The land made the first peoples of Central Africa. More than 700 distinct tribes lived in Africa south of the Sahara, speaking more than 600 languages from at least 40 different language families. They built metropolitain complexes and conducted trade with neighboring peoples. Each part of Africa had distinct cultural evolutions, informed and shaped by the land itself.
The cultures and migrations of the African peoples were dynamic and changing. The complexities of tribal culture, geography, ecology, and historical experience demonstrate a myriad of experiences, ways of knowing, art forms, and even moral and political decisions.
Buried deep in the continent, with the land being a natural barrier, generations of people had never seen a man with white skin. The locals will tell you the newcomers were treated as ghosts, unwelcome in their disposition, and showed callous disregard for tribal practices. The jungle made the people who chose to settle there. The jungle provided everything they needed, including protection. Undisturbed from the outside world, they lived amongst the harshest of environments.
The colonial powers of Europe had little knowledge of what they would encounter once in Africa. Consider the 1749 edition of 'Salmon's Grammar,' a college textbook.
''...They frequently expose their female children in their forests, to be starved or consumed by wild beasts as they do their fathers and grandfathers when they are too old and decrepid and thus useless.'' pp 478
''...A fat ox is served on wedding days. The meat is served up in Earthen Pans, the Company fall together, and having no knives and forks make use of their teeth and claws, pulling it to pieces, and eating as voraciously as so many dogs, having no plates or napkins than the corners of the stinking mantles they wear, and seashells which serve them instead as spoons.''
King Leopold II might not have known better. Most people in his day understood Africa as a huge unknown. Mythology was greater than fact. The description of diseases and maladies created the biggest fear among those in Europe. Sensational rumors of cannibalism and wild beasts almost necessitated the carrying of weapons into the jungle, and the results were predictable.
King Leopold II of Belgium
We often hear of mass killers being compared to Adolf Hitler.Almost every time there is such an event, the comparisons begin at once. Hitler has no equal. No one person in all of history committed such a heartless act of genocide as Adolf Hitler.
But what did people say BEFORE there was a Hitler? What barbaric genocides would have engendered such a comparison of gross misconduct toward humanity? The answers varied based on where you lived. In Western Civilization, where people's education was largely inclusive of Biblical teaching, the answer was the Pharaoh. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators.
Writers and orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go free.
The answer may surprise you --- because under the rule of King Leopold, a cruel and mass slaughter of innocent peoples occurred.
The peoples of Central Africa tell a painful story of a history that few people outside of the country have ever known. Some people consider him to be one of the greatest and most vindictive killers to have ever lived. To others, he is a man of his times and simply a tone-deaf ruler. And to others, he is somewhere in-between. But nonetheless, he is barely known outside of Europe. His name is King Leopold II of Belgium, and here is the amazing story you have never been told.
Born in Brussels as the second son of Leopold I and Louise of Orléans, he succeeded his father to the throne on 17 December 1865, reigning for exactly 44 years until his death. This was the longest reign of any Belgian monarch.
At the start of Leopold’s reign, the Congo was almost completely unknown in Europe. With Henry Morton Stanley’s transcontinental trip across Africa was an expensive journey over seven thousand miles of incredibly rough and forbidding terrain. If Stanley could successfully map the geography, Leopold knew that the Congo would finally be opened for business.
This historical piece builds on a single colonial idea: theft. It is the European theft of resources, economy, labor and intellect. The African continent was victimized by a concerted and violent piracy which has left its marks - even today. The historical indictment is still a powerful one, encompassing two eras where one foot was stepping forward into the industrial age and the other foot standing squarely in the late middle ages.
There was a positive trade-off for some of the people within Africa. With the arrival of Europeans, medicine came to improve the lives of the people and to treat a number of diseases. The Portuguese were in Angola - but because they were mining for diamonds the locals had it considerably better than those on sugar plantations. The labor was inexpensive - but not inexhaustible and thus many were treated and paid better than elsewhere. Yet these were the exceptions to the rule.
King Leopold went about making a case for the Congo. He went to England and declared that his aims in Africa were philanthropic and Christian. It was a welcome bonus that he wanted to bring Christianity to the Congo, even though he himself had never professed his own faith.
Soon however, he turned the Congo into a vast labor camp eighty times the size of Belgium. A missionary from Britain brought pictures back to England of the atrocities happening in the Congo. Millions of Africans died in Leopold’s quest for fame and glory. In the 1880s and 1890s, the world outside of Africa wanted rubber for cars.
He was determined to get as much rubber to Europe as fast as he could. ‘’…The rubber industry has cost many lives, and it seems as if I saw so many maimed and tortured souls that it was enough to make me wish I was dead.’’ Said Missionary Joseph Clark to an interested British parliament. He continued, ‘’…and if I endeavored to see every white person swept to eternity for the standard of cruelty and every life taken in the Congo, I feel there would be a fearful balance still to their credit.’’
