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The Congress of Berlin (1884-1885)

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved)
Go to the syllabus or the reading on Europe & Africa in the 19th Century


  1. Introduction
  2. The Congo Dispute
  3. Bismarck's Role
  4. Results
Read the complete text of the General Act of the 1885 Congress of Berlin ]


The Congress of Berlin was not the start of the "Scramble for Africa," but it laid down the rules that governed the European conquest of Africa for the next fifteen years. It was unusual because international conferences were usually held to sort out the aftermath of a war, but almost never to settle problems before they led to war. But all of the major powers had reasons to attend, especially France, Britain and the new powerhouse, Germany. Although there were many issues at stake, the most important one was the future of the Congo River basin.


The main dispute among Europeans was over navigation and commercial rights in the Congo River basin. The first Europeans to claim the area were the Portuguese who explored the mouth of the river in the 15th century. Although ocean-going ships could sail inland for about 120 miles along the Lower Congo River, a series of gorges and waterfalls blocked the way to the Upper Congo River, which was navigable for hundreds of miles.

The Portuguese claims went unchallenged for several centuries until French naval officer Pierre-Paul-François de Brazza-Savorgnan (known simply as Savorgnan de Brazza) began to explore the area. From 1875-1878, he followed the Ogoué River (located north of the Congo) upstream in search of an alternate route to the Upper Congo River that avoided Portuguese territory. Although he failed on his first attempts, he tried again in 1879-1882 and succeeded in reaching the Congo River by following the Ogoué River and proceeding overland to the Lefini River, a tributary of the Congo. During this expedition, he signed a treaty on September 10, 1880 with the chief of the Batéké people who lived on the north side of the Upper Congo River. The treaty granted France a protectorate over the Batéké land which included a stretch of the north bank of the Upper Congo River at Ntambo (known as Stanley Pool during the colonial period and Malebo Pool since independence). This claim was important because from there, the Congo River was navigable for more than one thousand miles. If someone could establish a port at Ntambo, and find a way to equip it with steamboats, they would have access to much of central Africa.

Before Savorgnan de Brazza left, he placed the new post under the command of an African sergeant from Senegal named Malamine and two other Senegalese soldiers, then returned to the coast by following the Congo itself. Along the way, Savorgnan de Brazza met Henry M. Stanley, an American explorer who had been employed by King Leopold of Belgium to lead an expedition from the Atlantic Coast to Ntambo. Stanley was enraged to learn that the French expedition had beaten him to the Upper Congo, and when he arrived at Ntambo he tried to intimidate Malamine and his soldiers into leaving. The Senegalese refused and remained at their posts until 1883 when Savorgnan de Brazza returned with a larger force to organize the colony that became the French Congo.

The British had no direct claim on the Congo basin, nor did they have any particular need for one. Their empire was based in Asia and their main interest in Africa was to safeguard their communication with India. On the other hand, the British had close relations with the Portuguese, so they acquired commercial rights in Portugal's colonies in exchange for protecting their claims against encroachment by other Europeans.

On February 26, 1884 Britain and Portugal signed a treaty that reserved navigation rights on the Congo River to Britain alone, in exchange for Britain's support for Portuguese control of the mouth of the river. The treaty angered all of the other major European powers, and in particular, prevented the French from taking advantage of Savorgnan de Brazza's treaties. Although international protest forced the Portuguese and British to abandon their treaty on June 26, the issue remained unresolved. It became one of the reasons to call the Congress of Berlin.


Germany's Bismarck took advantage of the diplomatic outcry over the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty to call an international conference that met in Berlin from November 15, 1884 to February 26, 1885. Bismarck's initiative came as something of a surprise because Germany was not a major colonial power, possessing only a few claims based on a Lutheran mission in Southwest Africa and a bundle of treaties collected by private adventurer Karl Peters. Yet Bismarck was always looking for ways to strengthen his new country, so he had a number of reasons to hold the conference.

The Berlin Congress opened on November 15, 1884, and every European country sent a representative except Switzerland. Even the US sent a representative, and Leopold II of Belgium, in his role as the president of the "International Association of the Congo," sent a representative (Gerson Bleichröder). However, no Africans attended, not even from Morocco, Liberia or Ethiopia, which were independent nations at the time. Over the next three months, the delegates went beyond their original goal -- to regulate navigation on the Congo River -- to create a blueprint for the subsequent European conquest of Africa.


[Complete text of the
General Act of the 1885 Congress of Berlin ]

The Congress produced the "Berlin Act" of 1885 which established the "conventional basin of the Congo" (bigger than the geographical basin) and opened it to European free trade, made it neutral in times of war, and declared support for efforts to end the slave trade. This was an unprecedented piece of international diplomacy, since it included so many different countries. The closest legal antecedents were multinational agreements made in 1815 at the Treaty of Vienna to control navigation on the Danube and Rhine Rivers.

The most important consequence of the Berlin Act was the reduction of tensions that had resulted from the French explorations in the Congo basin (Savorgnan de Brazza, 1876-1877), the establishment of Belgian posts in the Congo (1879-1884), the French invasion of Tunisia (1881), and the British takeover of Egypt (1882). In essence, the representatives agreed that rivalries over African soil were not serious enough to justify a war between European nations.

Among the provisions of the Berlin Act . . .

In the long run, the Berlin Congress stimulated the "Scramble for Africa" by establishing rules for the recognition of European claims. In brief, after signing the Berlin Act, a European nation could no longer simply raise its flag on the African coast and claim everything that lay behind it in the hinterland. Instead, a European colonial power had to physically occupy whatever it claimed with troops, missionaries, merchants, or better yet, railroads, forts and buildings.

Britain, as the dominant naval power in the world, got most of what it wanted. The main thing was European recognition of their claim in Egypt, but the British government was also satisfied by the internationalization of the Congo. The agreement kept France from obtaining complete control in the Congo basin, and France "compensated" Britain by recognizing Britain's dominant position on the Lower and Middle Niger River. On the other hand, the concept of physical presence needed to guarantee "effective occupation" was a direct challenge to the British practice of obtaining influence without substantial financial investment.

If one ignores Africans (as the conference participants did), then Portugal was certainly the biggest loser. Not only did it lose the right to restrict access to the Congo basin, the requirement that they physically occupy territory placed most of their claims in southern Africa at risk. It eventually opened the way for the British to claim the land between Portuguese Angola and Mozambique and turn it into the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, and Bechuanaland (modern Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana).

Germany is generally considered to have emerged the winner from the Berlin Congress. The Congress spelled out the boundaries of the German claims in Africa (mostly at the expense of the Sultan of Zanzibar) and confirmed Germany as a major player in international affairs. In particular, the Congress accepted Bismarck's declaration of a protectorate over the East African territory mentioned in Karl Peter's treaties. A year later, the Anglo-German Treaty of 1886 ratified the protectorate by dividing Kenya (British) from Tanganyika (German) and allowing Zanzibar to remain independent and in control of a ten-mile deep coastal strip.

Go to the syllabus or the reading on Europe & Africa in the 19th Century