A Scientific and Diplomatic Scramble for Africa: Barbosa du Bocage, Colonial Science, and the Berlin Conference of 1884-85

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


This communication explores how José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage, a nineteenth-century Portuguese zoologist, was able to play important diplomatic roles in the discussions regarding the colonization of the African continent due to his scientific networks. The historiography concerned with the links between scientific expertise and international affairs has traditionally focused on events since World War II, but these links are not restricted to the twentieth century and can be followed in the preceding one. In the late nineteenth century, economic and political interests coalesced to make the colonization of Africa an appealing undertaking, with technoscientific advances being crucial in this context. Portugal, a small European kingdom of limited financial resources, had enormous colonial ambitions in the lower Congo that were defended in terms of its historical priority in the region, but these claims were under severe attack and risked to be entirely overthrown in light of the capacity of other colonial nations to effectively occupy disputed territories. During the partitioning of the Congo region in the mid-1880s, Bocage, an internationally renowned Portuguese zoologist, served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and organized the colonial negotiations. He had reached such prominent political position not only due to his proximity to particular political quarters, but also because he was a specialist in African fauna and had acquired relevant knowledge in the country’s geography. Bocage’s case illustrates the importance of scientific knowledge in diplomatic negotiations in a period in which science and scientists were not yet recognized a strategic and fundamental part of political processes. Thanks to the coordination among various agents that accumulated scientific and diplomatic expertise, Portugal was able to ultimately see its claims recognized in the Southern margin of the last segment of the Congo River and in a small region in the Northern margin, the Cabinda exclave.
Period23 Nov 2023
Event titleScience Diplomacy: Approaches, Notions, and Objectives
Event typeWorkshop
LocationHannover, Germany, Lower SaxonyShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Colonial History
  • Portuguese Empire
  • Scramble for Africa
  • geographical societies
  • Barbosa du Bocage
  • Science Diplomacy
  • scientific networks