135 years ago today, European leaders sat around a horseshoe-shaped table to set the rules for Africa’s colonisation.
By Patrick Gathara
On the afternoon of Saturday, November 15, 1884, an international conference was opened by the chancellor of the newly-created German Empire at his official residence on Wilhelmstrasse, in Berlin. Sat around a horseshoe-shaped table in a room overlooking the garden with representatives from every European country, apart from Switzerland, as well as those from the United States and the Ottoman Empire. The only clue as to the purpose of the November gathering of white men was hung on the wall – a large map of Africa “drooping down like a question mark” as Nigerian historian, Professor Godfrey Uzoigwe, would comment.
Including a short break for Christmas and the New Year, the West African Conference of Berlin would last 104 days, ending on February 26, 1885. In the 135 years since, the conference has come to represent the late 19th-century European Scramble and Partition of the continent. In the popular imagination, the delegates are hunched over a map, armed with rulers and pencils, sketching out national borders on the continent with no idea of what existed on the ground they were parcelling out. Yet this is mistaken. The Berlin Conference did not begin the scramble. That was well under way. Neither did it partition the continent. Only one state, the short-lived horror that was the Congo Free State, came out of it – though strictly speaking it was not actually a creation of the conference.
It did something much worse, though, with consequences that would reverberate across the years and be felt until today. It established the rules for the conquest and partition of Africa, in the process legitimising the ideas of Africa as a playground for outsiders, its mineral wealth as a resource for the outside world not for Africans and its fate as a matter not to be left to Africans.
From the very start, the conference laid out the order of priorities. “The Powers are in the presence of three interests: That of the commercial and industrial nations, which a common necessity compels to the research of new outlets. That of the States and of the Powers summoned to exercise over the regions of the Congo an authority which will have burdens corresponding to their rights. And, lastly, that which some generous voices have already commended to your solicitude – the interests of the native populations.” It also resolutely refused to consider the question of sovereignty, and the legitimacy of laying claim to someone else’s land and resources.
Uzoigwe notes that: “Bismarck … stated in his opening remarks that delegates had not been assembled to discuss matters of sovereignty either of African states or of the European powers in Africa.” It was no accident that there were no Africans at the table – their opinions were not considered necessary. The efforts of the Sultan of Zanzibar to get himself invited to the party were summarily laughed off by the British.
American journalist Daniel De Leon described the conference as “an event unique in the history of political science … Diplomatic in form, it was economic in fact.” And it is true that while it was dressed up as a humanitarian summit to look at the welfare of locals, its agenda was almost purely economic. Few on the continent or in the African diaspora were fooled. A week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that “the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.” Six years later, another editor of a Lagos newspaper comparing the legacy conference to the slave trade said: “A forcible possession of our land has taken the place of a forcible possession of our person.” Theodore Holly, the first black Protestant Episcopal Bishop in the US, condemned the delegates as having “come together to enact into law, national rapine, robbery and murder”.
The outcome of the conference was the General Act signed and ratified by all but one of the 14 nations at the table, the US being the sole exception. Some of its main features were the establishment of a regime of free trade stretching across the middle of Africa, the development of which became the rationale for the recognition of the Congo Free State and its subsequent 13-year horror, the abolition of the overland slave trade as well as the principle of “effective occupation”.
Though the attempt to create a free trade area in Africa and therefore keep the continent from becoming both a spark for, and a theatre of conflict between the European powers, was ultimately doomed. The principle of “effective occupation” was to become the catalyst for military conquest of the African continent with far-reaching consequences for its inhabitants.
At the time of the conference, 80 percent of Africa remained under traditional and local control. The Europeans only had influence on the coast. Following it, they started grabbing chunks of land inland, ultimately creating a hodgepodge of geometric boundaries that was superimposed over indigenous cultures and regions of Africa. However, to get their claims over African land accepted, European states had to demonstrate that they could actually administer the area.
Often, military victory proved to be the easy part. To govern, they found they had to contend with a confusing milieu of fluid identities and cultures and languages. The Europeans thus set about reorganising Africans into units they could understand and control. As Professor Terence Ranger noted, the colonial period was marked “by systematic inventions of African traditions – ethnicity, customary law, ‘traditional’ religion. Before colonialism Africa was characterised by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identity; after it, African identities of ‘tribe’, gender and generation were all bounded by the rigidities of invented tradition.”
