Partition Of Africa: Causes, Main Disputes And Empires

The division of Africa , also known as the race for Africa, was the process of colonization and division of that continent by the European powers of the time. The beginning of the cast is usually marked in the 1880s and lasted until the beginning of the First World War .

Europeans had been exploring the African continent since the late 16th century, although it was not until the 18th century that they drew maps of most of the territory. At first, countries like Portugal or Holland had established commercial factories on the coasts, from where they organized the slave trade.

Starting in the mid-18th century, European powers sought territories rich in raw materials. In addition, that time was full of tensions between Germany, France, England and Russia, among others, to become the most powerful country, commercially, militarily and politically on the continent.

The key point of the division was the Berlin Conference, held in 1884. The leaders of the powers agreed to divide the African continent among themselves, trying to end the disputes that had almost caused a war to break out. However, African colonization was one of the causes that precipitated the First World War.


Europeans had started exploring the African continent in the late 16th century. This was immediately accompanied by the exploitation of its natural resources.

By 1835, maps of the northwestern part of the continent already existed, drawn by well-known explorers such as David Livingstone or Alexandre de Serpa Pinto.

In the 1850s and 1860s, other explorations followed, such as those carried out by Richard Burton or John Speke. By the end of that century, Europeans had mapped the entire course of the Nile, the Niger River, and the Congo and Zambezi rivers.


One of the great maritime powers in history, Portugal, had established some cities on the African coast during the 15th and 16th centuries. There, he had founded commercial factories. It was in this period that the slave trade began.

Somewhat later, during the seventeenth century, the English and the Dutch took a large part of their conquests from the Portuguese.

Century XVIII

Despite the above, the European presence in Africa was very scarce at the beginning of the 18th century. According to experts, 90% of the continent was governed by local leaders, with only some coastal areas in the hands of European countries. The interior was still difficult to access and very dangerous for foreigners.

In the west, Europeans had created several routes to trade slaves. In the north, populated by Arabs and Berbers, they soon began to trade with Europe.

On the other hand, to the south of the continent several expeditions arrived from the Netherlands, establishing large colonies. Specifically, in 1652, they had reached present-day South Africa and, a century later, they were able to penetrate the interior.

New weapons and medical techniques, such as quinine to combat malaria, allowed Europeans to enter the heart of Africa.


In the eighteenth century Europe, especially after the Franco-Prussian War, had witnessed the emergence of nationalisms and a new imperialism. Different powers, including a powerful German Empire, spent several decades trying to impose their influence on each other,

This, along with the Industrial Revolution , sparked a race to seize African and Asian resources.


The imperialism of the 19th century was caused, on the one hand, by the Industrial Revolution. The new production techniques required many more raw materials, as well as new markets to sell the products.

On the other hand, the struggle to establish itself as the first power caused many countries to seek to expand their territories and their wealth.

European population growth

The European population increased, in the second half of the 19th century, from 300 to 450 million inhabitants. This increase was due to the advances that accompanied the Industrial Revolution and scientific discoveries. Increasing demographic pressure made more financial resources necessary.

New economic system

As already noted, the Industrial Revolution completely changed the European economic system. From then on, the demand for cheaper raw materials and energy sources grew. Europe did not possess enough of any of these resources, so colonizing Africa was the simplest solution for the time.

Furthermore, the market was beginning to show signs of saturation. Britain, for example, had a significant trade deficit, compounded by protectionist policies triggered by the crisis of 1873.

The African continent, in addition to its natural resources, offered the British, Germans or French an open market. It was about extracting the raw materials and then selling the manufactured products.

On the other hand, capital saw many advantages in investing in the African continent. Labor was much cheaper and with hardly any labor rights.

Finally, the African regions, as well as the Asian ones, offered many products in high demand, but almost impossible to obtain in Europe. Among them, copper, rubber, tea or tin stand out.

Political and ideological causes

After the triumph, even if it was ideological, of the bourgeois revolutions, the fear of the new workers’ movements had pushed the bourgeoisie towards more conservative positions. In addition, the European powers had embarked on a race to achieve military and commercial control of the sea and land routes.

