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Licence to colonise.

26 February 2010 marks exactly 125 V years from the end of the infamous M Berlin Conference that led to the "Scramble for Africa" by European powers. Apart from slaver-both transatlantic and Arab-there is no single event in modern African history whose consequences have been so dire for the continent as the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Held over three months in a snowy Berlin, and attended by 13 European nations and the USA, the conference set the ground rules for the partition of Africa, leading to what Mo Ibrahim now describes as the "unviable states" on the continent. And what is more: no African was invited to the conference or made privy to its decisions! Yet we still suffer its consequences! Osei Boateng takes us through the history of the abominable conference.

AT NOON ON 26 FEBRUARY 2010, ANYBODY WITH THE slightest drop of African blood in him or her should exercise one minute of silence in remembrance of the 125th anniversary of the end of the disreputable Berlin Conference. For, apart from losing Egypt in ancient times and 400 years of Arab and transatlantic slavery (between the 15th and 19th centuries), no greater evil has befallen Africa and its people, with longer-lasting consequences, than the Berlin Conference. Held between 15 November I884 and 16 February I885, the conference opened the floodgates to what became known as "the Scramble for Africa" by European nations motivated by greed and a desire for exploitation.

As H. J. de Blij and Peter O. Muller note in their book, Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts, published in 1997: "The Berlin Conference was Africa's undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time Africa regained its independence in the 1960s, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily. The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy acquisitiveness during a period when Europe's search for minerals and markets had become insatiable."


When the conference opened in a snowy Berlin in mid-November 1884, 90% of Africa remained under traditional and local control, with Algeria held by France; the Cape Colony and Natal (both became part of modern South Africa) held by Britain; and Angola by Portugal. At the time, European colonialism was largely concentrated along the African coast. The interior was still a huge mystery to the Europeans, which led to their erroneous belief that Africa was a "dark continent". The "darkness" however was not African, it was in the heads of the curious Europeans who had no idea of what the African interior looked like or what went on there.

The Cabinda example


Sadly, as Matt Rosenberg, a European writer attests: "What ultimately resulted from the Berlin Conference was a hodge-podge of geometric boundaries that divided Africa into 50 irregular countries. This new map was superimposed over the 1,000 indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. The new countries lacked rhyme or reason and divided coherent groups of people and merged together disparate groups who really did not get along."

A notable example is Cabinda, the 3,000 sq mile enclave which is officially a province of Angola but separated from it by a small jut of DRCongo where the Congo River enters the Atlantic Ocean at Matadi. Now sandwiched between Congo-Brazzaville and DRCongo, Cabinda was officially annexed to Angola in 1975 against the wishes of the majority of the people, after Portugal withdrew from its colonies in 1974.

But judging from the 30-year separatist war in Cabinda which recently led to a gun attack on the Togolese "African Nations Cup" team bus in Cabinda, the natives there certainly do not want to be part of Angola. Yet Angola holds tightly on to Cabinda on account of colonial trearies in which the Cabindan natives had no say, and because of the abundant oil produced in the enclave.

Over the three months that the Berlin Conference lasted, the European powers similarly haggled over territories all over Africa, disregarding the cultural and linguistic boundaries established by the indigenous population. After the conference, the give-and-take continued, and by 1902, 90% of Africa had come under tight colonial bondage. The continent had been carved into 50 disparate countries, most of which cut across the logic of nationality, geography, language, culture, and other unifying factors.

Partitioning Africa

Some modern historians, like the American Adam Hochschild, insist rightly that contrary to popular belief the Berlin Conference did not partition Africa. "The spoils were too large, and it would rake many more treaties to divide them all," Hochschild says in his seminal book, King Leopold's Ghost, first published in 1999.

A fair point and factually correct, it is however only technical. By resolving some conflicting claims, and providing the Europeans with the moral, if not legal, right to colonise the whole of Africa via The Berlin Act of 1885, the conference became the catalyst for the Scramble of Africa, even though the 14 participating nations left Berlin still with unfinished business to haggle over, which was finally resolved through more treaties and compromises in the following years.

In fact, as the Nigerian journalist, Rotimi Sankore, pointed out in New African five years ago, in an article marking the 120th anniversary of the Berlin Conference: "The partition of Africa must not be seen as an isolated event. It was a continuation of previous policies of European exploitation and flowed naturally from the 400 years of transatlantic slavery. Having provided the wealth that created the basis for the Industrial Revolution in Europe, transatlantic slavery had outlived its main usefulness. The industries needed raw materials and these were to be found in Africa. To prevent hostilities breaking out over the control of Africa's resources, the Berlin Conference was held to carve up Africa and its resources."

