Berlin Conference Lays Groundwork for the Partition of Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A defining moment in the history of European involvement in Africa, the Berlin Conference brought together representatives of fourteen nations to work out mutually acceptable procedures and protocols for dividing Africa among themselves—without the benefit of consulting the views of Africa’s peoples on their own future.

Summary of Event

Between November 15, 1884, and February, 1885, representatives of all the European imperial powers met in Berlin in what was the first major colonial conference of the modern era. The conference seemingly resolved various contentious issues among several European nations that arose from their competing imperial ambitions and relationships in Africa. Fourteen nations were represented, including the United States. However, the major participants were France French Empire;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] , Germany, Germany;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] Great Britain British Empire;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] , and Portugal, Portugal;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] as well as the International Association of the Congo, a private entry created by the Belgian king, Leopold II Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] . Leopold himself did not attend the conference, but he would prove to be its primary beneficiary. However, the conference itself was something of an anticlimax because many crucial decisions had been made before it even opened. In any case, many of the decisions that the conference did make were soon superseded by subsequent events. Berlin Conference (1884-1885) Africa;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] Africa;partition of Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] Portugal;and Africa[Africa] French Empire;and Africa[Africa] Germany;and Africa[Africa] British Empire;and Africa[Africa] Congo Basin;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] [kw]Berlin Conference Partitions Africa (Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885) [kw]Conference Partitions Africa, Berlin (Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885) [kw]Partitions Africa, Berlin Conference (Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885) [kw]Africa, Berlin Conference Partitions (Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885) Berlin Conference (1884-1885) Africa;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] Africa;partition of Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] Portugal;and Africa[Africa] French Empire;and Africa[Africa] Germany;and Africa[Africa] British Empire;and Africa[Africa] Congo Basin;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] [g]Germany;Nov. 15, 1884-Feb.26, 1885: Berlin Conference Partitions Africa[5410] [g]Congo;Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885: Berlin Conference Partitions Africa[5410] [g]Africa;Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885: Berlin Conference Partitions Africa[5410] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885: Berlin Conference Partitions Africa[5410] [c]Expansion and landacquisition;Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885: Berlin Conference Partitions Africa[5410] [c]Colonization;Nov. 15, 1884-Feb. 26, 1885: Berlin Conference Partitions Africa[5410] Bismarck, Otto von

European involvement in sub-Saharan Africa went back hundreds, even thousands, of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans had sailed and traded along the continent’s eastern shore, and Portuguese explorers and merchants had established a presence along the western coast of Africa in the late fifteenth century, and they began operating along the East African East Africa;coastal trade coast during the sixteenth century. During the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch founded Cape Town in South Africa and began colonizing the region around it. Intense European colonization, however, did not begin until the nineteenth century. By the latter part of that century, European nations had claimed most of the African littoral, either directly or indirectly. However, much of the interior of Africa was still terra incognita to Europeans and other Westerners. That situation began to change with the explorations of Sir Richard Francis Burton Burton, Sir Richard Francis [p]Burton, Sir Richard Francis[Burton, Richard Francis];explorations of , John Hanning Speke Speke, John Hanning , and Henry Morton Stanley Stanley, Henry Morton . The latter, a Welsh-born American journalist, became world famous for his finding of the famed missionary-explorer David Livingstone Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;and African colonization[African colonization] in 1872. Meanwhile, Livingstone’s “Three Cs”—Christianity, civilization, and commerce—became Europe’s justification for its imperial endeavors in Africa.

Belgian king Leopold II.

(Library of Congress)

The small nation of Belgium Belgium;and Africa[Africa] had few African connections, and most Belgians had little interest in that continent. The exception was Leopold II, who became their king in 1865. Leopold desired a larger world stage than his nation provided, and establishing an overseas empire appealed to him. Sub-Saharan Africa was a logical focus, but he disguised his imperial ambitions under the cloak of humanitarianism. In 1876, he sponsored a geographical conference in Brussels, attended by a number of notable explorers, with the exception of Henry Morton Stanley Stanley, Henry Morton [p]Stanley, Henry Morton;and Leopold II[Leopold 02] , who then crossing Africa from its east to its west coast. Under Leopold’s leadership, the conference participants created the International African Association International African Association (Association International Africaine; AIA). With King Leopold as its first chairman, the association adopted a flag with a gold star on a blue background.

Meanwhile, Congo Basin;exploration of in August, 1877, Stanley completed the crossing of the African continent, thereby becoming the first explorer to chart much of the Congo River to its mouth. Eager to capitalize on Stanley’s fame, King Leopold signed him to a five-year contract to continue his explorations and to secure land concessions in the Congo Basin by making treaties with African rulers. To Stanley and others, Leopold’s interest in Africa appeared to be mainly humanitarian. The ambitious king reconstituted his International African Association as the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC), or the International Congo Association International Congo Association , whose sphere of interest encompassed not only the region close to the Congo River but also the entire Congo basin. Thanks to Stanley’s work, the association’s flag was flying over a number of small settlements along the great river by the year 1884.

As Leopold developed his own private colony in the heart of Africa, other issues were threatening the African status quo. The desire for raw materials and new markets, a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, Industrial Revolution;and Africa[Africa] had quickened European interest in Africa. Portugal, which had had a long presence in sub-Saharan Africa, began fearing French ambitions in the region, so it opened negotiations with Great Britain British Empire;and Congo[Congo] Congo;and Great Britain[Great Britain] in 1882 that would give Britain an unofficial protectorate over the Congo in exchange for British recognition of Portugal’s own territorial claims along Africa’s western coast. The British government was not eager to colonize the Congo, but it was adamant in defending the policy of free trade for its subjects, something that France was less likely to grant. In reaction to the proposed Anglo-Portuguese treaty, France and Germany—which had recently been opponents in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)—increased their mutual diplomatic contacts because both opposed Britain’s expanding its interests in Africa. Ultimately the Anglo-Portuguese treaty was not ratified, in large part because of the opposition of Germany’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Africa[Africa] . In response to its failed treaty with Britain, Portugal proposed a general European conference concerning West African West Africa;and European imperialism[European imperialism] issues.

