Colonialism is one of history’s greatest evils. It decimated local populations, enslaved millions, destroyed cultures, created divisions and fissures which, years later, exploded into civil wars, partitions, and economic chaos.
This story is about a unique case of colonialism. It is about the only instance in world history where one man privately owned an entire country like an enterprise. This man, the King of Belgium, went on to ruthlessly exploit the local population for his own personal financial ambitions. For money, land, and power, this man killed ten million Africans and admonished an entire nation to a future of directors and civil wars.
This is the story of the Congo.
Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” and the Berlin Conference
In the 19th century, European powers divided Africa among themselves. In the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Europe carved Africa into zones of European control, to ensure that Western interests would not collide, and imperialism, trade, and colonialism could proceed smoothly.
The Berlin Conference was a seminal moment in the so-called “Scramble for Africa” where foreign powers invaded Africa, enslaved Africans, and colonised the entire continent.
Berlin Conference, Image Source: africafederation
France, the UK, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Germany – all the major European powers left the Berlin Conference with ownership of large swathes of the African continent. What happened in the decades after the Scramble for Africa was the rape of Africa. The continent was stripped of its natural resources, its native populations were stripped of their dignity and lives, and the West was stripped of any moral high ground it had possessed. It would take nearly a century for Africa to regain its sovereignty; but in the process, the continent became more balkanised, more divided, more fractured.
But this article is not about Africa. It is about one part of Africa which was subjected to inhumanity of historic levels – inhumanity comparable to that which was seen on the plains of Aleppo last year, inhumanity comparable to that which occurred in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Poland, inhumanity comparable to what happened to the Armenians in the First World War.
But the inhumanity is, apparently, insufficient. Because it finds no mention in our textbooks and does not evoke righteous outrage.
Leopold II, the King of the Belgians
Leopold II (1835 – 1909) was the second King of Belgium. He ruled for 44 years until his death, the longest reign of any Belgian monarch.
When Leopold ascended the Belgian throne in 1865, he was fanatical about gaining colonies. He loathed Belgium’s small size. “Small country, small people,” was how he described his little country.
King Leopold II, Source: valka
How Leopold acquired the Congo
At the Berlin Conference, Leopold II professed his desire to educate the African population of the Congo Free State. He disguised his imperialist ambitions under the thin cloak of philanthropy, adding that he was passionate about spreading Christianity in Africa.
To precipitate his colonial ambitions, Leopold formed the International African Association (IAA), an organisation established at the Brussels Geographic Conference of 1876, an event hosted by Leopold. The IAA was used by Leopold to further his interests in in Central Africa. Europe, impressed by the Belgian King’s religious and humanitarian goals, ended up giving the man private control of a region seventy times larger than Belgium.
The Berlin Conference saw Leopold walk away with his own private colony, a colony of about 100km2 in Central Africa. The ruler of one of Europe’s smallest countries now privately owned land that was larger than England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined.
Image Source: pinimg
This land was the “Congo Free State”. Today, it is its own country – the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo Free State was a massive stretch of land composed of rainforests and savannah, and also snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and volcanic hills.
Leopold owed European knowledge of the Congo to the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-American journalist and explorer.
Henry Morton Stanley
Before Leopold commissioned him to map the Congo, Stanley had made two “journalistic” trips to Africa – in 1869 and in 1874. During his second trip, as he made his way down to the Congo River on the Atlantic coast, he “attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages”. In 1879, Stanley was off again to Africa, this time under commission from King Leopold to colonise Congo for him. Stanley used the gun, cheap European goods, and simple terror to take over the land of local tribes.
Stanley has been accused of indiscriminate cruelty against Africans. His ill treatment of the local Congolese people is well-documented. On the same, he wrote: “[Many] people have called me hard, but they are always those whose presence a field of work could best dispense with, and whose nobility is too nice to be stained with toil.” He further wrote that “the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision.”
Henry Morton Stanley was knighted in 1899.
Image Source: staticflickr
Between 1885 and 1908, the Congo Free State was subject to the “Congo Horrors” or the “rubber terror” because the criminal acts were mainly associated with labour-related atrocities in the collection of Congo’s natural rubber for export.
Diseases, famine, slave labour: the atrocities contributed to a sharp decline in the Congolese population. Over the course of Leopold’s private ownership of the Congo, 10 million people died.
The demand for natural rubber facilitated a systematic, organised, industrial exploitation of the Congo Free State. All “uninhabited” land in the Congo was nationalised; the majority of this was distributed to private European companies.
