Otto von Bismarck presided over the Berlin Conference (1884–85). Bismarck had been asked by Portugal to host a conference, and he welcomed the chance to do so. Germany had been a united country just since 1871, and Bismarck thought the meeting could enhance German prestige and enable it to gain a foothold in Africa. Fourteen countries, including the United States, were represented at the Berlin Conference. The most significant participants were Germany, France, Britain, and Portugal.
European interest in Africa had increased during the previous dozen years. Henry Stanley's captivating explorations in the mid-1870s piqued Europeans. Also, Stanley helped King Leopold II of Belgium establish his claim to the Congo.
The initial goals of the Berlin Conference were quite modest. Navigation rights on the Congo River and Niger River needed to be fixed. However, the delegates to the assembly undertook a much broader task: the disposition and division of African territories among competing European powers.
The Berlin Conference was disaster for Africa. Africans were not represented in Berlin. Their lands were carved up for the convenience and exploitation of Europeans. Linguistic and tribal consideration were ignored as international boundaries were drawn up. By 1900, only Ethiopia and Liberia remained independent in all of Africa.
The result of the Berlin Conference was not just a disappointment for Africans: it also failed to end the intense international competition between European nations for colonies. For example, the Fashoda Incident (1898) almost led to a war between England and France. Tensions over Africa were one cause of World War I (1914–1918).