But the longer the King stayed in the Congo, the greater the evidence against him. More and more people escaped and told their stories. In 1904 a !Kung Bushman named Bwatike testified before English missionaries. ‘’…I saw bodies of my own family, cut open. After three days we returned to the village and saw dead bodies, and we saw hanging on a line, fixed between two sticks, tied up genital organs.’’
The newly established International Court of Law at the Hague, calls for Leopold to be hanged. He was accused of building an empire under false pretenses. But instead of being hanged, he was reinvented as a great civilizer. Perhaps the truth has been hidden and covered up all of these years because Belgium was both a World War I and World War II ally of the British and later the Americans.
There were many charges leveled against Leopold, and yet the newspapers barely made mention of this. Among the allegations, briefly: The Congo Free State, the personal property of King Leopold II, suffered a decline in population from 20 million to 10 million in the decades straddling 1900 as the king, in constant need of cash, had his colonial agents implement a brutal regime of forced labor on the native population.
The process went thus: Belgian agents would enter a village and hold the women and children hostage; to secure their release, the men would have to head into the forest, find rubber trees, tap them, and return with superhuman quotas of sap. Many were worked to death, or else killed. If agents killed those held to ransom, they might chop off (right) hands, to prove that the bullets used hadn’t been wasted on game.
A large slice of the profit taken from the Congo was earmarked for an expensive architectural project and a palace at Ostende. Leopold was out to rival any of the coastal resorts found anywhere in Europe. He had a romantic vision of Belgium that he wanted to protect, and serious royalists refused to listen to anything that painted Leopold in a bad light. Huge statues dedicated to Lord Stanley and to The King went up in Kinshasa, many of which are still there --- although today they are in a junkyard, where a king has no pride, and no place.
The Defense for Leopold was bizarre, even by the day's standards. His attorney's argued that this was not a practice ordered or imposed by Congo Free State or by Leopold II, but was the result of individual acts, ''based upon prior existing local customs.'' Mutilations were not introduced by the Belgians, but already existed (and still do) in some parts of Africa — they occurred not only in the Congo, but for instance also recently in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Taking the “scalp” of the enemy is not even peculiar to Africa.
Another reason why the accusation of “genocide” is out of proportion and unrealistic, is the fact that only 175 agents were in charge of the exploitation of rubber in Congo at the beginning of the 1890s. Most of them were not Belgian and a considerable number of them quickly succumbed to tropical diseases.
Those defending King Leopold thought that it was incorrect to think that so few people could affect so many. Consider here weren’t enough Belgians in the Congo to kill that many (even though they tried). And anyway, of the agents implementing Leopold II’s regime of forced labor, many weren’t Belgian. Some were members of minority tribes - backed by the European colonial powers. Given guns whereas others had spears gave a cultural imbalance within the Congo. The argument This reflects well on Leopold II, for some reason.
A Statue of Lord Henry Morton Stanley
‘’A people who are content with their homeland and are peaceful lacks the characteristics of a superior race.’’ King Leopold
The old king is still part of the Belgian glory. His statues are everywhere in Belgium.
Born in Brussels on April 9th, 1835, as the second son of Leopold I and Louise of Orléans, he succeeded his father to the throne on 17 December 1865, reigning for exactly 44 years until his death. This was the longest reign of any Belgian monarch. As you will see, it is an interesting irony that he became King in the same year that slavery had reached its bloody ending in the United States.
He happened to be part of the Saxe-Colburg pedigree and was born to the Uncle of Queen Victoria. His mother was the eldest daughter of the French king. But she remarked unkindly that he was born with a huge nose and didn’t deserve affection. One can imagine how this affected his childhood. His father hadn’t had much time for him, calling him the ‘’little tyrant’’ and ‘’belligerent.’’
Whereas his brother Philippe was jovial and popular and his sister was the charming and studious favorite of their father, Leopold was shy, awkward and walked with a limp. And yet no one really knows what made him act without any conscience with regard to the people of the Congo.
The Colonial World In The 1880-1930
Colonialism is best understood in three distinct phases; (1) Conquer and Conquest (1450-1550)  Mercantilism & Exploitation (1500-1650) and  Development (1600-1900). There is a cause and effect to History. Commercial trade along the Silk Route was interrupted with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Christian pilgrims were being captured and killed, or sold into slavery. The European powers saw an upsurge in population after the Black Death and there was a real need to bring supplies from abroad into the countries. In this period, changes in accounting and banking began to create large companies and trading empires. And all of these things created a need to find alternative ways to India. Modern colonialism came with the voyages of discovery and Portugal and Spain were the most successful.
Colonialism is a relationship between an indigenous and sometimes forcibly imported peoples. A distant metropolis usually governs the colony and try to import culture and theology upon the people. Trading posts are set all along a trade route and surrogates are made to work in them.
Belgium was one hundred years behind in the way it looked at colonizing the continent of Africa. While other European nations had largely begun to develop and build African countries, Leopold was still in phase II, Exploitation. And yet, he wanted to invent himself as being benevolent in the Congo. Even their own High School text books seem confused by the man’s history, calling him the ‘’Uncle of the Country.’’