It is true that during the 400 years of transatlantic slavery, the European nations fought deadly battles among themselves to control the coastal outposts, castles, forts and territories from where African slaves were shipped en masse to the Americas. A visit to the slave castles and forts in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa attests to this fact: all the big cannons are pointing to the sea--to fire on approaching European vessels seen as the enemy by the European nations in control of those castles or outposts at that particular time. The sheer destruction of European lives and economic resources that resulted from the deadly battles over the slave territories and castles was what the Berlin Conference sought to prevent, and in fact prevented, during the Scramble for Africa, by setting down the ground rules for the Scramble.

The history

The history of the Berlin Conference cannot be told without its four main principal characters and features: King Leopold II of Belgium, the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, the Congo River, and the territory that finally became the two Congos--Congo-Brazzaville and DRCongo.

There were other characters and factors, such as the German I Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who hosted the conference, and I the governments of Portugal and France, whose haggling over I the Congo Basin in competition with the claims of King Leopold led to the conference. Bur in essence these characters and factors I played bit parts. The real catalyst was the Congo Basin territory, which naturally became the source of the official title the I Germans gave to the conference: 'Kongoconferenze' and not the better-known Berlin Conference.


It was held during a period in history, according to the BBC I website, "when few Europeans doubted their innate superiority I over the lesser races of the world. The theory that all the peoples m of Europe belonged to one white race which originated in the [TM] Caucasus (hence the term Caucasian) was first postulated at the I turn of the 19th century by a German professor of ethnology, I Johann Blumenbach. His colour-coded classification of races--I white, brown, yellow, black and red--was later refined by a French I ethnologist, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, to include a complete [TM] racial hierarchy with white-skinned people of European origin at the top. Such pseudo-scientific theories were widely accepted 9 at the time and motivated Britons like David Livingstone to feel m they had a duty to 'civilise' Africa."

And not only that, the conference came at the end of 400 years during which Europeans and Arabs had considered Africans as sub-human, fit to be treated as chattel in a slave trade that severely dissipated the physical and mental energies of the Africans and destroyed their economic base. The continent was at its weakest, its strongest sons and daughters having been shipped to foreign lands for 400 continuous years to provide slave labour that developed Europe, America and other lands. Thus by carving up Africa for themselves, the "superior race" felt they were only performing a duty that superiority imposed on them.

And they were helped on the way by the roles played by King Leopold II and H.M. Stanley. A king who felt inadequate in many things, Leopold could not live down the fact that his little Belgium had no colonies like its more powerful neighbours, such as Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, etc. Leopold, therefore, spent a great deal of his time worrying about how to acquire colonies--anywhere, he thought, would do him fine. But he was not lucky.

Everywhere he turned, he either failed or was thwarted by other imperial powers. As Adam Hochschild recounts in King Leopold's Ghost: "Only in Africa could Leopold hope to achieve his dream of seizing a colony, especially one immensely larger than Belgium. There was no more unclaimed territory in the Americas ... nor were there blank spaces in Asia: the Russian Empire stretched all the way to the Pacific, the French had taken Indochina, the Dutch the East Indies, and most of the rest of southern Asia, from Aden to Singapore, was coloured with the British Empire's pink. Only Africa remained. Leopold was now 43, and Stanley 37."

Enter John Rowlands, Bastard

But a saviour was on the way in the shape of Henry Morton Stanley. He had been born a bastard in the small Welsh market town of Denbigh on 28 January 1841. His mother, Betsy Parry (a housemaid), had recorded him on the birth register of St. Hillary's Church in Denbigh as "John Rowlands, Bastard". His father was believed to be a local drunkard called John Rowlands who died of delirium tremens, a severe psychotic condition occurring in some alcoholics.

John Rowlands, Bastard was the first of his mother's five illegitimate children. After an exceptionally difficult childhood spent with foster parents and in juvenile workhouses, J. R. Bastard moved to New Orleans in USA in February 1859 where he changed his name several times--sometimes calling himself Morley, Morelake and Moreland. Finally he settled on Henry Morton Stanley, which he claimed was the name of a rich benefactor he lived with in New Orleans. Stanley would later become a soldier, sailor, newspaperman, and famous explorer feted by the high and mighty on both sides of the Atlantic. He was knighted in Britain and elected to parliament.


