Leopold II of Belgium, born on April 9, 1835, was the King of Belgium for over 40 years, from 1865 until his death in 1909. He is best known for his brutal and exploitative colonization of the Congo Free State, which he personally owned as a private venture from 1885 to 1908. How did that happen? Let’s explore this in more detail.
Leopold was a shrewd politician and a man with a great deal of ambition. He was particularly interested in colonizing African territories, and he saw the Congo (the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) as a potential gold mine.
Photograph of Leopold II of Belgium as Garter Knight
In 1876, following several failed attempts to obtain colonies in Africa and Asia, Leopold established a privately-owned holding company. It was disguised as an international scientific and charitable organization while Leopold’s true intentions were exploiting Africa for his own financial gain. This company was known as the International African Society.
Then Leopold used his political influence to pressure European countries to recognize État Indépendant du Congo, the Congo Free State, as his personal property. It was the world’s only private colony, and Leopold referred to himself as its “proprietor.” He claimed that his aim was to establish a humanitarian mission in Congo to improve the lives of the people.
In 1885, at the Berlin Conference, the major European powers recognized the Congo Free State, an area 76 times larger than Belgium, as Leopold’s personal property. The Belgian government lent him money for this venture. This gave him complete control over the region.
Map of the Congo Free State in 1892
Disregarding the agreements of the Berlin Conference, the Congo Free State administration restricted foreign access and coerced the natives into forced labor. Leopold dispatched the mercenary Force Publique (his private police) to advance his interests. At first, Leopold ordered the ivory supply to be exploited and exported. But when demand for rubber exploded, he ordered it be harvested using any method necessary.
The Force Publique used extreme violence to maintain control over the Congolese people. Millions of Congolese were forced to work as forced laborers, and they were treated brutally by Leopold’s agents. It involved torture, murder, rape, kidnapping, and amputation of the hands of men, women, and children if the rubber quota was not met.
Failed rebellions against the regime resulted in tens of thousands of casualties, many of whom were shot down. One particularly gruesome practice arose from the crackdown on these rebellions. In order to demonstrate that they had not wasted ammunition―or worse, hoarded it for a mutiny―Congolese soldiers serving in the Force Publique were required to present their white officers with the severed hand of each rebel they had killed. These expeditions against rebels often resulted in baskets filled with severed hands. In instances where a soldier missed their target or used a bullet to hunt animals, they would sometimes cut off the hand of a living victim in order to show their officer.
A missionary points to the severed hand of a Congolese villager
Millions of people in the Congo suffered during Leopold’s rule, with many losing their hands or being killed. The environment was also greatly affected, as vast areas of forest were cleared to make room for rubber plantations. This caused damage to the soil and a loss of different types of plants and animals. Apart from the violent acts, diseases like smallpox and sleeping sickness also spread, leading to further harm to the Congolese people.
For over a decade, the mutilations and murders were largely covered up. Very few missionaries were allowed in Congo and on only the strictest of conditions.
A 1906 Punch cartoon depicting Leopold II as a rubber snake entangling a Congolese rubber collector
According to the World History Archives, in 1890, a clerk at a British shipping line, Edmund Dene Morel, noticed that rubber and ivory came out of Congo, but nothing went in except soldiers and guns. He began a campaign in Britain to expose Leopold’s atrocities. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness furthered social interest in Africa.
Eventually, British officials ordered Irish human rights activist Sir Roger Casement to provide a report. The report was issued as a Command paper in 1904 and was laid before the Houses of Parliament, but it was so severe that the original was not published in full until 1985.
In 1906, the Belgian government began negotiations with Leopold to “buy” the land from him. It took two years to finalize the sale, after which the land was redesignated as the Belgian Congo and became a colonial state. Belgium paid a lot of money, 215.5 million Francs, for the handover deal. This money was used to pay off the Congo Free State’s debt and its bond holders. Additionally, 45.5 million Francs were used for Leopold’s building projects in Belgium, and he received a personal payment of 50 million Francs.
Leopold died the following year, 1909, without any formal prosecution for his actions.
Leopold II's funeral procession passes the unfinished Royal Palace of Brussels, December 22, 1909
Towards the end of his life, Leopold became unpopular with his people, and ironically, it wasn’t mainly due to his actions in Africa. He showed a lack of appreciation for Belgium’s size and lacked proficiency in Dutch, the primary language spoken by more than half of its people. He also spent long periods living in fancy accommodations on the French Riviera and didn't seem to have a close relationship with two of his three daughters. Additionally, he had a bad reputation for his attraction to teenage girls, and at 65 years old, he started a relationship with a former teenage prostitute that led to two more children.
The Democratic Republic of Congo still struggles to recover from Leopold’s legacy, over a century later. It is among the five poorest nations in the world. In 2021, nearly 64 % of Congolese, just under 60 million people, lived on less than $2.15 a day. About one out of six people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa lives in Congo.
“On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.” —Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost
“Never present a chair to a black that comes to visit you. Don't give him more than one cigarette. Never invite him for dinner even if he gives you a chicken every time you arrive at his house.” —from a speech by King Leopold II of Belgium delivered in 1883 to Belgium missionaries
“I have just returned from a journey inland to the village of Insongo Mboyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people's stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit.” —John Harris, Missionary in Baringa
“In fourteen years Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives with the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there―which will be soon, let us hope and trust.” —Mark Twain
“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide by Sven Lindqvist
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