The Berlin Conference



European Exploration of Africa

At the beginning of the 19th century, European knowledge of geography of Sub-Saharan Africa was still rather limited; it was left to 19th-century European explorers (including those searching for the famed source of the Nile) to discover detail such as the continent’s geological makeup.

Learning Objectives

Explain why Europeans were interested in obtaining land in Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The geography of North Africa has been reasonably well-known since classical antiquity in Greco-Roman geography.
  • Major exploration by Europeans, particularly of the coastal territories of African, began in the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, led by Portuguese explorers, most notably Prince Henry, known as the Navigator.
  • From the 15th-19th century, little exploration of the interior of Africa was done by Europeans. Focus on Africa was limited to the transatlantic slave trade.
  • Starting in the early 19th century, European land holdings in Africa began to shift and increase.
  • In the mid-19th century, Protestant missions were carrying on active missionary work, most famously by David Livingstone.
  • In November 1855, Livingstone became the first European to see the famous Victoria Falls, named after the Queen of the United Kingdom.
  • Henry Morton Stanley, who had in 1871 succeeded in finding and supporting Livingstone (originating the famous line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), led one of the most memorable of all exploring expeditions in Africa, circumnavigating Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria) and Lake Tanganyika.

Key Terms

  • Henry Morton Stanley: A Welsh-American journalist and explorer famous for his exploration of central Africa and his search for missionary and explorer David Livingstone. Upon finding Livingstone, he reportedly asked, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” He is also known for his search for the source of the Nile, his work in and development of the Congo Basin region in association with King Leopold II of the Belgians, and commanding the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition.
  • pygmy: A member of an ethnic group whose average height is unusually short; anthropologists define it as a population with average height for adult men of less than 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches).
  • David Livingstone: A Scottish congregationalist pioneer medical missionary with the London Missionary Society and an explorer in Africa, one of the most popular national heroes of the late-19th-century in Victorian Britain. He had a mythical status that operated on a number of interconnected levels: Protestant missionary martyr, working-class “rags-to-riches” inspirational story, scientific investigator and explorer, imperial reformer, anti-slavery crusader, and advocate of commercial and colonial expansion.

Early Exploration of Africa

The geography of North Africa has been reasonably well-known since classical antiquity in Greco-Roman geography. The exploration of Sub-Saharan Africa begins with the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, pioneered by posts along the coast during active colonization of the New World. Exploration of the interior of Africa was thus mostly left to the Arab slave traders, who in tandem with the Muslim conquest of the Sudan established far-reaching networks and supported the economy of a number of Sahelian kingdoms during the 15th to 18th centuries.

Portuguese explorer Prince Henry, known as the Navigator, was the first European to methodically explore Africa and the oceanic route to the Indies. From his residence in the Algarve region of southern Portugal, he directed successive expeditions to circumnavigate Africa and reach India. In 1420, Henry sent an expedition to secure the uninhabited but strategic island of Madeira. In 1425, he tried to secure the Canary Islands as well, but these were already under firm Castilian control. In 1431, another Portuguese expedition reached and annexed the Azores.

Portuguese presence in Africa soon interfered with existing Arab trade interests. By 1583, the Portuguese established themselves in Zanzibar and on the Swahili coast. The Kingdom of Congo was converted to Christianity in 1495, its king taking the name of João I. The Portuguese also established trade interests in the Kingdom of Mutapa in the 16th century, and in 1629 placed a puppet ruler on the throne.

Beginning in the 17th century, the Netherlands began exploring and colonizing Africa. While the Dutch were waging a long war of independence against Spain, Portugal united with Spain from 1580 to 1640. As a result, the growing colonial ambitions of the Netherlands were mostly directed against Portugal. For this purpose, two Dutch companies were founded: the West Indies Company, with power over all the Atlantic Ocean, and the East Indies Company, with power over the Indian Ocean.

Almost at the same time as the Dutch, other European powers attempted to create their own outposts for the African slave trade. As early as 1530, English merchant adventurers started trading in West Africa, coming into conflict with Portuguese troops. In 1581, Francis Drake reached the Cape of Good Hope. In 1663, the English built Fort James in Gambia. One year later, another English colonial expedition attempted to settle southern Madagascar, resulting in the death of most of the colonists. The English forts on the West African coast were eventually taken by the Dutch.

In 1626, the French Compagnie de l’Occident was created. This company expelled the Dutch from Senegal, making it the first French domain in Africa. France also set sights on Madagascar, the island used since 1527 as a stop in travels to India.