Stanley's major break came in 1869 when the New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett sent him to Africa to find David Livingstone, who had not been, heard of for five years since leaving the British shores in 1866 on another long expedition, looking for "slave-traders, potential Christians, the Nile, or anything else that might need discovering." Bennett dispatched Stanley in search of Livingstone as he saw a great opportunity for exclusive, if not garnished, stories for his publication. In 1871, with a retinue of 190 Africans in tow, Stanley set off from the east coast of Africa and trekked for eight months inland before finding Livingstone and uttering what became his famous signature quotation; "Dr Livingstone, I presume."

The reports that Stanley sent back about the interior of Africa being essentially empty whetted the appetite of the colonial powers even more. Stanley's exploits caught the eye of King Leopold II in Belgium who immediately made a note to recruit him to his cause. As Hochschild attests: "In a Europe ever more tightly knit by the telegraph, the lecture circuit, and widely circulating daily newspapers, African explorers became some of the first international celebrity figures, their fame crossing national boundaries like that of today's champion athletes and movie stars."

Thus, in 1875 when the Scottish explorer, Verney Lovett Cameron, was about to become the first European to cross Africa from east to west, and was said to have run out of money, Leopold immediately offered to help with 100,000 francs, which in the end, Cameron did not need when he finally ended his epic journey in the area that eventually became known as Cameroon.

In 1874, a year before Cameron's great feat, Stanley set off again on another expedition from the east coast of Africa with another huge caravan of African guides and porters, this time hoping to march through the equatorial heartlands of the continent, to "discover" whatever was discoverable--the Congo, the Nile, the great lakes, whatever! Three years later, on 5 August 1877, Stanley and his African retinue reached Boma (now part of DRCongo), 50 miles inland from the Atlantic coast. He had become the second European, after Cameron, to cross the great continent from east to west! But unlike Cameron, Stanley had actually arrived at the mouth of the mighty Congo River.

A river to die for

On his long trek inland, Stanley had been enchanted by the river, which, when he first saw it, he mistook for the Nile because it flowed north from the point where he stood. Stanley followed the 3,000-mile-long river, Africa's second longest, all the way to its mouth at Matadi on the west coast, thus becoming the first European to chart its course and to solve the mystery of where it came from.

But Stanley was not the first European to arrive at the mouth of the Congo River. The first was the Portuguese sailor, Diogo Cao. In 1482, he accidentally came upon the river as it emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. He was astounded by its sheer size. "Modern oceanographers", says Adam Hochschild, "have discovered more evidence of the great river's strength in its pitched battle with the ocean: a 100-mile-long canyon, in places 4,000 feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor ... It pours some 1.4 million cubic feet of water per second into the ocean; only the Amazon carries more water."


The great fascination of the Europeans was the river's huge potential for transportation in aid of trade. Variously called Lualaba, Nzadi or Nzere by the native Africans who lived on its banks (Nzere means "the river that swallows all rivers" because of its many tributaries, and on the Portuguese tongue, Nzere became Zaire), the Congo and the huge territory it flowed through was a jewel any colonialist would die for. Like most things African, the Europeans changed the river's name to Congo.

Just one tributary of the Congo, the Kasai, carries as much water as Europe's longest river, the Volga in Russia, and it is half as long as the Rhine. Another tributary, the Ubangi, is even longer. Much of the river's basin lies on a plateau which rises nearly 1,000 feet high 220 miles from the Atlantic coast. Thus the river descends to sea level in a furious 220-mile dash down the plateau.

"During this tumultuous descent," writes Adam Hochschild, "the river squeezes through narrow rumbles over 32 separate cataracts. So great is the drop and the volume of water that these 220 miles have as much hydroelectric potential as all the lakes and rivers of the USA combined ... It has an estimated one-sixth of the world's hydroelectric potential ... Its fan-shaped web of tributaries contribute more than 7,000 miles of interconnecting waterways, a built-in transportation grid rivaled by few places on earth."

Thus, at the time when there were no airplanes, cars and trucks, and cargo was ferried mainly by water, the Congo River and the vast territory it traversed were things of great envy. No wonder Stanley's charting of the Congo River Basin increased European interest in Africa dramatically, as it removed the last bit of "unknown territory" (or "terra incognita") in the minds of the Europeans. It was thus no surprise that the Congo Basin became a source of conflict among three principal parties--Leopold, France and Portugal. In the event, Leopold succeeded in recruiting Stanley to his cause through an accomplice, General Henry Shelton Sanford, and sent him on a third trip to Africa. Sanford was a high-born American countryman, who never joined the military yet had a general's rank. A millionaire investor in railroads, citrus orchards and real estate in Florida, he was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as American minister to Belgium. But he stayed on after his eight-year tenure ended, and became King Leopold's envoy to America, charged with the glamorous mission to convince the Americans to support his Congo adventure.

