At the peak of European imperialism in Africa, Belgium’s King Leopold personally  “owned”  Congo from 1885 till 1908. During this period, the country was forced to endure the systematic exploitation of its natural resources such as rubber and ivory.

Before Congo became Leopold’s personal property, a Welsh journalist and explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley famous for his exploration of Central Africa captivated the world with the stories of abundant riches and natural resources present in Congo, and when King Leopold who had a lust for wealth heard this, he approached Stanley to help him take over the Congo. Stanley agreed and traveled back to Congo, approached the Chiefs with fake land treaties and tricked them into signing these treaties which gave Leopold control over these lands. The chiefs were illiterates and they never knew they were giving their lands over to Leopold. This way Leopold had already executed the most important part of his project and in 1879, he established a private company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association which he called the International Association of the Congo.

King Leopold

This association was used by Leopold ostensibly to further his altruistic and humanitarian projects in Congo.  With the association serving as a philanthropic front, Leopold secretly bought off the foreign investors in the Congo society and morphed the organization’s ideology from an international philanthropic association to that of a private commercial enterprise …and the change from a commercial plan to political reality.

John Boyd Dunlop

Congo’s woes began in 1890 when a Scottish inventor John Boyd Dunlop invented pneumatic (air-filled) rubber tyres which also contributed to the success of automobiles. At this time, the Congo was one of only a handful of places in the world where there was an abundance of rubber and this was Leopold’s chance to take advantage of the rubber Congo produced. He then formed the Force Publique, an army of Belgians and Congolese and got them to force Congolese natives into rubber harvesting.

Force Publique

The Congolese were the rank and file soldiers that had been press-ganged into service and forced to serve in the Force Publique.  Leopold’s race to dominate the rubber market led to a new form of slavery in Congo, the natives were given a certain amount of rubber to harvest and anyone who fails to complete their quota would be punished with a hard leather whip which opened up their skin after several strokes.

A Native being whipped

The Congo seemed like a perfectly normal country to the outside world as Leopold often bribed journalist to write positive reports about the activities in Congo. He also sent people to Congo to observe the country and makes sure that while they are there, they only saw the pleasant aspect of what was happening in Congo.  While Leopold was misleading the world with his activities in Congo, things had gone from bad to worse. In order to increase the quantity of rubber the natives harvested, Leopold ordered the natives to be shot whenever they “inevitably” collapse from exhaustion, starvation or illness and fails to complete their quota.

He also ordered that their hands or legs be severed.  The Force Publique were to report with the number of bullets they were issued as “hands” so they don’t get punished (i.e. if the soldiers were issued 10 bullets, they had to report with 10 hands of their victims to avoid punishment). Men who failed to meet their ivory and gold quota even once would face mutilation, with hands and feet being the most popular sites for amputation. If the man could not be caught, or if he needed both hands to work, Forces Publique men would cut the hands off of his wife or children.

Hacked hands of the Natives
belgian congo genocide
A father looks at the severed hand of his 5-year-old daughter
belgian congo genocide
Congolese men holding hands of their dismembered children who couldn’t gather enough wild rubber to enrich King Leopold and his Belgium courtiers.
Amputation was frequently used to punish workers in the Congo Free State, controlled by Leopold II of Belgium, 1900. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Nobody knows how many people lived in the Congo Free State in 1885, but the area, which was three times the size of Texas, may have had up to 20 million people before colonization. At the time of the 1924 census, that figure had fallen to 10 million.

By 1901, the Congo was one of the world’s largest rubber suppliers and King Leopold profited amply. He lived a luxurious life in villas and chateaus in Belgium and across Europe and saved up some in Swiss bank accounts. He also built various statues and monuments from the rubber proceeds.

Nemesis caught up with Leopold when a curious clerk Edmund Morel, at Elder Dempster office discovered a great deal of rubber shipped from the Congo while the main items shipped to the Congo were just arms and ammunition. Morel correctly deduced that the rubbers shipped to Belgium were being extorted from the Congo natives and this made him embark on campaigns with the help of celebrities such as Arthur Conan Doxle and Mark Twain to expose he ill-treatment of the Congo natives. The movement successfully pressured Leopold to turn over the Congo to the Belgian government, ending some of the human rights abuses perpetrated under his rule. There is a misconception that states that the Congo natives had a better life after Leopold was stripped of the “ownership” title. The Congo natives did had a better life after Leopold’s reign, however, it lasted until the Belgians discovered that there were huge mineral resources such as gold, copper, etc. under Congo’s soil, hence, the forced labor system continued. The Belgians renamed the country the Belgian Congo and ruled for 52 years, boasted to the whole world regarding how they improved the country by building schools, churches, and medical centers. However, the scenario was quite different from what the Belgian colonist had made the international community believed.  In the Belgian Congo, there was no higher education system, the natives were also not allowed to vote. As of 1956, the Belgium Congo could only boast of 17 college graduates among the 15 million people since 1902. The Belgian colonialists also believed that if they keep the natives ignorant and uneducated, they won’t pose a threat to them, and this explains why they had only 17 college graduates.

However, in the late 1950s, Africans across the continent began to demand for independence, there were revolts in countries like Algeria and South Africa and this made the Belgian colonist fear that the Congo natives might also revolt against them and after 52 years, of domination and exploitation, Belgium pulled out of Congo in 1960 leaving it a free country without a government.

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