The Portuguese navigator Diogo Cao reaches the Congo River in 1483. Commerce between the coastal Kongo Kingdom and Portugal quickly develops, with the trade in slaves soon coming to dominate all other exchanges. The Dutch begin to arrive in the 17th Century, to be followed by the French and British. As the influence of the Europeans steadily moves inland, the Congo River basin is raised in the imagination of the West, with the exploits of 19th Century explorers such as David Livingstone receiving wide publicity. More background.
Born on 9 April 1835 in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. He is the eldest son of Léopold I, first king of the Belgians. His full name is Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor.
In line with royal tradition, he enters the Belgian Army at an early age, serving in the grenadiers, where he is appointed as a second lieutenant. Léopold also becomes a member of the Belgian Senate.
1846 - He is given the title the Duke of the Brabant.
1853 - Léopold marries Marie Henrietta, daughter of Archduke Joseph of Austria on 22 August. They have four children - three daughters and a son. The son dies at age nine.
The first years of Léopold's married life are spent travelling through Italy, Austria, Palestine and Greece.
1855 - He is promoted to lieutenant-general and serves as honorary commander of his regiment.
1860 - During the 1860s, Léopold becomes one of the most widely travelled of the European monarchs, spending most of the first half of the 1860s abroad. In 1860 he journeys to Istanbul, the capital of Ottoman Empire. In 1862 he travels to Spain, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Egypt. At the start of 1864 be begins a lengthy tour of Britain, India and China.
At the same time, Léopold continues to advocate his long-held belief that Belgium should become a colonial power. "I believe that the moment is come for us to extend our territories. I think that we must lose no time, under penalty of seeing the few remaining good positions seized upon by more enterprising nations than our own," he says in 1860.
In 1861 he advises the Belgians to "imitate your neighbours; extend beyond the sea whenever an opportunity is offered. You will there find precious outlets for your products, food for your commerce, ... and a still better position in the great European family."
1865 - Léopold assumes the throne following his father's death on 10 December, proclaiming that "all that I desire is to leave Belgium larger, stronger, and more beautiful". However, as a constitutional monarch, he has no power to decide government policy.
Over the next 20 years Léopold lobbies the Belgium Parliament to get a colony "in our turn". After various unsuccessful attempts he eventually resolves to establish his own, private colony, deciding that central Africa holds the greatest potential.
1874 - Meanwhile, with the backing of United States and British newspapers, Henry Morton Stanley begins an ambitious transcontinental expedition of Africa. Over three years he travels 11,000 km from the east coast to the headwaters of the Congo River and then down the river to the Atlantic.
1876 - Léopold sponsors an international geographical conference in Brussels where he proposes the establishment of an international benevolent committee for the "propagation of civilisation among the peoples of the Congo region by means of scientific exploration, legal trade and war against the 'Arabic' slave traders".
"To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress," Léopold says at the conference.
The Association Internationale Africaine (International African Association) is consequently formed, with Léopold as president.
1878 - Léopold sets up the Comité d'Études du Haut Congo (CEHC), an "international commercial, scientific and humanitarian committee", and commissions Henry Morton Stanley to further explore the Congo. However, Stanley's real mission is to establish Belgian sovereignty along the river's south bank and monopoly control over the Congo rubber and ivory trade.
"I'm sure if I quite openly charged Stanley with the task of taking possession in my name of some part of Africa, the English will stop me," Léopold says. "So I think I'll just give Stanley some job of exploration which would offend no one, and will give us the bases and headquarters which we can take over later on."
Léopold tells Stanley to "purchase as much land as you will be able to obtain, and ... place successively under ... suzerainty (overlordship) ... as soon as possible and without losing one minute, all the chiefs from the mouth of the Congo to the Stanley Falls".
Léopold also tells Stanley, "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 the Negroes. That would be absurd."
