Berlin Conference

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the general act
dual character of the general act

The "Scramble for Africa" had commenced in earnest by the latter half of the nineteenth century, intensifying competition between European states and commercial interests intent on staking their claims to Africa. The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 was organized by the chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany to address a number of diplomatic and political problems arising from this European expansion into Africa. The broad purpose of the conference was to create a free-trade region in the Congo basin and neighboring areas, in the belief that such a regime would reduce disputes among European states. Fifteen states participated in the conference, which extended from November 1884 to February 1885; it included all the Great Powers of Europe at the time—Germany itself, France, Great Britain, and Portugal. Also present at the conference were a number of secondary European powers, such as Denmark, Spain, and Italy, as well as the United States and the Ottoman Empire. While the Berlin Conference had an enduring and profound impact on the peoples of Africa, no African societies were represented at the conference.

the general act

The General Act signed on 26 February 1885 indicates the main preoccupation of the conference. The first article of the act stipulated that freedom of commerce was to prevail in a defined area centering on the Congo basin. The provisions were far-reaching, protecting all traders, regardless of nationality, from all taxes except those necessary to maintain the conditions in which commerce could take place. Monopolies were prohibited, and all nationalities were to enjoy free access to the specified territory and waters. Freedom of navigation of the Congo and Niger Rivers was guaranteed, although different regimes were applicable to each river, this a consequence of the fact that Britain and France had already made claims to sovereignty to the waters of the Niger.

Commerce, however, was not the only preoccupation of the act, which makes it clear from the outset that trade and humanitarianism were intrinsically linked. The act was designed, in the words of the preamble, to further the development of "commerce and of civilization in certain regions of Africa," and it was by this means that "the moral and material well being of the indigenous populations" was to be improved. The signatories undertook to "watch over the conservation of the indigenous populations and the amelioration of their moral and material conditions." Toward this end, they were required to protect those missionary societies and philanthropic institutions that were created to "instruct the natives and to make them understand and appreciate the advantages of civilization." Freedom of worship and conscience were guaranteed. More particularly, the act sought to eliminate the slave trade by prohibiting the use of the specified territory as "a market or way of transit for the trade in slaves." Finally, the act articulated the concept of "effective occupation" as a mode of acquiring sovereignty over African territories, and set out a procedure by which signatory states asserting such sovereignty were required to notify other states of these claims. The act might be seen as an attempt to establish a set of principles that would regulate what had previously been a disorderly, haphazard, and unseemly grab for African land.

The act's emphasis on doctrines and mechanisms of international law is further reflected by the articles that sought to create an international commission charged with the basic task of ensuring that the provisions relating to the navigation of the Congo were complied with. The broad goals of the act—the promotion of free trade and the bringing of civilization to the benighted peoples of the dark continent that had been so vividly presented to the west through the explorations of David Livingstone (1813–1873) and Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904)—won widespread support in Europe and North America.

dual character of the general act

Unsurprisingly, the official proceedings and the General Act offer only a partial idea of the issues at stake at the conference. While publicly proclaiming the virtues of peaceful competition through free trade, Bismarck was also intent on asserting Germany's international prominence and ambitions and on combining with various other European powers to negate the strength of Great Britain, which had only a few years previously won significant control over Egypt. Britain, equally, was intent on protecting its various interests in Africa and on ensuring that the broad principles articulated at the conference were applicable only to limited areas in Africa. The British feared that their interests would be seriously compromised, for instance, by the application of the principle of "effective occupation" to all their colonial claims. The official multilateral proceedings that resulted in the General Act took place in parallel with convoluted bilateral negotiations between the powers gathered in Berlin. The idea was that multilateral negotiations would establish "general principles" and that this would be followed by various territorial settlements that would be subject to those principles. A complex relationship exists between the multilateral and bilateral negotiations, and it is this dual character of the conference that has given rise to ongoing debates about its results. Although justified as giving effect to the broad principles outlined in the General Act, these bilateral negotiations more frequently undermined, if not defeated, the purposes of the conference. Consequently, while the General Act itself makes no mention of partitioning Africa among imperial powers, this is what occurred. Thus, for example, Britain, seeking German support for various British claims to Egypt as against the French, conceded certain German claims to Togoland and Cameroons in return for control over the Niger. Partitions also took place in more geographically distant regions: following Berlin, the British and the Germans divided up the Pacific into spheres of influence.

