Consider this quote: "We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man's feet have ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were."
So said British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in 1885. His tone appears one of wry amusement at the ludicrousness of his task. If he were alive today he would sound ashamed, for the place he refers to is Africa.
He and other European leaders had assembled in Berlin at the invitation of Prince Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire. On the agenda was the partition of a continent. No African was present. The Europeans were driven by the mills of the Industrial Revolution. They needed raw material, cheap labour, bigger markets. Their few scattered colonies along the African coast were no longer enough. So what if they were ignorant of the kingdoms and hunting grounds of the interior? Within 20 years they had seized, annexed and partitioned the continent - most of it going to France, Belgium, Portugal, Britain and Germany.
The Berlin conference allowed them to do this without fighting. It established two principles: "effective occupation" gave a country the right to call a chunk of African coast its own, and recognition of the importance of "spheres of influence" allowed it to extend that chunk inland as far as it liked, just so long as it told the other white men what it was up to.
In their greed and haste the Europeans were unimpeded by thoughts of the linguistic, ethnic and cultural reality of life in Africa. Their pencil lines on maps created countries, but divided peoples. In the Congo, for example, half the population died under the rule of King Leopold of Belgium, and people are still dying there and across Africa, thanks to the white man's pencil.