Over the course of two trips that last until 1884 Stanley buys all the ivory he can. He founds a number of settlements, including Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), and constructs a wagon trail around a unnavigable 200 km stretch of the Congo River. He signs over 450 treaties on behalf of Léopold with chiefs who knowingly or otherwise agree to give up sovereignty over their land in exchange for bolts of cloth and trinkets. Léopold asks that the treaties be as "brief as possible and in a couple of articles must grant us everything".
Among the Congolese, Stanley comes to be known as Bula Matadi (He Who Breaks Rocks in the language of the Kongo people). The term is later used as a generic description for Léopold's colonial system.
1882 - The CEHC is reorganised as the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC - International Association of the Congo), a single-shareholder development company wholly owned by Léopold, who now begins to push for the territory covered by Stanley's treaties to be recognised by the international community as a sovereign state.
1884 - In November the United States and 14 European nations (Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey) meet at the Conference of Berlin. They have gathered to negotiate the carve up of central Africa.
1885 - The Conference of Berlin concludes in February. France is given 670,000 square kilometres on the north bank of the Congo (modern Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic) and Portugal 910,000 square kilometres to the south (modern Angola).
After some deft manipulation, Léopold's claims to the remaining 2.3 million square kilometres on the south bank of the Congo are recognised and the État Indépendant du Congo (Congo Free State - CFS) is founded under his personal rule. Léopold is proclaimed "sovereign" of the new state on 29 May. Boma, a town on the Congo River about 80 km upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, is named as the capital.
Under the terms of the General Act of Berlin Léopold promises to suppress the slave trade, "watch over the preservation" of the 20-30 million Congolese now subject to his rule and improve "their moral and material conditions of existence". He must also encourage missions and other philanthropic and scientific enterprises without any "restriction or impediment whatsoever" and guarantee free trade.
Over the next 23 years Léopold amasses a huge personal fortune by exploiting the Congo directly and by leasing concessions to private companies prepared to pay him 50% of their profits. The period witnesses some of the worst atrocities ever committed on the African continent. However, Léopold never visits the region, ruling instead by decree from Belgium.
Léopold soon acts to secure his fiefdom, building a native army (the Force Publique - public force) composed of Congolese conscripts led by European officers, and contracting a corps of European administrators to manage all of the districts, zones and sectors into which the colony is divided. The top three administrators of the CFS are appointed directly by Léopold, and are accountable only to him.
Ostensibly formed to put down the slave trade, the Force Publique, is quickly turned on the Congolese.
Opposition from the Congolese or Arab merchants is ruthlessly suppressed and slave traders are forced out of the western regions of the CFS, although they are still tolerated in the east.
The Congolese are systematically exploited and abused. Their forced labour builds the colony's infrastructure, transports rubber and ivory from the interior to the river ports, and produces all the territory's food. At the same time, they are required to pay taxes to the state (a provisions tax and a rubber tax). However, the remuneration they receive is completely arbitrary and inadequate and little of the revenue from the taxes is reinvested in the state.
Trade in rubber and ivory is strictly controlled, despite Léopold's undertakings in the Berlin agreement. The colony is divided into two economic zones - a free trade zone open to concession holders and Léopold's "domaine privé" (private domain) encompassing about two-thirds of the CFS landmass. Léopold later excises about a third of the free trade zone, forming the so-called Domaine de la Couronne for his exclusive enrichment. Independent traders are prohibited from operating in all zones.
The Congolese are only allowed to trade with approved agents. To ensure that the maximum is squeezed out of each sector, the salaries of the agents are set at a bare minimum, with the bulk of their income coming from a commission on the rubber and ivory they supply. The agents in turn hire and arm African mercenaries, the so-called Capitas, to force the Congolese under their jurisdiction to work. Communities who refuse to be intimidated or who retaliate are brought into line by military "expeditions".
The Congolese within Léopold's private domain are subjected to greater controls. They can only trade with the state and are required to supply a set quota of rubber and of ivory, at a fixed, government-mandated price. They must provide 10% of their population as full-time, forced labourers and another 25% part-time.
