How did the king of a small nation with no colonial possessions whatsoever come to control the single largest colony in Africa in the later 19th century? In a remarkable series of diplomatic, political and business coups, Leopold II skilfully achieved his aim of imperial grandeur while outwitting and outmanoeuvring some of the most astute statesmen of his age. However, behind a high-minded façade of liberal aspirations was concealed exceptional brutality, exploitation and an indifference to the fate of millions of Africans.
European interest in equatorial Africa was almost non-existent after the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 19th century, until three factors came into play at the same time. The first was an increasing appetite for raw materials such as copper, rubber and palm oil, which were in demand as a result of industrialisation and could now be transported in bulk by railways and steamships. The second was the growing role played by overseas possessions in the diplomacy of the age of empires. The third was the spread of ideas about the superiority of European civilisation.
Very few white men had ventured beyond the coastal fringes of tropical Africa in the 400 years since the Portuguese had first reached the Congo. In part this was because of the inhospitable climate whose diseases struck down Europeans with no resistance to them. There was also the difficulty of the terrain, largely jungle and often jungle-clad mountains. Even the great rivers proved insurmountable because of impassable rapids where the coastal plain rose swiftly up to inland plateaus. This was particularly the case with the huge River Congo. All this was about to change in a very short space of time with the coming together of the above-mentioned factors which resulted in the “Scramble for Africa”. However, before any of this land-grab could occur south of the Sahara, Europeans needed to know the geography of the area. The development of quinine as protection against malaria, the most common of all the tropical illnesses, helped facilitate the great age of African exploration (c1850-1880), typified by David Livingstone, H.M. Stanley, Pierre de Brazza, Richard Burton and John Speke. Such explorers were motivated variously by adventure, Christian missionary zeal, patriotism, or a desire for wealth and fame.
In the case of the Congo the most significant of the explorers was Stanley, a man not just avid for wealth and fame, but ruthless in all his ventures. Unlike the bible which Livingstone bore with him, Stanley went armed with repeating rifles, dynamite and rigged treaties. The rifles he used to kill native peoples who disagreed with him; the dynamite he employed to blast his way through the Crystal Mountains into the interior; the treaties he foisted upon illiterate chieftains in return for paltry gifts, while granting his patron, Leopold II of Belgium, rights over their lands. Between 1878 and 1883, Stanley staked out Leopold’s claim on the ground, while back in Europe the Belgian king manoeuvred diplomatically to gain acceptance for his grand scheme to create a personal colony nearly 80 times the size of his European kingdom.
Leopold was a clever man, but he was also self-interested, greedy, self-indulgent and jealous of neighbouring, larger nations such as Germany and France. Early in his life his desire to improve his and his small nation’s rank in the world became focused upon colonies. He visited those of Britain and the Netherlands and became convinced that Belgium must have her own. By the time he ascended the throne in 1865, these wishes had grown into a near-obsession. He avidly followed news of the many white explorers trekking across Africa at this time, and attempted to buy some of the possessions of the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch and to persuade the British to let him establish a settler colony in New Guinea – all unsuccessfully. He then set himself up as a philanthropic patron of explorers. This culminated in 1876 when he hosted a lavish conference of geographers and explorers in Brussels.
Leopold planned and manipulated this conference to present himself as a disinterested figure seeking only to advance knowledge and bring the benefits of European enlightenment and material prosperity to the Dark Continent. In his welcoming address he said:
To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has yet to penetrate, to pierce the darkness which envelops entire peoples, is, I dare to say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress. . . . It appears to me that Belgium, a centrally located and neutral country, would be a suitable place for such a meeting. . . . Needless to say, in bringing you to Brussels I was in no way motivated by selfish designs.
This was a disingenuous but beguiling speech. Just a few months later his true objective was expressed in a letter sent to the Belgian ambassador in London: “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake.” Leopold had arranged it so that the conference was chaired by the Russian explorer, Pyotr Semenov, who knew nothing about African geography nor the politics of western European colonial rivalries. He manoeuvred the gathering into founding the International African Association (IAA) with himself as president and its headquarters in Brussels. Even more astutely he persuaded the conference to agree that the new society would set up a series of bases to stretch across the unclaimed territory of the Congo River in exactly the area which Leopold had now set his eyes upon acquiring.
