Africa As Cake: Berlin Conference


The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 was the ‘international’ agreement to settle the territorial Scramble for Africa, led largely by France and Britain. It set the ground rules for taking of African land and resources between European powers, in order to avoid war and international conflict. African historian Basil Davidson notes in “The Magnificent African Cake” that by the 1880’s, industrialized Europe saw in Africa “new sources of raw materials for its factories, new markets for its manufactures, and new positions of advantage against its rivals.”[1] Represented in Berlin were fourteen different countries; of these, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal were the primary stakeholders, holding the largest share of Africa at the time.

At the time of the conference, most colonial holdings were limited to coastal areas of Africa. The conference, among its range of purposes, was foremost convened to decide the interior boundaries between the European powers in order to avoid conflict between Europeans. Africans were not represented at the conference, nor were African leaders consulted on boundary exchanges.[2] However, its outcomes are responsible for the aggression of Europeans and the visiting of conflict upon the African people. The African people would effectively be rendered non-persons, suppressed further from the Atlantic Slave Trade of prior centuries; an act which set precedent for the theft of Africa’s resources and incarceration or murder of its human capital. The outcome of the Slave Trade, and that of the Berlin Conference, created a long-term chaos in African society which forms the root of the continent’s contemporary issues.

As is the modern rhetoric when one country intervenes upon another, the notion of Humanitarian concern was visited as a motive for Africa’s partitioning. Africans were viewed, paradoxically, as “lazy” or “savages” that required conversions to Christ, and taxation schemes to develop a western work ethic, under the instruction European empire.  Whether the phrase “humanitarian reasons” would be conveyed sincerely or euphemistically,  a conference of that nature—stealing and sharing an inhabited continent—would not be allowed by the collective morality, were it not for racism and the predominate view of Africans as sub-human. The land itself was seen as empty, and for the taking. Davidson describes how Belgian King Leopold “Spoke for them all when he said, “I am determined to get my share of this magnificent African cake.””[3] Africa was not seen by the European powers as belonging to someone else.

The land and Africa’s other natural resources, were sought for a number of reasons, from which they are largely the result of the “dynamic growth of industrial capitalism.”[4]  The British needed new markets, The French had a desire for land largesse, and needed to nurture the cultural ego, while their European territory was contracting[5]. The Portuguese concerned themselves with the perpetuation of their coastal trade outposts, which were among the earliest modern European settlements on the continent; the earliest, European settlements, Sub-Saharan, that history can establish. The Dutch, much like the Germans, sought fertile land and homesteads and religious freedom. Each saw Africa as a means to their survival against competing powers; Resources, to sustain industrialization and capitalism; Redemption and espousal of cultural identity; continuation of naval trade dominance, and land for the political or religious refugee. Religion would also settle Africa; missionaries of a certain nationality in a particular area would be used to justify a land claim[6], and the scramble saw waves of missionaries make their trek into the interior; a practice that still occurs to this day.

The primary stipulation to any land claim was the principle of ‘effective occupation. “Any power that could occupy African soil could, effectively, claim it,” as Basil Davidson describes.  In addition to settler colonies and forts on the frontier, claims by the European nations were bolstered by the presence of missionaries and explorers within a desired territory. Commercial companies, like the Imperial British East African Company, were the foundation for British claims in the East, while the entrepreneurial efforts of Cecil Rhodes were responsible for British claims in Southern Africa. Davidson likens the strategy to a “great game” which purpose “was to get hold of places and positions of advantage over rivals, no matter what irrational frontiers might result.”[7]

In The words of British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, European nations were “engaged in drawing lines on map where no man’s foot has ever trod. We’ve been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where we were.”[8] Wherein the Berlin Conference signatories were to inform other signatories and Western nations of their land claims[9], they were not required to inform the people of Africa, which who were more or less captured, coerced, or strong-armed into ‘agreement’.

[1] Basil Davidson, “The Magnificent African Cake,” Documentary film, 1986.

[2] Amii Omara-Otunu, Lecture, University of Connecticut, September 24th, 2013.

[3] Basil Davidson, “The Magnificent African Cake,” Documentary film, 1986.

[4] Amii Omara-Otunu, Lecture, University of Connecticut, September 26th, 2013.

[5] Amii Omara-Otunu, Lecture, University of Connecticut, September 19th, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Basil Davidson, “The Magnificent African Cake,” Documentary film, 1986.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Amii Omara-Otunu, Lecture, University of Connecticut, September 19th, 2013.

2 thoughts on “Africa As Cake: Berlin Conference

  1. Niesha Kiening

    Thanks for a marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it, you are a great author.I want to encourage you continue your great posts, have a nice morning!


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