1887 - All land on which no one is actually living is declared "terres vacantes" (vacant) and appropriated by the state.
1888 - In November Léopold issues three decrees. The first prohibits trade in arms, the second sets the terms for the employment of native workers, and the third establishes the Force Publique. The decree setting the terms of employment allows the workers to be indentured for terms of seven years to their employers.
Léopold also convinces the Belgian Parliament to advance him 10 million francs for use in the Congo, establishing a link between the government and Léopold's regime. The parliament later provides a further loan of 25 million francs.
Meanwhile, the construction of a railway line to bypass the 200 km unnavigable stretch of the Congo from Matadi inland to Stanley Pool begins, with the Congolese providing the labour. The railway is completed in 1898.
1889 - On 18 November the 15 signatories to 1885's General Act of Berlin, along with Persia, gather on Léopold's invitation at the Conference of Brussels to discuss further measures for the suppression of the slave trade on the African continent.
1890 - After 33 sessions the Conference of Brussels concludes on 2 July with the participants declaring they are "animated by the firm intention of putting an end to the crimes and devastation engendered by the traffic in African slaves, of protecting effectually the aboriginal populations of Africa, and of insuring for the vast continent the benefits of peace and civilisation".
The general act ratified by the conference includes an article binding the signatories to "support and, if necessary, to serve as a refuge for the native populations; ... to diminish intertribal wars by means of arbitration; ... to raise them by civilisation and bring about the extinction of barbarous customs, such as cannibalism and human sacrifices; and, in giving aid to commercial enterprises, to watch over their legality, controlling especially the contracts for service entered into with natives".
1891 - The price of rubber begins to increase following the invention of the inflatable rubber tire. The agents and concession holders exploiting the Congo's wild rubber vines now stand to make enormous profits, with returns of up to 700% per year being reported.
To cash in on the opportunity, the Congolese labourers are squeezed further still. Local chiefs are required to supply men to collect the so-called "rubber tax", with wives and children being held hostage and chiefs imprisoned until the men return with their quotas. The amount of rubber needed to meet the tax requires the men to work for up 25 days each month harvesting the wild rubber vines in the Congo forests. Failure to supply the quotas results in floggings, torture, and death.
The Force Publique is used to ensure the Congolese comply, crushing any uprisings that result from the new demands.
Meanwhile, Léopold hires the Canadian explorer and British military commander William Stairs to lead a mission to take control of the copper lands of Katanga.
1892 - The so-called Arab Campaign to drive the remaining slave traders from the east of the CFS begins. The region is secured by 1894.
1895 - The Stokes Affair raises an early warning on the abuses occurring inside the CFS. Charles Henry Stokes, a British-born trader, is arrested for illegal trading, summarily tried and then hung the next day. News of the incident is met with indignation in both England and Germany.
1896 - The outside world gets another glimpse of Léopold's regime when on 12 March a question is asked in the British Parliament about the treatment of natives from Britain's African colonies who had been employed to work in the CFS.
According to the British secretary of state for the colonies, the native workers had complained of being forcibly drafted as soldiers and of being flogged and in some instances shot. "In consequence of these complaints received, the recruitment of labourers for the Congo has been prohibited," the secretary says.
1897 - Léopold issues his Gospel of Labour decree to his agents in the Congo, telling them to place the population under new laws "the most imperious as well as the most salutary of which is assuredly that of work".
Ownership of most of the Belgium-registered companies holding concessions in the CFS is handed over to Léopold.
1899 - Joseph Conrad publishes his novel 'Heart of Darkness', which is based on his experiences as a merchant seaman on the Congo River in 1890.
1900 - When the Congolese start to refuse to work under the prevailing conditions Léopold's agents begin to pay chiefs to supply "volunteer" workers. Slaves are also appropriated from Arab traders.
