The Berlin Conference

The Scramble for Africa (1884-1885)

Africa History Blog I 

Prior to European colonization Africa had a considerable history of state building (Oxford Bibliographies). During the closing years of the 19th century, seven European countries claimed territories in Africa and devised administrations within them. These were Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and Italy (University of Pennsylvania). Furthermore, a system of privately governed empires sprang up in the heart of Africa plundering countries for profit (Harvard).

The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 marked the climax of the European competition for territory in Africa, a process commonly known as the Scramble for Africa (“Scramble” was dubbed by a Times columnist). During the 1870s and early 1880s European nations began looking to Africa for natural resources for their growing industrial sectors as well as a potential market for the goods these factories produced (Oxford Reference).
(Recommended reading: London Review of International Law)

During the conference the leaders agreed to allow free trade among the colonies and established a framework for negotiating future European claims in Africa. Neither the Berlin Conference itself nor the framework for future negotiations provided any say for the peoples of Africa (Oxford Reference). Historians, such as Olyaemi Akinwumi, see the conference as a start for future inner African conflicts (Deutsche Welle). Following the close of the conference, European powers expanded their claims in Africa such that by 1900, European states had claimed nearly 90 percent of African territory (Oxford Reference).

Map of Africa in 1903

African Empires and Kingdoms before the Berlin Conference

Empires and Kingdoms in West Africa

ca. 1670-1902

Ashanti Kingdom:

In the early 19th century, Ashanti territory covered nearly all of present-day Ghana. During the 19th century, the Ashanti fought several wars with the British. After nearly a century of resistance to British power, the Ashanti kingdom was declared a Crown Colony in 1902 (PBS).

ca. 900-1897

Benin Empire:

The Benin Empire was known to be very successful, but in the 1600s the rulers started to lose control of their people. By the 1800s Benin was no longer united. The kingdom came to a sudden end in 1897, when a British army invaded and made it part of the British Empire (BBC).

ca. 1240 -1867

Kaabu Empire:

The Empire of Kaabu was the westernmost portion of the Manding Empire (better known as the Mali Empire; ca. 1240 – 1645). The historical kingdom was centered in northeastern Guinea-Bissau. Kaabu’s vast independent kingdoms continued to thrive and lasted until total incorporation into the British Gambia, Portuguese and French spheres of influence during the Scramble for Africa (Oxford Reference; Archives The Gambia).

ca. 1640-1861

Bamana Empire:

The Bamana Empire was based at Ségou, now in Mali. The empire existed as a centralized state from 1712 to the 1861. It ultimately fell to the French in 1890 (New World Encyclopedia).

Empires and Kingdoms in Central Africa

ca. 1390-19th century

Kingdom of Kongo:

The Kongo Kingdom was located on the western coast of central Africa in modern-day DR of Congo and Angola. Civil wars and defeats to rival neighbours saw the Kongo state collapse in the early 18th century. The Portuguese reinstalled the Kongo monarchs, but the state barely continued on into the 19th century (Encyclopaedia Britannica; Ancient History Encyclopedia).

ca. 1650-1884s

Lunda Empire:

Lunda traded with both the Arabs on the Indian Ocean and the Portuguese on the Atlantic. The empire reached the height of its power by the 1850s. Portuguese troops arrived from Angola in the west in 1884 and Belgians from the Congo in the northeast in 1898. Lunda was partitioned between them (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Kingdom in Southern Africa

Ca. 1817-1879

Zulu Kingdom:

The Zulu Kingdom, sometimes referred to as the Zulu Empire, was a Southern African state in what is now South Africa. The small kingdom gained world fame during and after the Anglo-Zulu War, not least of all for initially defeating the British at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 (New World Encyclopedia).

Empire in East Africa

1270-1974

Ethiopian Empire:

The Ethiopian Empire, also known as Abyssinia, is one of the oldest states in the world, and the only native African nation to successfully resist the Scramble for Africa by the colonial powers during the nineteenth century. In 1896, the Ethiopians inflicted a defeat on the invading Italian army (New World Encyclopedia).

Flag of Asante (Ashanti Kingdom)

Four countries stand out in this history of African colonial states (University of Pennsylvania).

Liberia:

Had been colonized from the 1820s by African Americans who had been freed from slavery in the United States and who declared independence in 1847 with help from the American Colonization Society (Further reading: US Office of the Historian).

Ethiopia:

Retained independence and its monarchy largely by juggling the demands of competing European players. In 1935/6, Italy conquered Ethiopia, but held the country for only five years (Further reading: BBC Ethiopia Timeline).

South Africa:

Emerged in 1910 as a tense union of British- and Afrikaner-dominated regions that applied racial policies empowering ‘whites’ and restricting the rights of ‘natives’ or ‘blacks’, as well as ‘coloureds’ (mixed heritage people) and people of Indian origin (Further reading: BBC South Africa Timeline).

Anglo-Egyptian Sudan:

From 1898 it had a peculiar status as a ‘condominium’, or shared domain, of Britain and Egypt. Egypt itself had claims to Sudanese territory that dated from a ‘Turco-Egyptian’ conquest in 1820, although Sudanese Muslim fighters had ousted the Egyptian colonizers in the early 1880s (Further reading: Harvard Egypt).

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  • Mandie Fruhling
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