However, Leopold firstly had to generate public approval and goodwill, both at home and internationally, for what was essentially a self-aggrandising vanity project. This he found in a swell of public outrage at reports of the continuation of the slave trade in central and eastern Africa, carried on, it was emphasised, by uncivilised Arabs. Here was a moral crusade to which Leopold could attach his disguised imperial adventurism. Citing the suppression of the slave trade as his motivation, Leopold managed to successfully pose as a humanitarian and progressive figure.
Significantly too, his charm offensive involved associating himself with ideas which had emerged at the 1875 Paris International Geographical Congress. In their discussion of techniques of tropical colonisation, the delegates proposed grouping native populations into communities in which a few Europeans would be embedded. These Westerners would form a controlling nucleus, introduce modern techniques of production, and civilise the natives by setting a good example. This decentralised Owenite scheme was never going to be practical, nor was it a serious plan of Leopold’s, but he aligned himself with it as evidence of his idealism and selfless vision. However, one part of the plan did appeal to him. That was the understanding that the scheme required direct European rule. Instead of the usual colonial technique of indirect control through collaboration with one influential social or ethnic group, rule would emanate directly from the metropole, and it envisaged remaking African society rather than working within the existing social structure. Combined with fighting the evils of modern-day slavery, Leopold had found a winning formula. He was expounding a Belgian equivalent of “the white man’s burden” or “la mission civilisatrice”, a very resonant concept at this juncture in European thinking. Acceptance of this vision at the following year’s Brussels conference and subsequent agreement to its implementation in the setting up of the Congo Free State leads several historians to see this as marking a distinct change in international colonial politics and the first substantive event in the Scramble for Africa.
It has been argued that Leopold was intending “to use the international nature of the IAA as a Trojan horse for Belgian aggrandisement in Central Africa.” Evidence that Leopold intended all along to deceive and hide what he was really up to is supported by the fact that Stanley’s five years of laying the groundwork for Leopold’s personal take-over of the Congo was funded by an obscure and secretive organisation called the Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo. Few realised that its majority shareholder was Leopold, since his shares were ostensibly held by a Belgian banker. Even fewer knew its successor organisation, the International Association of the Congo (IAC), was 100% owned and capitalised by Leopold and eventually became the treasury of the Congo Free State, thus giving the king total control over the colony’s finances.
A remaining impediment to Leopold’s plan was the opposition of the Belgian government and its bourgeoisie to the idea of Belgium taking on what they saw as a colonial burden, coupled with the fact that Belgium did not have a navy to protect any overseas possessions. His solution was to set up the Congo as a personal colony. Using the vast wealth he had inherited, he would employ his own resources and thus be free from any interference by the inconvenience of an elected parliament.
A further revealing document was a letter sent to Stanley by Maximilian Strauch, the second Belgian Secretary of the IAA:
It is not a question of Belgian colonies . . . It is a question of creating a new State, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to negroes. That would be absurd. The white men, heads of the stations, retain all power. They are the absolute commanders of stations populated by free and freed negroes. Every station would regard itself as a little republic. Its leader, the white man in charge, would himself be responsible to the Director-General of Stations, who in turn would be responsible to the President of the Confederation.. . . The work will be directed by the King, who attaches particular importance to the setting-up of stations . . . the best course of procedure would no doubt be to secure concessions of land from the natives… and to found as many stations as possible.
This letter makes it absolutely clear that Leopold intended to set up a personal fiefdom, while any notion of empowerment for the native population is scornfully dismissed.
