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All the major European powers were colonising in the 19th Century, but one of the most interesting colonies was Belgium's Congo - it was not owned by the Kingdom of Belgium. Rather, it was the personal property of that country's king, Leopold II. Leopold then went on to use the Congo as a huge money-making resource, committing several human rights violations in the process and then turning a blind eye as he built public works projects in Belgium with the money he raked in. But how did this one colony in Africa have so much drama happen to it? Read on...
During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, European civilisations started to branch out. Possibly as a result of sudden and extensive industrialisation, they became aware of other areas around the world which, while inhabited by less technologically developed cultures, presented the perfect opportunity to colonise - that is, to spread European 'civilisation' to native peoples in exchange for cheap labour and natural resources. The nationalist feeling among major powers of Europe such as Britain, France, Russia and later Germany caused them to become fiercely competitive, and each country strove to accumulate more overseas territory and 'spread civilisation' to locations such as Asia and Africa, to a truly unprecedented extent.
The Berlin Conference
Nowhere was the colonisation atmosphere more evident than during the Berlin Conference of 1884. The barbarity and savagery of colonialism found its peak of expression in the Congo, a vast realm that became the personal fiefdom of one man's imperialist ambitions as a result of his skillful machinations at the Berlin Conference.
On 15 November, 1884, an international conference was convened in Berlin. Thirteen European nations attended1. The United States also came - it was the only non-European nation to send a delegation. Also present was the International Association of the Congo. This 'philanthropic' organisation had been founded several years earlier by King Leopold II of Belgium, supposedly to end the slave trade and bring legitimate commerce to the Congo basin.
The expressed concern of the conference was the continent of Africa, specifically clarifications of trade practices in the area of the Congo river and the dispersion of the interior slave trade in that area. More significantly, an attempt was made to define conditions for orderly territorial expansion in Africa by the European powers, to affirm borders and the means by which they might change.
Additionally, and almost as an afterthought, the Congo, rich with natural resources, was recognised as the sovereign and personal property of Leopold II. France was also brought aboard when assured the right to take a hand in matters if Leopold proved unable to handle the administrative costs. The Berlin act was confirmed in February, 1885.
Leopold's Conquest Begins
Leopold went to work to consolidate his new realm, intensifying exploration efforts (already underway before the advent of the conference) with an investment in railway construction. Construction began in 1890 and took eight years, proceeding at major cost in terms of lives. But geographical obstacles were just the beginning of Leopold's troubles, and he was far from being the sole power to consider the Congo his personal property.
The first major hurdle Leopold had to overcome in consolidating his new realm was the dispersion of Arab slavers living along the Lualaba River. Present since the 1860s, the slavers were firmly entrenched in the region and did not necessarily recognise Leopold's claim to the area. Given that an aim of the Berlin Conference was abolition of Africa's interior slave trade, the slavers knew their livelihood was threatened. This situation was complicated by a history of previous interactions during which slavers operating in the area had shown hospitality and friendship to individual European missionaries and agents operating in the area.
Leopold sent his agent, HM Stanley2, to try to resolve this delicate situation. Stanley approached the slavers' redoubtable leader, Tippu Tip, to try and convince him to keep his activities confined to the area upstream of Stanley Falls. Tippu, an acquaintance of Stanley's who had six years earlier been instrumental in helping him complete his great trans-African journey, was outraged at this betrayal. In 1886, the Arab slavers attacked Stanley Falls and slaughtered the garrison there.
Unable to muster the forces required to expel the slavers by military means, Leopold went the opposite route and relented. In 1887, Stanley again approached Tippu with a new proposition: to assume governorship of the region under Leopold's aegis. Tippu agreed to this 'compromise' measure. His operation continued to run in the region with Leopold's sanction. Three years later, Tippu retired in comfort to Zanzibar to live off his considerable profits. The Arab slavers again became a problem, their liaison to Leopold's company gone. But Leopold had gained valuable time by the arrangement.
It became clear that Leopold could no longer tacitly cooperate with the slavers, when a missionary movement called the White Fathers began operating in the area. Leopold switched gears and again became a champion of African freedom, calling an anti-slavery congress in 1889. He was able to win support for a plan to charge import duties on goods moving into the Congo, as a means of support for a campaign to end slaving in the area permanently - despite the intent of the Berlin Conference to keep the Congo as a 'free trade' zone. By 1895 the Arab slavers had largely been driven out of the region, and Leopold had won a large financial coup for himself in the process.
