The year was 1884, Berlin wasn’t too sweltering and sticky, but it could have been, European leaders were milling around, Bismarck was powerful and rulers were more popular than ever. You can make your own mind up which type I mean. Yes, welcome to the Berlin Conference. On the menu today? All you can eat carvery, speciality dish – Africa – now Scrambled!

Of course, this node is about much more than just the Berlin Conference, but this is where a lot of what I’m going to talk about originates. This node is mainly about the colonisation of Africa, the over use of rulers in the drawing of arbitrary borders and their effects on modern day politics. So if you were expecting some form of mild commentary on, I dunno, why the Trans-Siberian railway has a kink in it, turn back now, sorry.

The Late Colonisation of Africa

The colonisation of Africa did not begin in earnest until 1880, many years after the high majority of Latin American colonies had already gained their independence from the Spanish Empire (Brazil was still a Portuguese colony at this time), even though European powers had been trading with, or running off with slaves from, Africa for centuries and felt no need to colonise the continent. So, why did the European powers decide in 1880 that there was a need to colonise Africa?

There are many reasons, but perhaps the most significant are:

Economic reasons – The abolition of slavery by European powers (which was actually confirmed at the Berlin Conference) meant that, especially for powers with relatively small populations, or an industrialised workforce they had to find a new source of cheap labour. So, instead of going to Africa and cramming people on to boats, they went to Africa and forced people to work there instead. After the Industrial Revolution, European economies began to focus more on manufacturing and industry, rather than the production of raw materials. Raw materials were abundant in Africa, as were ‘inferior’ people to be exploited in extracting them, whether it be the growing of coffee in Kenya, the extraction of diamonds in South Africa or tin mining in modern day Zambia.

Exploration of the Continent - The last discovery of territory in Africa, that of the Congo River basin in 1877 meant that Africa no longer held the image of being simply coastal with a huge, terra incognita, inland. This also led to the discovery of many of the raw materials required by European economies, as mentioned above.

Geo-political reasons - There was always a drive to maintain a balance of colonial power in both Britain and France, and when one country decided it would colonise, rather than trade with, Africa, as Belgium did through Henry Morton Stanley in 1879 and France did through Pierre de Brazza at a similar time, other countries then realised Africa was ‘up for grabs’, and they had licence to seize what they could. Germany especially felt the need to do this, as it had missed out on colonisation in the Americas and Asia. Britain had a specific interest in Africa, especially after France started to claim parts of the West Coast, as it wanted to protect its two routes to India – through the Red Sea, thus requiring control of Egypt and the Horn of Africa (modern day Somalia), which were once controlled by the now collapsing Ottoman Empire; and the long way around, requiring control of fuelling stations on the West Coast and the Cape of Africa in the south.

The ‘civilising’ mission - Perhaps this is perhaps as a result of late colonialism, or the prevalence of Christian values in European societies at the time, but there was an inherent belief behind colonialism that it was their job to ‘civilise’ Africa and to attempt to improve their supposed racial inferiors. Indeed, King Leopold II’s International Congo Society had an aim to civilise Africa, but it aimed to do this through political control.

1884, The Berlin Conference and where the straight lines come in

From 1879 to 1884, the seizing of territory was quite literally, a Scramble. States took what they could, where they could. France took Tunisia, modern day Congo-Brazzaville, Britain took Egypt and by default, Sudan and Somalia, Italy seized Eritrea and Germany established its first colonies in Togo, Cameroon, South West Africa and German East Africa.

The European powers, especially Portugal, felt this really wasn’t that orderly and polite of them, so decided there was a need for a conference. Bismarck organised one at Berlin in 1884, and the carving began.

The most notable thing about the Berlin Conference was their fondness for rulers, otherwise known as their total disregard for, or at times, ignorance of the complexities of local African ethnic groups and their fluidity. This is easy to spot by looking at a modern day map of Africa. Some of the arbitrary decisions made are entirely clear, others are not:

In the North West, the stepped border of the disputed state of Western Sahara, given to Spain at the Berlin Conference, was part of France attempting to keep Spain to the coastal regions of what they considered their ‘sphere of influence’.

A little further down the coast, the extremely tiny state of The Gambia, entirely surrounded by Senegal, was Britain’s request for a trading port in what was French West Africa. The French obliged, simply creating a country around the port.

In North Africa, the straight line between Egypt and Libya, then British and Italian territory respectively, is a perfect example of straight lines drawn for convenience and nothing else. This was another thing Empires were particularly fond of in Africa; the drawing of straight lines simply because it was easier. These are mainly found in the North of Africa, where much of the land was uninhabited away from the coasts and the Nile, so European powers saw little wrong with slapping down a straight line to separate territory, e.g. the borders between Algeria, Mali, Chad, Egypt, the Sudan and Libya.

Further south, the border between Tanzania and Kenya is an interesting one. The kink half way down, is Mount Kilamanjaro. The border used to run straight through it, but one day, Queen Victoria was rather baffled what to give Kaiser Wilhelm II for his birthday. So, she gave him a mountain.

One decision made by the Berlin Conference which is not shown on modern day maps, but was perhaps a significant one, was the division of Somalia into Italian Somaliland, British Somaliland and French Somaliland (later Djibouti).

The Relevance or why drawing straight lines is a bad idea

Arbitrary borders as a whole were an entirely bad idea. They divided ethnic groups, they crammed ethnic groups together who really did not want to be crammed together. But what was the result for post-colonial Africa? And why did the African Union (Organisation of African Unity at the time) decide to keep borders imposed upon them by colonial powers?

The clearest effect on contemporary African politics has been on conflict in Africa. As the drawing of boundaries was done with no concern for existing African political or cultural structures, it has created artificial states. This may have prevented interstate wars in Africa, but in other respects, can be seen to be a cause of civil war, lack of unity within states and the division of party politics along ethnic lines. These would later prove to lead to bloody ethnic conflicts within states, as either a single language and rule had been imposed on many different groups of people, like in Nigeria, or ethnic groups had been split between several different countries, for example, Somalia.

In other respects, the haphazard, ruler drawn, lines in North Africa curtailed the mobility of many nomadic ethnic groups, which moved from place to place, following whatever food was available. After the Berlin Conference, these nomads had great big borders slapped in the middle of their routes and nationalities imposed upon them.

Of course, this imposition of borders and nationalities made it more difficult for African countries to develop a sense of nationalism, by comparison to Asian and Latin American countries, which meant anti-colonialism movements were more based in pan-Africanism than nationalism. This would then lead to instability within states, rather than between them.

This is why you should never trust a straight line on a map. As it was probably put there by someone hundreds of miles away, doodling on a map for their own gain, not taking anything else into consideration.

Useful Maps for this node: Map of Africa Map of Somalia.¤t=africamap001.jpg Map of pre-colonial Africa, taken from Colonialism in Africa 1870-1960, ed. Gann and Duignan. Bad scanning/piecing together – mine.


Colonialism in Africa 1870-1960, (1970) edited by Duignan, P. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Cammack, P, Pool, D and Tordoff, W. (1988) Third World Politics – A Comparative Introduction Basingstoke: Macmillan

Davidson, B. (1994) Modern Africa – A Social and Political History (Third Edition) London: Longman

The lectures of Dr. Rita Abrahamsen, University of Aberystwyth

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