The climax to the scheming of Leopold came at the West Africa Conference in Berlin in 1884-85. Dressing it up as a commitment to free trade, Leopold set about persuading the delegates, and above all their host, Chancellor Bismarck, that an IAA-backed Congo Free State should be recognised as a sovereign entity. Invoking the holy trinity of commerce, civilisation and Christianity, Leopold preempted any morally-tinged opposition from Britain, Germany or the United States, who all paid lip-service to these principles. Crucially too, he offered unhindered trade and a potentially lucrative source of raw materials and markets, dangling the carrot of free trade within this whole enormous area. The fact that free trade was a high-sounding cover for imposing imperialist trading practices upon African peoples (who had no representatives at all at the conference) was not a consideration of any of the Europeans. Skilfully manipulating the participants through intermediaries and without ever leaving Brussels, Leopold stirred up the simmering suspicion between the French and British and even managed to persuade Bismarck that supporting his plans for the mouth of the Congo and its vast hinterland was in Bismarck’s and Germany’s merchant-class interests. The price of gaining acceptance of a Congo Free State was an agreement that no tariffs were to be levied on trade, and that freedom and equality of navigation on the river and its tributaries were to be guaranteed and overseen by an international commission. For Leopold this was a very small price to pay for the realisation of his grand ambition.
The price which the native Congolese would have to pay was, however, severe. Prevented by international treaty obligations from imposing customs duties, Leopold invoked the terms of the spurious local treaties which Stanley had acquired for him. This allowed him to claim much of the land of Congolese chieftains who had had the misfortune to become involved with Stanley, but he also later asserted his ownership of all “vacant” land, areas where cultivation was not occurring at that precise moment.
The first phase of what became an ever-escalating process of violent exploitation and callous disregard of native rights and life began with the ivory trade. This was channelled directly through Leopold’s IAC. It involved dealing with slave traders, press-ganging porters, and flogging and shooting any who resisted the company’s agents. The next phase centred upon rubber collected from wild trees – cultivating rubber trees in plantations takes many years to produce its first results, but the vast Congo contained great numbers of already mature specimens. As the importance of this commodity increased with industrialisation in the West, including pneumatic tyres for bicycles and then cars and for insulation on electrical cabling, this became a much more widespread and lucrative trade. It was here that the forced labour, violence and murder which marked the Belgian administration of the Congo were ramped up enormously. Gathering wild rubber was very labour intensive and forced labour was used on a huge scale. Natives who resisted such peonage were beaten, tortured, mutilated and murdered, or else had their families held hostage, their wives and daughters raped, or their houses and villages burned. More and more it became standard practice to force natives into fulfilling unrealistically large quotas in return for a pitiful amount of food. Failure to do so resulted in further violence and murder. When the villagers could no longer cultivate their land because the able-bodied had been kidnapped and made to work in the jungles, the land was declared waste and accrued to the Crown. Many starved to death or died from illnesses they were too debilitated to resist.
The following two passages come from Reverend A.E. Scrivener, a man who knew the Congo well, spoke several of its languages, and visited the sites of atrocities in the 1890s where he talked to victims and witnesses. The first passage deals with what he personally saw, the second is a witness account given directly to him.
Lying about in the grass within a few yards of the house I was occupying were a number of human bones, in some cases complete skeletons. I counted 36 skulls, and saw many sets of bones from which the skull was missing. I called some of the men and asked the meaning of it. “When the rubber palaver began,” said one, “the soldiers shot so many we grew tired of burying, and very often we were not allowed to bury and so just dragged the bodies out into the grass and left them. There are hundreds all round about if you want to see them.” But I had seen more than enough and was sickened by the stories that came from men and women alike of the awful time they had passed though.
[Company Agent, Charles Massard] would stand at the door of the store to receive the rubber from the poor trembling wretches who, after in some cases weeks of privation in the forests, had ventured in with what they had been able to collect. A man bringing rather under the proper amount, the white-man flies into a rage and seizing a rifle from one of the guards shoots him dead on the spot. Very rarely did rubber come but one or more were shot in that way at the door of the store. “To make the survivors bring more next time!” Men who tried to run from the country and had been caught were brought to the station, and made to stand one behind the other and an Albini bullet sent through them. “A pity to waste cartridges on such wretches.”