Leopold was behind all of the European powers in thought process. For the most part, a shift in thinking was occurring amongst the colonial powers. Colonies should not be exploited to make money for the mother country, the mother country should invest itself in the colony and the profits should be left there for the administration and the support of the people. Leopold had other ideas and set about finding his new colony.
His father had looked everywhere in the world to start a new colony. It was an obsession that was denied to Leopold I, especially when he sought out the Philippines and Borneo. Belgium had almost no luck in building a colony and it was something Leopold II drove himself to acquire. Having to prove himself more worthy than his father, the new King was not going to be denied. Somewhere in the world, Belgium would have its colony.
The world was in transformational era. The Industrial Revolution had just gotten underway and the demand for new resources was greater than the supply. England helped make the world economy in the 1600s and no country seemed more adept at getting the most out of the lands they colonized.
In 1881, America had made itself a presence on the world stage after a crippling Civil War. But England was enjoying a Pax-Brittania and a ship-building boom that required huge amounts of lumber, precious metals and other raw materials.
At the height of the British Empire in 1910, the vast reach of England stretched a total of 10,000,000 Square miles and added 400 million people to the Empire. Victories over France and Russia left England without any formidable challenge to its merchant fleet.
During the 1800s, the majority of British colonial imports came from India and Ceylon. Rubber plantations, tea, coffees, spices, and mercenary soldiers only strengthened the British Empire. The extensive trading network that they built helped to bring much of the entire world together. Ships that picked up supplies in West Africa would then trade some of them at the next port-of-call in South Africa. They in-turn would acquire goods in South Africa, and trade some of them with Mombasa in Kenya.
Supplies there would be traded to those in Karachi Pakistan and then exchanged yet again in Bombay with the India Trading Company that it created. The English ships now had a huge amount of diverse items, even animals, that would make their way to Thailand and Hong Kong, before heading back to England, trading the goods from the Far East back to the ports of call on the way back to England.
Chinese teas made their way to Nigeria, and Nigerian Ebony Wood would make it to New Guinea and Singapore where they would trade precious rose-wood for it. The network was exciting and a haven for the curious. Port cities throughout the world exploded in population. The ships brought more than supplies too. They brought cultural exchanges, languages, religions, and even people as the network of humanity exchanged far more than ideas.
But in Africa, Britain had to clean up a painful legacy and they were doing a poor job of it. South Africa had been parceled out with the Dutch and was taking off as a provider of precious stones, gold, copper, and a wealth of other resources.
But the labor pool was little more than poorly paid slaves. In the mines there was absolutely nothing to protect them. If a wall came crumbling down, there would be little-to-no attempt to rescue them. The building of the Suez Canal gave Britain an amazing lifeline to the rest of the empire. It would became the "jugular vein of the Empire" for them and one they would control extensively exploit as the East India Company tripled in size.
Across the channel, France was experiencing the exotic spices and materials of South East Asia. The had already annexed a number of islands in what is today known as French Polynesia. But by far the gem in the crown was the island of Tahiti.
Paris truly became the fashion capital of the world during this period. Silks of all colors were coming into France and were in great demand. As beautiful as the clothes were, it was the Impressionist and Cubist world which represented the biggest movement in the arts that the world had seen since the Renaissance.
By the end of the 1880s, the Eiffel Tower would be completed and Paris would become the world’s number one tourist attraction. Railroads would bring cities of the world closer to France.
France acquired the largest amount of land of all the colonial powers. But over 88% of it was in the Sahara Desert. Of all the colonial powers, France did the most to actually build and develop an infrastructure throughout French West Africa. From Algeria to Niger to Sudan and to Chad, French is the chosen language and the chosen culture. It wasn't completely as if France didn't treat its colonial powers with a sense of superiority, but at the very least they realized the need to develop cultures rather than destroy them.
The Portuguese had been particularly successful since the 1400s and had begun to harvest vast amounts of copper from Angolan mines. Diamonds and other precious stones began to show up as well. By the late 1800s, the Portuguese began losing ground to the British.
In order to catch up, the Portuguese built a prison in Mozambique. Their attitudes toward indigenous populations weren’t much different than any of the other European powers. A Portuguese economist of the time, Andrade Corvo explained why the Portuguese colonies began to under-produce. ‘’…The lack of energy and resourcefulness of the locals, combined with a lack of work ethic has impeded our growth.’’
The result was an incarceration building which forced the Portuguese to spend money on the building and upkeep of this prison. Furthermore, the Portuguese abuses were among the first to arouse any sympathy from other countries in Europe.
What had once been a mighty power and the first to colonizing the globe had been dwindling. With the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1544, the glory was on the wane. Much of Spain’s focus was in the new world, which at first came with almost no opposition. But as soon as the rest of Europe caught on, they all got into the fray.
Quite possibly the cruelest of all the colonial empires, the Spanish set standards for barbarism that would pave the way for the other European powers.
Spain’s colonization happened at a time of great terror in Europe, especially in Spain and the Spanish Netherlands with the Inquisition. Columbus couldn’t even leave Spain for the new world until the Muslims had been routed out of Spain.
