In Our Time: The Berlin Conference

The Berlin Conference of 1884 was part of what’s known as “the Scramble for Africa”. At the conference representatives of all the European nations met to discuss who got what part of the Africa (with no African representatives present). The repercussions of this are still being felt today. The subject was discussed by Richard Drayton (King’s College London), Richard Rathbone (SOAS, University of London) and Joanna Lewis (LSE, University of London) on In Our Time. This was a subject where it was clear that the three experts had far more to say than could fit into the 45 minute time frame. Although the title of the programme was the Berlin Conference the need to give context and to look at the aftermath meant that they ended up trying to give an overview of the whole of European imperial ambitions in Africa.

The first point they made is that Africa is enormous – much bigger than one thinks it is, because its size is minimised by the projection used to create most maps. Until the 19th Century Europeans interacted only with the periphery of the continent, leaving the vast interior unexplored (and un-interfered with). Back in the 16th Century (I think) Spain and Portugal had casually divided the world between themselves – with no real idea of the territories in question – Spain got the New World and Portugal had Africa. By the 19th Century several other nations had footholds in Africa, but the colonies were all around the periphery and were primarily trading outposts which had become towns. The primary players in West Africa were the French and the British. Round the south I think they said it was more British. The east of Africa had Portuguese towns, and also various Arab settlements from places like Oman. The north of Africa along the Mediterranean coast was dominated by the Ottoman Empire. The primary “commodities” traded were slaves, and things like ivory. This was to change in the late 19th Century as the anti-slavery movement gained traction. Slaves were replaced in importance as trade goods by resources such as rubber, and eventually gold, diamonds and other minerals were found in regions of the African interior.

What changed in the later 19th Century was both that the Europeans began to realise just how much territory was available, and also the Industrial Revolution was making them more able to exploit it. This was the age of exploration, and the adventures of explorers like Livingstone and Stanley were being widely reported and stirring up fascination with this “new” land. The point about the Industrial Revolution is that it brought railways and better guns – the railways let the Europeans have better access to the interior and the opening arms gap between them and the indigenous peoples meant they could dominate the land they found. One of the experts also made the point that a power vacuum was being generated by the ongoing collapse of the Ottoman Empire. So the various North African territories that had previously been Ottoman were beginning to be parcelled out (in intent or actuality) between various European countries and this was encouraging people to think about lands south of the Sahara as well.

The Berlin Conference was intended to ease tensions as the Europeans began to exploit this territory. All the European nations were present although many weren’t really players in the game – more there to ally themselves with the countries who had actual imperial ambitions. The experts were saying, however, that it’s wrong to think of this purely on a country level. Although it was heads of state and diplomats who were doing the actual negotiations (which took 3 months) the interests that were being represented were those of particular port towns (like Liverpool or Hamburg) and of private companies. The acquisition and management (or governance) of the territory was also via private companies. As they pointed out on the programme this feels like a retrograde step – it wasn’t that long since the East India Company had been disgraced by the Indian Mutiny, and governance of India had been taken into government hands. The eventual outcome of the conference was a beginning to dividing up the continent between various countries and a formal recognition that if a country (or a private company from a country) had treaties with the native peoples in an area then they would be considered to rule that area.

The main winners from the Conference were the British, the French, the Germans and King Leopold (of Belgium). The British and French make a certain amount of sense (in as much as any of it does) because they already had footholds on the continent and were expanding anyway. Germany wasn’t actually interested in Africa per se but Bismarck was keen to establish the new unified Germany as a major player in European politics. This was the reason why he’d been the one to organise the conference in the first place and why it was held in Berlin – proof that the new country was playing with the big boys.

King Leopold’s private empire of Congo was the least sensible sounding and least pleasant outcome of the conference. They actually discussed him in more than one section of the programme, but I’m amalgamating it all in this paragraph. Leopold was King of Belgium, and the first cousin of Queen Victoria (as well as being related to most of the other royal houses of Europe). Lewis characterised him as having “Empire envy” – Belgium didn’t have one, and he wanted one just like his cousins. So he concocted a scheme to get himself a part of Africa. He did this by setting up an organisation that purported to have a variety of noble sounding humanitarian aims. This was a time period when being anti-slavery was almost the mark of being a civilised person, and so by his high sounding abolitionist rhetoric for the organisation he was able to get donations and backing from many prominent figures of the time. By the time of the Berlin Conference Leopold’s organisation had contacts with many of the peoples living in Congo (via the work of Stanley who had continued Livingstone’s work in exploring Africa). He had treaties with the chiefs of these tribes, that were terribly unequal – like in return for two pieces of cloth a month one chief promised all the resources of his territory and man power whenever Leopold’s administration required it. They didn’t say explicitly on the programme (not enough time?) but I assume such treaties were “agreed” with a heavy degree of coercion. At the conference Leopold was able to exploit both his connections, and the political situation between Britain, Germany and France, to get agreement that he was ruler of this vast territory in Congo. A territory that was 78 times the size of the country that he was actually King of, and that he would go on to exploit mercilessly by perpetrating one of the worst human rights abuses known in history. No European country behaved well in Africa, but Leopold’s rule of Congo stands out as the worst.

Notable by its lack in this whole process was any consideration of the people who actually lived in Africa. The paternalistic views of the time held that the Europeans were sorting this out “for the good of Africa” and they didn’t see any reason to find out what the various Africans might want themselves. However the experts did point out that it wasn’t uniformly bad for all Africans, nor was it completely a situation imposed from the outside. There were winners and losers amongst the African peoples and not all treaties were as problematic as the one I mentioned above. They didn’t have time on the programme to go into details about this, tho.

Unlike most In Our Time programmes this one felt like they’d bitten off more than they could chew. Bragg had to rush the experts through the programme to try and finish on time, and I was left with the impression that they’d had a lot more to talk about.