The African Division
AfricanDivisionEuropean spheres of influence in Africa
Conference of Berlin
Time of event 1884-1885
Participant nations Austria–Hungary, Belgium, Corsica, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, United Kingdom, United States
Objective Peacefully divide Africa in several spheres of influence, each belonging to one nation, to avoid war from starting over ownership of lands

The African Division is an event that took place during the Conference of Berlin (1884-1885), in which the European nations divided the African Continent in several spheres of influence. The Conference was held in the city of Berlin, capital of the German Empire, at the behest of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.


The time of colonialism, where the Americas, Oceania and part of Asia had been rushed into by the European empires in the search of new lands and resources, had died out a lot of time before. The successful rebellions in most of America (particularly the American Revolution and the South American Wars between Spain and its former colonies) had meant the end of such exploits.

However, as the situation changed, and medicine and technology advanced to make things far more useful, the eyes of the Europeans were turned to Africa, which remained mostly untouched, and with many uncivilized nations and territories within it.

Otto von Bismarck, the German Empire Chancellor, had, for most of his life, opposed the development of a colonial empire for Germany, as he thought that establishing those colonies was a recipe for possible disaster. However, at some point in 1883, he turned around and soon started support for colonial attempts. The problem was that, by then, there were not many places where the German flag could be planted. Still, German colonists arrived to Kamerun, south-east Africa, Tanganyka and New Guinea soon enough to lay claim to those regions for the major glory of the Empire.

There was still much land in Africa that remained unclaimed, and Bismarck realised that, if it ran unchecked, it could cause war and for the balance of power to incline towards one side or the other. Thus, he decided to invite representatives of the main European nations, as well as the Ottoman Empire and the United States, to a conference in the city of Berlin, where those nations would be able to peacefully decide the borders between the different spheres of influence.

The Conference

The conference begun on late October 1884, after the arrival of plenipotentiary representatives for the invited nations. Very soon, an international incident could have begun after the French representative decried the presence of the representative from Corsica, as the official French position was that Corsica was still a part of the Kingdom of France, and thus his presence was not required. The only reason this did not end in fighting was thanks to the fast acting of the Swedish and Dutch representatives, who managed to stop the Corsican representative before he knocked the French out.

Once things calmed down, Bismarck managed to diffuse the situation by ensuring that the French and Corsican representatives sat far away from each other, and initiated the discussions to determine who would receive what.

Initial rules

It took a month to establish a series of rules for the interaction between the nations within both the conference and for the future.

  • The members of the conference would work together to prevent the continuation of the slave trade within their spheres of influence.
  • All signatories would be able to trade freely along the Congo Basin and Lake Niassa.
  • The Congo and Niger rivers would be free to navigate for all signatories.
  • Taking possession – either directly or through a protectorate – of a portion of the African coast would have to be notified to all other signatories.
  • Uti possidetis, or Principle of Effectivity, would be in place: the only way a power could hold a colony is if they actually possessed it, demonstrating so with treaties with local leaders, the establishment of an administration to govern it and keep order, and flying the flag there, as well as through economical use of said colony.
  • No nation would attempt to interfere in other nations' areas of influence in Africa.