Overall, European exploration of Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries was very limited. Instead they focused on the slave trade, which only required coastal bases and items to trade. The real exploration of the African interior would start well into the 19th century.

19th Century Exploration

Although the Napoleonic Wars distracted the attention of Europe from exploratory work in Africa, those wars nevertheless exercised great influence on the future of the continent, both in Egypt and South Africa. The occupation of Egypt (1798–1803), first by France and then by Great Britain, resulted in an effort by the Ottoman Empire to regain direct control over that country. In 1811, Mehemet Ali established an almost independent state, and from 1820 onward established Egyptian rule over the eastern Sudan. In South Africa, the struggle with Napoleon caused the United Kingdom to take possession of the Dutch settlements at the Cape. In 1814, Cape Colony, continuously occupied by British troops since 1806, was formally ceded to the British crown.

Meanwhile, considerable changes had been made in other parts of the continent. The occupation of Algiers by France in 1830 put an end to the piracy of the Barbary states. Egyptian authority continued to expand southward, with the consequent additions to knowledge of the Nile. The city of Zanzibar, on the island of that name, rapidly attained importance. Accounts of a vast inland sea and the discovery of the snow-clad mountains of Kilimanjaro in 1840–1848 stimulated European desire for further knowledge about Africa.

In the mid-19th century, Protestant missions were carrying on active work on the Guinea coast, in South Africa, and in the Zanzibar dominions. Missionaries visited little-known regions and peoples, and in many instances became explorers and pioneers of trade and empire. David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, had been engaged since 1840 in work north of the Orange River. In 1849, Livingstone crossed the Kalahari Desert from south to north and reached Lake Ngami. Between 1851 and 1856, he traversed the continent from west to east, discovering the great waterways of the upper Zambezi River. In November 1855, Livingstone became the first European to see the famous Victoria Falls, named after the Queen of the United Kingdom. From 1858 to 1864, the lower Zambezi, the Shire River, and Lake Nyasa were explored by Livingstone. Nyasa was first reached by the confidential slave of António da Silva Porto, a Portuguese trader established at Bié in Angola who crossed Africa during 1853–1856 from Benguella to the mouth of the Rovuma. A prime goal for explorers was to locate the source of the River Nile. Expeditions by Burton and Speke (1857–1858) and Speke and Grant (1863) located Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. It was eventually proved to be the latter from which the Nile flowed.

Henry Morton Stanley, who had in 1871 succeeded in finding and supporting Livingstone (originating the famous line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”), started again for Zanzibar in 1874. In one of the most memorable exploring expeditions in Africa, Stanley circumnavigated Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria) and Lake Tanganyika. Striking farther inland to the Lualaba, he followed that river down to the Atlantic Ocean—which he reached in August 1877—and proved it to be the Congo.

In 1895, the British South Africa Company hired the American scout Frederick Russell Burnham to look for minerals and ways to improve river navigation in the central and southern Africa region. Burnham oversaw and led the Northern Territories British South Africa Exploration Company expedition that first found major copper deposits north of the Zambezi in North-Eastern Rhodesia. Along the Kafue River, Burnham saw many similarities to copper deposits he had worked in the United States and encountered native peoples wearing copper bracelets. Copper rapidly became the primary export of Central Africa and remains essential to the economy today.

Explorers were also active in other parts of the continent. Southern Morocco, the Sahara, and the Sudan were traversed in many directions between 1860 and 1875 by Georg Schweinfurth and Gustav Nachtigal. These travelers not only added considerably to geographical knowledge, but obtained invaluable information concerning the people, languages, and natural history of the countries in which they sojourned. Among the discoveries of Schweinfurth was one that confirmed Greek legends of the existence beyond Egypt of a ” pygmy race.” But the first western discoverer of the pygmies of Central Africa was Paul Du Chaillu, who found them in the Ogowe district of the west coast in 1865, five years before Schweinfurth’s first meeting with them. Du Chaillu had previously, through journeys in the Gabon region between 1855 and 1859, confirmed existence of the gorilla, previously thought to be a legend by Europeans.

A map showing the routes of European explorers in Africa, depicted as red lines, numbered to correspond with the explorer.

European Exploration of Africa: Routes of European explorers in Africa to 1853.

Involvement in Africa before 1884

Before the Berlin Conference, European colonization of Africa was present but limited, with only 10% of Africa under European control in 1870. In the 1870s the “Scramble for Africa” began in earnest, with 90% of Africa under European control by World War I.

