The continent of Africa as we know it is nothing like it was even just about two hundred years ago. There were no nation states such as Nigeria, South Africa or Ivory Coast. Instead, the largest continent on Earth and the cradle of mankind itself was home to numerous tribes who had been living in their motherland for centuries. There were great African kingdoms that traded their abundant natural resources with each other and whose wealth and power could surpass the great European empires of their time. But as industrialization began in the western world the Europeans pulled ahead in weapons technology by such a margin that when they sat down to carve up Africa into their own separate territories, the African found themselves in a helpless and hopeless situation.
The Berlin Conference of 1884, also known as the Congo conference or West Africa Conference, is seen as the starting point for the “Scramble for Africa”. Rather than fighting for the territory amongst themselves, the Europeans decided to sit down and having a proper discussion to discover possible ways to exploit Africa.
On the invitation of Otto von Bismarck, the Minister President of Prussia (present day Germany) the representatives of 13 European countries and the United States met in his residence. The representatives of thirteen European countries were from – Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, the German Empire, Italy, Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Russian Empire, Spain, Sweden-Norway and the United Kingdom. The leaders of these “great” nations justified their actions by stating that the African people were uncivilized beings who needed the help from the Western nations to help reach a certain level of civilization and they would hand over governing the nations back to the Africans once they had reached a certain level of maturity. There was also the age old excuse of spreading Christianity to the new world, the missionary zeal of the Europeans has been used as excuses for horrendous massacres in Central and South America as well.
Obviously, the actual reasons for colonization was not anything like the benevolent ones stated. From a societal point of view, after the European countries had reached a certain level of industrialization, it was found out that these industrialized economies had failed to absorb a large portion of the labour force. To avoid their economies falling into chaos, the leaders devised the plan to send their excess labour force to these newly colonized countries. The newly industrialized countries were also facing other major issues. A negative balance of trade was being faced by all the countries starting from the United Kingdom to Germany and they saw the large population of Africa as the perfect solution to this problem.
They would sell their products from their industrialized economies to the uncivilized Africans and reach a positive balance of trade. Africa was also a great prospect for capital investment. As a place where they could make the rules of the land themselves, capital investment in these territories would mean higher rates of return given the lower labour costs and the abundance of raw materials. And of course, the most profitable output came from the abundance of raw materials in the region – copper, cotton, rubber, tin and much much more. The European economies had become dependent on these raw materials due to industrialization and Africa represented a seemingly never ending supply to fuel their factories.
There were also the strategic implications in terms of securing trade routes for their countries international trade prospects. Capturing key territories such as Egypt or South Africa gave the colonists a leg up in key international trade routes as all trading routes between Asia and Europe one way or the other had to go through some African ports and thus Britain, France, Germany and all the rest sought these African port cities and towns.
The story of the mad scramble for gaining riches can be highlighted by the actions of one person, King Leopold II, the King of Belgium at the time. His country was a very young one, formed only in 1830 and was legally bound to be neutral at all times. Though his government and the people has little enthusiasm for empire building, the greedy Leopold II felt that “there are no small countries, only small minds”. He laid claim to a land about eighty times the size of Belgium in the Congo basin.
Under the guise of being a philanthropic project which would bring Christianity, civilization and commerce to the region, he bought the region out of his own pocket and as his personal playground where he could play out his sick fantasies of being an emperor. In a case of sheer cruel irony he named it the “Congo Free State”. His initial method to gain tangible return from his investment was through ivory but as bicycles and automobiles grew in demand worldwide, the focus turned to rubber.
Joseph Conrad, who spent 6 months in the region described the horrors in his book “Heart of Darkness”. In the “landolphia” vines in the great Central African rain forest there was a large supply of wild rubber tree. Detachments of Leopold’s “Force Publique” would march into a village, hold the women and children hostage to force the men to scatter into the forest to gather a monthly quota of rubber. As prices of rubber kept soaring, these men faced larger and larger quotas to fill. The women and children held as hostages often died of starvation while the men had to walk for days or weeks to reach deeper into the forest where the sources of rubber had still not run out. Many of them were simply being worked death. Forced labour was being used in all other sectors of the economy as well, starting from road building to chopping wood for running steamboats.
Mutilation of body parts became a signature move of the “Force Publique” to control this forced labour population. Seeing men, women and children with missing body parts became a common scene. With men being forced to gather rubber and women being held hostage there were few able bodied adults left to keep the economy running by hunting, fishing or cultivating crops. Millions died from starvation. No one knows the precise figures but it is estimated that around ten million people Congolese died during Leopold’s reign of terror. After the reports of the horrors spread, international pressure forced Leopold to hand over his land to the Belgian government but the damage was done by then as the major powers such as France and Germany copied his methods to devastating effect.
Before the Berlin Conference, the western countries occupied about ten percent of the landmass of Africa. By 1910 they occupied over 90% of the landmass. This incredible looting of territory was done through a variety of ways – starting from buying lands from the local tribe leaders to seizing them by force. These new economies were formed to service their colonial occupiers as mass exploitation became the norm.
Very few Africans obtained any form of formal education and the development of the infrastructure of these countries were completely ignored. Once the colonists had been pushed out, these new nation states found themselves lacking in the personnel and the infrastructure to run the administration of the countries smoothly. A lack of educated and experienced leaders was apparent as violent and brutal dictators came into power. The colonies’ borders that were drawn up the Western nations were hastily drawn up for their own benefits. They ignored the age old borders that was set up between the tribes and large numbers of hostile tribes were forced together within the same borders while others were divided as they found themselves in separate nation states from their kin.
The results of the above mentioned moves by the colonists can still be felt today. A majority of the nations in Africa has seen violence and instability as the continent continues to be labeled as the “third world”. The long terms effects can be seen in the rise of civil wars and violent tribal warlords who has gained the continent infamy. The recent winner of the French President elections, Emmanuel Macron, came under fire when he dubbed the French colonization of Africa as “a crime against humanity”.
While it is quite significant that a Western leader would make such a statement (he actually made this remark during his election campaign, not after he was elected) there must be more to be done to ensure the progress of Africa and its people. While there have been stories of remarkable progress from the continent, it still has a long way to go as war, famine and political instability continues in the continent even more than a century after the “Scramble for Africa” started.