That first-ever international conference on Africa established a template for how the world deals with the continent. Today, Africa is still seen primarily as a source for raw materials for the outside world and an arena for them to compete over. Conferences about the continent are rarely held on the continent itself and rarely care about the views of ordinary Africans.
The sight of African heads of state assembling in foreign capitals to beg for favours is a re-enactment of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s pleading to attend a conference where he would be the main course.
Despite achieving independence for the most part in the 1950s and 1960s, many African countries have continued along the destructive path laid out in Berlin. Former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere declared: “We have artificial ‘nations’ carved out at the Berlin Conference in 1884, and today we are struggling to build these nations into stable units of human society… we are in danger of becoming the most Balkanised continent of the world.” Ethnicity and tribalism continue to be the bane of African politics. “The Berlin Conference was Africa’s undoing in more ways than one,” wrote Jan Nijman, Peter Muller and Harm de Blij in their book, Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. “The colonial powers superimposed their domains on the African continent. By the time independence returned to Africa… the realm had acquired a legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily.”
Now, 135 years after Berlin, it is perhaps time for introspection. While it is impossible to turn back the clock, Africans would do well to reflect on what has happened since. Teaching the real history of the subjugation of the continent would help counter the myths of “ancient hatreds” that are said to fuel the conflicts on the continent. And Africans could decide to get together on the continent to debate and decide on the relationship they want with the rest of the world rather than always having that dictated to them from abroad.
Patrick Gathara is a communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.
Blacks give 25% more of their income annually than white households, according to a report by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Though research is limited in this area, it also states “nearly two-thirds of African-American households donated to organizations and causes, totaling $11 billion each year”. In other words, blacks are one the largest group of givers in the country. Financial contributions from the black community have been well-noted and consistent for generations, with “tithing” being an intricate part of black giving and the values of community and mutuality embedded in African traditional values carried over by slaves.
After losing her job, Tracey Webb, founder of Black Benefactors, based in Washington D.C., started the giving circle organization in 2007 to create a collective “black giving” experience. Webb shares how black philanthropists can have influence on the causes they care about and how to do it.
Maryann Reid: What is a giving circle and is it different from being a philanthropist?
Tracey Webb: A giving circle is a group of individuals that pool their monies for charitable causes and decide together where to give it away. Studies have shown that giving circle members are more likely to volunteer, give more, and give more strategically. The root meaning of the word philanthropy literally means, love of mankind. It doesn’t mean wealth or a large donation. Giving circle members are philanthropists
Reid: What from your personal experience made you start Black Benefactors?
Webb: My journey began when I lost my job as a nonprofit director. I couldn’t raise the funding needed to keep the organization open. I made a vow to myself that I would help other black nonprofit founders and leaders, but at the time, I didn’t know how. The concept of giving circles was introduced to me a few years earlier, so I began to research them in my spare time. Upon learning, more about how they worked, I realized it would be the perfect way to accomplish my goal of funding black led nonprofits. I came up with the name Black Benefactors to clearly show who the funding is for, and who makes the funding possible. Our giving circle members are the benefactors, which is a person who gives money to a cause. I’ve had members tell me that they didn’t see themselves as benefactors or philanthropists before, but now they do.
Reid: What’s the first step someone should take if they want to become a philanthropist?
Webb: Since 2014, BB has hosted dinner series events featuring black philanthropists who share their giving story. A common theme among all speakers on their approach to philanthropy can be used as a first step–they identified a focus area for their giving. Usually it was influenced by their interests, or a cause they were personally affected by. One of our past speakers, Reggie Van Lee, is an art collector who established a scholarship for performing arts students at Howard University. He combined his love for the arts and philanthropy.
Reid: What is a project that your giving circle participated in and that you’re excited about?
Webb: We launched a capacity building project this year to help strengthen black led nonprofits in the D.C. area. Through partnerships with local funders and a consulting firm, our grantee partners and grant applicants can receive in-kind support to strengthen their infrastructure. Our first workshop was held in partnership with the D.C. office of “Blacks at Bain” of Bain & Company, a global consultancy firm, on board development, and a second workshop was held with the Beckner Advancement Fund, a social justice funder based in D.C.
Reid: Tell me about the very first grant you awarded. What was that like?
Webb: Our first grants totaling $9,000 were awarded in 2009. It was very moving for me because behind that first grant was years of planning, research, recruiting, meetings and fundraising. To be able to award a grant that was from us, for us was the best feeling in the world. I continue to experience that feeling with each grant cycle. Our grantees have shared with us that receiving a grant from black donors is impactful and for some, the first time. I’m proud to say that with each grant cycle, we’ve increased our total grant awards.
