The Berlin Conference and the colonial treaties that followed

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By Maidei Jenny Magirosa

BETWEEN 1870 and 1900, Africa faced European imperialist aggression, diplomatic pressures, military invasions and eventual conquest and colonisation.
But the Africans were not passive.
They fought hard against the colonisation process.
This European imperialist push into Africa was motivated by three main factors which were economic, political and social.
These three factors were caused by the loss of profits from the slave trade.
In addition, the expansion of the European Industrial Revolution demanded new sources for raw materials with guaranteed markets and profitable investment outlets.
The meeting to partition Africa and share it among the Europeans took place at the Berlin residence of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1884. Present were foreign ministers of 14 European powers and the United States.
They established ground rules for the future exploitation of Africa, the so-called ‘dark continent’.
The Africans were not invited or told of the decisions made.
This conference laid the groundwork for the now familiar politico-geographical map of Africa.
The purpose of the conference was to determine access to various important trade routes, along the Niger and Congo River basins and discuss the suppression of the internal slave trade in some parts of Africa.
They also wanted to stop firearms into Africa so that only the Europeans would control the use of guns in Africa.
The borders created as a result of the treaties were imposed by European nations.
In marking the boundaries, there was no consideration whatsoever of the linguistic and cultural differences between people.
By 1900 most of Africa had been colonised by seven European powers which include Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
After the Berlin Conference, the European colonialists justified the brutal colonisation of Africa through the signing of treaties and agreements.
Treaties were international agreements in which African nations were said to voluntarily agree, hand over territory or agree to specific conditions in return for benefits.
When African chiefs signed treaties with Europeans, they often did not understand the meaning.
There was no clear understanding of what the treaties were about or what the consequences of signing them would be.
In some cases, military force was used to quell a large amount of resistance forcing the traditional leaders to sign under duress.
Colonial States became the machinery of domination, control and exploitation of the colonised people.
Fuelled by the racist ideology and military conquest, the colonial states were also authoritarian bureaucratic systems, maintained by force.
Once conquered, the European powers set about establishing colonial state systems.
In a book titled Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts by H. J. de Blij and Peter O Muller, wrote, that “The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one.
“The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African Continent.”
These European colonial powers’ main aim was to exploit the African colonies.
Each one of them had different ways of governing.
United Kingdom and France followed a version of democratic principles while Portugal and Spain were dictatorships.
The British also established a system of indirect rule, leaving indigenous power structures in place while making local Kings and Chiefs’ representatives of the Queen.
The Portuguese ruled directly with hash brutal control while the French sought to create culturally assimilated elites who represented French ideals in the colonies.
In the Belgian Congo King Leopold II, financed the expeditions, allowing Belgium’s claim.
He then embarked on a ruthless exploitation and murder of people.
The Belgians mobilised almost the entire Congolese populations to gather rubber, kill elephants for their ivory, and build public works to improve export routes.
Entire communities were massacred for failing to meet production quotes.
The practice of killing and maiming was routine and horrific massacres were an everyday occurrence.
For years, King Leopold’s mercenary army forced slaves into mines and rubber plantations, burn villages, mete out sadistic punishments, including dismemberment and commit mass murder.
H. J. de Blij and Peter O Muller noted in the same book that: “After the impact of the slave trade, King Leopold’s reign of terror was Africa’s most severe demographic disaster.
“By the time it ended, after a growing outcry around the world, as many as 10 million Congolese had been murdered.”
Among the treaties were those signed with the Africans in East, Central and Southern Africa.
The British East Africa Company was established in 1888 and it made treaties claiming to offer protection to the various peoples of East Africa in exchange for recognition of the company’s sovereignty by African rulers.
It governed Kenya on behalf of Britain until 1893.
Further south, the British South Africa Company (BSAC) was formed in 1887 and it lasted longer than the British East African Company.
The BSAC, under the control of Cecil John Rhodes, used force and brutality to colonise Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
The Company governed these colonies until 1923.
But it should be noted that these companies were unable to generate profits for their shareholders.
They also faced resistance from the Africans.
Besides, governing a colony was expensive.
By 1924, all Company rule was replaced by various forms of European colonial governance.
The British colonial treaties also included South African colonial law within the context of the British Empire.
In South Africa the treaties were entered into with the various people. Because the British wanted to justify the occupation of territories, they developed massive legal systems.
These legal frameworks then helped to expand a system of treaty-based colonialism, in which Britain conquered and controlled the Africans by negotiating treaties.
For example, the British South African treaties negotiated in the Cape Colony, in Natal and Namibia, were completely placed within the wide colonial legal system.
The Treaty of Berlin led to 90 percent of Africa being controlled by Europeans.
This had enormous devastating economic, political and social impact on the people.
As the two authors mentioned above noted; “The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy acquisitiveness during a period when Europe’s search for minerals and markets had become insatiable.”
Next week this column will look at the general types of colonial treaties then focus specifically at the impact on countries where the treaties were signed, such as the Rudd Concession signed by Lobengula with Cecil Rhodes’s BSAC.

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