Why are borders of African countries cast in such straight lines? The countries of Europe are curved and roundabout over rivers and mountain ranges, complicated by political, cultural and historical divides. Whereas Africa has been divided up for centuries by colonization as imperialist powers scrambled to claim control over areas of vast resources.
In 2007, the British journalist Tim Butcher set out to reproduce Henry Morton Stanley’s notorious nineteenth century route to map the Congo River. In his book Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, Butcher gives a perhaps overly succinct summation of the history of Africa up to and including the European scramble for land and resources, and beyond:
After Africa’s early tribal history came the period of exploitation by outsiders, starting with centuries of slavery and moving on to the Scramble for Africa, when the white man staked the black man’s continent in a few hectic years at the end of the nineteenth century to launch the colonial era.1
While we will explore it in more depth, Butcher begins to inspire the notion that the Scramble was related to Africa’s preceding history, and then the cause of its subsequent history:
Then came independence in the late 1950s and 1960s when the Winds of Change swept away regimes that some white leaders had boasted would stand forever. And it finished with the post-independence age of economic decay, war, coup and crisis, with African leaders manipulated and occasionally murdered, by foreign powers, and dictatorships clinging to power in a continent teeming with rebels, loyalists and insurgents.2
This quote can work as a quick overview for students, both placing the Scramble in a mental timeline and contextualizing it as one of a number of continent-wide injustices throughout its history before we move on to more particular details, as follows.
During the 1870s, European powers only controlled about 10% of the continent of Africa, so there seems to have been plenty of opportunity for the ambitious colonist. And while European powers warred upon African armies attempting to resist the control of their lands being taken over, they decided not to war with each other over the continent. Thirteen countries and the USA met in 1885 in Berlin to spread out a map and divide up the continent amongst themselves. No African representation was present. This “Treaty of Berlin” also established the “Principle of Effective Occupation” among imperialists, an honor-among-thieves principle making it merely necessary to demonstrate control over a portion of the land in order to claim it as annexed territory. And so, staking their countries’ respective flag in the ground, nearly 90% of the African continent was controlled by one or another European nation by 1914.3
African resources were seen in the late nineteenth century as necessary and desirable for fueling the burgeoning industrial revolution. Some of the more notorious explorers of modern history were commissioned to infiltrate and map out trade routes through the depths of the continent. Henry Stanley is famous for having done as much on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium along the Congo River (in pursuit of Mr. Livingston, of course, but also for troves of rubber and ivory).4 Cecil Rhodes was also a primary “explorer” in the Scramble. Notably the namesake of Oxford’s Rhodes Scholarship, as well as Zimbabwe’s former name, Rhodesia, he mined large portions of that country after founding De Beers in 1888. Iron, coal, copper, led, and of course diamonds – Africa was a literal treasure trove amass with hunters.5
All of this led to the aforementioned conference in Berlin of 1884 and 1885, when Otto von Bismarck (the new Chancellor of Germany) called a meeting of countries with interest in asserting sovereign power over the territories of Africa. “His intention was to establish the principles upon which European sovereignty could be extended over Africa in a manner that contained the rivalries.”6 The biggest concern about impediments or geo-political misunderstandings were regarding each other, as opposed to any concerns for the sovereignty of the people they were colonizing. The nations, nevertheless, met. Without a representative, Africa was left to endure the consequences of colonization by a culture that deemed the people of the continent inferior. Jules Ferry, the French premier at the time of the Berlin conference, summed up Europe’s regard for the people of Africa: “The superior races have a right vis-à-vis the inferior races.”7
It is important to explore the role maps played in the Scramble for Africa. Certainly, at the conference at Berlin, the European representatives literally divided up Africa on a map. But the importance of doing so is also rooted in map usage and evolution. Mapping was actually a big part of what drove European designs on exploring Africa. King Leopold of Belgium, a notorious colonizer, didn’t necessarily set out to explore the Congo River until he became enamored with Henry Morton Stanley’s map of it.8> In the centuries before the Scramble for Africa, Europeans adopted the map as a both organizational and existential way of keeping an exploding new world of discovery in order. The use of maps gave rise to what they would even begin to consider nation-states.9 Before that, sovereign territoriality was seen as over people more than land.10 By the time African conquest came to pass, mapping would be seen as gospel, so by the time the Treaty of Berlin met to counsel, mapping out annexed territory was all each respective country felt they needed to claim African land as their own. The fever was for sovereign dominance of land and resources, necessitating the sharp, dark lines of boundary we are familiar with still today, but also influenced by them.
Maps and activities related to the Scramble for Africa will kick off this curricular unit in the classroom, and can be found in the “Classroom Activities” section below.