Resistance to Léopold's rule again mounts and is again crushed, with local chiefs organising many uprisings. The Babua tribes revolt in 1903, 1904, and 1910, and the Budja in 1903 and 1905. In 1895 and 1897 the Force Publique mutinies.
As the resistance increases so does the cost of repression, causing Léopold to declare a state monopoly on rubber and ivory in a bid to recover the increasing costs of maintaining control. The Force Publique alone soaks up half the Congo's restricted budget.
At its peak, the Force Publique numbers about 19,000 African conscripts, led by about 420 European officers. The force commits many atrocities to terrorise the Congolese into complying with Léopold's ever-increasing demands. Villages are burned, and men, women and children are indiscriminately slaughtered or forced into slavery.
To prove the success of their patrols, Force Publique soldiers are ordered to cut off and bring back a dead victim's right hand for every bullet fired. The soldiers resort to cutting off the hands of the living to ensure that the number of spent cartridges tallies with the number of preserved hands. They are also reported to engage in cannibalism.
The headquarters of Force Publique leader Leon Rom exemplifies the gruesome nature of the regime. The fence surrounding Rom's office bears a severed native head on each slat, and the garden contains a rockery full of rotting heads.
The terror campaign succeeds and Léopold's profits soar.
Meanwhile, news of the atrocities filters out of the CFS, with Protestant missionaries and disaffected agents providing early alerts. Their stories are at first disbelieved, with Léopold initiating a publicity and media campaign to discredit the claims and suppress the evidence.
To support his case, Léopold points to a commission composed of missionaries he has set up to protect the Congolese and report any cases of abuse, although the commission is said by witnesses to be largely bogus, as are the investigations into the cases that do come to light.
Léopold also uses bribery to silence the media.
1901 - After discovering what he later describes as a "secret society of murderers with a king for a (partner)," Edmund Dene Morel, a British shipping clerk employed to oversee shipments to and from the Congo, begins a campaign to expose the human rights abuses occurring in the CFS. He establishes the weekly newsletter 'The West African Mail' and conducts speaking tours in Britain. The British Government responds by sending the diplomat Roger Casement to the CFS in 1903 to investigate the conditions there.
1902 - Following his wife's death on 20 September Léopold openly consorts with his mistress, Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix, a Parisian prostitute, scandalising his peers, who sever contact with him. The couple have two children.
1903 - On 20 May the British House of Commons unanimously passes a resolution stating, "That the government of the Congo Free State, having, at its inception, guaranteed to the powers that its native subjects should be governed with humanity, and that no trading monopoly or privilege should be permitted within its dominions, this House requests His Majesty's Government to confer with the other powers, signatories of the Berlin General Act, by virtue of which the Congo Free State exists, in order that measures may be adopted to abate the evils prevalent in that state.
"The evils prevalent in the Congo State are, therefore, now unanimously declared by the House of Commons to be so grave as to call for international action."
In July the Belgian Parliament spends three days debating the situation in the CFS, with the minister for foreign affairs stating that the Congolese "are not entitled to anything".
1904 - Roger Casement's 62-page report on the CFS is published. It's descriptions of hostage taking, floggings, mutilation, forced labour and murder cause a public outrage.
In March, with international concern over the treatment of the Congolese growing, Morel and Casement found the Congo Reform Association (CRA) in Britain, providing a focus for one of the first human rights movements of the 20th Century. A branch of the association is set up in the US later in the year.
Morel gives talks and publishes books and pamphlets to publicise the plight of the Congolese. He does not shy away from using information smuggled out of the CFS by missionaries and Léopold's employees, including graphic photographs of the mutilations suffered by the regime's victims.
This documentary evidence, and the photographs in particular, proves crucial in the campaign to refute Léopold's denials.
In Britain the CRA receives the support of many leading figures, including Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer and creator of the Sherlock Holmes mystery series.
