Belgians in the Congo

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The men who conquered the world for the European empires were a strange cast of characters. They ranged from Spanish conquistadors like Pizarro to British merchants like Clive, and missionaries like David Livingston to statesmen like Bismarck. Today, they are deeply controversial, and most are rightly remembered not only for their political acumen and limitless ambitions, but also for their greed, racism and ruthlessness. Among all the European imperialists, however, none was as greedy, racist, ruthless or downright monstrous as Leopold II, the King of the Belgians. This was the 19th Century’s equivalent to Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, a man whose hunger and villainy brought only incalculable human suffering into the world.

Leopold II succeeded his father as King of the Belgians in 1866. He was far from enthusiastic about being the monarch of a small European nation, declaring he ruled a “petit pays, petit gens” (small country, small people). From a young age he had aspired to more, and began to fervently search for a potential colony. The expeditions of David Livingston (and the mission sent to rescue Livingston headed by Henry Morton Stanley) had led to a surge in European interest in and knowledge of Africa. Now Leopold’s hungry eye focused on one of the few blank spaces remaining on the European maps – the heart of the Dark Continent. 

Fully aware showing any commercial or geopolitical interest in the region would provoke fierce resistance from Britain and other colonial powers, Leopold began conjuring a façade. The abolition of slavery in Europe had not provoked a self-admission of guilt. Rather, it sparked an almost religious fervour to abolish the Arab slave trade in Africa and the Middle East, and emancipate all those who had fallen victim to this evil system. Leopold recognised the emotional hold of this movement and went to extreme lengths to portray himself as a philanthropist. He was tragically successful. His first step was the foundation of the International African Association (IAA), a humanitarian endeavour designed to improve Leopold’s image and establish his credentials. In his opening speech he described the mission of the IAA as a “crusade worthy of this century of progress.”

Henry Morton Stanley had been the first individual to cross from the east to the west coast of Africa, and in so doing had navigated the Congo Basin. Now, Leopold approached him to begin the development of Belgian influence along the Congo. The Belgian monarch also set up the International Association of the Congo (IAC), and gave it the same flag as the now largely defunct IAA, to further obfuscate his plans. Stanley, after two years and serious illness, finally managed to build a road from the Congo Delta to the start of the Basin, where Leopoldville was erected. Soon, in the name of the IAC, Stanley had signed treaties with 450 (effectively illiterate) local chiefs, trading the rights to both land and labour for paltry gifts. All Leopold needed was international approval.

Henry Sanford, a wealthy American and loyal friend of Belgium, was Leopold’s key to achieving acceptance in the US. By appealing to America’s humanitarian and commercial interests, Sanford was able to secure a recognition of Leopold’s claim to the Congo on 22 April 1884. Yet that was only the first step. Amidst growing European competition for African empires, the German Chancellor (Otto von Bismarck), invited representatives from thirteen European powers and the USA to Berlin, where they would split the continent between themselves. Throughout the Berlin Conference, Leopold convinced the key European states to recognise his new colony. He achieved this seemingly lofty goal by remaining ambiguous about the nature of the new Congo state, making it seem to be a sort of international colony which would be managed by Leopold. He assured European powers that he would not restrict trade with the Congo and that Belgium would only be administering the region to spread Christianity and end the slave trade. Moreover, he played the great powers off each other, promising France the right of first refusal and then threatening Britain with it. By the closing of the Berlin conference in February 1885, Leopold had secured his colony with a masterful combination of compromises, bluffs and downright lies. His empire had not been won through conquest, but subtle manoeuvring.

Leopold did not want a colony merely for personal glory. His plans were centred on achieving two overarching goals: regaining legitimacy and prestige for Belgium internationally and improving the country’s domestic socio-economic situation. The loss of Luxembourg and Limburg in the 1839 Treaty of London had crippled Belgium’s standing in the world. Leopold’s military campaign against Holland in 1854 had tried to rectify this and “aggrandize Belgium.” However he was forced to acknowledged that “ambitious schemes at the expense of our neighbours” were impractical, and so resolved that “the expansion of the fatherland” would need to occur overseas. A colonial empire would also give Leopold tools to secure his domestic position. He hoped that a colony would improve the Belgian economy, which would grow fat off of exploitation, trade and investment. With the budget surplus the Congo would provide, Leopold would be able to reduce pressures on the Belgian poor and renovate the cities of the lowlands – to this day he is known in Belgium as ‘the builder king’.

However, he was faced with the difficult task of maintaining and successfully exploiting his colony. To make the Congo profitable, he needed more support and capital from the international community. To his immense satisfaction, Leopold was elected honorary president of the Aborigines Protection Society, and Belgium was chosen as the location of the November 1889 Anti-Slavery Conference. He tactfully presented his infrastructure proposals as the machinery needed to combat slavery in Central Africa and received international permission to construct military outposts throughout his colony. Even more crucial was the agreement Leopold wrangled which allowed him to implement import duties. Yet Leopold still needed further investment. To make money on his Congo project, the Belgian king had to spend eye-watering sums which he did not possess. He couldn’t simply tax Belgium, as he had promised that the Congo would not be a financial strain on the government, and his personal estate was not sufficient to cover the costs of his grand venture. Now, his philanthropic reputation paid dividends, and he was able to secure an interest-free loan of 25 million francs. At this time, Leopold instituted a number of royal decrees, with the most critical asserting the state’s rights of proprietorship of all “vacant land” in the Congo, which unsurprisingly covered a vast amount of territory. Despite this, we must remember the Congo was very much the private possession of Leopold, an asset from which he intended to personally profit. 