Areas of interest

  • Morocco: the possibility of turning Morocco into a protectorate was pretended by both France and Spain. The former wished to protect Algeria's western flank and surround the Spanish Oranesado, thus ensuring that, if there was war, they would be able to invade it easily. Meanwhile, the Spanish wanted to have a land connection between Oran, Ceuta and Melilla, thus reinforcing it, as well as with Sidi Ifni and Pais del Oro. France tried first to use Spain's possessions in the region to gain other nations' support, and then suggested dividing Morocco in three, with north and south entering the Spanish sphere and the rest falling within France's, but, in the end, only opposed by France and the United Kingdom, and with the abstentions of the Ottoman Empire and the United States, the Conference approved Spain's plan.
  • Tunisia: pretended by France, Corsica and Italy, Tunisia was a very thorny issue. The French representative almost provoked a fistfight when dismissing the idea of Corsica gaining land in Africa, calling it "an upstart, rebel region", while Italy's opposition was mostly because of their own ambitions and a bit about the still existent irredentism surrounding Corsica. While Spain and Germany supported Italy's ambitions, and the United Kingdom and Russia favored France's, in the end Tunisia was divided, with the north going to Corsica and the south going to France.
  • Egypt: Egypt was easily confirmed as a British protectorate, but a problem surged related to the Suez Canal, as its strategical position made it extremely important for all the European empires. Negotiations finally gave the Canal a status of neutral zone under British protection, with the United Kingdom allowing passage of all ships in peacetime and reserving the rights to stop warships in wartime.
  • Ethiopia: Ethiopia, or Abyssinia as some called it, had been independent since 1137, and they wished to remain independent at any cost. Their main defender was the United Kingdom, who wished to have Egypt's southern flank protected, and who argued that, as Christians, the Ethiopians deserved independence. Italy was the main oppositor to the suggestion, as they wished to increase the size of their African empire and Ethiopia could become the jewel in the crown. However, most other nations supported the United Kingdom, and Ethiopia's independence was recognised.
  • The Horn of Africa: Britain, France and Italy were the main claimants in the region, due to its strategical position as the exit from the Red Sea. Tribal leaders had already been contacted by representatives of the three nations, and treaties had been signed to signify the alliances. The Horn was divided between the three nations.
  • West Africa: here, the French held the upper hand thanks to their already existent position in Algeria and their control over a good part of the coast south of Cape Blanco. In this, they were helped by the fact that not many were interested in controlling the Sahara, given that there was probably a great lack of resources to make the expenses of building and maintaining forts worth it. Since the coast was entirely claimed already, there was little opposition to France taking over most of the region.
  • Liberia: this was the only reason the United States was attending the Conference, abstaining in nearly everything else discussed. Saying that the Americans had a vested interest in Liberia's independence was an understatement. The only problem the attendants had was the possibility of the United States using Liberia as a springboard to attack the European colonies, but when the American representative stated that his country had no designs on territories outside the Americas (an statement that made France, Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom nervous, as all of them had colonies in the Western Hemisphere), so the attendants had no problem in accepting Liberia's independence.
  • Gulf of Guinea: although some had thought this would become a very thorny issue due to the presence of many pre-existing colonies, it was actually one of the easiest parts of the conference. France connected Algeria and the Gulf through Dahomey, Spain claimed a large territory surrounding Spanish Guinea, Germany took a territory north of Guinea called Kamerun, and Nigeria and the Gold Coast fell into Britain's sphere.
  • Congo: the double-edged knife of the conference, as it was thought there was a great number of resources that would make any nation rich, although the territory was so large and practically unexplored that it would be hell to lay official claim to it. It was the place everybody wanted a piece of, but that few dared to voice a claim for. One of those few was France, which had taken a piece in the north, that connected French West Africa with French Central Africa. In the end, the solution came from a most unexpected source: Henry Morton Stanley, who had been exploring the region in the name of King Leopold I of Belgium. Belgium's neutrality became their benefit in this case. Initially, the King wished for the Congo to be turned over to the International Association of the Congo, a private company he presided, but the British, Dutch and American representatives (remembering the issues created by the British East India Trading Company and the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) opposed this. Negotiations finally gave an intermediate solution: the Congo would be turned over to the IAC, which would be bought by the Belgian government through a loan given jointly by the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
  • East Africa: the fight over this land was a quagmire due to the many that wanted to claim the region. Germany, thanks to a previously built colony, were able to claim the region surrounding Lake Malawi and the coast opposite to Zanzibar, while the British claimed Kenya, the land of the feared Maasai. The British would have liked to claim Tanganyka, within Germany's sphere, so as to build a railway connection that crossed the entire continent from north to south, but in the end negotiations with the Belgians allowed for the railway to be built through the Congo.
  • Madagascar: two sides presented their positions in here. On the one side, France argued that the Lambert Charter (signed in 1855 between Joseph-François Lambert and then prince Rakoto, who would later become Radama II) gave them exclusive rights to exploit the island's natural resources, and thus it should be within their sphere of influence. On the other side, Spain and Germany opposed this, stating that the Charter was illegal since neither Lambert nor prince Rakoto had legal support from their respective governments, as well as showing the deals they had made with the natives over the last decade. In the end, however, the British stated that Madagascar was not ready for civilization, and that they would need a guide, in this case France, which would bring the mission civilisatrice to them, dashing Spain's and Germany's hopes of dealing with the island.
  • South Africa: the territory between Portuguese Angola and British South Africa was easily claimed by Germany, as several German settlers had arrived there the year before the conference began. The main problem in the conference, and the one that would have the greatest consequences, was the discussion over the region between Congo, Angola, British South Africa, Moçambique and German East Africa. While Portugal wanted the region to connect Angola and Moçambique, the United Kingdom wanted to connect South Africa to Congo for the continuation of the north-to-south railway. Both nations argued intensely, making comment after comment, presenting argument after argument, suggesting proposal after proposal, over why one or the other should have the rights to the region. In the end, the thing that won the day was the fact that the United Kingdom was already very extense, so the Portuguese representative was able to spin the concession of that region to Portugal as a way to preserve the balance of power, as well as serving as a buffer between German East Africa and British South Africa. In the end, only France supported the United Kingdom, while the rest of the attendants voted in favor of Portugal's Mapa Cor-de-Rosa.

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