Forgotten History: King Leopold and The Congo

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King Leopold II of Belgium propagated the least talked about mass murder in history. King Leopold’s African colony in the Congo gave him access to 1 million square miles and 20 million people he could use for labor. This colony alone made him one of the wealthiest people on earth as the need for rubber increased with the increase in bicycle and car usage.

For a long time the image of the King in Europe was largely that of humanitarian and a man bringing civilization to the citizens of the Congo. White conquests in Africa were often mythologized as acts of benevolence. King Leopold believed that the ends always justified the means and therefore did not believe in rights for the African people. The reign of Leopold lasted for 25 years before he handed over power to the Belgian state but not before he had committed atrocities that would in this day be called genocide.

King Leopold’s ambition had been to always make Belgium great because he had always felt like his country had been left behind and the colony in the Congo was going to help him build the greatness he desired. He even claimed that he would use his position in the Congo to spread Christianity. Leopold commissioned Henry Morton Stanley to get signatures from local chiefs to legitimize his conquest. July 1, 1885 through decree Leopold declared that all lands belonged to the state and in this case Belgium. Thereafter he quickly formed an army that grew to 16,000.

Initially the colony almost bankrupted Leopold until Dunlop developed the first tire and the demand for rubber grew. In order to satisfy the demand for rubber Leopold decided to unleash a reign of terror in order to get as much rubber as possible at little or no cost. Missionaries who were on the front line witnessed human atrocities beyond measure. Villagers were flogged publicly, burnt to death and their hands were cut off if they didn’t produce enough rubber. Soldiers were ordered to cut off the hands of all those they killed as proof that they did not waste the ammunition they had been given. In fact every soldier was supposed to produce a right hand for every shot fired.

King Leopold was angered by any revelations that he was abusing Africans to harvest rubber because he believed there was a price to be paid for profit. All rubber arrived in Antwerp first even though Belgians are quick to forget the history of rubber trade. Some of the worst abuses happened in the Equator province where they lost about 60%, 70% and at times 90% of the population. Leopold begun to pay bonuses to agents so that they would produce more rubber. African lives were of no value to the Belgians.

A turning point came when Charles Stokes a British trader was arrested for trading in the Congo and was sentenced to death. The hanging was a major political mistake and the King had to pay compensation. Leopold made concessions to open up trade. Concession holders started holding the wives of rubber tappers until they produced enough rubber. Each agent was even issued a hostage license. Collections were done every 15 days and the King took 50% of the profits from the concession company. At the same time rubber plantations in Asia and South America began producing rubber which gave King Leopold more competition.

A man named Edmund Dene Morel began publishing stories from missionaries about the atrocities in the Congo. He became a leading journalist on West and Central Africa. He published 3700 letters and 15 000 brochures before he published a newspaper. Missionaries like Charles Banks began to tell their stories. In an effort to repair his image, Leopold also began publishing books in Europe and America to tell his side of the story. Stories of Africans shot for not producing enough rubber at a time.

Another colony hidden from the rest of the world known as Crown Domain had been kept a secret till 1902. However, some missionaries published stories about the man in charge known as Malu Malu who committed some of the worst atrocities ever. The stories were too many and too consistent to the false so they helped Morel spread his findings in Europe. King Leopold made about 231 million Euros in profit from the Crown Domain alone. In 1904, Morel founded the Congo Reform Association then published his book Red Rubber in 1906 all in an effort to bring to light issues in the Congo.

The Casement report which also detailed horror stories from the Congo unnerved the King who set up a commission to investigate the issues against him. He hoped that the commission would come back with a favorable report to counter any negative publicity from Morel and Casement. However, there was a missionary named John Harris who organized for the commission to hear directly from the Africans. One of them was a local chief who gave the most damaging testimony of all. He appeared at the hearing with 110 sticks each representing the victims from his village murdered in pursuit of profit. This testimony was so damaging that the Governor had him tortured to death only a few weeks later then committed suicide himself thereafter. Conclusions drawn by the commission suggested that perpetrators of genocide in the Congo should be sent to the gallows themselves.

Belgian intellectuals and religious leaders in Brussels also criticized the King and annexation of the colony was almost inevitable thereafter. in 1908 Congo became a Belgian colony and Leopold received 50 million francs for as compensation for it. He died the year after having become the most hated man in Europe. However, not long after images created in his honor helped to reshape his public image and he was celebrated as a civilizer of the African people. The message of civilizing the Africans was used to make the Belgians feel better about colonization. Eventually Morel and Casement were forgotten during World War I because they passive attitude was associated with support of the Germans which was hugely unpopular. To this day there had never been an admission of guilt or remorse for the atrocities in the Congo, the least talked about genocide.

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