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The Berlin Conference: European Divide and Africa’s Destiny

by | Mar 7, 2024 | Original Berlin

The European Scramble for Africa

The late 19th century was known as the “Age of Imperialism,” a period when European powers sought to expand their empires and influence around the globe. One of the most significant events during this era was the Berlin Conference, held from 1884 to 1885. The purpose of the Berlin Conference was to regulate European colonization and trade in Africa and avoid conflicts among the European powers. It marked a pivotal moment in the colonization of Africa and had far-reaching implications for the continent’s future.

The Motivations Behind the Conference

At the time, European powers were eager to secure their share of Africa’s abundant resources, such as gold, diamonds, rubber, and ivory, and establish colonies to boost their economic and political strength. However, the rapid pace of expansion was leading to increasing tensions among the European nations.

The primary objective of the Berlin Conference was to establish guidelines and rules for the partition of Africa, aiming to prevent conflicts between European powers and safeguard their respective interests. The conference was called for by the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who wanted to ensure that Germany would not be left behind in the scramble for Africa. Invitations were sent to the major European powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, and Italy, as well as the United States.

The Deliberations and Outcomes

The Berlin Conference lasted for several months and resulted in the adoption of a set of principles, commonly referred to as the “General Act of the Berlin Conference.” One of the most significant outcomes was the acknowledgment and affirmation of the principle of effective occupation. It stated that European powers needed to establish tangible presence and effective control over a territory to lay claim to it.

Under the principle of effective occupation, European powers began to carve up Africa, drawing lines on maps without considering the cultural, linguistic, or tribal boundaries. Borders were created without the consent or consultation of the indigenous African populations, leading to widespread conflict and later impacting the continent’s post-colonial development.

Positive Aspects: Regulation and Development

While the Berlin Conference’s impact on Africa is often regarded as a negative one, it did have some positive aspects. The conference established regulations for trade, abolishing the slave trade and promoting legitimate commerce. It also aimed to prevent clashes between European powers by setting guidelines for resolving disputes diplomatically.

The European powers promised to bring development and modernization to Africa, such as infrastructure projects, healthcare, and education. However, the extent to which these promises were fulfilled varied greatly, with some colonies experiencing significant improvements while others were exploited for their resources without any significant development.

Negative Consequences: Colonization and Borders

The Berlin Conference essentially legitimized the colonization of Africa, leading to the division of the continent among European powers. This resulted in the suppression of African cultures, exploitation of resources, and the imposition of European political systems, languages, and values. Africans themselves had little say in the decisions that shaped their fate.

Furthermore, the arbitrary borders drawn by Europeans led to numerous conflicts and tensions that persist to this day. Local rivalries and ethnic divisions were overlooked, often resulting in ethnic groups being split across different colonies, exacerbating existing tensions and creating new ones.

The Legacy and Lessons Learned

The Berlin Conference left a lasting legacy on the continent of Africa. It marked the beginning of the scramble for Africa by European powers, resulting in decades of colonization and exploitation. The conference also highlighted the importance of diplomacy and negotiation among nations to avoid conflicts and maintain stability.

Today, Africa is still dealing with the consequences of the arbitrary borders and power imbalances created during the colonial era. The divisions caused by the Berlin Conference continue to shape political, economic, and social dynamics in the continent.

While it is impossible to change the past, it is crucial to acknowledge and learn from history. Understanding the events and repercussions of the Berlin Conference can provide a foundation for examining colonialism’s impact on Africa and fostering discussions on decolonization, reconciliation, and equitable development.

Thank you for reading. If you're inspired by the stories of Berlin and want to delve deeper, why not join us on our Free Berlin Walking Tour? It's a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the city's rich history and vibrant culture. We look forward to welcoming you soon.


  • 3.5 hours walking tour
  • Berlin’s major highlights
  • Brandenburg Gate
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  • Historical sites

Free Walking Tour Berlin

When: Every day 10am & 12pm every day
Where: The meeting point is in front of the ehemaliges Kaiserliches Postfuhramt Berlin, Oranienburger Straße, 10117 Berlin, Germany, next to the entrance.
Price: Free