King Leopold II and the Belgian Congo

3 Conversations

“The scramble for Africa took place before there was the first European power in history. I’m talking about before there was a Greece. The scramble for Africa took place before there was a book in the Bible called Genesis... The scramble for Africa took place when the first non-African people invaded Africa for the purpose of taking African land, that takes us to 1675 B.C.E. when the Hyksos came from around the Oxus river in Asia and invaded Lower Egypt or the Delta region. The Africans there were already into their Thirteenth dynastic period...”

-Dr. Josef ben-Yochanen

The years between 1880 and 1914 have been characterised as an era of transformation and Western dominance, when the technologically and economically advantaged peoples of Europe stood tall on the world stage and tried to lay claim to their “place in the sun”. Several pivotal events stand as historical monuments to this period of time: the assumption of power in matters of economic development in the Ottoman Empire by the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, whose members were almost exclusively European financiers: The 1901 quelling of the Boxer Rebellion in China by a joint European-U.S. force, which itself culminated an American campaign of imperialist conquest and warfare spurred by “jingoist” rhetoric: the 1898 invasion of the Sudan by British troops that culminated in the Battle of Omdurman. This last incident resulted in 11,000 casualties for the Sudanese and 40 British casualties. After the battle, British troops dug up the grave of the Sudanese religious leader, the Mahdi, and used his skull to play a soccer game.

European confidence in its own supremacy, racial, moral, religious, and evident, was nearly absolute. This era of “new imperialism” may have appeared to, say, victims of Cortez, or to the First Nations of North America, to be the same old brand of nonsense, business as usual. Nonetheless, industrialization and nationalism had fueled the fires of Empire and expansionism in a way not seen before. Nowhere was this 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 November 15, 1884, an International Conference was convened in Berlin. Every nation in Europe but Switzerland attended, fourteen nations in all. The United States also attended, its sudden interest in world affairs a sign of things to come. Also in attendance was the International Association of the Congo. This “philanthropic” organization had been founded several years earlier by King Leopold II of Belgium, supposedly to end slaving 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.

That a conference on Africa’s future should be held in Europe, by Europeans, with no concern for affairs remotely African, was signatory of prevalent attitudes at the time. Ironically, the United States recognized Leopold’s International Association of the Congo as a de facto government, the closest thing to an African voice at the conference. But the conference was only superficially about Africa. Germany was fresh from a war with France and was anxious to make amends, as well as to establish colonial gains that would rival British influence. France and Britain were agitating. Portugeuse power was waning. Africa was a chessboard for these tensions. As Robert July notes,

“What was really at stake was the delicate balance of power among European nations, the projection of their rising mercantile interests throughout the world, and the nourishment of national pride which had recently begun to express itself through the acquisition of colonial territories in little-known, far-off places. The history of the Berlin conference amply bears out its European preoccupations. During the first half of the nineteenth century there had been no great interest among the European nations in the Congo or Niger regions, but as ivory, rubber, and particularly palm oil took on increasing importance in Western commercial and industrial development, mercantile activity grew apace...”

Nonetheless, almost as an afterthought to the partitioning of the continent, the vast area of the Congo, rich with natural resources, was recognized as the sovereign and personal property of Leopold II. Leopold accomplished this improbable feat by playing on nationalist distrust artfully; the idea of a strong, indigenous state in the Congo to serve as a “buffer zone” and as a check on French territorial ambitions was attractive to both Britain and Germany. Further to this, any attempt to stymy Portugal was seen as welcome by all. France was brought aboard finally 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 went to work with a will to consolidate his new realm, intensifying exploration efforts (already underway before the advent of the conference) with an investment in railway construction to link up the coast to the interior, bypassing the obstacle of Stanley Pool. Construction began in 1890 and took eight years, proceeding at a major cost in life. 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 recognize Leopold’s claim to the area; and given that an avowed aim of the Berlin conference was abolition of Africa’s interior slave trade, the slavers correctly felt that 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, H.M Stanley, 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 garrisson 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: assume governership of the region under Leopold’s aegis. Tippu, realizing perhaps that the long-term balance of power in the region favoured European influence, 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 the considerable profits of a life of slave-running. 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 antislavery congress in 1889, where he cleverly won 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 mostly been driven out of the region, and Leopold had won a large financial coup for himself in the process.

Leopold meanwhile was having similar problems extending in other areas of his realm. An attempt to expand into the Katanga met with difficulty when the uncooperative king Msiri had to be killed before Leopold could assume proper rule of the area, and “that other African imperialist” Cecil Rhodes’ advance into the area had to be checked. A Sanga revolt sparked by these events would continue for ten years before it could be quelled. Similar problems also arose when free State agents involved themselves in a succession dispute in Lubaland between rivals Kasongo Niembo and Kabongo. The resulting war lasted 14 years before a 1905 compromise was forced on the contenders. In 1907 Kasongo Niembo revolted. It would be another ten years before Lubaland was effectively under control, an event beyond the scope of Leopold’s rule.

