Yinka Shonibare MBE Scramble for Africa 2003 14 life-sized fiberglass mannequins, 14 chairs, table, Dutch wax printed cotton Nigeria & Great Britain

The Scramble of Africa: The Occupation, Division, and Colonisation of Africa.

The history of external colonisation of Africa can be divided into two stages: Classical antiquity and European colonialism. In popular parlance, discussions of colonialism in Africa usually focus on the European conquests that resulted in the Scramble for Africa after the Berlin Conference in the 19th century.

Scramble For Africa installation by Yinka Shonibare

The Berlin Conference

The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one. The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time independence returned to Africa in 1950, the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily

The Berlin Conference of 1884, which regulated European colonisation and trade in Africa, is usually referred to as the ultimate point of the Scramble for Africa. Consequent to the political and economic rivalries among the European empires in the last quarter of the 19th century, the partitioning, or splitting up of Africa was how the Europeans avoided warring amongst themselves over Africa. The later years of the 19th century saw the transition from “informal imperialism” by military influence and economic dominance, to direct rule, bringing about colonial imperialism.

The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 (and the resultant General Act of the Conference at Berlin) laid down ground rules for the further partitioning of Africa. Navigation on the Niger and Congo rivers was to be free to all, and to declare a protectorate over a region the European colonizer must show effective occupancy and develop a ‘sphere of influence.’


European explorers and missionaries began mapping the interior of Africa in the nineteenth-century. Adventurers like Henry Stanley revealed that Africa was full of raw materials that could be exploited to fuel the industrial revolution. They saw it as a new place to invest the money made in industry.

Before. After. Ms. Valdner/Mr. Patten. Global History II.

European powers were slow to realise the benefits of claiming land in Africa but when one or two started the rest did not want to miss out. In 1884–5 the Scramble for Africa was at full speed. Thirteen European countries and the United States met in Berlin to agree the rules of African colonisation. From 1884 to 1914 the continent was in conflict as these countries took territory and power from existing African states and peoples.

The Europeans called Africa the ‘Dark Continent’ because it was unknown to them. This got mixed up with the more sinister idea of ‘Darkest Africa’ a place where the inhabitants were savage and brutal.

Europeans, after the industrial revolution, considered industrial towns and technology to be signs of civilisation. African peoples did not have these, so they were branded uncivilised. These attitudes allowed European colonists to ignore the established African tribes and kingdoms with their rich histories and cultures.

Fototeca Storica Nazionale. / Getty Images

The area of West Africa that is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo is a good example of what happened to many African countries during the Scramble for Africa, also called the Partition of Africa or the Conquest of Africa by some.

In 1870, only 10 percent of Africa was under formal European control; by 1914 it had increased to almost 90 percent of the continent, with only Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Liberia remaining independent. With the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1936, only Liberia remained independent. It took 44 years for almost the whole of Africa to be colonised by outsiders, jeopardising the cultures and existence of the African people, changing their history between 1870 and 1914. With Liberia being a country almost created by the America’s fro freed slaves, we could get away with saying the whole of Africa was colonised with the exception of Ethiopia and its 5 year rule of the Italians.

The occupation of Egypt, and the acquisition of the Congo were the first major moves in what came to be a precipitous scramble for African territory. In 1884, Otto von Bismarck convened the 1884–85 Berlin Conference to discuss the African problem.

Established empires, notably Britain, Portugal and France, had already claimed for themselves vast areas of Africa and Asia, and emerging imperial powers like Italy and Germany had done likewise on a smaller scale. With the dismissal of the aging Chancellor Bismarck by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the relatively orderly colonisation became a frantic scramble. The 1885 Berlin Conference, initiated by Bismarck to establish international guidelines for the acquisition of African territory, formalised this “New Imperialism”. Between the Franco-Prussian War and the Great War, Europe added almost 9 million square miles (23,000,000 km²)—one-fifth of the land area of the globe—to its overseas colonial possessions.