Reid: Why is now an important time for blacks to give?
Webb: Now is an important time to support a giving circle like ours because there are initiatives to increase funding and resources to black led businesses, but what about black-led nonprofits? Only 3% of national foundation funding is allocated to these organizations, which are often underfunded, if funded at all, and under-resourced. Because of this reason, we aim to fill this critical gap in resources by funding black-led nonprofits at the highest level possible each grant cycle instead of awarding several small grants.
Reid: How can someone start giving if they only have $500? Is that enough?
Webb: Absolutely. In fact, two of our past grants were in the amount of $500 for the purchase of wish list items. To get started, if there’s a giving circle in your community, consider donating to one or more of their grantees. Giving circles are more likely to support small organizations and $500 can go a long way. Or, leverage your $500 with others by joining or donating to a giving circle for a larger gift. I’d also like to add that you can start giving at any amount.
Reid: What is in the future for Black Benefactors?
Webb: We are undergoing a restructuring process to better serve our members, grantee partners and the community. During this time, we’re accepting donations to support our grant making. Looking into my Black Benefactors crystal ball, I see new members, larger grant awards and a youth component in our future.
Reid: How can someone support black philanthropy now?
Webb: Learn more about the history and impact of black giving circles by reading “The Sweetness of Circles” here, an op-ed that I co-authored with Akira Barclay and Valaida Fullwood, and start planning now to celebrate Black Philanthropy Month in August 2020 by visiting www.blackphilanthropymonth.com. Most importantly, share how you give black year-round with #BPM365
“Time For An Awakening” for Friday 11/08/2019 at 8:00 PM (EST) our guest was the listeners in Freestyle Friday” conversation. Comcast Cable attempting to undo the Civil Rights Act of 1866, was one of this weeks hot topics.
“Time for an Awakening” with Bro.Elliott, 11-3-19 Special Guest: Dr. Jeff Menzise Clinical Psychology, Spiritual Life Coach
“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 11/03/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) 6:00 PM (CST) our guest was Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Spiritual Life Coach, Dr. Jeff Menzise. “The African Origin Of Freemasonry” was among the topics discussed with our guest.
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The Black Reality Think Tank will honor you this evening for your courage and bravery as you fought for the liberation of your people. Who is the real Harriet Tubman? What is the misinformation of our dear ancestor, who wrote it and why?
Our guest tonight is an educator and visual artist from Dallas, Texas. She will support our conversation tonight with information from her research as she constructed a short dramatization of Harriet’s journey.
“Time for an Awakening” with Bro.Elliott 10-27-19 special guest: Documentary Filmmaker, Producer, Jeremiah Camara
“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 10/27/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) 6:00 PM (CST) our guest was Documentary Filmmaker, Producer, Jeremiah Camara. Is there is a correlation between the number of churches in the Black Community coexisting with poverty and powerlessness? We talked about this and related topics with our guest, producer of the movies “Contradiction” and ” ‘The Religious Roots of Racism in America”, Jeremiah Camara.
I AM SO TIRED OF BEING BEATEN DAILY! WHO CAN I TURN TO?” The crisis of domestic violence against males.
According to domestic violence therapists, 40% of domestic violence victims are men and they won’t. seek help.
Tonight (10/22/19) the conversation on The Black Reality Think Tank will focus on male victims of domestic violence. Our discussion will center on the “what, who, and why” of this major crisis. We will also address the question “why don’t male victims seek help?”
Special guest is Dr. Alice Belcher, Ph.D. Std., D.Div., M.S., B.A who.is the founder and leader of Christian Women Perspective Ministries and CEO of Impact Coalition for Families. Inc. a Wisconsin based 501(c)3.
“Time for an Awakening”with Bro.Elliott Sun 10-20-19 Guests: New Orleans Radio Host W. C. Johnson & Activist Anderson Washington
“Time For An Awakening” for Sunday 10/20/2019 at 7:00 PM (EST) 6:00 PM (CST) our guests was Activist, Organizer, New Orleans talk show and radio host, BaBa W.C.Johnson, and Activist, Organizer,Anderson Washington. Our guest talked about serious issues the people have with the NAACP in Louisiana and their silence about perceived racist Congressman and his keynote address to the LA NAACP.