Learning Objectives

Describe the ways Europe was already involved in Africa prior to the Berlin Conference

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Before the conference, European diplomacy treated African indigenous people in the same manner as the New World natives, forming trading relationships with the indigenous chiefs.
  • With the exception of trading posts along the coasts used to trade goods and slaves around the world, the continent was essentially ignored until the second half of the 19th century.
  • Even as late as the 1870s, European states still controlled only 10% of the African continent; by WWI, Europe controlled 90% of Africa.
  • Prior to the Berlin Conference of 1884, which formalized the “Scramble for Africa,” colonies had been formed throughout Africa on a smaller scale.
  • Most notably, King Leopold II explored and colonized the Congo as a private venture with the aid of explorer Morton Stanley.
  • Leopold extracted a fortune from the Congo through forced labor of ivory and rubber production, causing the deaths of 1 to 15 million Congolese people.
  • With the dismissal of the aging Chancellor Bismarck (who had plans to colonize Africa) by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the relatively orderly colonization became a frantic scramble. This led to the Berlin Conference, initiated by Bismarck to establish international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory.

Key Terms

  • colonialism: The establishment of a colony in one territory by a political power from another territory and the subsequent maintenance, expansion, and exploitation of that colony. The term is also used to describe the unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and often between the colonists and the indigenous peoples.
  • King Leopold II of Belgium: The second King of the Belgians, known as the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken on his own behalf. He used explorer Henry Morton Stanley to help him lay claim to the Congo, an area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, the colonial nations of Europe authorized his claim by committing the Congo Free State to improving the lives of the native inhabitants.
  • Scramble for Africa: The invasion, occupation, division, colonization, and annexation of African territory by European powers during the period of New Imperialism, between 1881 and 1914. It is also called the Partition of Africa and the Conquest of Africa. In 1870, only 10 percent of Africa was under European control; by 1914 it had increased to 90 percent of the continent, with only Ethiopia (Abyssinia), the Dervish state (present-day Somalia) and Liberia still independent.

Early European Colonization in Africa

Early European expeditions concentrated on colonizing previously uninhabited islands such as the Cape Verde Islands and São Tomé Island, or establishing coastal forts as a base for trade and supporting the Cape Route between Europe and Asia. These forts often developed areas of influence along coastal strips, but with the exception of the Senegal River, the vast interior of Africa was little-known to Europeans until the late 19th century.

Even as late as the 1870s, European states still controlled only 10 percent of the African continent, with territories concentrated near the coast. The most important holdings were Angola and Mozambique, held by Portugal; the Cape Colony, held by the United Kingdom; and Algeria, held by France. By 1914, only Ethiopia and Liberia were independent of European control.

Technological advancement facilitated overseas expansionism. Industrialization brought about rapid advancements in transportation and communication, especially in the forms of steam navigation, railways, and telegraphs. Medical advances also were important, especially medicines for tropical diseases. The development of quinine, an effective treatment for malaria, enabled vast expanses of the tropics to be accessed by Europeans.

Around the 1870s, the growing trend of colonization in Africa began to take off. The term “imperialism” is often conflated with ” colonialism,” but many scholars argue that each has a distinct definition. Historian and philosopher Edward Said noted that “imperialism involved ‘the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory,’ while colonialism refers to the ‘implanting of settlements on a distant territory.'”

African Colonization in the 19th Century

Before the Berlin Conference, European diplomacy treated African indigenous people in the same manner as the New World natives, forming trading relationships with their chiefs. By the mid-19th century, Europeans considered Africa to be disputed territory ripe for exploration, trade, and settlement by colonists. With the exception of trading posts along the coasts, the continent was essentially ignored.

In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium, who had previously founded the International African Society in 1876, invited Henry Morton Stanley to join him in researching and civilizing the continent. In 1878, the International Congo Society was also formed, with more economic goals but still closely related to the former society. Léopold secretly bought off the foreign investors in the Congo Society, which turned to imperialistic goals, while the African Society served primarily as a philanthropic front.

From 1878 to 1885, Stanley returned to the Congo, not as a reporter but as an envoy from Leopold with the secret mission to organize what would become known as the Congo Free State. French intelligence discovered Leopold’s plans, and France quickly engaged in its own colonial exploration. French naval officer Pierre de Brazza was dispatched to central Africa, traveled into the western Congo basin, and raised the French flag over the newly founded Brazzaville in 1881, in what is now the Republic of Congo. Portugal, which had a long but essentially abandoned colonial empire in the area through the mostly defunct proxy state Kongo Empire, also claimed the area. Its claims were based on old treaties with Spain and the Roman Catholic Church. It quickly made a treaty on February 26, 1884, with its former ally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to block the Congo Society’s access to the Atlantic.

