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The Scramble for Africa, Episode 65 - 12/05/06


Congress of Berlin, 1884 (Mary Evans Picture Library)

Congress of Berlin, 1884
(Mary Evans Picture Library )
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In 1855 Leopold II of the Belgians, took the Congo as his personal fiefdom and become one of the most despised men in African colonization. Leopold wanted the Congo's rubber and didn't care how he got it.

Anyone who objected to his methods was chopped - literally. Right hands chopped off and thrown into tally baskets. Men beheaded. Slaughtered women and children piled in the form of a Christian cross. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, but the genocide under Leopold was greater than anything heard or seen during our times.

One of Leopold's defenders was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He thought the Belgian monarch had been full of good intentions but had gone astray. Other Europeans voiced not always ardent claims to part of the Congo.

Otto von Bismarck the German chancellor, called a conference of 14 nations in Berlin in November 1884. Ostensibly, this was to find a peaceful way to settle the dispute over the Congo but realistically the Berlin Conference became known as The Scramble for Africa. Berlin decided who should have what. For example, Belgian Congo, British East Africa, French Equatorial Africa, German South West Africa. The European carve up remained in place until the distribution of spoils after the two 20th century world wars.

The then British PM, Gladstone, remained uneasy about new colonial responsibilities. Apart from a Liberal view of the moral question about colonialism there was too a realistic feeling that it was all getting too expensive and unmanageable. Fourteen nations were at Berlin. One was the United States who recognized that Britain was over-stretched and therefore no longer an invincible colonial power. It was at Berlin that we find the origin of the 21st century American expression, old and new Europe.

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Historical Figure

Bismarck (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

(Getty Images)
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Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898)

Bismarck was born on the family estate in Brandenburg. He was a leading campaigner for Prussian rights over the influence of Austria. In 1859 Bismarck was minister to the Tsar's court at St Petersburg and then in 1862, briefly in Paris. He was not particularly popular among his own people until the defeat of Denmark (see, Schleswig-Holstein Question) and in 1866 the defeat of Austria at Königgratz . He helped provoke the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and was made a prince and Chancellor of the German Empire. The term Iron Chancellor was first used about Bismarck. He resigned in 1890 because he disapproved of the policies of Wilhelm II.

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Did You Know...

The consequence of the Berlin Conference is partly why many Africans speak French and others English. It is also why the French with the colonial responsibilities sent their troops in 1978 into Kolwezi to rescue settlers from the local uprising and, the reason for French troops being in Chad during the 2006 attempted military coup. That was a 100 years old colonial obligation. It's why when the government in Sierra Leone was collapsing in 2000, British troops were sent in to prop it up and remained to protect it and train the army.

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Contemporary Sources

British view of German policy on Africa.
The Foreign Secretary Lord Granville to the British ambassador to Germany, Lord Ampthill, on German policy on Africa.

"It was evident that there had been some misunderstanding on both sides. Count Bismarck admitted that the views of the German Government had not perhaps been so clearly stated as might have been done. In answer to questions put by me, he stated that it was not the intention of the German Government to establish State Colonies anywhere, but they wished to give full protection to Germans settling in uncivilized countries which were not under the Sovereign jurisdiction of other European States...

In the course of the conversation reported in my previous Despatch of this day's date, Count Herbert Bismarck observed that while Prince Bismarck still entertained the same friendly feelings towards Her Majesty's government, and was desirous of supporting their policy in Egypt, His Highness thought it right that I should be warned that the feeling in Germany as regards these colonial questions was so strong that with the best wishes he felt he should be unable to afford us the same friendly assistance as hitherto, unless he could give some satisfaction to public opinion on the subject. I said that I objected to anything in the nature of a bargain between us. Each question ought to be discussed on its own merits. Count Bismarck said that he did not raise any question of bargain, but the German government expected their rights to be respected. I replied that if the German Government had rights which we on examination could admit, Count Bismarck might be sure that we should not only do so but be ready to meet the German Government with great cordiality in the matter."

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