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The Berlin Conference of 1884: Shaping Africa’s Destiny

by | Mar 7, 2024 | Original Berlin

Stepping back into the past, we find a significant historical event that altered the course of Africa’s future: the Berlin Conference of 1884. This conference, also known as the Congo Conference, marked a turning point in the colonization of Africa by European powers. Delve with us into this momentous gathering, its decisions, and the lasting impact it had on the continent.

What Was the Berlin Conference of 1884?

The Berlin Conference was a meeting of European powers convened in Berlin, Germany from November 15, 1884, to February 26, 1885. The aim of the conference was to divide Africa amongst the major European powers, establish guidelines for future colonization, and avoid potential conflicts between the European nations.

The Motivation Behind the Conference

By the late 19th century, European powers were in a race to colonize Africa. This scramble for Africa arose from various factors: the Industrial Revolution, the desire for new markets, raw materials, and a search for national prestige. As tensions rose between the European powers, especially France and Britain, it became crucial to find a diplomatic solution to avoid armed conflicts that could disrupt their growing empires. Thus, the Berlin Conference was called into being.

Main Decisions and Outcomes

During the conference, several key decisions were made that significantly shaped Africa’s future:

1. Territorial Division and “Effective Occupation”

The European powers agreed on the principle of “effective occupation” as the criteria for claiming territory in Africa. This meant that in order to establish a valid claim, European nations had to demonstrate their effective administration, economic development, and control over the territory they claimed. This provision would later justify European colonization and the creation of modern African borders, disregarding indigenous boundaries.

2. The Creation of the Congo Free State

A pivotal outcome of the Berlin Conference was the recognition and establishment of the Congo Free State, under the rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. This vast territory in Central Africa served the interests of European powers and became a center for exploitation of its natural resources, particularly rubber.

3. Recognition of Existing Claims

The conference accepted existing territorial claims made by European powers, thus solidifying their presence on the African continent. Important concessions were made, such as Britain’s claim over Egypt and Sudan. Existing French territories were also recognized, including Algeria and large parts of West Africa.

4. Promotion of Free Trade

To ensure fair economic competition among European powers, the conference proclaimed the principle of a free trade zone within the Congo Basin and Niger River regions. However, this led to further exploitation of African resources without reaping significant benefits for African societies.

Legacy and Lingering Effects

The Berlin Conference played a pivotal role in redrawing the map of Africa in the colonial era. Its decisions and the subsequent colonization that followed had far-reaching consequences for the continent:

1. Artificial Borders and Ethnic Conflicts

The division of Africa resulting from the conference created arbitrary borders that did not consider ethnic or cultural boundaries. This laid the foundation for future conflicts within African countries during and after decolonization, as groups with different ethnicities, languages, and socio-political systems were forced to coexist within these unnatural borders.

2. Exploitation and Extraction of Resources

The establishment of European colonies in Africa primarily aimed at exploiting the continent’s abundant natural resources. European powers extracted these resources, such as rubber, diamonds, and minerals, often leading to severe ecological damage and societal disruption in the process.

3. Suppression of Indigenous Cultures and Languages

Colonization resulted in the imposition of European languages and cultures, leading to the erosion of indigenous cultures and languages. This cultural suppression left lasting impacts on African societies, their education systems, and perception of their own history and identity.

4. Delayed Self-Determination and Independence Movements

The scramble for Africa delayed the process of self-determination and independence for African nations. The European powers, with their political, economic, and military control, hindered the development of independent states until the mid-20th century, when decolonization movements emerged, leading to a wave of independence across the continent.

In Conclusion

The Berlin Conference of 1884, although intended to prevent conflicts, marked a significant turning point in the colonization of Africa. Its decisions not only formalized the colonization process but also set the stage for long-lasting consequences. The artificial division of Africa into European colonies led to ethnic conflicts, exploitation of resources, suppression of cultures, and delayed self-determination. Recognizing and understanding this historical event is crucial to comprehending the challenges that Africa faced and continues to face in the present day.

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
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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