The last piece of the jigsaw Leopold needed was a constant influx of white manpower. These men would occupy the leadership roles in his new army, the Force Publique, with which the Belgian King would be able to impose his will. The mortality rate for whites in the Congo was 50% – despite the recent advances in medicine. Yet when young men were faced with the choice of either staying in rural Belgium, where prospects were sparse, or rising quickly through the ranks of the rapidly expanding Force Publique, many chose the latter: despite the dangers involved. Leopold had originally intended to profit off the ivory trade, yet he quickly wiped out the elephant population of the Congo. Luckily for Leopold, the Congo had another natural resource – rubber. Before the invention of plastic, rubber was the most flexible and durable material available for industry. The invention of the automobile had only heightened the feverish demand, and by 1900 more than 40,000 tons of rubber were consumed a year. Yet the extraction of rubber was highly labour intensive and extremely brutal.

In 1973, Philip Zimbardo carried out the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment. Originally intended to last two weeks, the project was terminated in six days, due to the psychological break down of the ‘inmates’ and the brutality of the ‘guards’. Zimbardo’s conclusion was, essentially, that power corrupts those who wield it, especially when those agents are far from an authority to answer to. More than 6,000 miles from its home, and with the force of modern military technology at its disposal, the Force Publique would inflict horrors on the people of the Congo which went unmatched until the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Soldiers would roam the country and order Congolese men to work as slaves collecting rubber. The penalty for disobedience was death, for both the man who defied the Force Publique and his family. If a village could not meet its exorbitant rubber quotas, the Belgians would descend on it to mutilate its inhabitants. Mass resistance was met with collective punishment; soldiers murdered by the hundreds, drowned groups of people with nets and rocks and “made young men kill or rape their own mothers or sisters.” To ensure men of the Force Publique were not wasting ammunition, their officers ordered them to sever the right hand of every person they killed. One bullet fired required one hand severed. Should a soldier miss, however, or choose to go hunting local wildlife, they would search for a nearby village and cut off the hand of a living Congolese man, woman or child. Children were kidnapped and trained to join the Force Publique, to serve as an instrument of the man who had taken them from their parents. To paraphrase Voltaire, the Congo Free State was neither Congolese nor Free nor a State – it was the personal property of Leopold II, who ran it as a work camp for his own benefit. 

The Force Publique soon became the second largest sub-Saharan colonial army, with 19,000 men at arms – the majority of whom were conscripted black men. As well as oppressing the inhabitants of the Congo, it consistently fought with the Zanzibari slave traders. To end this unprofitable conflict, Leopold offered their leader, Tippu Tip, the governorship of the eastern province, which he accepted in February 1887. However, this act of realpolitik set off alarms in Europe, and led to a closer examination of Leopold’s behaviour.

The only previous seed of doubt had been when George Washington Williams sent an open letter to Leopold in 1890. Williams was an African American who had previously campaigned for the recognition of Leopold’s colony in the USA. Yet when he had taken the rare step of actually visiting the Congo, he had uncovered the truth. Since then he had campaigned tirelessly worked to raise awareness about the true nature of the colony, yet his appeals had fallen on deaf ears. The international community only began to hear about the atrocities wrought by Leopold when missionaries gave their testimonies. In his novelHeart of Darkness, the novelist Joseph Conrad denounced the Congo Free State, while Edmund Morel noted the discrepancy between the imports and the exports of the colony. A public relations campaign had begun against Leopold. The British Parliament sent Roger Casement to the Congo to perform an independent investigation and he published his report in 1904. Upon reading it, all Europe was enraged. Bowing to pressure, the Belgian Government accepted the Report’s judgement in 1905 and took over the administration of the Congo Free State on 15 November 1908.

Around ten million people died as a direct consequence of Leopold’s actions. For context, Africa had an estimated population between ninety million and one hundred and thirty-three million people at this time. The Congolese people continued to endure brutal occupation, this time from the Belgian government, until their independence in 1960. From his colonial venture, Leopold had profited 300 million francs, the equivalent today of $1.1 billion. He had become one of the wealthiest men in Europe, yet it was at the expense of his reputation, his nation’s standing and his own morality. The story of Leopold’s acquisition of the Congo is the tale of the worst atrocity in the pre-modern era, yet it still remains largely unknown to the public today. Ultimately, little more damning can be said of the Congo Free State than that a new term had to be created to classify it –  a crime against humanity. 

Hochschild, A., 1998. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Pan Macmillan

Pakenham, T., 1992. Scramble for Africa. Abacus

Viaene V., 2008. King Leopold’s Imperialism and the Origins of the Belgian Colonial Party 1860-1905. The Journal of Modern History