leave the family photos, and turn the lights off on your way out. It’d make anyone robbing you feel as though they were doing a good thing, provided they stuck to the rules.

In the case of the act, would-be colonists were asked to follow the “Principle of Effective Occupation” when stealing land and resources from native people who’d occupied the area for generations. This required them to make treaties with local leaders, fly their flag, and establish a governing administration and an effective police force to control the area.

What this meant in practice was that invading Europeans would bribe, trick, or intimidate leaders into signing treaties, written in a language they couldn’t understand. One of Leopold’s French explorers, Christian de Bonchamps, described the situation like this:

“The treaties with these little African tyrants, which generally consist of four long pages of which they do not understand a word, and to which they sign a cross in order to have peace and to receive gifts, are really only serious matters for the European powers, in the event of disputes over the territories. They do not concern the black sovereign who signs them for a moment.”

Of course, if the colonists couldn’t find or convince a leader, they simply had anybody sign the paper. I mean, how would anybody ever check?

The first draft of the act also required colonising powers to maintain their political presence to preserve their “effective occupation”. This would ensure peace on the continent and the well-being of native communities. The Belgians even wanted to include the phrase “effective occupation requires provisions that cause peace to be administered”. Britain, however, disputed this. They had a lot of colonies, and installing a functioning government and police force in each sounded expensive. Plus, what if Germany used the act to make them give up their already established and neglected colonies just because the occupants started dying? Unfortunately, Britain won and the phrase was removed.

The Congo Free State


So, how did handing over 1 million square miles of the Congo Basin and 30 million people to fully philanthropic and practically saintly King Leopold go? Well, worse than you could possibly imagine.

First, he named it the Congo Free State and himself as the constitutional monarch with the title ‘Sovereign of the Congo Free state’. Next, he appointed a cabinet, governor-general, chief of police, district commissioners and numerous heads of posts, all of whom were European.

Then the problems started. As it turned out, it was incredibly expensive to run a colony. Much of the area was unmapped jungle with no obvious means of generating an income and all of his appointed officials required salaries. I mean, Britain did warn him. In addition, the Prime Minister of the then ‘Cape Colony’ began threatening to take part of the Southern Congo and the Congolese interior was ruled by slaving gangs with their own kings and Warlords.

To try and generate some cash, Leopold introduced ‘terres vacantes’ simply meaning that any vacant land, without a house or cultivated garden, now belonged to the state. Then he issued a decree which prohibited the African people from selling their ivory, rubber and other harvested products to anyone but the state, at the prices he set.

Things began looking up for Leopold, financially, towards the end of the 19th century when increased car ownership raised the demand for rubber dramatically. To capitalise on this he issued decrees to force all of the natives to harvest it as quickly as possible, with strict quotas. Unfortunately, rubber in the Congo Free State came from vines, not trees. Workers had to slash the vines, cover their bodies with the latex and endure having it scraped off, along with their body hair.

This was nothing though compared to the work of the Force Publique, Leopold’s private army, brought in to enforce the quotas. They were armed with both guns and bullwhips and used flogging, rape, torture and mutilation to terrorise the native people into harvesting the rubber as quickly as possible.

One refugee described his experience, “We were always in the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved … When we failed and our rubber was short, the soldiers came to our towns and killed us. Many were shot, some had their ears cut off; others were tied up with ropes round their necks and taken away.”

Generally, when a person missed a rubber quota, the punishment was death by shooting. Unfortunately, ammunition was scarce so once dead the soldiers had to remove a hand as proof their bullet had been spent enforcing the quotas and not wasted hunting. If a soldier had wasted a round on an animal, there was no hesitation in removing the hand from a living human instead.

As the demands for rubber grew more and more impossible to meet, villages started paying their quotas in both rubber and hands. Soldiers would go out to harvest them instead of rubber and return with baskets full. They became a sort of currency and bonuses were paid based on the number of hands collected. In some cases, small wars would break out between neighbouring villages, not for the rubber, but to gather hands. 

It’s impossible to know how many died as a result of Leopold’s Congo Free State but most sources estimate that the murders, famines, and epidemics resulting from his rule killed between 10 and 20 million people.

Congress of Berlin, 13 July 1878.*oil on canvas.*360 × 615 cm.*1881


Racism and Legacy

Finally, let’s talk about the insane levels of racism and entitlement of the Europeans. Not only were no African representatives invited to the conference, but the Sultan of Zanzibar tried and failed multiple times to get an invite and was actively blocked. The Europeans simply believed that the African people were savages who were incapable of governing themselves. Their opinions didn’t matter, so why give them a seat at the table? The General Act was in support of the abolition of slavery, but not because they recognised African people as equal human beings.

Just a few months before the conference, twice serving Prime Minister of France, Jules Ferry, gave a speech in the French Chamber of Deputies which pretty much sums up the European attitudes of the time. “Gentlemen, we must speak more loudly and more honestly! We must say openly that indeed the higher races have a right over the lower races. . . . I repeat, that the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.”

The trouble with making the rules for how to divide up a continent without actually including the people who live on that continent, never mind visiting it, is that more than a few nuances get missed. The General Act allowed colonists to separate worshippers from ancient shrines, water sources from pastures and even split communities that had a shared ancestry or an established structure of political control. It’s estimated that the 104 borders that existed by 1985 dissected 177 cultural areas or groups. None of these were even deemed worthy of consideration.

To see the results, look at a political map of Africa. 44% of the boundaries follow a meridian or parallel and 30% follow a curved line. Easy to draw on a map in some European city, but almost impossible to work out when standing in a remote region of Sub-Saharan Africa. This has led to countless conflicts over land and resources and the loss of millions of lives. And, as technology improves more and more resources are being found or made accessible in borderlands. These will be the sites of the bloody consequences of the Berlin conference that haven’t even happened yet.


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