Taking the cause to the US, Morel meets with President Theodore Roosevelt and gains the support of the African-American educator Booker T. Washington and the writer Mark Twain.
In an article titled 'Cruelty in the Congo Country', Washington writes, "There was never anything in American slavery that could be compared to the barbarous conditions existing today in the Congo Free State."
Léopold attempts to stop the flow of information coming from the Congo and counter the campaign of the CRA but the public mood has turned too far against him and the "rubber atrocities" being committed in the CFS.
Mark Twain calls Léopold the slayer of 15 million Congolese and a "greedy, grasping, avaricious, cynical, bloodthirsty old goat". His dark and graphic satire, 'King Léopold's Soliloquy: A Defence of His Congo Rule', is published in pamphlet form by the American Congo Reform Association in September 1905.
"I have spent other millions on religion and art, and what do I get for it? Nothing. Not a compliment," Twain imagines Léopold saying in the soliloquy. "These generosities are studiedly ignored, in print. In print I get nothing but slanders - and slanders again - and still slanders, and slanders on top of slanders! Grant them true, what of it? They are slanders all the same when uttered against a king."
The Belgium Parliament finally forces Léopold to set up an independent commission of inquiry, which in 1905 confirms Casement's report and the eyewitness testimonies of missionaries.
However, the complete findings of the commission are withheld from the public, who are only allowed to see a sanitised version of the report containing just the conclusions of the inquiry.
The prime casualty of the inquiry is Léopold's chief secretary-general in the CFS who, following an interview with the commissioners, commits suicide, cutting his own throat.
The only people to face prosecution as a result of the commission are several of the missionaries who provided evidence. Brought to court for criminal libel, they face custodial sentences or a fine.
Léopold responds to the commission by setting up a new inquiry "to study the conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry, to formulate the proposals they call for, and to seek for practical means for realising them". Stacked with Léopold's cronies, this new inquiry achieves no lasting results.
For the next two years the Belgium Parliament dithers over what to do, rejecting Léopold's offer to reform his regime, but reluctant to take control of the territory.
In the meantime, Léopold squeezes all he can from the CFS while the opportunity lasts, enlarging the Domaine de la Couronne to maximise his personal gain. A new law limiting the time the Congolese must work for the state to 40 hours a month is flagrantly abused.
1908 - On 10 August the Belgium Parliament finally acts, annexing the CFS under the Colonial Charter. The colony is renamed the Belgian Congo and Léopold's power is limited to a constitutional rather than personal role. In recognition of the "great sacrifices" he has made for the Congo, Léopold receives a large payout.
Over the time of Léopold's rule the population of the Congo has declined from an estimated 20-30 million to less than nine million.
Léopold attempts to destroy the evidence of the genocide, ordering that the CFS archives in Belgium and the Congo be burnt.
The Belgium Parliament never conducts a formal commission of inquiry into the human rights abuses that occurred in the CFS, and no official is ever held to account.
Twelve months after the annexation, the Belgian colonial minister travels to the Congo. On his return he denies that the human rights abuses have occurred.
1909 - Léopold marries his lover Blanche Delacroix on 12 December. He dies just five days later, on 17 December, in Laeken, Belgium. Before dying he signs a law instituting compulsory military service. He is buried at the Church of Our Lady, Laeken Cemetery, in Brussels.
With no surviving male heir he is succeeded by his nephew, the 16 year old Albert.
Meanwhile, Arthur Conan Doyle publishes 'The Crime of the Congo', his account of how under Léopold's rule the Congolese have been "robbed of all they possessed, debauched, degraded, mutilated, tortured, murdered, all on such a scale as has never, to my knowledge, occurred before in the whole course of history".
In attempting to explain how Léopold's seemingly philanthropic initial intentions towards the Congo could have degenerated into the "the greatest crime in all history," Doyle writes, " It is ... probable, as it seems to me, that his ambitious mind discerned that it was possible for him to acquire a field of action which his small kingdom could not give, in mixing himself with the affairs of Africa.