In the 1960s, recordings were made of testimonies from people who were alive at the time of the Congo atrocities. The following is one of these:
At the end of the count, if the rubber was bad, out of a village complement of 25 men he might shoot 5, out of 30, perhaps 10; and perhaps 20 out of 50. It was dreadful persecution. He then sent the rest of the men back to the forest to collect more rubber to make up the quota . . . he forbad us to harvest the things in our own gardens so much so that our immediate forefathers did not eat manioc. He forbad us the palm nuts in our own trees, and the plantains and all the garden produce, and sugar cane. It was all kept for his soldiers and his followers…. Many fled and some were mutilated. I myself saw a man at Likange who had had both his hands cut off. Sometimes they cut them at the wrist, sometimes farther up . . . with a machete.
The reference to cutting off hands is a recurrent one. Hundreds of reports and photographic evidence showed that it was practised on a massive scale. It effectively arose out of the decree which said all unoccupied land belonged to the state – therefore, all rubber collected from such land must belong to the state. Consequently Leopold ruled that this could only be sold to the state. Frequently this interpretation of ownership led agents of the Free Congo State and concessionary companies to pay nothing at all for the rubber, simply compelling the native population by force and intimidation to come up with quotas or face the consequences.
Founded in 1886 by order of Leopold, the Force Publique was the organisation responsible for defence of the state and internal policing, but above all it enforced the rubber quotas. Its officers were white, while many of its black troops were from distant regions of the upper Congo. Some had been kidnapped as children in raids on villages and turned over to Roman Catholic missions. There they were treated like slaves, brutalised and given military training. Armed with rifles and a whip made of hippopotamus hide (the chicotte) they rounded up hostages, tortured captives, burned villages, and raped native women. Failing to fulfil rubber quotas was a capital offence, but the Force Publique had to produce a victim’s hand to prove they had killed someone, in case they used the expensive bullets for hunting or sport. Grotesquely therefore, quotas were frequently only deemed completed if there were sufficient hands to go with an undersized rubber tally. Sometimes soldiers brought them to the collection posts instead of rubber, having deliberately hacked them off rather than go to the trouble of supervising rubber-tapping which could take days. They were used to make up for shortfalls in quotas or in the forced labour gangs which the Force Publique were ordered to assemble. Eventually soldiers were being paid bonuses on the basis of the number of severed hands they brought in – they had become a sort of gruesome currency.
The total number of deaths resulting from Leopold’s reign of terror can never be accurately known. Various estimates have been made over the last hundred years, the general consensus being that half the Congolese population, or roughly 10 million people, perished as a result of murder, wars, starvation, exhaustion or disease. Furthermore there was a plummeting birth rate resulting from social chaos and dislocation, and the decision of native peoples not to have children because of the fear, uncertainty and bleak future which faced so many of them.
The idea of a Congo Free State open to trade for any nation in the world soon evaporated. Under the doctrine of all land and its produce belonging to Leopold, a Belgian near-monopoly developed. This largely consisted of the Crown operations owned wholly by the king and the two main concession companies, Compagnie du Kasai and Compagnie du Katanga, in both of which Leopold held a substantial share. Over time the areas taken over covered almost the whole of the Congo. Furthermore, under the pretext of having to meet the costs of administering the area and needing funds to combat the (Arab) slave trade, Leopold imposed import duties in 1891 which he had asserted he would not do when negotiating for the recognition of the Congo in 1884. No international repercussions followed.
At the same time as he was duping the international community, Leopold also persuaded the Belgian government to grant him a $5 million interest-free loan to finance development of the Congo on condition that he left the African state in his will to the Belgian nation. This money was immediately used to conquer by force Katanga, a huge area where he hoped to exploit reserves of gold and copper. Next a protracted, bloody and convoluted campaign of warfare, shifting alliances (with and against Arab slave traders and cannibals), and enormous bloodshed brought the eastern Congo into Leopold’s possession.
