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The Colonization of Africa & the Berlin Conference: Definition & Purpose

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  • 0:03 Background to Conference
  • 1:13 Africa Prior to Conference
  • 1:52 Decisions of Conference
  • 2:42 Land Division
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore the 19th and 20th century colonization of Africa, which forever changed the political landscape of the continent. In doing so, it will highlight the Berlin Conference and the Principle of Effectivity.

Background to Conference

Often called 'Africa's undoing', the Berlin Conference saw the powers of Europe divide the African continent like young boys dividing up baseball cards. With little to no concern for the culture of the continent, maps were redrawn and lands were claimed. As Europe bickered over who got what, the native inhabitants of Africa watched as their culture was uprooted and destroyed.

Before we dive into the details of the conference, let's take a look at the years leading up to it. When Henry Morton Stanley explored the Congo region, Europe's interest in the continent swelled, and in the 1870s organizations like the International African Society and the International Congo Society were formed by Europeans to research and civilize the continent. Of course, it didn't take long for researching and civilizing to turn into claiming and conquering as countries like France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal scrambled to grab up new lands. This scramble of sorts was the impetus for the mid-1880s Berlin Conference where over a dozen European countries met to discuss the colonization of Africa.

Africa Prior to Conference

In order to grasp the impact of this conference, we need to understand that prior to the conference a large majority of Africa was still under local control. In other words, the native inhabitants of Africa were still ruling their own people groups.

Also, at the time of the conference, European colonization had focused mainly on the coast of the continent. Africa's interior remained virtually untouched by outsiders.

Ignoring ancient cultural lines and people groups, the participants of the Berlin Conference spent about three months devising guidelines for colonization of not just Africa's coast but the interior as well.

Decisions of Conference

To make trade easier for everyone, the conference decided the Congo and Niger Rivers would remain neutral and open.

Beyond this, the conference declared Europeans were free to aggressively colonize Africa.

Making matters even worse for the Africans, it also established the Principle of Effectivity which made it acceptable for one European nation to claim-jump another European nation's African claims if they were not fully exploiting the land. In other words, the Berlin Conference pretty much told Europe they couldn't establish a colony in name only - they had to use it or lose it. As you can imagine, this allowed abuses to abound across the continent. In fact, within years of the conference, it's estimated that over half of the Congo Basin's native population had died.

Land Division

The years following the conference held further chaos for the continent and its people. By the early 20th century, Europe had cut Africa up into dozens of new countries.

Great Britain held places like Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, the Sudan, Zambia, Zimbabwe and more, while France controlled much of Western Africa. Belgium controlled the Congo, and Germany took places like Tanzania and Namibia. Not to be left out, the Portuguese, the Italians, and the Spanish also got their share.

Sadly, the boundaries of all these new countries held little respect for the culture, or the long-established boundaries of the native people groups.

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