The original colonizers for the Spanish weren’t the same that would venture out of Europe in the subsequent decades. These men were going to subdue whoever got into their way and claim the conquered lands for the Church.
The United States
Even the Americans wanted in – but for far different reasons.
In the early 1800s the North was seeing a gradual influx of freed blacks that began to strain the economy. Disenfranchised from taking part in the economic scene, the freed blacks were segregated into small sections of growing northern cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and New York City.
Liberia joined Haiti as the first two black republics that were created to deal with the potential outcome of an impending civil war. So in 1818, America sent a delegation to West Africa to look for a suitable place and settled upon the first one they saw – a small inlet with rivers and tributaries they would name Liberia since it was to be for freed slaves and blacks.
The colony interfered with British merchant-marine business with respect to lumber and other resources. And yet, despite protests by the affected British companies, London was the first to extend recognition to the new republic, signing a treaty of commerce and friendship with Monrovia in 1848.
History has so many melancholy metaphors. This is no different. Because of fears of the impact this might have on the issue of slavery in the United States, Washington did not recognize the nation it had played a role in creating. In the meantime, a mass exodus of African-Americans to Liberia never materialized.
Against this backdrop the tiny country of Belgium lags behind the other European countries in just about every economic characteristic. The young King Leopold is born into a world of dramatic change and transition. He was an obvious odd-ball amongst his own family.
He seemed to be always compared to his siblings and his widely respected father and never favorably. It is not surprising that much of his future reign would be devoted to succeeding in the task his father was never able to, namely making Belgium an imperial power.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, Leopold found himself jealous of Britain, Spain and France. When a map was spread out on a table showing Africa and the places already colonized, Leopold made a fist and emphatically banged his hand on the table and said ''I don't want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake.”
As he grew, he took in the lifestyle of a typically spoiled royal brat. Arrogant and entitled, Leopold could be demanding, stubborn and prone to loud outbursts when things didn't go his way. ‘’…I don’t need people to love me; I want them to revere me.’’ He said. And, within royal circles, he seemed destined to marry Marie Henriette Anne of Austria.
Initially, things looked promising and there was hope that the youthful Leopold would finally mature despite already seeming cold and indifferent. But, he was an unfaithful husband and had a rather scandalous private life before and after the passing of his long suffering wife in 1902. It was on December 17, 1865, after the death of his father, that Leopold II took his oath as the new King of the Belgians but there were troubles from the very start.
It was not to be a happy marriage. There were problems from the very beginning. Leopold had become ill and had to send a substitute to stand-in for him at his own wedding ceremony. The couple could not have been more mismatched. Marie Henriette was vivacious, attractive, boisterous and outgoing. Leopold was shy, aloof and grim. Even marriage advice from his relatives Victoria and Albert seemed to go unheeded as neither was very good at conflict resolution. Their bombastic tempers were legendary.
Belgium's continued poor luck with colonization was taking its toll in Europe. The delegation he sent to Mexico to announce his accession to his sister, Empress Carlota, was attacked by republican bandits and massacred. France and Belgium had a long history together and they sent a volunteer army corps to Mexico to uphold the French colony.
Leopold had always complained that Belgium was a small factor in European affairs. He felt a need to elevate himself and like his father he believed that having a colony would be the way to greatness.
Soon however, there was a crisis in Belgium over this and Leopold II closed the recruiting office for the Belgian Legion. His sister naturally regarded as almost an act of betrayal; her brother leaving her high and dry in a distant and increasingly hostile land. When the Mexican adventure ended in disaster and Carlota returned home insane with grief over the loss of her husband and adopted country Leopold took relatively little notice of her.
Belgium just didn't have the same success in colonizing the world like other European countries did. King Leopold, grew increasingly frustrated by his nation's lack of international power and prestige and tried to persuade the government to support colonial expansion around the then-largely unexplored Congo Basin. Their ambivalence resulted in Leopold's creating a colony on his own account.
In 1876, Leopold held a National Geographic Council. Eager to use his position to achieve his desire to colonize The Congo, the conference was an assembly of nearly forty well-known experts, mainly they were schooled in the geographic sciences or were wealthy philanthropists. Among the topics of discussion were how to end the enslavement of natives and increase efforts to bring Christianity to the area.
Given the fact that it was not even thirty years after Darwin's revolutionary book on ''The Origin of Species'' the central part of Africa was a matter of great curiosity. Naturalists discussed the desire to study the thousands of new plants, animals and terrain.
Before the guests returned to their respective countries, they voted to establish the International African Association. On the outside, it seemed a bit like an Aid Organization you would have seen in the 1980's. This initiative would in the end pave the way for the creation of Congo Free State. He entertained explorers, doctors, and anthropologists at a geographic conference. He met every delegate that he could and wasn’t above using snobbery to achieve his aims.
In the 1870s, Leopold II’s organization was seen in a favorable light. He had Stanley set aside space for a building and paid him to construct a large commercial center for the Belgian dignitaries. He established a small railway and built roads. But behind Stanley’s back, he was turning the organization into a business that would be built to make money. Stanley would never have wanted this, and Leopold knew it. So he set out to deceive Stanley, into a commercial company, the Congo Association. He wrote an aide, ‘’The public cannot grasp that the Congo Association and the African association are different.’’
