The Berlin Congo Conference: Laying the ground rules for conquering Africa (1884)

Technological innovations and the decline of the Ottoman Empire over the course of the nineteenth century made it possible for colonial powers to establish firmer control beyond the coastal enclaves and trading stations they had established over the previous centuries. European and American merchants, missionaries, and settlers fought with locals and with each other, and states were increasingly drawn into the fray to protect their competing interests. A high point was reached over access to the Congo River. In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium had founded a charitable association to “civilize” and exploit the riches of the Congo region. But behind the scenes, he made it into his own private business venture. He hired Henry Morton Stanley to chart the region and gave him a secret mission to build the foundation for a state of Leopold’s very own. When the scheme became known, the Portuguese and British conspired to close off access to the sea, using their own competing claims to the region, while the French protested that their claims were being ignored.

In an effort to reduce conflict and make sure that the most profitable rivers of Africa remained open to merchants from other countries like Germany and the United States, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invited the representatives of thirteen countries (but no Africans) to Berlin to hammer out a compromise. Contrary to popular belief, they did not carve up Africa at the conference, but only set out ground rules for the so-called “scramble for Africa” that followed.  But on the basis of these rules, European powers would rush to sign treaties and establish their own claims.  Efforts to “pacify” those possessions would follow.

The illustration below from Die Gartenlaube not only gives readers an idealized image of what was happening behind the scenes but, through the naked African man looking on, reinforces the notion that the colonial powers were bringing civilization to Africa. 

Jeff Bowersox


Source: H. Lüders, “Die westafrikanische Conferenz in Berlin,” Die Gartenlaube (1884): 805.

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