Why was the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 held?

The late 19th century was a tumultuous period for the African continent, defined by its colonization and subjugation by European powers. This dramatic transformation was sealed by the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, an assembly that carved up the African continent with little regard for its indigenous peoples or the existing geopolitical configurations.

Without a shred of doubt, the conference, its processes, outcomes, and implications are a significant chapter in world history.

The conference of Berlin, as illustrated in ‘Illustrierte Zeitung’, 1884

Below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the exact reasons why the conference was held as well as the major agreements that were struck among the European nations:


The so-called “Scramble for Africa” began in earnest in the 1880s. European powers, motivated by economic prospects, nationalistic ambitions, and the strategic value of certain African territories, started laying claim to vast expanses of the continent.

However, with multiple nations rapidly expanding their colonial ambitions, the risk of territorial disputes and potential conflicts loomed.

To manage these escalating imperial interests and avoid conflict, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck called for an international conference. Bismarck, despite not having direct colonial ambitions at the start, recognized the importance of a coordinated approach to the African question. He saw the conference as a chance for diplomatic negotiation rather than military confrontation.

The Conference

The Berlin Conference convened in November 1884 and continued until February 1885. Fourteen countries, including most of the major European powers alongside the United States, were in attendance. Notably absent from the proceedings were any African representatives.

Under Bismarck’s guidance, the participants deliberated on matters such as navigation and trade rights in the Congo and Niger River basins. However, the most significant consequence was the General Act of the Berlin Conference, which laid down the rules for the occupation and acquisition of African territories.

Major Outcomes

  1. Principle of Effective Occupation: This principle stated that powers could only claim territory if they possessed it effectively, meaning they had treaties with local leaders, flew their flag there, and established a police force or other administrative apparatus. This principle led to a frenzied rush by European nations to solidify their claims.
  2. Free Trade and Navigation: The Congo and Niger rivers were declared free for ship navigation for all European nations. This was crucial for trade and resource extraction.
  3. End of Slavery: The signatory powers committed to ending slavery and the slave trade in their African colonies. However, enforcement was inconsistent, and other forms of forced labor emerged.

Geopolitical Reconfigurations

Post-conference, the map of Africa began to change dramatically. The intricate tapestry of ethnic, linguistic, and political affiliations that had evolved over millennia was suddenly reconfigured. By 1914, 90% of Africa was under European control.

Key territorial allocations included:

  • The Congo Free State under King Leopold II of Belgium.
  • Britain consolidating its hold over Egypt, Sudan, and territories in southern and East Africa.
  • France solidifying its vast territories in West and Central Africa.
  • Germany establishing colonies in modern-day Tanzania, Namibia, Cameroon, and Togo.
  • Portugal, with historical coastal footholds, was confirmed in its possession of Angola and Mozambique.

Comparison of Africa in the years 1880 and 1913

Implications and Consequences of the Berlin Conference

  1. Economic Exploitation: Colonized regions were often exploited for their resources, including rubber, gold, diamonds, and later, oil. This resource extraction rarely benefited local populations.
  2. Socio-cultural Disruption: The arbitrary borders drawn by the European powers often lumped disparate ethnic and cultural groups together, leading to tensions that persist to this day. Simultaneously, many traditional practices and leadership structures were overridden or disrupted.
  3. Set the Stage for Decolonization Struggles: The seeds for the decolonization struggles of the mid-20th century were sown by the decisions made during the Berlin Conference. As European powers sought to solidify their control, they faced resistance across the continent. The legacy of these resistance movements played a role in the eventual liberation of many African nations.
  4. Legacy of Racial and Ethnic Conflict: The decisions at the Berlin Conference exacerbated and created new ethnic and racial conflicts. The Rwandan genocide, the Biafran war in Nigeria, and ongoing tensions in the Congo are just some of the conflicts rooted in the colonial era.


The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 is a poignant example of the broader phenomenon of imperialism that marked the 19th and 20th centuries. It underscores the dramatic ways in which international decisions can reshape the destinies of continents and their people.