The king wanted official treaties that showed the Congo now belonged to him and used bribery and trickery to get the Congo chief to agree. Leopold realized that with these contracts, often brought about by scrupulous and dubious fashion, would be valuable in gaining he approval of the rest of Europe to let Belgium have this colony. In getting actual contracts written, He would be able to produce ‘’official’’ land-grants for the rest of Europe to see.
The Berlin Conference
In February of 1885, the Congolese conference gave Belgium the green light. It was amazing that he was able to get the great powers to allow this to happen and later they shared some remorse at being manipulated so easily by the King. The Congo had barely been recognized as it was, and now it was being handed over an an entire property to one man. The king then unleashed his infernal machine and in July 1885 he decreed that ‘’all vacant lands belong to the state.’’ In 1891 and 1992, he declared that all the produce in the forests belong to the state, and the natives could not harvest them for themselves. It transformed the Congo into a lethal heart of darkness.
In 1890, an African-American named George Washington Williams was horrified at what he saw. It was the first published criticism of the King. And once again, this is one of the most outstanding men you never heard about.
Williams was born in 1849 and distinguished himself as a young Union soldier for the 42nd Infantry in Pennsylvania. He quickly separated himself as an outstanding man in just about every regard.
After being injured in a battle in a battle in Indian territory, he decided to attend law school at Howard University, however it was Theology that caught his attention and drove his passion. So he left Howard and went to Newton where in 1874, became the first African American to graduate.
After beginning a monthly journal with the help of Fredrick Douglas, he decided to go back to Law and he practiced with Alphonso Taft, the father of future president William Howard Taft. He later became the first African American elected to the Ohio State Legislature, serving one term 1880 to 1881.
In addition to his religious and political achievements, George W. Williams wrote groundbreaking histories about African Americans in the United States: A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion and The History of the Negro Race in America 1619–1880. The latter was the first overall history of African Americans, showing their participation and contributions from the earliest days of the colonies.
In 1889, Williams was granted an informal audience with King Léopold II of Belgium. One wonders if Leopold knew what to expect, since his overall attitude towards people of color was so bleak to begin with. Williams saw the camps and detailed the terror he had witnessed.
At that time, the Congo Free State was the personal possession of the King. He employed a private militia to enforce rubber production by the Congolese and there were widespread rumors of abuses. In spite of the monarch’s objections, Williams went to Central Africa to see the conditions for himself.
From Stanley Falls he addressed "An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Léopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo" on July 18, 1890. In this letter, he condemned the brutal and inhuman treatment the Congolese were suffering at the hands of Europeans and Africans supervising them for the Congo Free State.
He mentioned the role played by Henry M. Stanley, sent to the Congo by the King, in deceiving and mistreating local Congolese. Williams reminded the King that the crimes committed were all committed in his name, making him as guilty as the perpetrators. He appealed to the international community of the day to "call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity ...".
But the industrial revolution was creating a huge demand for rubber. Transforming his new assets into cash meant ramping up the amount of rubber that could be shipped to Europe.
A Belgian officer, Louis Leeling, writes in his journal that villages were burned down a daily basis.
‘’….On April 10th, 1895: Village set on fire, we chased the men and killed their women. Once we captured the men, they were chained together and given orders. Fifteen were killed.
At Iteke, we burned the village and killed a native and arrived back at Bokolo that night.
We arrived at Yaramumbe and we were suddenly under fire.''
He continued, ''....At Likumbe, we were under attack, Two soldiers were killed. We killed 13 of theirs and we set fire to their houses. I headed toward Yampete, to set fire to their village. After a good lunch, we set fire to Yambisi too, and celebrated our bloody victory with 19 prisoners. On June 22nd, they returned with three of their heads. One of the sentries killed the mother and child and brought me their heads. Never before had I seen such expressions of fear. So we set fire to Yambisi too.’’
Leopold had to end the Arab slave trade as it was a competitive market. The Arab campaign was a brief series of skirmishes that chased them out. It made him a hero in Belgium and a Philanthropist. This defeat of the Arabs gave him a sense of prestige that he needed vary badly.
In the end, it was a sham that was supposedly a scientific and philanthropic organization which would greatly improve the lives of native Africans by converting them to Christianity, ending the slave trade, and introducing European health and educational systems.
Among its contributors were the Rothschild family. Leopold succeeded in his goal of convincing the Belgian people and the major powers of Europe that his interest in Africa was purely altruistic and humanitarian-oriented. History however would show it to be a terrible con-job that lead to cold-blooded mass murder.
Things in the Congo have not changed much in 130 years. This just shows the traditional and repeated form of suffering the people of the Congo have known throughout their history
Most of their colonies failed. But the Congo was a different story. With the beginning of automobiles, the rubber industry took off, greatly enhancing Belgium’s economy. King Leopold seized the opportunity to get wealthy. Congolese workers were sent out into the jungle to slash down vines and layer their bodies with rubber latex. As was the case in most of the enterprises of colonial Africa and Asia, the work was dangerous and intense. The irony in the name of The Congo Free State is that it quickly evolved from a vanity possession into a slave plantation.
