While India was the most important, and lucrative, part of the British Empire, it was the conquest of Africa by the European powers that stands as the highpoint of the new imperialism as a whole. Africa represents about a quarter of the land area of the entire world, and as of the 1880s it had about one-fifth of the world’s population. There were over 700 distinct societies and peoples across Africa, but Europeans knew so little about the African interior that maps generally displayed huge blank spots until well into the 1880s. Likewise, as of 1850 Europeans only controlled small territories on the coasts, many of them little more than trading posts. The most substantial European holdings consisted of Algeria, seized by France in the 1830s, and South Africa, split between British control and two territories held by the descendents of the first Dutch settlers, the Boers. The rest of the continent was almost completely free of European dominance (although the Portuguese did maintain sparsely populated colonies in two areas).
That changed in the last few decades of the nineteenth century because of the technological changes discussed above. The results were dramatic: in 1876, roughly 10% of Africa was under European control. By 1900, just over twenty years later, the figure was roughly 90%. All of the factors discussed above, of the search for profits, of raw materials, of the ongoing power struggle between the great powers, and of the "civilizing mission," reached their collective zenith in Africa. The sheer speed of the conquest is summed up in the phrase used ever since to describe it: “the Scramble for Africa.” Even the word “imperialism” itself went from a neologism to an everyday term over the course of the 1880s.
In 1884, Otto Von Bismarck organized the Berlin Conference in order to determine what was to be done with a huge territory in central Africa called the Congo, already falling under the domination of Belgium at the time. At the Congress, the representatives of the European states, joined by the United States and the Ottoman Empire, divided up Africa into spheres of influence and conquest. No Africans were present at the meeting. Instead, the Europeans agreed on trade between their respective territories and stipulated which (European) country was to get which piece of Africa. The impetus behind the seizure of Africa had much more to do with international tension than practical economics – there were certainly profits to be had in Africa, but they were mostly theoretical at this point since no European knew for sure what those resources were or where they were to be found (again, fear of American economic power was a major factor - Europeans thought it necessary to seize more territory, regardless of what was actually in that territory). Thus, in a collective land grab, European states emerged from the Conference intent on taking over an entire continent.
The Berlin Conference was the opening salvo of the Scramble for Africa itself, the explosion of European land-grabs in the African continent. In some territories, notably French North Africa and parts of British West Africa, while colonial administrations were both racist and enormously secure in their own cultural dominance, they usually did embark on building at least some modern infrastructure and establishing educational institutions open to the “natives” (although, as in the Raj, Europeans jealously guarded their own authority everywhere). In others, however, colonization was equivalent to genocide.
Among the worst cases was that of Belgium. King Leopold II created a colony in the Congo in 1876 under the guise of exploration and philanthropy, claiming that his purpose was to protect the people of the region from the ravages of the slave trade. His acquisition was larger than England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined; it was eighty times larger than Belgium itself. The Berlin Conference’s official purpose was authorizing Leopold’s already-existing control of the Congo, and at the Conference the European powers declared the territory to be the “Congo Free State,” essentially a royal fiefdom ruled, and owned, by Leopold directly, not by the government of Belgium.
Leopold's real purpose was personal enrichment for himself and a handful of cronies, and his methods of coercing African labor were atrocious: raids, floggings, hostages, destruction of villages and fields, and murder and mutilation. (This is the setting of Joseph Conrad's brilliant and disturbing novel, Heart of Darkness.) Belgian agents would enter a village and take women and children hostage, ordering men to go into the jungle and harvest a certain amount of rubber. If they failed to reach the rubber quota in time, or sometimes even if they did, the agents would hack off the arms of children, rape or murder the women, or sometimes simply murder everyone in the village outright. No attempt was made to develop the country in any way that did not bear directly on the business of extracting ivory and rubber. In a period of 25 years, the population of the region was cut in half. It took until 1908 for public outcry (after decades of dangerous and incredibly brave work by a few journalists who discovered what was happening) to prompt the Belgian Parliament to strip Leopold of the colony – it then took over direct administration.
One comparable example was the treatment of the Herero and Nama peoples of southwest Africa by the German army over the course of 1904 - 1905. When the Herero resisted German takeover, they were systematically rounded up and left in concentration camps to starve, with survivors stalked across the desert by the German army, the Germans poisoning or sealing wells and water holes as they went. When the Nama rose up shortly afterwards, they too were exterminated. In the end, over two-thirds of the Herero and Nama were murdered. This was the first, but not the last, genocide carried out by German soldiers in the twentieth century.