By the early 1880s, due to many factors including diplomatic maneuvers, subsequent colonial exploration, and recognition of Africa’s abundance of valuable resources such as gold, timber, land, and markets, European interest in the continent increased dramatically. Stanley’s charting of the Congo River Basin (1874–77) removed the last terra incognita from European maps of the continent, delineating the areas of British, Portuguese, French, and Belgian control. The powers raced to push these rough boundaries to their furthest limits and eliminate any local minor powers which might prove troublesome to European competitive diplomacy.

France moved to take over Tunisia, one of the last of the Barbary Pirate states, under the pretext of another piracy incident. French claims by Pierre de Brazza were quickly solidified, with France taking control of today’s Republic of the Congo in 1881 and Guinea in 1884. Italy became part of the Triple Alliance, upsetting Bismarck’s carefully laid plans with the state and forcing Germany to become involved in Africa. In 1882, realizing the geopolitical extent of Portuguese control on the coasts and penetration by France eastward across Central Africa toward Ethiopia, the Nile, and the Suez Canal, Britain saw its vital trade route through Egypt and its Indian Empire threatened.

Under the pretext of the collapsed Egyptian financing and a subsequent riot in which hundreds of Europeans and British subjects were murdered or injured, the United Kingdom intervened in nominally Ottoman Egypt. The UK also ruled over the Sudan and what would later become British Somaliland.

A photo of slaves captured from the Congo aboard an Arab slave ship intercepted by the Royal Navy (1869).

Slave Trade in Africa: Photograph of slaves captured from the Congo aboard an Arab slave ship intercepted by the Royal Navy (1869). One of the chief justifications for the colonization of Africa was the suppression of the slave trade.

Berlin Conference

This rapid increase in the exploration and colonization of Africa eventually led to the 1884 Berlin Conference. Established empires, notably Britain, Portugal and France, had already claimed vast areas of Africa and Asia, and emerging imperial powers like Italy and Germany had done likewise on a smaller scale. With the dismissal of the aging Chancellor Bismarck by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the relatively orderly colonization became a frantic scramble, known as the “Scramble for Africa.” The Berlin Conference, initiated by Bismarck to establish international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory, formalized this “New Imperialism.” Between the Franco-Prussian War and the World War I, Europe added almost 9 million square miles—one-fifth of the land area of the globe—to its overseas colonial possessions.

European Consensus of Africa

The Berlin Conference sought to end competition and conflict between European powers during the “Scramble for Africa” by establishing international protocols for colonization.

Learning Objectives

Explain why it was so important for European leaders to divide up Africa in a peaceful manner

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Although colonization of Africa was limited before 1870, by the early 1880s the ” Scramble for Africa ” created concerns among European powers, who feared new conflict and possibly war if colonization went unchecked.
  • The occupation of Egypt and the acquisition of the Congo were the first major moves in the precipitous scramble for African territory.
  • Hoping to quickly soothe this brewing conflict, 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, German Chancellor, called on representatives of 13 nations in Europe 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 main dominating powers of the conference were France, Germany, Great Britain and Portugal; they remapped Africa without considering the cultural and linguistic borders that were already established.
  • No Africans were invited to the Conference.

Key Terms

  • “informal imperialism”: The use of indirect means to control an area, sometimes a military presence but usually economic control.
  • New Imperialism: A period of colonial expansion by European powers, the United States, and the Empire of Japan during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The period is distinguished by an unprecedented pursuit of overseas territorial acquisitions. At the time, states focused on building their empires with new technological advances and developments, making their territories bigger through conquest, and exploiting their resources. The new wave of imperialism reflected ongoing rivalries among the great powers, the economic desire for new resources and markets, and a “civilizing mission” ethos.
  • Otto von Bismarck: A conservative Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. In the 1860s, he engineered a series of wars that unified the German states, significantly and deliberately excluding Austria, into a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. He disliked colonialism but reluctantly built an overseas empire when demanded by both elite and mass opinion. Juggling a very complex interlocking series of conferences, negotiations, and alliances, he used his diplomatic skills to maintain Germany’s position and used the balance of power to keep Europe at peace in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Berlin Conference: “Peaceful” Colonization

The Berlin Conference of 1884–85, also known as the Congo Conference, regulated European colonization and trade in Africa during the New Imperialism period, coinciding with Germany’s sudden emergence as an imperial power. Called for by Portugal and organized by Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of Germany, its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, was the formalization of the Scramble for Africa. The conference ushered in heightened colonial activity by European powers, which eliminated or overrode most existing forms of African autonomy and self-governance.