By the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Congo was producing a substantial surplus for Leopold, largely through the profits of the rubber trade. Burgeoning demand and record high prices contributed to this, but significantly the costs of extraction were negligible thanks to the forced-labour scheme. He also issued bonds worth about $10 million, supposedly to finance development in the Congo. Little of that money ever went there. Leopold had invested much of his own inherited fortune in setting up his Congo project in the 1880s, and now that it was producing a constant tide of profit, he felt justified in spending both the profits and the bond money closer to home, including extravagant palaces, grand villas, gardens, private yachts, a royal train, holiday estates abroad and lavish entertainments. He went on a spree of public construction, commissioning museums, pavilions, promenades, parks, statues and a golf course. He bought up streets and properties in Brussels, acquired land throughout Belgium, and became a major shareholder in the Chinese railways. At the 1897 Brussels World Fair, he imported from the Congo and put on display 267 black men, women, and children.
As the 1890s progressed, stories of the ill-treatment of the Congolese began to seep out through missionaries, the Anti-Slavery Society, the Aborigines’ Protection Society, and various outraged individuals. Leopold initially responded successfully against these revelations through his network of friendships and newspaper contacts, usually attacking the integrity of the accusers. However the sheer weight of reports, the particularly effective work of E.V.S. Sjöblom, E.D. Morel and Roger Casement, and the contributions of celebrities of the day such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain swung public opinion against the formerly well-respected monarch. Convinced of his own invincibility and his skills of persuasion and manipulation, Leopold set up a Commission of Inquiry into the Congo in 1904. He expected the commission to offer up a few scapegoats among those operating in the Congo and for himself to be exonerated. It came as a shock to him when the Commission reported in 1905 and found the claims of brutality and venality substantiated.
With the human rights’ abuses revealed and investigations into the king’s shady finances under way, opinion across the political spectrum in Belgium coalesced around a desire to remove the Congo from Leopold’s ownership immediately and assign it to Belgium as a state-controlled colony. For those of a liberal or socialist persuasion, the motivation was reform and improvement in the Congo; for the conservative and Catholic factions it was as much a desire to remove the embarrassment of Leopold’s perfidy. International opinion also swung decisively against Leopold. Now in a corner, he fought a rearguard action until 1908, offering to hand over the colony but retain the revenues of all the Crown lands and concessions – in other words keep the benefits and nationalise the costs and risks. In the end a compromise was reached whereby Leopold was paid $10 million dollars and a further $9 million was assigned to his various grandiose vanity projects across Belgium as “compensation” for losses which in reality he had never incurred. The Congo formally became a Belgian colonial possession in 1908. Unfortunately reform of Leopold’s systems in the Congo was slow and partial, leaving the natives to suffer many more decades of oppression.
Leopold II achieved the distinction of deceiving and outwitting American President Chester Arthur, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, Otto von Bismarck, several French presidents, and legions of well-meaning philanthropists, abolitionists and liberal reformers on his way to setting himself up as the absolute ruler of a vast territory in central Africa. His diplomatic skills, dissimulation and manipulative abilities in the years leading up to and including the 1884-85 Berlin West Africa Conference were worthy of Prince Metternich and Bismarck himself. However, in the subsequent phase of his personal rule over the Congo, comparison might be more apt with the rulers of the Aztec and Inca Empires. Leopold effectively became an absolute potentate, a ruler of the sort caricatured by pro-imperialist Europeans as typical of the unenlightened backwardness of Africans and Arabs which their colonial projects were supposedly challenging in order to bring the benighted people of Africa into the light of civilisation. A variation on slavery – forced labour – became widespread, a dreadful irony since the Congo Free State was set up ostensibly as a project to help abolish slavery. A brutal gendarmerie terrorised the population, killing, maiming, looting and raping at will. Exploitation was total and the king’s greed knew few bounds. A virtual royal state monopoly on the produce of the land was constructed, completely negating the free-trade principles which were the second pillar in the establishment of the Congo. The title of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 critique of that neo-feudal African hell, Heart of Darkness, was singularly appropriate to describe both the Congo and Leopold, the architect of its misery.