What were the peculiarities of forced labour in the colony of Leopold II? What makes this notorious king responsible for the notorious actions?
Congo is a significant area in the centre of Africa. It lived in isolation for centuries. But it is not that the Congolese and the Europeans avoided contact with each other. The Portuguese traded continuously with this civilisation. Only colonisation was never seen as an option to take over this region. It is not situated near the shores of Africa, which could come in handy for travel. Nor did the Europeans know the Congo was rich in resources like rubber. Congo lived a long life without any interference from the Europeans. Until Leopold II had taken it over.
But the colonisation of the Congo by Leopold II is notorious for its cruelty. From forced labour in harsh conditions, horrible punishments like the amputation of hands to the abduction of children to force them into education. In this article we will be dealing with the atrocities that happened in the Congo under Leopold II. We want to see how Leopold II was responsible for the murders and how the Congolese, Belgians and the superpowers reacted.
Atrocities in the Congo
One of the first things to come to mind when thinking about Congo Freestate, ironically, are the unfree conditions. Many Congolese were dragged in to work, predominantly, for the rubber industry. They worked on the fields, tapping the rubber that later got used for export. The coloniser introduced the system of “Red rubber”. People were forced to work as a form of taxation. You could see this as slavery, since they were obligated to harvest, only with little reward like salt, cloth etc.
Some of the Congolese were also selected to lead the harvesters, they were called the Force Publique. A gendarme selected to use enforcement to their own people. Many of the Force Publique behaved horribly during the plantations. Whipping people who worked poorly, oftently abusing their power for rape and violence.
The colonial system was rather demeaning. Making the locals seem inferior and barbarian. Even depicting them like animals. One of those manifestations of this perspective of 19th century Europeans looking at people of colour like different beings, is in the juridical system. When an animal misbehaves for example, they get punished by putting chains around the neck. On humans this could be seen as cruel. But that was the case in Congo Freestate. One famous picture for example, showed how a group of Congolese who were chained around their neck. This was a common treatment. They were alleged for being guilty of cannibalism. But even for other allegations, this was common.
The punishment harshest of all was the act of cutting off the hands and feet. Every harvester had to reach a certain quota. When they didn’t meet that quota, they were perceived as “unable to work”. They had no workable hands thus they had to cut them off. Many were also killed later on. There are immense amount of pictures on this indescrible horrible punishment. Alice Seeley Harris one of the most incredible photographers in history, took many pictures to give exposure to the notorious acts by Leopold II and his elitary group of officers.
So how was Leopold II accountable for these actions? Let’s go back to 1830, on the other side of the world in Europe, a small country came up. The creation of Belgium. A young new monarchy that gained its independence from the Dutch Kingdom. It was drastically expanding its industry, started developing a better infrastructure and even metro stations and train stations. Belgium was the first in continental Europe to develop a working train system (initially between Mechelen and Brussels, 1834). But it never needed a colony. Belgium focused on heavy industry and relied on coal. Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium, was rich in coal. Hence why colonisation was never necessary.
But when Leopold II came to power in 1865, this perspective changed. He needed his own colony, not a Belgian colony, but his own project. Leopold II attempted to colonise the heart of Africa numerous times. Only failing to take over the region. Congo was never properly mapped, So it was difficult to see what was located there. What resources, what cultures etc. Thus he initiated the Conférence géographique de Bruxelles on 12 September 1876. In the conference they established the front organisation, Association Internationale Africaine. Professional explorers were invited to talk about the process of civilising Africa.
Henry Morton Stanley was one of those explorers. Henry Morton Stanley was an American journalist and explorer born in Denbigh Wales. He is of interest, considering his experience in exploring the continent. Having been to Africa numerous times and even thought of having been to the Congo River before, he was the ideal figure for Leopold II. He was in Congo from 1879 to 1884. Trying to convince the other superpowers like the USA, France, the UK, Austria-Hungary etc. to allow Leopold II to own the region. He, after frequent campaigns, started lobbying and creating claims for the territory. After procclaiming Congo in hands of Leopold II during the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885, he continued initiating operations to the Congo and founded the Association internationale du Congo. Hereby many territories came in hands of Leopold II.
Leopold II appointed elitary officers to lead the Force Publique. They each got a ground to work on. There was a sense of anarcho capitalism. An extreme form of capitalism were the each of the elites got full control over a territory and even its people. Hence why it was common for the officers to abuse their power and abuse the harvesters. Leopold II also never even acknowledged the harsh treatments and even condoning it.
The global powers did react to the allegations against Leopold II. Many pictures, like we mentioned earlier of for example Alice Seeley Harris, became very infamous. Hence why it was crucial for a conference to happen. On November 15, 1908, Leopold II was no longer allowed to solely rule over the colony with his regime. He thus was obligated to hand over the Congo to the government. The Congo became no longer a monarch possession but a governmental possession, from Congo Freestate to Belgian Congo. Although this transfer improved the conditions in the Congo, the whole system was still paternalistic.
The people later became rebellious in the course of the 20th century. Many elitary Congolese followed education, knew the language and acted like the Belgians themselves. They became more willing to rule over their own country. Thus in the 1950s, many of these elites demonstrated that they need emancipation. Many prohibited protests happened and turned into a revolution. Everything got out of hand so Baudouin, King of Belgium, decided it was for the better to give the Congo its full independence. And that became the end of the long reign over the heart of Africa. A reign that started of infested with abuse, blood and inhumanity.