In the mid-1800s, much of the continent of Africa was still completely unknown to Europeans. Despite a history of European contact and involvement in Africa that dated back to Roman times and even earlier, European maps showed the interior of Africa as a blank space-unexplored territory. Trading posts and a few colonies located on the coasts were the extent of Europe’s presence in Africa. However, before the end of the century Europeans had explored and then conquered nearly the entire continent. This remarkable rush to seize territory is often called “The Scramble for Africa.” No single event exemplifies this phenomenon as well as the Berlin Conference in 1884. Otto von Bismarck, the German imperial chancellor, called the Berlin Conference at a time of tension between the nations that were vying for African territory: Portugal, France, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Germany.
Representatives of each of these powers attended the conference, along with delegates from the United States and the Ottoman Empire. No African leaders were invited to attend this conference. The purpose of the conference was to resolve potential conflicts over colonies. As European leaders’ claims to pieces of territories began to overlap, it seemed very possible that the scramble might set off a war in Europe. The conference was called to head off such a war by establishing boundaries that all European powers would respect.
At the time of the Berlin Conference, many Africans were still living under their own governments. With absolutely no regard for those local boundaries, the representatives carved up the continent among themselves. These representatives argued over, drew, erased, and redrew the boundary lines of their new colonies. Huge parcels of land changed hands, sometimes simply at the whim of one representative. Often people from the same ethnic group found themselves separated and ruled by different colonial powers. Conversely, the new boundaries frequently threw together ethnic groups hostile to one another. Also, in drawing boundary lines the representatives ignored such natural boundaries as rivers and mountain ranges. Ignorant of the continent’s geography, the representatives had no idea of the location of such natural dividing lines.
The decisions made at the Berlin Conference still plague Africa today. Much of Africa secured independence after 1950, but the colonial boundaries established by the Berlin Conference had acquired the legitimacy of time. Even though many of these boundaries were arbitrary and a possible cause of future trouble, the leaders of the new African nations feared that drawing new boundaries might result in complete chaos. Yet at the same time these leaders found it almost impossible to make the old boundary lines function. For many Africans, loyalty to their ethnic group still had far greater meaning than national identity. Conflicting loyalties had disastrous consequences in many countries.