King Leopold II of Belgium, who reigned from 1865 to 1909, came to rule during a time of increasing colonialist sentiments in Europe. Worried that his little Belgium would not be able to compete with the other European nations, Leopold plotted for years, sending expeditions into African land known as the “Congo” under the subterfuge of humanitarianism (Verbeeck). He utilized the ever-growing web of European alliances and tension, such as exploiting British-French rivaliers or dazzling the newly formed Germany with the lucrative potential for free trade in the region (Hochschild 86). All of this, so that eventually his personal ownership of Congo would go unchallenged. The Congo Free State, as it would be named, thus became a corporate state personally owned and controlled by King Leopold.
Leopold’s control over the Congo was unique for European countries, where often it would be the state that would administer the colonial ruling of territory. The administrative center was still Brussels, and so the high- and middle-level administrators were hand-picked by the king (Hochschild 116). In addition, Leopold carved parts of the Congo into multiple sections of “vacant land,” which were leased out for extended periods of time to private companies, many of which contained high-level Belgium officials, with Leopold still holding onto the majority of shares (Hochschild 117).
At first, ivory was dominant in the Congo economy. Congo state officials would “buy” ivory from Congolese elephant hunters at egregiously low prices. None of this economic growth ever reached the pockets of the Congolese, who only received some clothes and beads. As the 1890s came around, Leopold banned all Africans from making any monetary transactions, so only those at the top were profiting (Hochschild 118).
Then came the rubber, exploiting the “rubber boom” caused by an increasing world-wide demand for automobiles, shoes, and especially bicycle wheels (Frank). Soon after the colony's inception, Leopold established the Force Publique, a private military force separate from the Belgian army. Made up of young European officers, mercenaries, and some Congolese, the body acted with increasing brutality as it forced natives on rubber-gathering missions. Armed with machine guns, firearms, and the infamous chicote (a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide), the group would kidnap, torture, rape, and kill any who defied their orders or rebelled (Hochschild 166). Natives who failed to meet their quotas on rubber would have their hands or other limbs sliced off (Harford).
This is not to mention the other forms of forced labour implemented by Leopold. Explorers coerced porters into carrying supplies in the Congo’s deep interior, resulting in many dying of exhaustion (Hochschild 119). Children were kidnapped and had to work under the threat of chains and the chicotte in Catholic children colonies (Hochschild 135).
(Congolese children mutilated by Leopold’s soldiers)
Combined with disease, hunger, and plummeting birth rates, these atrocities resulted in incalculable deaths: Roger Casement, one of the investigative journalists who was critical in Leopold’s downfall, estimated that the population had dropped by 60% (Hochschild 232). A later Belgian census would put the number at 50%, or at least 10 million people (Hochschild 233).
All of this occurred with Leopold never visiting the Congo a single time.
Established here was a kleptocratic, militant, and exploitative regime that enriched a singular man at the expense of many. No systems of accountability were in place, and order was maintained exclusively through the brutality of an unrestrained military body. Leopold’s rule over the Congo would eventually come to an end, and it is largely forgotten or denied today. However, the legacy of the state he built and the scars left on the people and land would continue to haunt the Congo, as future leaders and governments came to resemble Leopold’s regime.
Leviathan - “a totalitarian state having a vast bureaucracy” (Merriam-Webster)
Frank, Zephyr and Aldo Musacchio. “The International Natural Rubber Market, 1870-1930”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-international-natural-rubber-market-1870-1930/
Harford, Tim. “The horrific consequences of rubber's toxic past”. BBC, 24 July 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-48533964
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York, Mariner Books, 1998. Verbeeck, Georgi, Legacies of an imperial past in a small nation. Patterns of postcolonialism in Belgium, European Politics and Society. 2020, 21:3, 292-306, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23745118.2019.1645422
Last Fact Checked on November 15th, 2021.