Ancient history

The Berlin conference, the day that Europe changed the destiny of Africa

When David Livingstone, effectively that of “Doctor Livingstone I suppose” arrived at the spectacular Victoria Falls in 1855, little could he imagine that it would be the beginning of one of the most terrible episodes in the history of the African continent. In short, without interruption, the Europeans had set out to conquer the heart of Africa.

Victoria Falls

The Second Industrial Revolution.

Despite what we might think, until the arrival of the 19th century, European man had practically never set foot inside the African continent. The colonization of it had been carried out mainly in the coastal areas of both oceans. But everything began to change in the middle of the nineteenth century. The engine of this change was the so-called Second Industrial Revolution , to which new countries were added, although yes, all after the great British power.

There were mainly two needs that the revolution provided, so that the Europeans set their sights on Africa. The first of these was raw materials, an issue that the African continent more than fulfilled. Secondly, to solve the food needs of a population that was growing at a dizzying pace. It must be taken into account that this Second Revolution brought with it the great scientific advances, which reduced mortality, which together with a high birth rate were the causes of the European demographic takeoff.

Several were the countries that went into the African interior, including Great Britain, the largest colonial empire of the time, France after its dishonorable defeat by Prussia in 1871, and along with them two new countries emerged from the reunifications, that is, Germany and Italy. To complete the list with the Belgians and the Portuguese, who we remember were the first European colonizers south of Ecuador in the Middle Ages.

The modus operandi was simple, the first to arrive were the commercial companies that undertook the exploitation of the resources. Subsequently, the governments sent the necessary officials and soldiers to subdue the population, and thus be able to organize exports without endangering their citizens. In this way, as they had previously done in the rest of the world, they set out to colonize the African interior.

The Berlin conference.

Everything related caused the first important clashes. Therefore, at the request of some countries such as Portugal, undoubtedly one of the weakest countries in the 19th century, it was decided to convene the Berlin Conference.

Otto Von Bismarck sharing the cake.

Among the participating countries all stakeholders, ie; United Kingdom, Germany, France, Portugal and Italy. Along with them mere extras, such as the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Spain, the US or Denmark, to which we must add two Empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman, and two that deserve a separate comment due to the curious interference of Leopold II. His own country Belgium without a preponderant role and the International Association of the Congo, an institution created by this character to exploit that area, one of the richest in Africa.

Otto Von Bismarck

On November 15, 1884, it began with the speech of its president, the Prussian Otto von Bismarck, a speech that was a true declaration of intent. European countries were to enter the interior of Africa, to civilize, bring Western culture, exploit its raw materials and introduce political control in all untapped territories. After which we can add that European Imperialism had just begun, which although it can be thought that it is the same as colonialism, it is not entirely true. If the latter seeks commercial control, territorial and political control must be added to imperialism. That is to say, turning the countries into protectorates of the metropolises, acquiring all their administrative functions.

The cast of the Berlin Conference

The conference ended on January 26, 1885, on the table the distribution of all African countries except two; Liberia, which was already in the hands of the US, and Ethiopia, the only one that was spared at the moment. The rest went to German, British, Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish hands. But it seems that the worst was not that, but another series of elements included in the resolution of the conference.

Among them, free navigation on the Congo and Niger rivers and, of course, along the maritime coasts, or free trade within the continent. In addition to a provision by which, if the countries entrusted with the occupation of the territory did not make it effective within a period of time, it could be occupied by a third party. Without forgetting that no country knew how to face the capricious Leopold II, the Belgian king to whom the Congolese territory was personally assigned, and when I say personally, it means that it was not at the hands of the Belgian country, but at the hands of its king.

To all this was added the declaration that slavery would be fought, as well as respect for the culture and religion of the occupied peoples. It is evident that this last section of the resolutions of the Berlin Conference was the only one that was not fulfilled.

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Consequences of the Berlin conference.

About the consequences, it is worth saying to start without fear of being wrong, that the African continent continues to suffer from them every day. On the other hand, we can say that we can differentiate between those that harassed the Europeans, and those that had an impact on African countries.

About the first ones, obviously most of them were positive; For the economy, it meant access to raw materials at low prices, as well as the opening of new markets to place its manufactured products. On the other hand, for European society it represented demographic relief by facilitating new jobs and places to emigrate. Politically of great prestige at the world level of European countries and a great relief to internal problems, it is often said that the Great War was delayed by the imperialist race. Although we can also say that it will end up becoming one of its most important causes.

Evidently the worst fell on the colonized countries. To get an idea of ​​what happened, we must think that a large part of the African interior at the arrival of the Europeans was still immersed in prehistory, with some exceptions such as sultanates or small kingdoms that we can compare with the European Middle Ages.

Africa before the arrival of Imperialism.

Well, in a few years this geographical space was filled with roads, railways or sea and river ports. Their traditional subsistence agriculture was supplanted by industrial agriculture, both extensive and intensive, and destined for the market economy. In addition, new cities appeared that distanced the native population from their habitat.

The exploitation of resources caused a rapid transformation of the social structure with the appearance of a bourgeoisie, both indigenous with little preparation, and foreign. Next to it, a lower class dedicated to construction or agriculture as day laborers. When both social classes arrive in the new cities, ghettos are formed, which today exist throughout Africa.

Another problem was religious, although before the arrival of the Europeans, religions coexisted in Africa such as Christianity or Islam with strong roots since the European Middle Ages. From this arrival of the Europeans, with the attempts to Christianize especially the areas where atheism prevailed, the contrast will produce new segregations and conflicts.

But the worst were the new established borders, since at first glance anyone who sees a political map of Africa can see these borders cut square and square. In other words, the previous geographical distribution of the African tribes was not taken into account, many of them were separated by half, or what is worse, two tribes previously opposed for thousands of years lived together under the same regime. This problem has hit the present day with episodes as tremendous as the genocide in Rwanda in the 90s of the 20th century, or the terrible civil war in Sierra Leone, both under the impassive gaze of the UN.

This article cannot end without mentioning the blackest point of the Berlin Conference. If we look at the current political map of Africa we will see that its central part is occupied by one of the largest countries on the continent, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with more than two million km2. This territory was occupied prior to the Berlin Conference by the Belgians, led by their king Leopold II, by the way a guy who never set foot in Africa.

After the conference, this space, one of the richest for its reserves of rubber, ivory and different minerals, as has been said, was left in the hands of the Belgian king. Well, some of his phrases in the letter written in 1897 to one of the state agents in charge of controlling the Congo, can perfectly summarize the attitude of this king regarding the occupied territories.

They have to put the population under our laws, the most urgent, without a doubt, that of work. In uncivilized countries it is necessary, I think, a firm authority to accustom the natives to the practices of those who are totally contrary to their habits. This requires being firm and fatherly at the same time.

The result is about 10 million deaths, in addition to a cruel way after cutting off their hands. The Belgian genocide acted in the center of the continent, for the service of the first multinationals in history, the rubber for the tires of the new cars arose from the slavery to which the inhabitants of that quiet place in the equatorial jungle were subjected , until the arrival of the Europeans.

More info:Contemporary Universal History, Ángeles Lario, Ed. Alianza, 2010