Leopold’s Congo was operated like an Industrial Revolution factory. The Congolese were surprisingly willing to appease their colonizers. The !Bushman of the Kung were very slight and small individuals. Villages were given set quotas of rubber and the gendarmerie were sent in to collect it – a process that was sped up by looting, arson and rape. The gendarmerie seemed resentful of their roles and gradually watched up the pressure. In one case, a survivor in 1904 told the International Court, ‘’…I watched as a man brought in his rubber for the day and it was less than his quota. He tried to explain that he was ill with fever, but the white man grabbed his gun and shot him dead. They must have thought we were animals.’’ Henri Mkoto, 1904
‘’A British missionary went to the Congo and expected to see something altogether different. ‘I went there believing I was going to see the Garden of Eden. It was a bloody hell instead.’’ James Arnott said in an interview before the International Court also in 1904. ‘’The poor people are crying out against the state, and well they might. I can scarcely keep my own tongue silent while they are sliced ear to ear, and see such villainy.’’
In 1895, British and American Protestant missionaries weren’t keeping quiet. By now, the missionaries knew all too well how the villagers were whipped to death. Burning oil was put to their heads. One of the missionaries finally got the news into the print mainstream in Europe.
The Rev. EV Sjoblom, a missionary from Sweden was the first to write about the amputations happening at a barbaric pace. ‘’The Belgians employed a front-line of loyal locals, each given guns to rule over the other villages. The white man told them what to do, who to kill, who to torture, who to rape. This was a method of turning brother against brother, as fear and survival overpower courage.’’
He continued, ‘’I came around the river and saw dead bodies everywhere. As I turned my face away at the sight, a mercenary corporal told me, ‘’That’s nothing, I have 160-hands that I have saved up for our commander. He takes them, counts them, and then throws them into the river. It became a custom to kill. Each mercenary soldier was given a number of cartridges and to prove he hadn’t wasted any, they had to bring back a hand for each cartridge. In each of the cases, the hands were ordered smoked and preserved to show the Belgian white officers that the bullets were not wasted.’’
Due to industrialization, objects such as tires were now required in mass in Europe; thus, the African natives were forced to produce ivory and rubber. Leopold's army mutilated or killed any African who didn't produce enough of these coveted, profitable resources. Poaching became a second past time.
If a village failed to reach its quota hostages would be taken and shot. To ensure that the gendarmerie didn’t waste their bullets hunting for food, they were required to produce the severed hands of victims. The gruesome nature of these practices weren’t seen as out of the ordinary. Other colonizing countries of the Third World were just as horrible in their practices. The barbaric trade in severed hands (and even feet) developed among the villagers and those police that couldn’t reach their quotas.
There was a great curiosity to be had with Africa. There was the obvious explosion in anthropology. Egyptian archaeology took off as well. Scholars from all around the world went to see the continent for themselves. With the invention of film, the world could now see what very few could.
The ‘’Scramble for Africa’’ was on. Not only where scholars spreading out all over Africa, but countries were setting claim to certain areas in order to extract resources to meet growth and demand. Also called ‘’The New Imperialism,’’ within 35 years, from 1881-1914, Africa went from 10% colonization to 90% colonization.
Not wanting to lose out on the loot to be had in Africa, The Chancellor of Germany, Otto Von Bismarck along with the King of Portugal, insisted that King Leopold leave a portion of the ‘Congo Free State’’ open for business. With the rise of Nationalism in Europe, the countries found themselves in dispute with one another in Africa. But some human rights issues were addressed, and to some degree, addressed them.
The Conference vowed to end slavery by both African and Islamic powers.
In addition, it did the following:
The Congo Free State was confirmed as the private property of the Congo Society, which supported Leopold's promises to keep the country open to all European investment. The territory of today's Democratic Republic of the Congo, some two million square kilometers, was confirmed by the European powers as essentially the property of Léopold II (but later it was organized as a Belgian colony under state administration).
The 14 signatory powers would have free trade throughout the Congo Basin as well as Lake Malawi, and east of this in an area south of 5° N. (This was a presumptuous move that assumed the African countries would want to freely give up their resources)
The Niger and Congo rivers were made free for ship traffic.
A Principle of Effectivity (based on "effective occupation", see below) was introduced to stop powers setting up colonies in name only.
Any fresh act of taking possession of any portion of the African coast would have to be notified by the power taking possession, or assuming a protectorate, to the other signatory powers.
Definition of regions in which each European power had an exclusive right to "pursue" the legal ownership of land (legal in the eyes of the other European powers).
Pressure from the International Community to cede the Congo mounted in 1906, culminating in the Hague meeting in 1908. The deal that led to the handover cost Belgium the considerable sum of 215.5 million Francs. This was used to discharge the debt of the Congo Free state and to pay out its bond holders as well as 45.5 million for Leopold's pet building projects in Belgium and a personal payment of 50 million to him. (These personalized building projects included a housing project for distinguished guests, two hotels and a centralized park complete with fountains and elaborate statues.)