These various undertakings were quite costly. Between 1885 and 1890 Leopold spent some 20 million francs on his venture, an atrocious amount of money by any standard of the day. 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 ultimately 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 realize a profit on the venture in which he had invested everything.

The mineral resources of the Katanga were of prime importance in Leopold’s schemes. Once problems there had been overcome somewhat, copper rapidly became one of the Congo’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 heavily on indigenous labour. In an effort to step up exports, an 1892 tax was levied against residents of the Congo, a tax which could be payed in rubber. A 1903 law took things to the next level, requiring 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. This last axiom saw the founding of the Congo Free State’s main indigenous military force, the force publique. This of course opened the door for African soldiers with modern European weaponry to settle grudges with their traditional tribal enemies.

Local agents of Leopold’s administration were given wide discretionary powers concerning methods of enforcement. Moreover, the company 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 unrivaled, unthinkable 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.

But these examples are the least on a long list of purported atrocities, the variety and vindictiveness of which strain the limits of credibility. As dramatized by Conrad in his work Heart of Darkness, company officials and armed African soldiers would set themselves up as local despots, kings, or 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. We can do no better in understanding the extent of the horrors unleashed than to turn to the words of Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan:

“You’re talking about “holocausts?” Nobody bothers me with nonsense about “holocausts,” because let me tell you about my “holocausts.” Let me tell you what Cecil John Rhodes, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson and others did to my people in South Africa when they brought in Captain John Lugard, who made Hitler look like a sissy boy. Lugard was exterminating the Indians in India by the millions. They brought him in to do the same in South Africa, and moved him from there to what was later called Nigeria... You are talking about holocaust and you forget the Congo where twenty-five million African souls were murdered during the triangular trade and another fifteen million were lost when African women found it revolting to give birth to a child under slave ship’s barbarity, and so threw their children to the Atlantic Ocean to the sharks. It was a better fate than the slave ship and the slave plantation awaiting them.”

Leopold may or may not have been privy to the extent of these horrors. The fact remains that he reaped 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 his grasp and converted into a Belgian colony as reports of the outrages became more numerous and widespread, though it is perhaps worth noting that Leopold’s commercial monopolies in the region were widely felt to be violating the free-trade guarantees of the Berlin Act. In 1904, Robert 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 Independant State which thereafter became the Belgian congo.

A gross debt of about 250 million francs also 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 tyrranies. Very few former Free State agents were eager to see a change in the order of things. Forced labour was abolished in theory, though the need to pay taxes and to take responsibility for Leopold’s debts left many feeling otherwise. The Belgian government invested in basic infrastructural projects like schools, hospitals, and roads. However, the Belgians were not interested in undertaking any grand projects in social engineering. There was no interest in providing native Africans with secondary education, with opportunities for political or academic development. As far as Belgians were concerned, the native of Africa was by nature ordained to labour for European interests; good enough for God was good enough for them.

Many living today look back on Leopold’s ventures in the Congo as a singular example of human greed, evil, and shortsightedness. High School students reading Conrad gain some notion of the darkness that thrived in that time and place; and yet, from a modern perspective, the sheer number of victims involved or the horrors perpetrated on them doesn’t quite register, overshadowed as those events are by a century of similar idealogical failures, from Hitler’s holocaust to the civil war sparked by Stalin’s collectivization drive in the 1930s. And yet the horrors of Leopold’s Congo highlight all the essential failures of the European claim to superiority that would only later be made evident at the cost of two world wars and countless millions of lives. Where Hitler killed 8 million for rascist reasons, and Stalin some 15 million in an attempt to meet production quotas, 25 million died in the Congo for a combination of those reasons, making this event a very black mark in history. Indeed, the Nazis, who Camus would condemn as “criminal in heart as (they) are criminal in (their) logic” were in many ways the natural children of imperialist ambition; their justifications for the horrors at Auschwitz find echoes in the excuses offered for colonial excesses. Consider the words of Cecil Rhodes:

“I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings, what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”

In an era where nationalism is still a driving force, where racism’s embers still burn, where jingoist rhetoric is still heard, where the imperialist drive for resources still fuels wars and conquests under the banner of ‘uplift' and ‘betterment’ for those being killed, we should keep an ear open to these voices of history. Perhaps by keeping our ears open to the rhetoric of the past we can better judge and be wary of the rhetoric of the present.

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