The Scars of a Kleptocratic Leviathan in the Congo
"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes" --- Mark Twain
December 17th, 1909. Brussels, Belgium: a king’s body lay lifeless. He died after having lost his life’s work, for, a year prior, thanks to the efforts of investigative journalists such as E.D. Morel and Roger Casement, King Leopold II was forced to resign his grip over the Congo to Belgium (Hochschild 259). Yet, even E.D. Morel did not consider this a true victory, as he saw that a shadow still loomed over the Congo—a shadow that suspiciously resembled Leopold (Hochschild 271).
From the onset, Belgium made promises for reform: accounts of limb-choppings died down, and the new king, Albert I, even visited the Congo in 1928, expressing concern about his predecessor’s system of forced labor (Hochschild 272). Belgium adopted a “paternalistic attitude” of slow, but important reforms in an attempt to make the Congo into a colonie-modèle: a model colony (De Nys-Ketels 1).
However, many of the same administrators retained their posts, and the Force Publique (a paramilitary organization originally conceived by Leopold) still choked the land with its brutality (Hochschild 271). To further exert control over the vast territory, the Belgium government created the service territorial (Dembour 18). The organization held many administrative duties, but perhaps most importantly, they served as tax collectors (Dembour 22). Heavier taxes and decreasing amounts of wild rubber vines forced natives onto plantations to harvest cotton, palm oil, and cultivated rubber (Hochschild 278). If taxes were not enough of an incentive for workers, chiefs, picked by the Belgian government, would gather locals and sell them off to recruiters to work in mines and on plantations, with the punishment for disobedience being the imprisonment of their family (Hochschild 279)
Soon, the discovery of copper, tin, and cobalt turned mining into a lucrative business, and, once again, the chicotte was used for forced labor (Jewsiewicki 158; Hochschild 279). In the 1920s, to aid the massive corporations that ran the mining industry, Belgium nationalized the Congo’s economy, engendering a rapid rise in power for Belgian banks (Jewsiewicki 155). These companies usually exclusively exported raw material for the international market, preventing any labor-skill growth of the populace (Jewsiewicki 155).
Over the course of the decade, the government fell into this pattern of exploiting the Congolese to profit large corporations, for instance, creating economic zones controlled via authoritative bodies of administration (Jewsiewicki 155). When the Great Depression struck in 1929, Belgium sought to increase agriculture production and loan more credit to companies operating within the Congo (Jewsiewicki 158). The burden fell, predictably, on the natives, who not only saw a cut in prices paid for their raw goods but were also forced to pay increasingly suffocating taxes (Jewsiewicki 160).
In 1935, the colonial government introduced a decree that split the Congolese into two camps: “peasants subject to compulsory cultivation, and workers for European companies” (Jewsiewicki 162). No Congolese could transfer to another village or have any freedom in what their occupation was. In many ways, it was forced labor under a new label.
This system would remain in place until Belgium was forced out of the Congo in 1960 during a wave of decolonization that swept across the globe in the decades following World War II. The years of Belgian rule, which often receive even less coverage than Leopold’s reign, are critical to examine because they were supposed to be a turning point for the Congolese. Yet, aside from some improvements in the education system and healthcare, things remained eerily similar to the way that they were under King Leopold (Britannica; De Nys Ketels 2).
Gone was a single monarch stuffing his pockets with dirty money, but in his place were corporations that similarly extracted goods from the populace—aided by the Belgian government, which also heavily profited. Gone were the reports of mass limb-chopping, yet the Force Publique still brutally put down revolts, and the rape and torture of prisoners were commonplace (Dembour 34). The promise of the abolition of forced labor seemed to dissipate quickly, as the companies found new ways to press the populace into work. Belgium continued to hold a grip on the colony unparalleled by her European contemporaries facilitated by a persistent lack of systems of accountability because any courts with real power were controlled by the Belgian government (Dembour 21, 26).
In many ways, while the person behind the monster had disappeared, the leviathan remained, extracting wealth and labor from the land and its people. Thus, this short exploration of the Belgian Congo’s economy provides a glimpse of how the state remained an authoritative regime, now with a handful of companies and their cronies in Brussels running the show: a kleptocratic, militant, and economically exploitative monster.
Dembour, Marie-Bénédicte. Recalling the Belgian Congo: Conversations and Introspection. New York-Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2000.
Encyclopedia of Britannica. “Education in Belgian colonies and former colonies.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/education/additional-info#contributors. Accessed 5 January 2022.
Franciscan missionaries of Mary. Classe dans le Chimbek par les franciscaines missionnaires de Marie (Congo belge). 1930. Photograph. CPA.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York, Mariner Books, 1998.
Jewsiewicki, B. “The Great Depression and the Making of the Colonial Economic System in the Belgian Congo.” African Economic History, vol. 4, African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1977, pp. 153–76, https://doi.org/10.2307/3601245.
Rwandese workers at the Kisanga copper-mine, Katanga, Belgian Congo. 1928. Photograph. Katanga, pays du cuivre.
Simon De Nys-Ketels, Laurence Heindryckx, Johan Lagae & Luce Beeckmans, “Planning Belgian Congo’s network of medical infrastructure: type-plans as tools to construct a medical model-colony, 1949–1959,” Planning Perspectives, vol. 34, no. 5, pg. 757-778, 2019, DOI: 10.1080/02665433.2019.1633950