After 1871, European imperialism in Africa entered a new phase. Until this time only small groups of investors, explorers and missionaries had taken an interest in this part of the world. With the exception of the Dutch settlement in South Africa and the French in Algeria, their presence had been restricted to a few trading ports along the coast. The rest of Africa was too remote, too malaria-ridden and simply not a sufficiently profitable proposition. After 1871, however, Europeans suddenly went on to explore and colonize the interior too. Before long the whole continent, with the exception of Ethiopia, was divided between them. [Read more:Countries that never were colonized“]

The reason for this burst of colonial ambition had little to do with Africa and everything to do with Europe itself. France turned to Africa as a way to compensate for the humiliating loss in the war against Germany in 1871. It was a way to prove to themselves that they still were a world power. Britain became interested mainly since they sought to check French ambitions. Germany which was united only in 1871, sought to catch up with the other Europeans powers. Africa was a good place to do it since much land here seemed to be empty. This was true of Italy too, united only in 1861. Meanwhile the Ottoman empire, which up to this point had ruled much of North Africa, was too weak to defend its former possessions. Technological advances assisted the Europeans. Steamships took them up Africa’s rivers, quinine helped them fight malaria, and far more lethal weapons helped them fight the natives.

In order to find an orderly way to resolve these conflicts, fourteen European countries gathered for a conference in Berlin in November, 1884. On the wall of the conference hall was a large map of Africa on which the Europeans staked out their claims. Only two of the delegates had themselves set foot in Africa and no Africans were present. The great winner was King Leopold II of Belgium who managed to acquire all of Congo as his personal possession. He presented himself to the world community as a great humanist and friend of the African people. In the subsequent conquest of the continent, millions of Africans died.

External links:

15 Minute History, “The scramble for Africa”

In Our Time, “The Berlin Conference”

Librivox: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

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