Leopold's various undertakings were quite costly. Between 1885 and 1890 he spent some 20 million francs on his venture, a vast amount of money by any standard. Leopold saw this expenditure as a business investment in private property, an investment which would yield returns in time. But as the problems of consolidation mounted, so did the costs, and the pressures on Leopold to start turning a profit. In 1889 he willed his Empire to the country of Belgium, an act that convinced the Belgian government to loan him 25 million more francs. Financially refreshed, Leopold set in motion his plans to squeeze the Congo of its wealth, determinedly attempting to recoup his losses and realise a profit on the venture in which he had invested everything.
Crimes Against Humanity
The mineral resources of the Congo were of prime importance in Leopold's schemes. Once problems there had been somewhat overcome, copper rapidly became one of the colony's prime exports. In 1906 the Union Miniere du Haut-Katanga was formed, and in 1909 Elizabethville was founded as the company's headquarters. The harvesting of ivory and rubber also flourished. These industries all relied primarily on indigenous labour. In an effort to increase exports, an 1892 tax was levied against residents of the Congo, which could be paid in rubber. A 1903 law then required Africans to work 40 hours a month for the state. Further regulations mandated the use of indigenous labourers for construction efforts, food requisitions and military service, which, in turn, saw the founding of the Congo Free State's main indigenous military force, the Force Publique.
Local agents of Leopold's administration were given wide discretionary powers concerning methods of enforcement. Moreover, the trade companies had a policy of paying production premiums to company and state officials who were able to exceed quotas. This quickly led to a system characterised by unrivalled barbarism. Entire villages were held responsible for meeting rubber production quotas, and their women and chiefs would typically be held captive against collection. The chicotte, a hippo-hide whip, was widely used as a means of punishing perceived infractions of state or company authority, and quickly became the feared symbol of Leopold's administration. It was not uncommon for workers to be beaten to death with this instrument, and 90 lashes was considered standard practice.
However, these examples are the least on a long list of purported atrocities, the variety and vindictiveness of which are almost unbelievable. As dramatised by Conrad in his work Heart of Darkness, company officials and armed African soldiers would set themselves up as local kings or even gods, killing and mutilating those who spoke out against them. As more and more of these tyrants became entrenched, mutilation became a more common practice. Stories abound of soldiers and officials returning from expeditions with strings of ears or collections of amputated hands.
Leopold may or may not have been privy to the extent of these horrors. There is certainly good evidence to suggest that he was - and that he tried to hide the evidence by burning the archives of the Congo Free State, an action which served to reduce the purported number of Congolese dead from 20-30 million to less than nine million. The fact remains that Leopold did reap fantastic personal gains from the exploitation of the Congo, much of which he spent on lavish public works projects in his beloved Belgium. The Congo Free State was eventually wrested from Leopold's grasp and converted into a Belgian colony as reports of the outrages became more numerous3. In 1904, Roger Casement, British consul to the Congo, filed a report on the state of affairs there, having been an eyewitness to some of the excesses. Under mounting international pressure, Leopold finally capitulated, and in November, 1908 the Belgian government annexed the Congo Independent State which thereafter became the Belgian Congo.
A gross debt of about 250 million francs transferred from Leopold to the Belgian government. The Belgians in turn ascribed this debt to the populace of the Congo. The Congo, having been squeezed of its wealth for years, now found itself shackled in debt for its efforts. The situation was slow to improve, as an established social infrastructure had to be overturned, and further military expenditures were required to expel the warlords who had established personal tyrannies. Forced labour was abolished in theory, though the need to pay taxes and to take responsibility for Leopold's debts left many feeling (and acting) otherwise. The Belgian government invested in basic projects like schools, hospitals and roads. However, the Belgians were not interested in undertaking any grand projects in social engineering. As far as many Belgians were concerned, the native of Africa was by nature ordained to labour for European interests.
The Congo continued to remain under Belgian rule after Leopold had relinquished it. It was in a state of colonial occupancy, and progressed quite minimally. Though the Congo was run by a governor-general appointed by the Belgian government, the real rulers of natives' lives were the missionaries, who, through the establishment of Western-style schools and churches, served to suppress the native way of life in a manner common to many former colonies around the world. By the 1950s, however, the modern-thinking world began to push for the creation of a free Congolese republic. This was created in 1960, following a period of intense civil war. Civil war has continued, in some form or another, up to the present day, with no stable government since.
Since then, Congolese governments have come and gone - it is an area that is, unfortunately, fraught with great political strife - but the colonial history of what was once the Belgian Congo is not easily erased.