In the heart of Africa lies the Congo. Quenched by its flowing river, furnished by meandering hills, and endowed with a myriad of natural resources, including ivory, precious minerals and rubber.
Almost 4000 miles away, on the far end of Europe is Belgium, one of the smallest and youngest countries on the content. On the 9th of April 1835 a man was born in Brussels, Belgium. In spite of the distance between the two nations, his effects on the Congo are undeniable. His exploitation and destruction of the region and its people, engendered problems that persist even to this day. His name was Leopold II, King of the Belgians and conqueror of the Congo.
Leopold’s desire to improve his own nation prompted him to explore the world in search of a way to increase Belgium’s wealth and influence. For several years, Leopold traveled the world, visiting a multitude of nations, including Turkey, Palestine, India, Cylon and Sumatra. He became convinced that a colony would transform his young nation into a superpower. Studying Spain, France and England, he recognized the economic opportunity that imperialism presented.
Leopold’s search was temporarily interrupted in may of 1865 when his father had become ill. On December 10th of that year, his father died. Leaving Leopold II as a monarch of Belgium at the age of 30. For almost 20 years Leopold pleaded with the Belgian Parliament for rights to establish a colony. Realizing that his efforts were futile, he sought a new means of gaining affluence for Belgium. Establishing his own private colony. Following the examples of various other European nations, he turned his imperial interest to Africa. 80% of which had yet to be colonized.
In Sept of 1876, Leopold encouraged major European powers to convene in Brussels to discuss Africa’s future. At what became known as the Brussels Conference, Leopold called for the forced eradication of the Arabic slave trade, hoping instead to westernize the continent and its people. Here the International African society was founded with members including nations throughout Europe and even the United States.
Two years later in January of 1878, Leopold meet with Henry Morton Stanley in Brussels. Stanley had discovered this area in Africa, which was the Congo, and he came back to Europe with tales of what he had seen there. The riches, the natural abundance, the ivory, the rubber, the gum, the timber. This got King Leopold excited. During the course of their meeting, Stanley agreed to a contract for his involvement in establishing Belgium’s presence in the Congo. Leopold requested that Stanly go back to the Congo and claim as much land as he could for Belgium in order to establish a monopoly in the ivory and rubber trade. Through over 400 treaties, chiefs unknowingly surrendered their land to Leopold. Through these treaties and other manipulations, Leopold gained over 2.3 million square kilometers of land for his colony.
In 1879 Leopold created a private company who’s stated mission was to free the Congolese people from foreign oppressors, namely the Arab slave traders who were kidnapping native villagers and selling them into slavery. Abroad, Leopold assured the world his regime, which he called the Congo Free State, would bring prosperity and fair trade to the Congo but his true goals were far different. In order to abolish the Arab slave trade, Leopold organized a group of European army officers who in turn drafted Congolese soldiers to serve in the state’s militia, known as the Force Publique, however the army was mainly used against the Congolese people.
The abuse against the native people soon became evident in all regions of the Congo Free State. Leopold’s army of 90,000 strong would raid village after village, seizing the women and holding them hostage in order to force the men to work in the forest gathering wild rubber. Many of the women were raped by officers while in captivity.
By the mid-1890s the Congo became one of the most prominent rubber exporters of the world. Each adult male in the Congo was to produce 6 to 9 pounds of rubber every two weeks. The job was dangerous and difficult. Many died by falling out of the tall rubber trees or being attacked by leopards.
By the late 1890s rubber was the most profitable resource in the Congo. As demand for this resource grew, Force Publique agents became increasingly more brutal to the Africans. Armies often raided towns seizing laborers and food and anyone who resisted would be shot. Extreme violence was employed to impose Leopold’s dominion. Any village that failed to meet the requirements of goods for the day might be punished with public execution or village burning. The right hands of those who failed to meet rubber quota were severed – even young children were not spared. In 1896, a German newspaper reported that 1308 hands had been gathered in one day.
In Belgium, Leopold was engrossed in his newfound wealth. He used wood from the Congo to decorate his home and began building projects in Belgium and France. Initially, the harsh conditions in the Congo where kept secret from Europe, however as time passed Congolese missionaries and cargo men began to write reports about the violence.
In 1908 the Belgium government annexed the Congo as a colony to the state. A year later Leopold would die of what was presumed to be Cancer. Before his death he ensured that all personal records of the Congo over the previous 24 years were destroyed. As a result of rebellion throughout the city of Leopoldville and the loss of Belgian interest, the colony eventually gained sovereignty in 1960.
Belgians sudden withdrawal left the newly freed Republic of Congo in a volatile state. Now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the nation is still engrossed in a continuing conflict.
Although seldom mentioned int he history books, Leopold’s desire to make his home country a super power came at the cost of nearly 10 million African lives. His actions over a 24 year period have left a permanent scar in the Congolese history.