Leopold went to great lengths to conceal potential evidence of wrongdoing during his time as ruler of his private colony. The entire archive of the Congo Free State was burned and he told his aide that even though the Congo had been taken from him, 'they have no right to know what I did there."
The conference provided an opportunity to channel latent European hostilities towards one another outward, provide new areas for helping the European powers expand in the face of rising American, Russian, and Japanese interests, and form constructive dialogue for limiting future hostilities. For Africans, colonialism was introduced across nearly all the continent. When African independence was regained after World War II, it was in the form of fragmented states.
The Scramble for Africa sped up after the Conference, since even within areas designated as their sphere of influence, the European powers still had to take possession under the Principle of Effectivity.
In Central Africa in particular, expeditions were dispatched to coerce traditional rulers into signing treaties. In some cases, they used force, as for example in the case of Msiri, King of Katanga, in 1891.
Msiri was a slave trader who capitalized on the natural resources of the south central portion of Africa. But it also took a strategic eye, and the guile and persuasion required to form alliances with hundred of other tribes, rulers and traders. He did this through his wives, who numbered more than 500.
In order to gain the confidence of European’s weapons traders, he invited Scottish missionary, Frederick Stanley Arnot, who became the first white settler in this part of the world.
Msiri, King of Katanga
Msiri quickly realized that a key to his authority was in weaponry. Having been a leader with a wide sphere of influence, the European powers sought him out. It quickly became a marriage of mutual convention. He controlled the trade routes to the Indian Ocean and ruled with a brutal simplicity.
Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSAC) and Belgian King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (CFS) both wanted to sign treaties with Msiri to fulfil their colonial ambitions and competed to do so. Each supplied the warlord with weaponry in order to solidify his control. It is a practice that would continue all the way to the present day.
In April of 1891, Leopold sent an expedition of about 350 men to promote a ‘’show of force’’ to Msiri. The African tribal leader knew just what he could negotiate. He agreed to let Belgium build mines in the Congo, but he refused to let Belgium fly their flag over his territory. This enabled him to play Britain and Belgium and even Holland against each other while he gained in a brilliant move of diplomacy.
His level of cruelty only heightened the idea that the African people were savages. Msiri practiced all forms of mutilation, torture, and inhumane treatment. He became a warlord who enslaved his enemies and consistently beheaded his enemies and displaying the headless bodies in a horrifying display of barbaric behavior.
These independent warlords were described my missionaries in great detail which led to the religious fervor and need to bring Christianity to these remote peoples. It was said that Msiri wiped out 80% of Africa’s tribal population in the Kalahari. Some tribes were completely destroyed, their culture and languages erased from history in yet another example of mankind’s willful genocide.
And, as if there wasn’t enough random murder taking place amongst fellow tribal peoples, the colonial world was finding no moral challenges in their own level of blood-letting.
A good book on this subject is Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899). This is a particularly gory account of the regime run by the Belgians. It is grisly and unimaginable in its bloody imagery. If it hadn’t been for some of the other well known practices of other countries that colonized this part of the world, it wouldn’t have even been suspected. But the cold and emotionless missionary journals of the time reveal an incredible display of savagery.
The countryside became a trail of burned out villages. One group of villages held a dark secret. There was a separate hut to be used specifically for the rapes of your women, and yes, even children. Another hut was filled with the amputated hands of the laborers. Between 1903–1908, the entire country was pillaged - not for its resources, but of its humanity. For Leopold, the rubber industry was good, the slaughter was even better.
In 1906, the New York Times finally got an interview with the Belgian King, who repeatedly proclaimed his love of America. The interview was read with great interest in the United States as schools were spending money and resources to learn more and more about the African continent. Leopold was very excited to meet an American journalist, saying, "The whole of America is full of wonder to me. I have often wished to visit the United States to see all for myself but fear that dream will not be realized. I am an old man now, and no longer have my former strength. There are many great men in America to-day. In the two houses of Congress are many brilliant minds. Occasionally it has been my good fortune to meet American legislators in Belgium, and I highly prize the remembrance of these gentlemen. Any country might be proud of such men.’’
When the subject of the atrocities came up, Leopold said "It is curious what satisfaction certain people get spending their lives libeling others. I suppose there is nobody in Europe painted as a monster of such blackness as I am. The words used in picturing my perfidy cannot be repeated in polite society. Nero, it is said, was a saint compared to me. I am an ogre, who delights to torture helpless African negros."
But Leopold did acknowledge that there have probably been isolated cases of ‘’bad judgment’’ in isolated cases. "I do not deny that there have been cased of misjudgement on the part of Congo officials. Most likely cruelties, even crimes have been committed. There have been a number of convictions before Congo tribunals for these offenses. I do deny that every effort as far as possible has not been made to stop the ill treatment of natives no only by white people, but by natives themselves.''