Having witnessed the political and economic rivalries among the European empires in the last quarter of the 19th century, the formal partitioning of Africa prevented European countries from battling one another over territory. The conference provided an opportunity to channel latent European hostilities outward, provide new areas for European expansion in the face of rising American, Russian, and Japanese interests, and form constructive dialogue for limiting future hostilities. The latter years of the 19th century saw the transition from “informal imperialism” by military influence and economic dominance to direct rule, bringing about colonial imperialism.

Colonies were seen as assets in “balance of power” negotiations, useful as items of exchange in international bargaining. Colonies with large native populations were also a source of military power; Britain and France used British Indian and North African soldiers respectively in many of their colonial wars. In the age of nationalism, an empire was a status symbol; the idea of “greatness” became linked with the sense of duty underlying many nations’ strategies.

Owing to the European race for colonies, Germany started launching expeditions of its own, which frightened both British and French statesmen. The occupation of Egypt and the acquisition of the Congo were the first major moves in what came to be a precipitous scramble for African territory. Hoping to quickly soothe this brewing conflict, 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, German Chancellor, called on representatives of 13 nations in Europe as well as the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference in 1884 to work out joint policy on the African continent.

While the number of voting participants varied per nation, the following 14 countries sent representatives to attend the Berlin Conference and sign the subsequent Berlin Act: Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, Britain, and the United States. There were no African representatives at the conference, despite its rhetoric emphasizing the benefit to Africa.

The conference was convened on Saturday, November 15, 1884 at Bismarck’s official residence on Wilhelmstrasse. The main dominating powers of the conference were France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal. They remapped Africa without considering the cultural and linguistic borders that were already established. At the end of the conference, Africa was divided into 50 colonies. The attendants established who was in control of each of these new divisions. They also planned, noncommittally, to end the slave trade in Africa.

The drawing depicts several dozen men around a large table, with a large map of Africa posted on the wall.

Berlin Conference: A drawing of the Berlin Conference. The main dominating powers of the conference were France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal.

“The General Act of the Conference”

The “General Act of the Berlin Conference” established international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory.

Learning Objectives

List some of the key agreements in the General Act of the Conference

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1884, the Berlin Conference was convened to discuss African colonization, with the aim of setting up international guidelines for making claims to African land to avoid conflict between European powers.
  • At the Conference, the participants decided on the “General Act of the Conference,” which laid the frameworks for colonization.
  • One of the most important decisions in the “Act” was the principle of effective occupation, which stated that no territory could be formally claimed prior to being directly ruled and administered by the colonial power.
  • The conference also resolved to end slavery by African and Islamic powers, a move that many critics ridiculed as a humanitarian façade to garner international support; the resolution was non-binding.
  • The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference, since even within areas designated as their spheres of influence, the European powers had to take possession under the Principle of Effectivity.

Key Terms

  • principle of effective occupation: Colonial powers could acquire rights over colonial lands only if they possessed them: if they had treaties with local leaders, if they flew their flag there, and if they established an administration in the territory with a police force to keep order.
  • spheres of influence: A spatial region or concept division over which a state or organization has a level of cultural, economic, military, or political exclusivity, accommodating to the interests of powers outside the borders of the state that controls it.
  • Heart of Darkness: A novella by Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad about a voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State in the heart of Africa by the story’s narrator Marlow. The work’s central ideal is that there is little difference between so-called civilized people and those described as savages; the book raises questions about imperialism and racism.

In 1884, Otto von Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference to discuss the African problem. Its outcome, the General Act of the Berlin Conference, formalized the Scramble for Africa.

The diplomats in Berlin laid the rules of competition by which the great powers were to be guided in seeking colonies. No nation was to stake claims in Africa without notifying other powers of its intentions. No territory could be formally claimed prior to being effectively occupied. However, the competitors ignored the rules when convenient and on several occasions war was only narrowly avoided.

