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Before the conference, European diplomacy treated African indigenous people in the same manner as the New World natives, forming trading relationships with the indigenous chiefs. By the mid-19th century, Europeans considered Africa to be disputed territory ripe for exploration, trade, and settlement by their colonists. With the exception of trading posts along the coasts, the continent was essentially ignored.
In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium, who had previously founded the International African Society in 1876, invited Henry Morton Stanley to join him in researching and civilising the continent. In 1878, the International Congo Society was also formed, with more economic goals, but still closely related to the former society. Léopold secretly bought off the foreign investors in the Congo Society, which was turned to imperialistic goals, with the African Society serving primarily as a philanthropic front.
From 1878 to 1885, Stanley returned to the Congo, not as a reporter but as an envoy from Léopold with the secret mission to organize what would become known as the Congo Free State. French intelligence had discovered Leopold's plans, and France quickly engaged in its own colonial exploration. French naval officer Pierre de Brazza was dispatched to central Africa, traveled into the western Congo basin, and raised the French flag over the newly founded Brazzaville in 1881, in what is currently the Republic of Congo. Finally, Portugal, which already had a long, but essentially abandoned colonial Empire in the area through the mostly defunct proxy state Kongo Empire, also claimed the area. Its claims were based on old treaties with Spain and the Roman Catholic Church. It quickly made a treaty on 26 February 1884 with its former ally, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to block off the Congo Society's access to the Atlantic.
By the early 1880s, due to many factors including diplomatic maneuvers, subsequent colonial exploration, and recognition of Africa's abundance of valuable resources such as gold, timber, land, and markets, European interest in the continent had increased dramatically. Stanley's charting of the Congo River Basin (1874–77) removed the last terra incognita from European maps of the continent, and delineating the areas of British, Portuguese, French, and Belgian control. The powers raced to push these rough boundaries to their furthest limits and eliminate any potential local minor powers which might prove troublesome to European competitive diplomacy.
France moved to take over Tunisia, one of the last of the Barbary Pirate states, under the pretext of another piracy incident. French claims by Pierre de Brazza were quickly solidified with French taking control of today's Republic of the Congo in 1881 and Guinea in 1884. Italy became part of the Triple Alliance, upsetting Bismarck's carefully laid plans with the state and forcing Germany to become involved in Africa. In 1882, realizing the geopolitical extent of Portuguese control on the coasts, but seeing penetration by France eastward across Central Africa toward Ethiopia, the Nile, and the Suez Canal, Britain saw its vital trade route through Egypt and its Indian Empire threatened.
Under the pretext of the collapsed Egyptian financing and a subsequent riot, in which hundreds of Europeans and British subjects were murdered or injured, the United Kingdom intervened in nominally Ottoman Egypt. Through it, the UK also ruled over the Sudan and what would later become British Somaliland.
Owing to the European race for colonies, Germany started launching expeditions of its own, which frightened both British and French statesmen. Hoping to quickly soothe this brewing conflict, King Leopold II convinced France and Germany that common trade in Africa was in the best interests of all three countries. Under support from the British and the initiative of Portugal, Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor, called on representatives of 13 nations in Europe as well as the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference in 1884 to work out joint policy on the African continent.
Whilst the number of plenipotentiaries varied per nation, the following 14 countries did send representatives to attend the Berlin Conference and sign the subsequent Berlin Act: