Belgium's King Leopold Forgotten Congo Genocide
Updated: Apr 9, 2022
"Civilisation" was at the core of king Leopold II's pitch to European leaders in 1885 when they sliced up and allocated territories, awarding the Congo to Belgium's King, in what became known as the "Scramble for Africa". King Leopold promised a humanitarian and philanthropic mission that would improve the lives of Africans. However under the reign of terror instituted by him (who ran the Congo Free State as his personal fief from 1885 to 1908), the population of the Congo was reduced by half with some estimates suggesting that as many as 10 million Congolese lost their lives.
This is based on the assessment of the 1919 Belgian government commission that stated that roughly half of the Congolese population perished during the Free State period. Since the first official census by the Belgian authorities in 1924 put the population at about 10 million, it means that the King Leopold and the Belgian administration in the colony were responsible for the deaths of around 10 million Congolese.
Initially, the Belgian colony in Congo which was established by King Leopold in 1885 proved unprofitable and insufficient with the colony always close to bankruptcy. The only reason why it wasn't disbanded already in the 1890s was because Belgium's government bankrolled it in the form interest free loans, each comprising of tens of millions of francs (tens of billions of dollars in today's value), that kept it afloat. However, the boom in demand for natural rubber, which was abundant in the territory, created a radical shift in the 1890s and turned it into a a rubber "gold mine.
The territory of the Congo "free state" highlighted. To facilitate the extraction and export of the rubber, all "uninhabited" land in the Congo was nationalised, with the majority distributed to private companies as concessions while some was kept by the state.
Between 1891 and 1906, the Belgium 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", known for its brutal, inhumane methods and which was led by Belgians, was also created to enforce the labour policies.
The Congolese were beaten or whipped to death for failing to meet the rigid production quotas for ivory and rubber harvests, imposed by Leopold's agents. Some were worked to death, forced to labor in slavelike conditions as porters, rubber gatherers or miners for little or no pay.
Local recruits of the Force Publique with a Belgian officer.
Those who refused or failed to meet their quotas were brutally whipped, tortured or shot, others saw their wives and children taken hostage by Leopold's soldiers.
Hostage-taking and the grisly severing of hands (from corpses or from living human beings) were part of the government's deliberate policy -- a means of terrorizing others into submission. Individual workers who refused to participate in rubber collection were massacred and their villages razed. Individual white administrators were also free to indulge their own sadism, which included the widespread practice chopping off the limbs of young children. As the "rubber terror" spread through the Congolese rain forest entire villages were wiped out, hundreds of dead bodies were dumped in rivers and lakes, while baskets of severed hands were routinely presented to white officers as evidence of how many people had been killed.
Many Congolese also died of the diseases introduced to (and spread throughout) the Congo by Europeans. And still others died from the increasingly frequent famines that swept the Congo basin as Leopold's army rampaged through the countryside, appropriating food and crops for its own use while destroying villages and fields. The loss of life and atrocities inspired literature such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which raised an international outcry. Also active in exposing the activities of the Congo Free State were Sir Roger Casement and the author Arthur Conan Doyle, whose book "The Crime of the Congo" was widely read in the early 1900s. By 1908, global public pressure and diplomatic manoeuvres led to the end of Leopold II's rule in Congo, but by the time the Belgiun atrocites were finally stopped in 1908, the population of the Congo was reduced by half and as many as 10 million Congolese lost their lives due to the Belgian inhumane and genocidal colonisation of their lands.
King Leopold and many in Belgium knew about this ongoing catastrophe that was happening in Congo. However not only did he not try to stop it, he did all he could, for years, to stop the news about the holocaust happening in Congo from reaching the outside world, this included threats and smear campigns against those who spoke against it. If King Leopold had not been stopped, there's very real possibilty that he would have gone on to murder everyone in Congo as long as he could make a profit out of it. In 2010, former Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel and the father of future prime minister Charles Michel, called Leopold "a hero with ambitions for a small country like Belgium".
In a TV debate this week, a former president of the Free University of Brussels, Hervé Hasquin, argued there were "positive aspects" to colonisation, listing the health system, infrastructure, and primary education he said Belgium brought to Central Africa. Today the statue of King Leopold sitting on a horse, and many other statues of him all over Belgium, stand proudly in present day Brussels, without a word in the plaques that describe him referring to the millions of Congolese who died because of him.
King Leopold's statue in Brussels.
Bibliography: Adam Hochschild, " King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa ". Thomas Pakenham , "The Scramble for Africa." Roger Casement, " The Eyes of Another Race: Roger Casement's Congo Report and 1903 Diary." Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Crime of the Congo."