Africa at the End of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 1





Africa at the End of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 2





Unified only since 1871, Germany entered the colonial race late. Bismarck’s personal enthusiasm for a German overseas empire was muted, but he was in the midst of a conflict with Britain over an inconsequential strip of territory in Southwest Africa, a dispute that had escalated when the British government failed to immediately respond to Bismarck’s concerns. France had its own ambitions, notably the establishment of French colonial authority along the Niger River Niger River;trade on , north of the Congo. In October, 1884, with French support, Bismarck issued invitations to a conference to meet in Germany’s capital, Berlin, in November. Unsure about the aims of the conference, the British were initially reluctant to participate and demanded guarantees of free trade and navigation along both the Niger and Congo Rivers.

While Portugal, Britain, France, and Germany engaged in their diplomatic maneuvers, Leopold II Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];and United States[United States] pursued his own Congo goals. He cleverly appealed to American sentiment on the issues of antislavery and free trade and suggested a parallel between the American-backed republic of Liberia Liberia and his own Congo project. In April, 1884, he gained formal American diplomatic recognition for his International Congo Association International Congo Association;and United States[United States] , thus giving what had been basically a private organization status as a sovereign power. A few days later France also granted Leopold’s association diplomatic recognition, in exchange for the promise that in the event that it collapsed, France would have first rights to obtain its African territories. Leopold’s resulting guarantee to France led to Bismarck’s recognition of his quasi-state on November 8, 1884, immediately before the conference opened. On December 16, Britain also granted recognition to the association, motivated by fear of French ambitions in Africa.

Fourteen powers were represented at the Berlin Conference, including Leopold’s International Congo Association, which actually had no legal status. The key participants were Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, and Leopold’s association. The initial stages of the conference dealt with the issue of freedom of commerce in the Congo Basin and at the mouth of the Congo River. The second stage dealt with freedom of navigation along the Congo and Niger Rivers Niger River;trade on , and the last stage, in February, 1885, considered the issue of what was mean by “effective occupation” of territory by colonial powers. Humanitarian concerns, including the abolishment of the slave trade, played little part in the conference discussions, despite earlier intimations to the contrary. Negotiations among the principal powers resulted in the creation of an extensive Congo state under the aegis of Leopold’s International Congo Association, while France and Portugal were awarded limited adjacent territories, territories that did not seriously impinge upon Leopold’s vision and ambitions.

A broader issue considered by the conference was that of effective colonial occupation. As established colonial powers, Britain and France favored a loose definition of “effective occupation,” while Germany, which was initially not an imperial power, wanted to require would-be colonial powers to demonstrate effective political control over territories before claiming the territories as their colonies. After much discussion and compromise, the conferees agreed that any new colonial claims along the African coast required that the occupying state notify the other signatory states. In addition, when and if new colonies were claimed and established, existing rights must be respected and freedom of trade be guaranteed.


In spite of what is often claimed about the Berlin Conference, Africa was not formally partitioned as a result of the Berlin Conference. The so-called scramble for Africa had begun earlier, and by the early twentieth century only Ethiopia, Liberia, and Morocco Morocco remained free from direct European control. Nevertheless, there were some clear winners at the conference. For example, Britain used the conference to prevent its rival France from occupying the Congo Basin. Although the German-French entente broke down over various issues, it succeeded in forcing Britain—which had recently occupied Egypt—to accept international regulation of both the Suez Canal Suez Canal;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] and the Egyptian government debt.

During the period leading up the conference, Germany acquired several colonies in Africa and elsewhere. But it was the king of the Belgians, Leopold II, who emerged truly victorious. Diplomatic recognition of his International Congo Association resulted in international recognition of the sovereignty of his Congo Free State Congo Free State , a territory in the heart of Africa that was larger than Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Belgium combined. The ultimate losers were Africa’s native peoples, especially in the Congo. The Congo Free State regime soon became one of the most rapacious and inhumane regimes on the continent, and under its banner, slavery and other forms of human degradation became the norm in the quest for economic profits. In 1908, the Belgium government took the colony away from Leopold’s control.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crowe, S. E. The Berlin West African Conference, 1884-1885. London: Longmans, Green, 1942. This study of the Berlin Conference remains the standard work on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Brilliant exposition of the establishment of the Congo Free State and the tragic consequences that followed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newman, James L. Imperial Footprints. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2004. Excellent discussion of Henry Morton Stanley’s African exploratory expeditions, including those that he undertook for King Leopold II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa. New York: Random House, 1991. Well-written and comprehensive narrative of European imperialism in Africa from 1876 to 1912.

Exploration of West Africa

Exploration of North Africa

Exploration of East Africa

Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls

Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin

Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery

Second British-Ashanti War

Battle of Tel el Kebir

Gold Is Discovered in the Transvaal

Dahomey-French Wars

Sudanese War

Fashoda Incident Pits France vs. Britain

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Otto von Bismarck; Sir George Goldie; Leopold II; David Livingstone; Henry Morton Stanley. Berlin Conference (1884-1885) Africa;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] Africa;partition of Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference] Portugal;and Africa[Africa] French Empire;and Africa[Africa] Germany;and Africa[Africa] British Empire;and Africa[Africa] Congo Basin;and Berlin Conference[Berlin Conference]

Categories: History