Leopold II and the Congo Free State
Presenting himself as a philanthropist eager to bring the benefits of Christianity, Western civilization, and commerce to African natives—a guise that he perpetuated for many years—Leopold hosted an international conference of explorers and geographers at the royal palace in Brussels in 1876. Several years later he hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to be his man in Africa. For five years Stanley traveled up and down the immense waterways of the Congo River basin, setting up trading posts, building roads, and persuading local chiefs—almost all of them illiterate—to sign treaties with Leopold. The treaties, some of which appear to have been subsequently doctored to Leopold’s liking, were then put to use by the Belgian monarch.
Although Belgium’s government felt that colonies would be an extravagance for a small country with no navy or merchant marine, that situation suited Leopold perfectly. He persuaded first the United Statesand then all the major nations of western Europe to recognize a huge swath of Central Africa—roughly the same territory as the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo—as his personal property. He called it État Indépendant du Congo, the Congo Free State. It was the world’s only private colony, and Leopold referred to himself as its “proprietor.”
The king then embarked on an ultimately successful effort to make a vast fortune from his new possession. Initially he was most interested in ivory, a material that was greatly valued in the days before plastics because it could be carved into a great variety of shapes—statuettes, jewelry, piano keys, false teeth, and more. For some years ivory was a principal source of the great wealth that Leopold and his associates drew from the new colony. In his novella Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, who spent six months in the Congo in 1890 as a steamboat officer, gives a searing picture of the brutal and voracious European quest for Congo ivory.
By the early 1890s a new source of riches had appeared. A worldwide rubber boom was under way, kicked off by the invention of the inflatable bicycle tire and spurred on by the rise of the automobileand the use of rubber in industrial belts and gaskets, as well as in coating for telephone and telegraph wires. Throughout the tropics, people rushed to sow rubber trees, but those plants could take many years to reach maturity, and in the meantime there was money to be made wherever rubber grew wild. One lucrative source of wild rubber was the Landolphia vines in the great Central African rainforest, and no one owned more of that area than Leopold. Detachments of his 19,000-man private army, the Force Publique, would march into a village and hold the women hostage, forcing the men to scatter into the rainforest and gather a monthly quota of wild rubber. As the price of rubber soared, the quotas increased, and as vines near a village were drained dry, men desperate to free their wives and daughters would have to walk days or weeks to find new vines to tap.
Central Africa, c. 1902
Map of Central Africa, from the 10th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1902.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Other parts of the Congo economy, from road building to chopping wood for steamboat boilers, operated by forced labour as well. The effects were devastating. Many of the women hostages starved, and many of the male rubber gatherers were worked to death. Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of Congolese fled their villages to avoid being impressed as forced labourers, and they sought refuge deep in the forest, where there was little food and shelter. Tens of thousands of others were shot down in failed rebellions against the regime. One particularly notorious practice grew out of the suppression of those rebellions. To prove that he had not wasted bullets—or, worse yet, saved them for use in a mutiny—for each bullet expended, a Congolese soldier of the Force Publique had to present to his white officer the severed hand of a rebel killed. Baskets of severed hands thus resulted from expeditions against rebels. If a soldier fired at someone and missed, or used a bullet to shoot game, he then sometimes cut off the hand of a living victim to be able to show it to his officer.
With women as hostages and men forced to tap rubber, few able-bodied adults were left to hunt, fish, and cultivate crops. Millions of Congolese then found themselves suffering near-famine, which made them vulnerable to diseases they otherwise might have survived. Furthermore, as in any society where men and women are separated, traumatized, or in flight as refugees, the birth rate dropped precipitously. No one will ever know the precise figures, but, from all these causes, demographers estimate that between 1880 and 1920 the population of the Congo may have been slashed by up to 50 percent, from perhaps 20 million people at the beginning of that period to an estimated 10 million at the end.
The forced-labour system for gathering rubber was swiftly copied by French, German, and Portuguese colonial officials with equally fatal results. Because the system’s effects in the Congo could so easily be blamed on one man, who could safely be attacked because he did not represent a great power, an international outcry focused on Leopold. That pressure finally forced him to relinquish his ownership of the territory, and it became the Belgian Congo in 1908. Leopold, however, made the Belgian government pay him for his prized possession. He died the following year. Because his only son had predeceased him, Leopold’s nephew Albert I succeeded to the throne.