Enter the French

But when the wheels of fortune seemed to be moving in Leopold's favour, opposition came in the shape of the French to spoil it all for him. The Italian/French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, nominally employed by the French government, had been on an expedition up the Ogowe River in the 1870s in the vicinity of the Congo Basin (in what is now Gabon), and had succeeded in concluding a series of treaties with King Makoko of the Teke people.

The treaties, written as usual in a language the king could neither read nor understand, ceded huge tracts of land to de Brazza, as a representative of France. But strangely, the French government was somehow not interested in de Brazza's good fortune. Perhaps it was because de Brazza was not originally French, being an Italian who had later taken on French nationality. His original name was Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazza, but on taking French nationality, he became better known as Pierre Paul Francois Camille Savorgnan de Brazza.

In 1882, however, after having lost control of Egypt to Britain in what became known as "the Egypt crisis", the French government, now under pressure at home, suddenly remembered that there was a vast territory at its beck and call in Central Africa, thanks to de Brazza's deceptive treaties with King Makoko. It so happened that part of that territory had been claimed by Stanley for King Leopold. And the race was on for who would be the eventual owner.

While this tug of war was going on, the Portuguese also suddenly remembered that they had been the first Europeans to enter the territoty in 1482. In fact, when they first arrived in Congo, the Portuguese met a thriving African kingdom. "Despite the contempt for Kongo culture," writes Adam Hochschild, "the Portuguese grudgingly recognised in the kingdom a sophisticated and well-developed state--the leading one on the west coast of centtal Africa. It was an imperial federation, of two or three million people, covering an area roughly 30,000 sq miles, some of which lie today in several countries after the Europeans [drew] arbitrary border lines across Africa in 1885."


With multiple claims over the same territories in the Congo Basin, King Leopold quickly dispatched his accomplice, Gen Sanford, to Washington to woo the Americans to his side. On 22 April 1884, Leopold's diplomatic adventure in America bore fruit, when Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen declared that America recognised Leopold's claim to the Congo, thus becoming the first country to do so.


However, geography not being a great American forte, the politicians in Washington did not bother to find out the exact demarcations of the distant land they were recognising as Leopold's fiefdom. On the other hand, the French, not yet prepared to roll over for Leopold, were willing to draw the boundaries on a map, and they included most of the Congo River Basin.

Wooing the Iron Chancellor

Staring defeat in the face, Leopold turned his attentions to the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, for support. But Bismarck proved a harder nut to crack, as he described Leopold's claims variously as a "swindle" and fantasies". At one point, still pestered by Leopold, Bismarck told one of his aides: "His Majesty displays the pretensions and naive selfishness of an Italian who considers that his charm and good looks will enable him to get away with anything."

It was not going well in Berlin for Leopold. But, as Hochschild notes, Leopold "had learned from his many attempts to buy a colony that none was for sale; he would have to conquer it. Doing this openly, however, was certain to upset both the Belgian people and the major powers of Europe. If he was to seize anything in Africa, he could do so only if he convinced everyone that his interest was purely altruistic."

Thus, in September 1876, he called a conference in Brussels, attended by 13 Belgians and 24 other eminent Europeans including famous explorers, geographers, business executives, anti-slavery activists, and military men who enthusiastically endorsed his Congo adventure and agreed to establish the International African Association in support of it, with Leopold elected as its first chairman.

In the end, even Bismarck was outsmarted by Leopold, who used an intermediary who happened to be Bismarck's banker, Gerson Bleichroder, to sway him. Bleichroder was the man who had financed the St Gotthard Tunnel under the Alps and many other projects in Europe, "a man of much behind-the-scenes influence in Berlin". So by 1884, Leopold had Bismarck firmly in his camp. According to Hochschild: "Bismarck let himself to be convinced that it was better for the Congo to go to the king of weak little Belgium, and be open to German traders, than go to protection-minded France or Portugal or to powerful England. In return for guarantees of freedom of trade in the Congo, Bismarck agreed to recognise the new state (like everyone else, he did not know the full text of Leopold's treaties with the African chiefs)."

The Portuguese challenge

America and Bismarck in the bag, Leopold still had the French and Portuguese to contend with. Luckily for him, Great Britain was not interested in the Congo Basin even though the Scottish explorer, Verney Cameron, had explored the Congo Basin before Stanley. In fact, Stanley, although passing himself off as an American, really wanted Britain, not Leopold, to colonise the Congo. But London, then going through a stiff economic recession at home, and with lots of other colonies and protectorates around the world, was just not interested in a new one "whose main transportation route was blocked by notorious cataracts".

