After the formal unification of Germany in 1871 under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck which installed Kaiser II as emperor and himself as Chancellor, Europe was hit by the Grunderkrise, a long period of economic depression. At this time Bismarck was consolidating his power base and working towards establishing a war free Europe, something largely achieved until 1914. With Europe and the Americas in the economic doldrums and whilst wanting peace in Europe leaving no room for further continental expansion and simultaneously wanting to establish the prestige of the new Germany, Bismarck turned his attention to Africa as a potential field of influence, source of cheap resources and potential trade. In part this was motivated by a desire to outflank King Leopold II of Belgium who was keen to establish his own empire in Africa.
By that time the United Kingdom had established trading outposts at Freetown in Sierra Leone, forts in the Gambia and colonies in South Africa. Portugal had bases in Angola and Mozambique whilst Spain held small areas of North West Africa. France's interests included settlements in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Benin and Algeria, whilst the fading Ottoman Empire controlled most of northern Africa from Tunisia, Libya to Egypt. Despite this, most European activity in Africa was largely confined to coastal areas however the discovery of a cure for Malaria and the ability to transport then reassemble steamboats in Africa, suddenly made the interior accessible for transporting goods on a commercial basis.
Above, the plenipotentiaries of the Berlin Conference
Spurred by this together, with a Christian evangelism to bring an end to internal slavery on the continent that was still customary despite being made illegal by western powers earlier in the century, Bismarck convened a conference in Berlin in November 1984 and invited fourteen states, including the USA, but not a single African one, to divide up the African continent and establish an agreed set of rules for the future exploitation of the continent with France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal being the major players.
The Berlin conference, which concluded in 26th February 1885 saw thousands of cultures and regions across Africa divided into fifty five countries with little or no regard for the existing population, many of who did not get along and this was to sow the seeds for conflicts across Africa following independence from Europe in the 1960s. In the immediate aftermath of the conference the Congo and Niger river basins were declared neutral and free for trade exploration by all countries, although Leopold of Belgium swiftly established hegemony over the Congo which he toyed with as his personal fiefdom, with half its population dying during that process. The negotiations continued until the end of the First World War by which time fifty-five colonies had become fifty. Download the full text of the Berlin Conference using the download button above.
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