Image Source: ggpht
“… the companies were allowed to do whatever they wished with almost no judicial interference, the result being that forced labour and violent coercion were used to collect the rubber cheaply and maximise profit. A native paramilitary army, the Force Publique, was created to enforce the labour policies. Individual workers who refused to participate in rubber collection could be killed and entire villages razed. Individual white administrators were also free to indulge their own sadism.”
Meanwhile, a number of diseases – like African sleeping sickness, smallpox, swine influenza and amoebic dysentery – ravaged indigenous populations. “Disease, famine and violence combined to reduce the birth-rate while excess deaths rose.”
The Force Publique
The Force Publique (FP) was the privately-owned paramilitary force tasked with the disciplining of the local Congolese population. It was Leopold’s own private army.
The officers of the FP were entirely European. The soldiers were ethnically-mixed African, recruited mainly from warrior tribes. The FP’s main purpose was to enforce rubber quotas, uphold labour policies, defending the Congo Free State, and neutralising any local resistance.
The FP raped and flogged Congolese men and women, burnt villages, and cut off human hands either as trophies or “to show that bullets had not been wasted”.
Image Source: genderbasedviolenceincongo
All of this was done by enforcing and upholding slave labour in what had rapidly become the world’s largest concentration camp – a death camp encompassing a land mass larger than the whole of Western Europe.
A campaign gradually evolved in the United Kingdom and the United States to force Leopold to renounce his ownership of the Congo. In many cases, the campaigns based their information on reports from British and Swedish missionaries working in the Congo.
The first international protest occurred in 1890 and public interest in the abuses in the Congo Free State grew sharply from 1895 following the Stokes Affair. The Stokes Affair was a diplomatic incident between the British government and the Congo Free State. It involved Charles Stokes, a British trader, who was arrested for illegal trading in the Congo and hanged without trial in 1895. This incident mobilised British opinion against the Congo Free State.
Leopold’s slave state was now exposed for all the world to see.
In response, Leopold announced reforms, but did not deliver. International criticism grew, led by personalities like Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle.
In 1908, Belgium formally annexed the Congo Free State, creating the Belgian Congo. This did not mean independence for the Congolese people; it meant the ceasing of private ownership of the Congo by Leopold II.
Imperialism at its worst
Leopold amassed a huge personal fortune by exploiting the natural resources of the Congo. The Free State perpetrated massive abuse of the local population on a historical scale. This was especially true in the rubber industry.
Forced labor, beatings, widespread killing, and frequent mutilation when the production quotas were not met: Leopold’s Congo Free State was a slave state.
The missionary John Harris was so shocked by what he came across in his visit to the Congo that he wrote to Leopold’s chief agent in the Congo, saying: “I have just returned from a journey inland to the village of Insongo Mboyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people’s stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit.”
Unpunished in life, unpunished by history
He died a peaceful death in December 1909. He did not face any war crimes tribunal, he did not suffer like the Congolese people. He died a rich man, and Europe mourned his death like they would of a great hero.
Image Source: pinimg
With his crimes against humanity, Leopold would have made Hitler proud. But, unlike Hitler, Leopold has not been punished by history. Instead, his crimes have largely been forgotten. Despite many writings on his atrocities, the plight of the Congolese people fails to invoke mass outrage or condemnation.
There is no dearth of research into Belgium’s crimes in Africa; there is only dearth in our concern for it.
The legacy of colonialism
On the day of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) independence, King Baudouin, Belgium’s monarch at the time, had the audacity to tell the Congolese people, “It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that you are worthy of our confidence”.
The historian Adam Hochschild, in his book King Leopold’s Ghost, writes: “From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left for Africa was not democracy as it is practised today in countries like England, France and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder. On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.”
“When independence came, the country fared badly … Some Africans were being trained for that distant day; but when pressure grew and independence came in 1960, in the entire territory there were fewer than 30 African university graduates. There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists or physicians. The colony’s administration had made few other steps toward a Congo run by its own people; of some 5,000 management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans.”
After Belgium: Troubles and instability continue to plague the land that was once the Congo Free State
The DRC secured its independence secured its independence on 30 June 1960. The country was, as mentioned above, woefully unprepared for independence.
Fractured and divided due to decades of colonial rule, the staggeringly diverse DRC fell into political crisis soon after independence. After a prolonged period of dictatorship and civil wars, the DRC today is one of the most fragile countries in the world. With a human development index ranking of 176 out of 187 countries, the country is still plagued by political instability, mass corruption, demographic tensions, and an uncertain future.
The Belgian colonialists left the Congo in 1960, but colonialism continues to torment the Congo.