The Mad Rush Into Africa in the Early 1880s 

Within just 20 years the political face of Africa had changed, with only Liberia (a colony run by ex- African-American slaves) and Ethiopia remaining free of European control. The start of the 1880s saw a rapid increase in European nations claiming territory in Africa:

  • In 1880, the region to the north of the river Congo became a French protectorate following a treaty between the King of the Bateke, Makoko, and the explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza.
  • In 1881, Tunisia became a French protectorate and the Transvaal regained its independence.
  • In 1882, Britain occupied Egypt (France pulled out of joint occupation), and Italy began colonization of Eritrea.
  • In 1884, British and French Somaliland were created.
  • In 1884, German South West Africa, Cameroon, German East Africa, and Togo were created and Río de Oro claimed by Spain.

Causes of the Scramble for Africa 

There were several factors which created the impetus for the Scramble for Africa, most of these were to do with events in Europe rather than in Africa.

  • End of the Slave Trade: Britain had had some success in halting the slave trade around the shores of Africa, but inland the story was different. Muslim traders from north of the Sahara and on the East Coast still traded inland, and many local chiefs were reluctant to give up the use of slaves. Reports of slaving trips and markets were brought back to Europe by various explorers, such as Livingstone, and abolitionists in Britain and Europe were calling for more to be done.
  • Exploration: During the 19th century, barely a year went by without a European expedition into Africa. The boom in exploration was triggered to a great extent by the creation of the African Association by wealthy Englishmen in 1788, who wanted someone to ‘find’ the fabled city of Timbuktu and the course of the Niger River. As the 19th century wore on, the goal of the European explorer changed, and rather than traveling out of pure curiosity they started to record details of markets, goods, and resources for the wealthy philanthropists who financed their trips.
  • Henry Morton Stanley: This naturalized American (born in Wales) was the explorer most closely connected to the start of the Scramble for Africa. Stanley had crossed the continent and located the ‘missing’ Livingstone, but he is more infamously known for his explorations on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold hired Stanley to obtain treaties with local chieftains along the course of the River Congo with an eye to creating his own colony. Belgium was not in a financial position to fund a colony at that time. Stanley’s work triggered a rush of European explorers, such as Carl Peters, to do the same for various European countries.
  • Capitalism: The end of European trading in slaves left a need for commerce between Europe and Africa. Capitalists may have seen the light over slavery, but they still wanted to exploit the continent. New ‘legitimate’ trade would be encouraged. Explorers located vast reserves of raw materials, they plotted the course of trade routes, navigated rivers, and identified population centers which could be a market for manufactured goods from Europe. It was a time of plantations and cash crops, dedicating the region’s workforce to producing rubber, coffee, sugar, palm oil, timber, etc for Europe. And all the more enticing if a colony could be set up which gave the European nation a monopoly.
  • Read more on the causes of the Scramble of Africa here.
Scramble for Africa is a pivotal work for Shonibare in its exploration of late Victorian England and its territorial expansion into Africa during the 1880s. The “scramble” for Africa by leading European and world powers resulted in the carving up of the continent, an act that was formalized at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Shonibare’s work depicts this historic gathering, showing various statesmen huddled around a table with a large map of Africa, eagerly staking their claims. In Shonibare’s interpretation the heads of state are characteristically headless–and equally mindless in their hunger for what Belgian King Leopold II called “a slice of this magnificent cake.”

Scramble for Africa is presented upon a raised platform that is lit from underneath, giving it a heightened sense of visual drama. Like actors upon a stage, the headless leaders gesticulate to one another as they scramble for the riches of the continent. Shonibare says, “Theatricality is certainly a device in my work, it is a way of setting the stage; it is also a fiction–a hyper-real, theatrical device that enables you to re-imagine events from history. . . . Scramble for Africa examines how history repeats itself and when I was making it I was really thinking about American imperialism and the need in the West for resources such as oil and how this pre-empts the annexation of different parts of the world.” 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4,

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