According to some critics, the diplomats put on a humanitarian façade to garner international support by condemning the slave trade, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages and firearms in certain regions, and expressing concern for missionary activities. The writer Joseph Conrad sarcastically referred to the conference as “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” in his novella Heart of Darkness.

The General Act decided on the following points:

  • 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.
  • The Congo Free State was confirmed as the private property of the Congo Society, which supported Leopold’s promises to keep the country open to all European investment. The territory of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, some two million square kilometers, was confirmed by the European powers as essentially the property of Léopold II. Later it was organized as a Belgian colony under state administration.
  • The 14 signatory powers would have free trade throughout the Congo Basin as well as Lake Malawi, and east of this in an area south of 5° N.
  • The Niger and Congo rivers were made free for ship traffic.
  • A Principle of Effectivity was introduced to prevent powers from setting up colonies in name only.
  • Any fresh act of taking possession of any portion of the African coast would have to be notified by the power taking possession or to the other signatory powers in a protectorate.
  • Regions were defined in which each European power had an exclusive right to “pursue” the legal ownership of land in the eyes of the other European powers.
  • The first reference in an international act to the obligations attaching to “spheres of influence” is contained in the Berlin Act.

Principle of Effective Occupation

The principle of effective occupation stated that powers could acquire rights over colonial lands only if they possessed them or had “effective occupation”: in other words, if they had treaties with local leaders, if they flew their flag there, and if they established an administration in the territory to govern it with a police force to keep order. The colonial power could also make economic use of the colony. This 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 to settle disputes over the boundaries between colonies. But 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.

At the Berlin Conference of 1885, the scope of the Principle of Effective Occupation was heavily contested between Germany and France. The Germans, who were new to the continent of Africa, essentially believed that as far as the extension of power in Africa was concerned, no colonial power should have any legal right to a territory unless the state exercised strong and effective political control, and if so, only for a limited period of time. However, Britain viewed Germany as a latecomer to the continent that was unlikely to gain any possessions apart from already occupied territories, which were swiftly proving more valuable than British-occupied territories. Given that logic, it was generally assumed by Britain and France that Germany had an interest in embarrassing the other European powers on the continent and forcing them to give up their possessions if they could not muster a strong political presence. On the other side, the United Kingdom had large territorial “possessions” on the continent and wanted to keep them while minimizing its responsibilities and administrative costs. In the end, the British view prevailed.

This principle, along with others written at the Conference allowed the Europeans to “conquer” Africa while doing as little as possible to administer or control it. The Principle of Effective Occupation did not apply so much to the hinterlands of Africa at the time of the conference. This gave rise to “hinterland theory,” which basically gave any colonial power with coastal territory the right to claim political influence over an indefinite amount of inland territory. Since Africa was irregularly shaped, this theory caused problems and was later rejected.

Consequences of the Conference

The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference, since even within areas designated as their spheres of influence, the European powers had to take possession under the Principle of Effectivity. In central Africa in particular, expeditions were dispatched to coerce traditional rulers into signing treaties, using force if necessary, as in the case of Msiri, King of Katanga, in 1891. Bedouin and Berber -ruled states in the Sahara and Sub-Sahara were overrun by the French in several wars by the beginning of World War I. The British moved up from South Africa and down from Egypt, conquering Arabic states such as the Mahdist State and the Sultanate of Zanzibar. After defeating the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa, in 1879, they moved on to subdue and dismantle the independent Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State.

Within a few years, Africa was at least nominally divided south of the Sahara. By 1895, the only independent states were Morocco, Liberia, Ethiopia, the Majeerteen Sultanate, and the Sultanate of Hobyo.

By 1902, 90% of all African land was under European control. The large part of the Sahara was French, while after the quelling of the Mahdi rebellion and the ending of the Fashoda crisis, the Sudan remained firmly under joint British-Egyptian rulership. Egypt was under British occupation before becoming a British protectorate in 1914.

The Boer republics were conquered by the United Kingdom in the Boer war from 1899 to 1902. Morocco was divided between the French and Spanish in 1911, and Libya was conquered by Italy in 1912. The official British annexation of Egypt in 1914 ended the colonial division of Africa.

Map of European claims in Africa, 1913. Modern-day boundaries, largely a legacy of the colonial era, are shown.

Colonial Africa 1913: European claims in Africa, 1913. Modern-day boundaries, largely a legacy of the colonial era, are shown. Yellow: Belgium; Green: Germany; Pink: Spain; Blue: France; Red: Britain; Lime Green: Italy; Purple: Portugal; Gray: Independent.