What Was the Berlin Conference?

The Berlin Conference was a series of meetings held in 1884 and 1885 with the goal of dividing the continent of Africa between the European powers. As countries scrambled to establish colonies on the continent, the heads of state wanted to head off any potential conflicts between them over territory.

Among the rules created by the Berlin Conference were the establishment of a free trade zone in the Congo, the requirement that a country had to occupy and administer its colonies instead of simply claiming land in absentia and the requirement that a country must notify the other signatories before establishing a coastal colony in Africa. The conference gave no consideration to the self-determination of the African people, but it did include a token amendment to ban slavery in Africa in an attempt to legitimize the conference and gain public support.

The Berlin Conference occurred primarily due to Germany’s entry into the colonial sphere. Previously, Britain, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal had largely occupied the continent without conflict, but Germany’s rise to power made the other European leaders nervous and eager to establish ground rules.

As a direct result of the Berlin Conference, the colonization of Africa increased in speed and scope. By 1902, approximately 90 percent of the continent was under direct European control.