This struggle, at first non-warlike, to manage to dominate the rest of the powers, was accompanied by the strengthening of nationalisms, based on the nation-state and on the claim that territories with the same language or culture should be part of them .

Colonization in Africa began in the enclaves that had been established on the coasts. From there, the powers began to explore and conquer the interior. Many times, these incursions were justified with scientific reasons, although they always tried to annex the new territories that they were exploiting.

Similarly, a stream of anthropological studies had appeared that advocated the superiority of whites over other ethnic groups. In this way, it was considered that the whites were destined to rule the rest and, even, some authors even spoke about “the heavy burden of the white man”: to civilize and rule the rest for their good.

Bismarck’s Weltpolitik

The German Empire had become one of the strongest powers on the European continent. Beginning in the 1880s, Bismarck’s policies, supported by the national bourgeoisie, encouraged his worldwide expansion.

This imperialism was known as Weltpolitik (world politics). The growing pan-German nationalism, with the aim of creating a strong German state that would welcome all the territories with Germanic culture, favored the pretense of obtaining more resources and wealth.

In a few years, Germany became the third colonial power in Africa. It was Bismarck who proposed holding the Berlin Congress to divide the African continent without the outbreak of a war in Europe.

Berlin Congress

This meeting between the different European powers took place between 1884 and 1885. The intention was to regulate their possessions in Africa, based on the principle of effective occupation of the territories. On the other hand, they also tried to end the slave trade.

Despite the attempt to peacefully divide the continent, tensions between the powers did not disappear. In fact, these disputes are considered one of the triggers of the First World War.

At the Berlin Congress, it was decided that the area between Egypt and South Africa, plus some in the Gulf of Guinea, would remain in British hands. North Africa, for its part, along with Madagascar and part of equatorial Africa, was assigned to France.

Portugal received Angola, Mozambique, Guinea and some islands, while Germany seized Togo, Cameroon and Tanganyika. Belgium was left with the Belgian Congo, Italy with Libya and Somalia. Finally, Spain only obtained the western Sahara and enclaves in Guinea.

The powers failed to resolve disputes in the north of the continent: Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

Only Ethiopia, later invaded by Italy, and Liberia, founded by freed African-Americans, were considered independent countries.

Main disputes

Fachoda incident

The United Kingdom and France, at the end of the 19th century, had planned to unite their respective African territories by means of a railroad. This caused, in 1898, an incident between the two caused by a city located on the border of both possessions: Fachoda (Sudan).

Finally, it was the British, with more forces in the area, who would be able to take ownership of that town.

Colonization of the Congo

The Belgian King Leopold II had been the only one to support the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. To do this, it provided him with funding to explore the Congo area. There, he made several agreements with some African chiefs and, in 1882, controlled enough territory to found the Congo Free State.

Contrary to what happened with other colonies, this new State was the personal property of the Belgian monarch, who began to exploit its ivory and rubber.

The Congo Free State comprised, in 1890, all the territory between Leopoliville and Stanleyville and was trying to expand towards Katanga, in competition with Cecil Rhodes’ South Africa. Finally, it was Leopold II who managed to conquer that rich area, expanding his African ownership.

The Belgian monarch established a real regime of terror in the area, with mass murders of thousands of people. The situation reached such a point that the pressures in his own country forced Leopold, already near death, to give up command over the colony.

British occupation of Egypt and South Africa

The United Kingdom was one of the countries that occupied the most territory on the African continent. Among these, the cities of Cairo and the Cape, two of the most important.

British forces occupied Egypt in 1882, although, legally, it was declared a protectorate, and not a colony, in 1914. During the 1990s, it extended its dominions to Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda.

In the south, it acquired Cape Town, from where it organized its expansion to neighboring states, both those ruled by local chiefs and those ruled by the Dutch.

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 consolidated British power in the area. The Boers, Dutch inhabitants of southern Africa, protested without success. Faced with this, they staged a rebellion in 1880, which led to open warfare.