"He chose the obvious path, that of a civilising and elevating mission, taking the line of least resistance without any definite idea whither it might lead him. Once faced with the facts, his astute brain perceived the great material possibilities of the country, his early dreams faded away to be replaced by unscrupulous cupidity, and step by step he was led downwards until he, the man of holy aspirations in 1885, stands now in 1909 with such a cloud of terrible direct personal responsibility resting upon him as no man in modern European history has had to bear."
Doyle holds Léopold directly responsible for the abuses of his regime. "It is upon the King, always the King, that the guilt must lie," he writes. "He planned it, knowing the results which must follow. They did follow. He was well informed of it. Again and again, and yet again, his attention was drawn to it. A word from him would have altered the system. The word was never said. There is no possible subterfuge by which the moral guilt can be deflected from the head of the state, the man who went to Africa for the freedom of commerce and the regeneration of the native."
1960 - The territory formally encompassed by the CFS finally achieves independence on 30 June and is named the Republic of the Congo. However, in 1965 army leader Joseph Mobutu seizes control. Like Léopold, Mobutu rules over a corrupt and violent regime, using his dictatorial powers to funnel the wealth of the Congo into his own pockets.
1971 - In October the name of the country is changed to Zaire.
2002 - In July Belgium's Royal Museum for Central Africa announces that it has commissioned a group of eminent historians to investigate the genocide that occurred in the CFS. "We will look at these claims, we will investigate them and by 2004 we will attempt to provide an answer," Guido Gryseels, the director of the museum, says.
"Part of the Belgian goal was to teach Africans to work, not in the 'childish' pursuits of their own culture, but in organised, rational routines of productive wage labour in the European manner, for European employers," Gryseels continues.
"Such labour was considered to exercise a civilising influence. A profitable by-product was the provision of cheap labour. The Colonial Charter had declared that no one could be compelled to work, and by 1912 the forced delivery of rubber and other natural products had come to a stop, but until the depression of the 1930s, mining and agricultural companies resorted to recruiting methods little different from forced labour."
2003 - The political situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo remains unstable, arguably a legacy of Léopold's regime and of the decades of Belgium colonial rule that followed. Corruption and violence appear to be entrenched. Cases of rape, torture, executions and cannibalism are widely reported. The International Rescue Committee estimates that 4.7 million people have died through famine and warfare since 1997.
Towards the end of Joseph Conrad's novel 'Heart of Darkness' there is the famous scene of the death of Kurtz, the corrupted agent of a company exploiting an equatorial country that is unnamed but based on the CFS.
"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again," Conrad writes. "Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath -
"'The horror! The horror!'"
The scene could have been a presentiment of King Léopold's own demise, though it is unlikely that Léopold experienced any such insight as he drew his last breath. The horror was not of his creation, Léopold maintained, quite the reverse.
Consider this quote from the king: "Our only program, I am anxious to repeat, is the work of moral and material regeneration, and we must do this among a population whose degeneration in its inherited conditions it is difficult to measure. The many horrors and atrocities which disgrace humanity give way little by little before our intervention."
Quite a statement from one of the most notorious degenerates of 19th Century Europe and the perpetuator of unnumbered atrocities within the CFS. Léopold was a hypocrite and liar of monumental proportions. He barely made it into the 20th Century but he deserves to be listed as one of its worst killers.
- Zaire - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series
- Léopold II of Belgium - Wikipedia
- World Socialist Website - Belgium's Imperialist Rape of Africa
- 'Heart of Darkness' - By Joseph Conrad. On-line copy of the at www.literaturepage.com
- 'The Crime of the Congo' - By Arthur Conan Doyle. On-line copy at archive.org
- 'King Léopold's Soliloquy: A Defence Of His Congo Rule' - By Mark Twain. On-line copy at archive.org