Which left Stanley fuming: "I do not understand Englishmen at all," he wrote at the time. "Either they suspect me of some self-interest, or they do not believe me ... For the relief of Livingstone, I was called an imposter, for the crossing of Africa, I was called a pirate." And neither could Stanley interest America, his adopted country, to colonise Congo. In fact, his former boss, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, now offered to send him in search of the North Pole.

That left King Leopold some breathing space to deal with the challenge from Portugal and France. But bad news finally arrived on 26 February 1884 when Portugal managed to get Britain to sign a treaty to block off Leopold's access to the Atlantic. At the time, as Hochschild recalls, "the thirst for African land had become nearly palpable in Europe". To resolve the conflicting claims still outstanding, and to set some ground rules for the sharing of the remaining African cake, Portugal approached Chancellor Bismarck to host a diplomatic conference in Berlin to discuss the issues. To Leopold, the Kongoconferenze (as the Germans called it) was heaven-sent!

In snowy Berlin

When the conference opened in Berlin on 15 November 1884, 14 countries--Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (unified from 1814-1905), Turkey and the USA--were represented by a plethora of ambassadors and envoys. Of the 14, Portugal, France, Britain and Germany were the major players in the conference, controlling most of colonial Africa at the time.

As Adam Hochschild elegantly describes it in King Leopold's Ghost: "On 15 November 1884, representatives of the powers of Europe assembled at a large horseshoe table overlooking the garden of Bismarck's yellow-brick official residence on the Wilhelmstrasse. The ministers and plenipotentiaries in formal attire who took their seats beneath the room's vaulted ceiling and sparkling chandelier included counts, barons, colonels, and a vizier from the Ottoman Empire. Bismarck, wearing scarlet court dress, welcomed them in French, the diplomatic lingua franca, and seated before a large map of Africa, the delegates got to work.

"More than anyone, Stanley had ignited the great African land rush, but even he felt uneasy about the greed in the air. It reminded him, he said, of how 'my black followers used to rush with gleaming knives for slaughtered game during our travels'. The Berlin Conference was the ultimate expression of an age whose newfound enthusiasm for democracy had clear limits, and slaughtered game had no vote. Even John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of human freedom, had written in On Liberty: 'Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.' Not a single African was at the table in Berlin."


Though not physically present at the Conference, King Leopold was nonetheless in a strong position. His well-placed accomplices--including Stanley, Sanford and Bleichroder--made sure he was up-to-date with the happenings in Berlin. Bismarck too, with German interest in Africa at stake (notably in what is now Namibia), pandered to the absent Leopold's every whim.

The victor

In the end, France was given 257,000 sq miles on the north bank of the Congo River, which became modern-day Congo Brazzaville and the Central African Republic. Portugal got 351,000 sq miles to the south of the river (which became modern-day Angola, with Cabinda thrown into the bargain; Portugal administered Cabinda separately from Angola until 1975). Leopold got the lion's share: 905,355 sq miles, right from the Atlantic Ocean to the very heart of Africa's interior, encompassing the whole 3,000-mile length of the Congo River and its many tributaries!

As one writer put it: "In a display of diplomatic virtuosity, Leopold had the conference agree not to a transfer of the Congo to one of his many philanthropic shell organisations, nor even to his care in his capacity as King of the Belgians, but simply to himself. He became sole ruler of a population that Stanley had estimated at 30 million people, without constitution, without international supervision, without ever having been to the Congo himself, and without more than a tiny handful of his new subjects having heard of him."

When the Conference ended on 26 February 1885, "with signatures on an agreement and a final round of speechmaking, no one had benefited more than the man who had not been there, King Leopold II," Hochschild recalls. "At the mention of his name during the signing ceremony, the audience rose and applauded. In his closing speech to the delegates, Bismarck said: 'The new Congo state is destined to be one of the most important executors of the work we intend to do, and I express my best wishes for its speedy development, and for the realisation of the noble aspirations for its illustrious creator'. Two months later, like a delayed exclamation mark at the end of Bismarck's speech, a US Navy vessel, the Lancaster, appeared at the mouth of the Congo Rivet and fired a 21-gun salute in honour of [the Congo Free State's] blue flag with the gold star."

Leopold had at last got himself a colony! And it was 80 times the size of his little Belgium. At 905,355 sq miles in size, it was as large as the following 13 European countries put together: Britain, France, Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Armenia and Albania! That is how large DRCongo is. And it was only the third-largest country in Africa, the continent that, thanks to the Berlin Conference, became a colony of principally five European nations: Britain, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Spain.
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Title Annotation:AFRICA
Author:Boateng, Osei
Publication:New African
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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