The dual character of the Berlin Conference is further suggested by the fact that the General Act makes no explicit reference to the International Association of the Congo, which became the principal beneficiary of the proceedings. The association was a cover for King Leopold II of Belgium (r. 1865–1909), who harbored his own imperial ambitions. Leopold pursued these by employing Henry Morton Stanley, famed for finding Livingstone, to explore the region of the Congo. Stanley was noted for his ambition and brutality, and he entered into hundreds of treaties with the African chiefs he encountered. Leopold claimed that, by these treaties, the chiefs had granted the International Association a trade monopoly over their territories. Many of the treaties—which could hardly be regarded as comprehensible to the chiefs who supposedly signed them—went even further and ostensibly transferred sovereignty to the International Association. Armed with these treaties, Leopold, who was not present at the conference, made powerful claims to the Congo. Stanley attended the conference as adviser to the United States delegation. Leopold presented the International Association as a humanitarian and philanthropic organization intent on spreading the virtues of free trade and missionary activity. According to Adam Hochschild, the name itself was chosen to confuse the public into thinking that it was the same organization as a previous philanthropic organization, the International African Association (p. 65). Even while making these proclamations, Leopold made a number of private promises to various powers in Europe. These machinations finally resulted in the "Congo Free State" being recognized by several European states, giving Leopold control over this massive territory.

Given all the tensions and complexities involved in the proceedings, it is hardly surprising that the conference was careful to elide various problematic issues while appearing to resolve them. The question of how European states could claim sovereignty over African territories had been a vexed one to which international lawyers could give no coherent response. International lawyers had asserted that African states, being uncivilized, lacked legal personality. Simultaneously, the argument that private actors, the International Association of the Congo, could assert sovereignty over African peoples was acquiring widespread acceptance. Despite denying African sovereignty, European states entered into treaties with African leaders, and later proclaimed that these treaties gave them rights over African territories. In an attempt to resolve this issue, and the dangerous uncertainties that resulted from European states making extravagant claims about their "spheres of influence" with respect to vast African territories, the General Act outlined the concept of "effective occupation" with respect to the "the coasts of the African continent." The relevant article required signatory states that took possession of African territory to notify all the other signatories to the act, this in order to enable them to lodge protests. The concept of effectiveness implied that only if a signatory power could exercise real authority over a territory—as evidenced by its ability to discharge a number of responsibilities with regard to that territory, that is, to protect acquired rights and to ensure liberty of commerce—could it make a claim to effectively occupy it. As a consequence of this principle, European states that had assumed that their claims to various African territories were recognized as valid by their European rivals, felt threatened and compelled to establish clear title to what they believed to be their sphere of influence. Inchoate title had to be translated into "effective possession." As a result, the Berlin Conference, which was intended to manage the colonial scramble, instead accelerated and intensified it.


Although scholarly debate continues as to whether the conference itself partitioned Africa, it appears evident that at the very least it led to the further partition of the continent. The "failure" of the conference could be explained at a number of different levels. Too many difficult questions were evaded in the deliberations, and the idea of creating a free trade area in the Congo contradicted the economics of imperialism. European powers that invested heavily in acquiring colonies and managing them were hardly likely to then allow free trade within them. Leopold exploited the situation by suggesting that a disinterested, non-state entity, the International Association of the Congo, would adopt a different set of policies in administering African territory, and it was partly for this reason that he succeeded in winning recognition for his claims over the Congo.