By 1910, word had gotten out about the atrocities happening in Belgium. News reporters began to make their way past piles of human remains. They passed burned out villages and signs of torture just about everywhere they looked. And, talk about perspective —— Prior to Germany’s killing of Six-Million and prior to Russia’s killing of Twelve-Million people, the worst bloodbath talked about was King Leopold and Belgium’s terrible rule.
Estimates for the number of people killed range between two and 15 million, easily putting Leopold in the top ten of history’s mass murderers. Chances are that Leopold would be better known for his atrocities had they been in any other part of the world. As it was, much of the world really didn’t have much concern for the Belgian Congo or its strange little people and far away animals.
When the truth was finally being revealed, the King ordered all of the Congo contracts and paperwork to be destroyed. For historians, this was a catastrophe because we are left with little to remember. Right to the end, the King insisted the Congo was his and his alone. In 1908, The Congo officially became a Belgian colony but with completely new leadership. Public opinion had turned against Leopold and by the time of his death he had become the most hated man in Europe. When the bearded King died in 1909 the his funeral cortege was booed.
I have long maintained that it is wrong to take our moral standards of the day we live in and judge others to a different set of moral standards. You simply cannot hold historical figures to modern moral standards — Abraham Lincoln would have been considered a terrible bigot by today's America. The Vikings that pillaged and looted Europe just didn’t know any better; they were never aware of modern moral alternatives to such methods and so cannot be held to task for not choosing them.
I have written about the various landscapes that not only exist in time - but in geographic space as well. As a result, I do believe in holding rulers to the moral standards of their contemporaries. This is especially true if there was widespread condemnation already then on moral grounds. In Leopold II’s case, he was the target of a sustained campaign to stop the abuses in the Congo.
People like E.D. Morel, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad made it impossible for the king not to be aware that his rule was morally bankrupt. And yet he did not change. He was either willfully evil or blindly tone-deaf. This is what makes the moral indictment stick, in my mind.
As he lay dying, people milled around and there was already a widespread disgust with they had only recently learned about what he did in Belgium. Upon his death, people threw things at the palace as the visceral reality of Belgium's tainted legacy in Africa would become more real. His funeral cortege was booed by the crowd. Leopold's reign of exactly 44 years remains the longest in Belgian history.
After the king's death and transfer of his private colony to Belgium, there occurred a "Great Forgetting". To many Belgians, they only remember Leopold II as the "Builder King" for his extensive public works projects, and many remain unaware of his role in the atrocities in the Congo.
In the 1990s, the colonial Royal Museum for Central Africa made no mention of the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State, despite the museum's large collection of colonial objects.
Leopold is still unashamedly regarded as a patriot. He has become a National Cult figure and if you serve for thirty years in the Belgian military, you receive a distinguished medal with his name and likeness on it. Throughout the colorful and aromatic streets of Brussels, amongst the finely manicured flowers and gardens, are many standing monuments in Belgium dedicated to King Leopold.
They are a denial of the past. It remains as one of the world’s greatest and most incomprehensible crimes against humanity that few have ever heard about. And yet, I cannot bring myself to the conclusion that these statues need to come down. When they were built, they were built to a figure even the most educated of local population knew very little about. Belgium, over-run and demoralized, needed heroes to build a national identity.
And yet who would ever know in 1909 as he lay dying what went through his mind? He was late to the entire concept of colonization and had to go far into the African continent, where other colonial nations feared to tread. The entire issue of plunder was designed by the illicit transfer of wealth and labor from one body to another. The mechanisms that Leopold put into place for doing this are confiscatory land-grabbing and development and subjugation of an entire race of peoples.
Europe had a rich and deep association with Feudalism and this laid the foundation for the intense subjugation and repression of the Congolese people. King Leopold understood that the freedom of the serf - the main thing that distinguished serfs from slaves, was that the Serfs got to keep some of the fruits of their labor. The thieves were the aristocrats and financiers of rubber, sugar, sorghum and coffee. But successful colonies allowed the people to keep a share of they themselves developed. This was not the case in the Belgian Congo.
Belgium became not only an instrument for which great theft occurred, but also where remarkable terror was inflicted. And for that, hardly a soul remembers the cost in lives, or the blood that was spilled in the effort to give an insecure King his place in the sun. ####
A New Geographical and Historical Grammar; Wherein the Geographical Part is Truly Modern; and the PRESENT STATE of the Several Kingdoms of the World is So Interpreted As to Render the Study of Geography both Entertaining and Instructive''' ; by Gentleman Thomas Salmon; ''Golden Ball Publishing, St. dedicated to George, Prince of Paul's, 1749 PP 478-479 (from the collection of R.Bluestein)
Joaio de Andrade Corvo: Estudios sobre as provincias ultramarinas (Lisbon, 1887)
The National Archives, Washington DC, Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1830-1860/liberia
Alfred von Tirpitz, Erinnerungen (1919), quoted by Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, section on Imperialism, chapter I, part 3.
Brantlinger, Patrick (1985). "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent". Critical Inquiry. 12 (1): 166–203. doi:10.1086/448326. JSTOR 1343467.