The solution offered by the British was the creation of a free government in the Transvaal. However, in 1899 the second war of the Boers broke out, who were defeated again and lost the territories they still had.

First Moroccan crisis

The Berlin Congress did not appease the imperialist spirits of the great powers. The Fachoda Incident was about to provoke a war between France and Great Britain. Both countries signed an agreement, the Entente Cordiale, to avoid further confrontations.

The Germans, for their part, were determined to expand their presence in Africa. To test the resistance of the rest of the powers, he used the territory of present-day Morocco.

In 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany paid a visit to Tangier, in northern Morocco. There, to challenge the French, he gave a speech supporting the independence of the country.

In July of that year, Germany complained that it was being pushed aside from decisions regarding the area. The French agreed to hold a conference, but the Germans mobilized their troops in Europe. France also sent troops to the common border in January 1906.

To avoid conflict, the Algeciras Conference was held that same year. Germany only got the support of Austria-Hungary, while France was backed by the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, Spain and the United States of America. Faced with that, the Germans accepted that the French maintain control over Morocco.

Agadir crisis

Five years later, a new crisis began on Moroccan territory. It was the so-called Agadir Crisis, which began when Germany deployed a gunboat on July 1, 1911, in the port of that city.

When the British received the news, they thought the Germans intended to make Agadir their naval base in the Atlantic.

However, the purpose of the German military move was to lobby for compensation for accepting French control of Morocco. In November 1911, after a convention, the powers signed an agreement by which Germany accepted France’s position in the area in exchange for some territories in the present Republic of the Congo.

In this way, France established a protectorate over Morocco in 1912. The two Moroccan crises strengthened the ties between Great Britain and the French and further separated them from Germany.

Colonizing empires

During the nineteenth century, three major colonial empires spread mainly. To these, some European middle powers were added.

British Empire

The British Empire was the one that covered more territories during that time. Its most important moment occurred in the reign of Queen Victoria, when her dominions extended through Oceania, America, Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean.

The most common system of government in their African territories was through indirect governments. Most of the time, they preferred to leave local chiefs in their posts, but controlling the important final decisions through a series of officers and officials.

On the African continent they came to control Egypt, including the fundamental Suez Canal. Beginning in 1882, they entered Sudan, seeking to make their project of uniting Cairo and the Cape a reality.

In the south, from the Cape, they advanced to Nigeria, defeating the Dutch Boers and conquering their lands.

The French Empire

At its peak, the French Empire controlled 13 million kilometers, with territories all over the planet.

Their first forays into Africa date back to the mid-19th century, as they had previously focused their efforts on the Antilles, part of India, and some strategic enclaves in the Pacific.

North Africa was one of the areas to which France devoted the most effort. In 1847, they managed to conquer Algeria, making the country the center of their power in that part of the continent.

Similarly, in 1880, he began his conquest of the territory that would become known as the French Congo, establishing a protectorate that included Cambinga, Cameroon, and the Congo Free State. A year later, it came to control Tunisia.

The Fachoda Incident caused France to abandon its intention to unite the eastern and western ends of the continent. This would have allowed them to connect in the Atlantic Ocean with the Indian.

After creating, in 1904, French West Africa, a federation of eight territories, France devoted its efforts to gain control of Morocco. In 1905 she achieved her objective, although two crises involving the Germans were on the verge of provoking an open war.


The German Empire, after strengthening its position in Europe, proceeded to participate in the race to control Africa. In a short time, it became the third country with the most possessions on that continent, controlling 2.6 million square kilometers.

Faced with the already consolidated positions of the French and British, Germany focused on still almost virgin territories, such as Southwest Africa, Togoland, Cameroon and Tanganyika.

The growing dispute over Africa led Bismarck to convene the Berlin Conference, held between 1884 and 1885. After this, and before the agreement reached between France and the United Kingdom, the Entente Cordial, tried to isolate the French, causing the First Crisis Moroccan.


Italy, as happened to other countries, had no choice but to await the power games of France, Germany and Great Britain. Thus, its presence in Africa was scarce: Eritrea, Somalia and Libya.


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