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Berlin 1884: Remembering the conference that divided Africa

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16.11.2019

On the afternoon of Saturday, November 15, 1884, an international conference was opened by the chancellor of the newly-created German Empire at his official residence on Wilhelmstrasse, in Berlin. Sat around a horseshoe-shaped table in a room overlooking the garden with representatives from every European country, apart from Switzerland, as well as those from the United States and the Ottoman Empire. The only clue as to the purpose of the November gathering of white men was hung on the wall - a large map of Africa "drooping down like a question mark" as Nigerian historian, Professor Godfrey Uzoigwe, would comment.

Including a short break for Christmas and the New Year, the West African Conference of Berlin would last 104 days, ending on February 26, 1885. In the 135 years since, the conference has come to represent the late 19th-century European Scramble and Partition of the continent. In the popular imagination, the delegates are hunched over a map, armed with rulers and pencils, sketching out national borders on the continent with no idea of what existed on the ground they were parcelling out. Yet this is mistaken. The Berlin Conference did not begin the scramble. That was well under way. Neither did it partition the continent. Only one state, the short-lived horror that was the Congo Free State, came out of it - though strictly speaking it was not actually a creation of the conference.

It did something much worse, though, with consequences that would reverberate across the years and be felt until today. It established the rules for the conquest and partition of Africa, in the process legitimising the ideas of Africa as a playground for outsiders, its mineral wealth as a resource for the outside world not for Africans and its fate as a matter not to be left to Africans.

From the very start, the conference laid out the order of priorities. "The Powers are in the presence of three interests: That of the commercial and industrial nations, which........

© Al Jazeera