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King's free state, Congolese people’s hell

Editor: Zhang Dan 丨CCTV.com

06-29-2015 14:05 BJT

By Miroslav Atanasov, Ph.D., Renmin University of China

This year marks important milestones in regards to historical injustices. In April, we witnessed the centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide. In May, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. And in August, we stand in memoriam of the surrender of imperial Japanese forces in WWII.

Nevertheless, there’s an anniversary that few will pay attention to. The date, July 1, 2015, marks 130 years since the founding of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium. Yet, Congo’s people at the time, were forced to endure unimaginable horrors as Leopold’s regime terrorized more than 10 million Africans.

The perpetrator of such alleged colonialist crimes was the second monarch of Belgium. Leopold  dreamed of turning his small, young, and poor nation into a powerful and prosperous empire. When he assumed the throne in 1865, Leopold took immediate steps to fulfill his grand vision.

Although the Belgian Parliament refused his requests to establish a colony, he turned his ambitions to Africa, a continent overlooked by European Powers at the time. During the Brussels Conference in 1876, he called for a modernization of Africa, such as trying to Westernize the continent’s civilization, converting Africans to Christianity, as well as introducing more commerce, medical, and educational advances. Leopold sought to establish military outposts in the region, claiming it would eradicate the Arabic slave trade. 

In 1878, Leopold employed Congo explorer - Henry Morton Stanley. His crew built a railroad network. They also deceived 450 tribal chiefs into selling their lands to Leopold’s International Congo Association - a so-called humanitarian organization. The chiefs were illiterate ignorant of what they were signing. However, those  treaties gained international recognition for his newly acquired estate. Leopold convinced major world powers to recognize his sovereignty over the Congo. At the end of the Berlin Conference in February 1885 he grabbed the lion’s share of European plunder from Africa.

The first years of colonialization were difficult for King Leopold II. He had sunk his entire personal fortune and was accumulating massive debts for its administration. Ivory exports were not bringing in sufficient proceeds. Yet, Dunlop’s pneumatic tire invention in 1890 turned everything around. Rubber demand had skyrocketed and with an abundance of wild rubber vines in the Congo, the Belgium king had embarked on a rubber monopoly.

Leopold transformed the Congo into a large labor camp. His militia forced the natives to collect rubber at gunpoint. Village women and children were held hostage to motivate their men to work. The punishment for not meeting rubber quotas was death or mutilation. Local soldiers serving under Belgian officers had severed African children’s hands. For every bullet that killed an African native, troops were expected to deliver the victim’s right hand to the Belgium-controlled commissioners. Nevertheless, Leopold would proclaim himself as a great European philanthropist, while regularly instructing his agents to commit vile acts against Africans to ensure the profitability of his grand scheme. 

The abuses were kept a secret from Europe until Protestant missionaries from the United States, Great Britain, and Sweden visited the Congo and saw first-hand the atrocities committed. They began writing reports and sending photos to the Western World.

A Congo Reform Association was founded to campaign against Leopold. Famous writers, such as Mark Twain, Anatole France, and Booker T. Washington joined in. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called the regime, “the greatest crime in all of history.” The king’s propaganda machine had fought back, paying for articles and books to defend his rule and smear critics. He hired a lobbyist to allegedly bribe American politicians. He brought in concessionary companies to curry international favor. He appointed doctors to study African diseases. However by 1906, his crimes were finally exposed to the world. The then-US President Theodore Roosevelt refused his request to visit the US. The British Parliament threatened to deploy a warship to obstruct Leopold’s trade.

In 1908, Leopold conceded to transfer the Congo to Belgium and swindled his own country out of a large sum of money. He burned his personal records to hide his crimes. Leopold died a year later, and Belgium changed the name of the territory to “Belgian Congo” and continued to exploit the region until 1960 when the country achieved its hard-fought independence and established the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Currently, the DRC is the world’s richest country in natural resources, but its citizens remain as one of the poorest people on the planet. Meanwhile, Brussels, the EU capital, has forgotten Leopold’s crimes and still honors him as the Builder-King for the nation, because his projects brought much wealth to Belgium, but the blood of the Congolese people have stained his hands. 

( The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Panview or CCTV.com. )



Panview offers a new window of understanding the world as well as China through the views, opinions, and analysis of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

Panview offers an alternative angle on China and the rest of the world through the analyses and opinions of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.


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