The Open Door Web Site
TWO CENTURIES OF REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
The Conference of Berlin (1884-1885)
There was a risk of conflict between colonial countries in the "Scramble for Africa". Like our own games of Monopoly, Diplomacy or Risk, some rules had to be written down if the game was to be played in an orderly manner.
All the European powers and the USA met in Berlin in 1885. It was decided that King Leopold of Belgium could have his claim to the huge Congo Basin. It was also decided that new colonies had to be "effectively occupied". It was not enough simply to put up a flag and say the region was yours. You also had to officially defend and administer the area if you wanted other countries to recognise your claim.
A caricature of Leopold II with his earnings from the Belgium Congo
Colonialism one hundred years ago, then, had several causes. One was strategic, when it was essential for a trading nation, such as Britain, to guard its trade routes. Another was national prestige, to build a nation at a time when expanding population, growing cities and class differences seemed to be dividing the Western European societies. This was the period when compulsory state education was being established. If school children could be shown a map of the world and told that all the areas in red were British, or all the areas in green were French, they would feel proud to be part of the nation and less likely to be attracted by dangerous new ideas, such as socialism.
The White Man's Burden
Some colonists really thought they were having a civilising effect on Afiica and Asia, bringing not only the benefits of ports and railways, but also a justice system and the Christian religion. It is less likely that economic factors played a large part in the "Scramble for Africa".
It is true that the African colonies supplied raw materials (metals, food stuffs, timber etc.), but they never became the markets for manufactured goods that some had hoped for. The colonies were expensive to administer and expensive to defend. They never really made any money. As a famous English historian, A.J.P. Taylor, wrote after the Second World War:
"Tot up the national balance sheet of any imperial country over the last fifty years and you will find the community is staggeringly out of profit."
Interestingly, some of the biggest overseas profits were made in countries which were not colonised. China, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, Brazil and Argentina, for example, offered some of the best sources of raw materials and markets for manufactured goods, without Europeans having to pay the costs of colonisation.
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