Further, in many ways, the official conference became simply the arena in which states could acquire bargaining power for the more intricate bilateral negotiations. Virtually all the participating states understood the conference to be simply a front for the real deals that were being struck elsewhere. Equally importantly, of course, the realities of Africa could hardly be resolved by the meeting of statesmen in Berlin. None of the diplomats had any first-hand knowledge of Africa. And the notion that a group of statesmen gathered in Berlin could manage complex African societies with their own forms of authority and governance soon proved to be absurd.

None of the major purposes of the conference was achieved. The principle of free trade was entirely defeated, as the Congo, placed under Leopold's authority, became a monopoly. The humanitarian sentiment of the Final Act was made a mockery by Leopold, whose attempts to exploit the riches of the Congo led to the deaths of millions of Africans. The practice of amputating limbs, which is a tragically commonplace characteristic of contemporary ethnic conflicts in Africa was one of the punishments inflicted on natives in Leopold's Congo. It is estimated that more than twenty million Africans were killed in the Congo under Leopold.

The significance of the Berlin Conference diminished quickly in European history. Bismarck himself, the architect of Berlin, moved on to more pressing issues in his efforts to expand German power. The proceedings at Berlin were the subject of much scholarly commentary by international lawyers at the time, but the attempts to ensure that European expansion into Africa occurred in an orderly manner as provided for by international law, proved to be a failure. The international commission contemplated in the General Act was never established, and the principal of effective occupation did not resolve ongoing disputes as to how sovereignty over African territories was to be asserted. But these failures created a legacy in the form of a project that has preoccupied international lawyers and institutions ever since: that of devising an effective system of international governance of conquered territories and apparently dependent peoples.

For Africa, however—and the Third World more generally—the conference is important not only for what occurred there, but also because it symbolizes and embodies the realities of imperialism. Humanitarian sentiment became the guise for massive exploitation. And while European states carved up Africa between themselves both before and after the treaty, the glitter and publicity surrounding the conference made particularly vivid the enormous hubris and injustice embodied in the very idea, taken entirely for granted by the participants at the conference, that a group of European statesmen could gather together to divide up among themselves an enormous territory with no regard for the wishes of the inhabitants. The African press at the time—the newspapers in what is now Nigeria, for instance—had no illusion about the hypocrisy and arrogance suffusing the grand proceedings in Berlin.


A close study of the conference suggests it was doomed to fail. But this is far from saying that it had no consequences. The consequences were felt most tragically by the peoples of Africa, for the partitions that followed it established many African boundaries. These were the products of negotiations between European states rather than a result of any understanding of the peoples to be governed, who found themselves, consequently, living together in these artificially created states. These boundaries have contributed to ethnic tensions that continue to be a common problem in Africa, and which have led some scholars to call for a redrawing of the map of Africa. Somewhat ironically, African states themselves have asserted that these colonial boundaries must be respected, this because of the understandable fear that any prospect of renegotiating boundaries would intensify instability in an already vulnerable continent. It is in this way that the contradictions and problems that the diplomats in Berlin failed to resolve continue to haunt the peoples of Africa. The Berlin Conference is remembered in sharply contrasting terms: in Europe it is seen as a failed enterprise and largely a matter of historical interest, in Africa, the consequences of the conference have an enduring and tragic significance that has been the subject of ongoing debate and scholarship.

See alsoAfrica; Colonialism; Colonies; Imperialism; International Law; Leopold II.


Primary Sources

General Act of the Berlin Conference on West Africa, Feb. 26 1885, translated in Official Documents. American Journal of International Law 3 (1909): 7.

Secondary Sources

Anghie, Antony. Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law. Cambridge, U.K., 2005.

Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness. Edinburgh, 1902.

Crowe, Sybil Eyre. The Berlin West African Conference, 1884–1885. Westport, Conn., 1942; reprinted 1970.

Förster, Stig, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and Ronald Robinson, eds. Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Conference, 1884–1885, and the Onset of Partition. Oxford, U.K., 1988.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston, 1998.

Koskenniemi, Martti. The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law, 1870–1960. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Mutua, Makau. "Why Redraw the Map of Africa: A Legal and Moral Inquiry." Michigan Journal of International Law 16 (1995): 1113–1176.

Antony Anghie