To What Extent Was the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) the Most Important Turning Point in the History of the Congo?

This is an essay I wrote for my 10th grade history class almost two years ago. I was very pleased with at the time. I have not edited this document since it was written in February 2013. For anyone interested, I got an A-, though I’m not sure I would give it so high a mark if I were marking this today.

In 1884-1885 some 14 European heads of state met in Berlin to discuss the “Scramble for Africa”, this of course included the Congo Free State and Leopold II of Belgium’s control over it. As it was decided amongst these governments that Leopold did control it, some argue that this is the most important event in the Congo’s history. This is not the case. Although the Berlin Conference established Leopold’s “legitimacy” to rule, it was not the most important event in the Congo’s history as the Casement Report, which brought popular attention to the Congo, as well as the transfer of power to the Belgian government which ended Leopold’s reign there, had far greater and more widespread consequences than the Berlin Conference.

The Berlin Conference in 1884-1885 recognised Leopold as the ruler of the Congo, effectively giving him a carte blanche in the area. Since no one could now argue against his claim for rulership of the area, he could start attempting to make profits. The Berlin Conference also demanded Free Trade between European merchants and the Congolese people. Although her recognised these terms, Leopold was still the ruler and could do as he please if he was clever, which he was. This had a lasting impact on the Congo as it started the atrocities a leeching of the land that still impact the country today, more than one hundred and twenty years later.

Despite the impact of the Berlin Conference, the Casement Report of 1903 had a larger impact on the Congo, albeit indirectly, and was therefore more of a turning point. It was in 1902 when ED Morel realised there was foul play in the Congo, and he turned to his friend Roger Casement to help him expose it. The report, published the next year, highlighted the atrocities, particularly mutilation, that were being committed in the Congo. People such as George Washington Williams and William Sheppard had attempted to make the public aware, but had failed. This report was an important turning point in the history of the Congo, because not only did it make the public aware of the atrocities, it made them outraged. This report sparked the first international humanitarian movement, which countermanded some of the atrocities which had built up over the last two decades. Similar humanitarian movements are in place today in the Congo, showing that this event created a humanitarian trend which stuck around.

The transfer of the Congo Free State to the Belgians in 1908 was also an important turning point in the history of the Congo as it ended Leopold’s reign. While the atrocities did not end there, life did become better for the people of the Congo after Leopold was forced to hand over control to his government. There were tighter controls on the army and the people had access to modern medecine. While it did not solve all the Congolese problems, the transfer of power in the Congo from Leopold to his government was an important turning point as it drastically improved life for the people there and paved the road to their own democratic elections in the 1960s.

The Casement Report, because of the public awareness that it raised, and the transfer of Congolese rulership because of the improved quality of life, were more important turning points in the history of the Congo than the Berlin Conference which established Leopold II’s right to rule. Although all were important, the consequences of the Berlin Conference would have been otherwise inevitable whereas the Casement Report and transfer of power marked important changes that would not otherwise have happened.

 

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