The legacy of the Berlin Conference persists, with many of Africa’s contemporary challenges traceable to decisions made over a century ago by powers with little understanding or appreciation of the continent’s intricate socio-political fabric. Understanding this event is crucial, not just as a historical episode, but as a foundational element in the story of modern Africa.

FAQs about the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885

Notably, no African countries were invited or participated, even though the conference directly impacted the fate of the African continent by setting the rules for its partition among the European powers.

Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885:

Who convened the Berlin Conference?

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference to manage escalating imperial interests in Africa and avoid potential conflicts among European nations.

Where exactly was the conference held?

The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 was held in the city of Berlin, the capital of Germany. Specifically, the conference took place at the official residence of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, which was located on Wilhelmstrasse, in central Berlin.

How long did the conference last?

The conference convened at Bismarck’s initiative, and he played a significant role in the proceedings, making Berlin the natural choice for the venue. The discussions were held over several sessions between November 15, 1884, and February 26, 1885. It means that the conference lasted for 104 days.

Which countries participated in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885?

The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 was attended by major European powers of the time, as well as the United States and the Ottoman Empire. However, many countries did not participate in the conference.

Among the European countries, some were not present either because they weren’t colonial powers or they didn’t have significant interests in Africa. It’s also worth noting that many countries around the world were colonies or territories of other powers at that time and, therefore, did not have independent representation on such international matters.

Were any African representatives present at the conference?

No, there were no African representatives present. Decisions were made without any consultation with or consideration for the indigenous peoples of the territories in question.

The Berlin Conference was a meeting of 14 nations, including the United States, from November 1884 to February 1885 in Berlin, Germany. It was convened to regulate the colonization and trade in Africa, and it led to the partitioning of the continent among these powers. Image: Cartoon depicting Leopold II and other imperial powers at the Berlin Conference

What was the Principle of Effective Occupation?

This principle stated that powers could only claim territory in Africa if they effectively occupied it, ensuring they had a visible administrative presence, treaties with local leaders, and their flag hoisted.

How did the Berlin Conference change Africa’s geopolitical landscape?

The conference led to the rapid colonization of Africa by European powers. By 1914, about 90% of Africa was under European control. The traditional and diverse boundaries of ethnic and political affiliations were redrawn or ignored.

What were some key outcomes of the conference?

Some major outcomes include the declaration of the Congo and Niger rivers as free for navigation, the Principle of Effective Occupation, and a commitment by the powers to end slavery and the slave trade in their African colonies.

Did the conference end slavery in Africa?

While the conference signatories committed to ending the slave trade and slavery in their African territories, enforcement varied, and other forms of forced labor soon emerged.

Why did the United States sign the agreement at the Berlin Conference on Africa?

The United States did not sign any agreement at the Berlin Conference on Africa (1884-1885), mainly because the conference was primarily convened by European powers to establish the rules for the colonization and partitioning of Africa. The U.S. attended the conference as an observer, and while it did not have direct territorial ambitions in Africa, its presence showed its growing interest in international affairs.

The U.S. did, however, recognize the outcomes of the conference, ensuring that American commercial interests in Africa would be respected within the territories controlled by European powers. This was in line with the general U.S. stance during this period, which emphasized open markets and freedom of commerce.

What was the long-term impact of the Berlin Conference on Africa?

The conference set the stage for the colonization of Africa, leading to economic exploitation, sociocultural disruption, political restructuring, and the sowing of seeds for future conflicts.

How is the Berlin Conference viewed today?

The Berlin Conference is often criticized for its lack of consideration for the indigenous peoples of Africa. Its legacy is seen in many of Africa’s current challenges, with borders and ethnic tensions directly traceable to decisions made during the conference.

What led to the end of the colonial boundaries and regimes set during the Berlin Conference?

The mid-20th century saw significant decolonization movements across Africa. The boundaries set during the Berlin Conference remained largely intact, but European control gave way to independent African nations, often after prolonged struggles.

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