The Hidden History of the Congo
Written by Daniel Hawkins.
This week marks the 130th anniversary of the founding of the Congo Free State. While not widely recognized as a genocide, the Congo Free State lost 50% of its population (at least 10 million) within a 23-year period to war, executions, and disease. This is a story—a story that you’ve probably never heard—of why it happened and what we can learn today.
When you were a kid, you probably heard stories of kings and queens, princes and princesses. While these traditions go back to the medieval era, cartoons and picture books often place these stories sometime around the Victorian age. The women wear bell-shaped dresses with sparkling tiaras. The mean wear golden epaulettes and elegant sabers. In their ornate palaces, the women dance with nobility at balls, while the men ride in fox hunts across the sweeping grounds. Of course, the writers add in elements of fantasy to further hold our attention, such as dwarves or fairies, with whom our royal protagonists interact. Especially growing up in America, it has always been easy for most of us to look at it all through the lens of Old World charm. I would wager that few Americans who grew up hearing these stories have not, at some time, imagined going back in time and venturing into the highlands of Scotland or the Black Forest of Germany, and entering into a world of magic spells and talking animals. But in growing up, we realize that those fantastical elements were only added as a sort of artificial sweetener to a concoction aimed at the tastes of children. Unfortunately, very few grown-ups realize that when we read what’s left of the tales—a world where most of the characters are members of the courts of queens and tsars—we’re still swallowing something unnaturally sweet. The reality was very, very bitter.
A Meeting of the Royals
Once upon a time, Europe’s most eminent dynasties and their representatives gathered together for a once-in-a-lifetime event. Princes, dukes, viscounts, kings, and their ambassadors all gathered together (although not all at once) in the blossoming city of Vienna over the course of a year between 1814 and 1815. Vienna at the time was the heart of the storied and monumental Hapsburg dynasty. With this great imperial prowess came cultural significance; Vienna boasted some of the best baroque architecture and classical music in the world, so it was no wonder that the politicians of the day were mocked in the press for spending too much time dancing and sight-seeing. In a sense, Europe was experiencing a sort of high, and Vienna was no exception—just a few years earlier, the city had been under the occupation of the meteoric French emperor Napoleon.
Napoleon was a prodigal general with unrivaled ambition. Out of the liberal fervor of the French Revolution, Napoleon saw it as his destiny not only to fashion a new French empire based on Revolutionary values, but to expand it all across Europe. Napoleon wanted an empire for the modern era, and many have seen him (as he may have seen himself) as a spiritual successor to Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. His vision came at a price, however. Europe was plunged into a conflict of unprecedented scale, using strategies, tactics, and technologies that brought the death tolls into the millions. The result of the Napoleonic Wars was a defeat for the French. After the smoke cleared, it was clear to the commoner and the intelligentsia that the world would never be the same. By most historians’ standards, the Medieval era ended and the Renaissance/Early Modern era began when the Ottomans captured Constantinople (or, a few decades later, when Columbus discovered the Americas). The Napoleonic Wars (and the series of revolutions that preceded it) marked the end of the Early Modern Era and the beginning of the Modern Era. On this modern stage, there was to be a new set of main characters (some played by fresh-faced actors, others simply old veterans hoping to rehabilitate their reputations by donning a stage name and attaching it to an interesting, new project), and as always, they wrote their own scripts.
The main focus of what came to be called the Congress of Vienna was, more or less, to figure out what to do about France. With the wars drawing to a close, the powers of Europe had to figure out how best to avoid another similar situation. France would be pushed back to its old borders, that much was certain. But in all the fighting new alliances and enmities had been made, new dynasties emerged. Almost every learned person in Europe knew about these largely secret dealings. They didn’t know the details, of course, but at the time it wasn’t seen as corruption—it was seen as plain old politics. These heads of state were not stupid, however; they knew that not everyone would stand idly by while they played around with the lives of millions like it was a simple board game. After all, there were revolutions happening in colonies around the world—places that were, a few decades before, reliable sources of wealth. So, to satisfy the spirit of self-governance that was sweeping the commons, the leaders (who were infamously reactionary) had to cover their mutual back scratching with a veneer of political rhetoric. They cast Napoleon as a fanatical French Revolutionary, blaming him for destabilizing the continent and nearly bringing about Armageddon, and claimed they were restoring a “balance of power.” This theory dictated that the empires of kingdoms of the time, dubbed the Concert of Europe, had to share power in order to maintain peace. In order to do this, they had to literally re-draw the map of Europe.
The 1800s proved to be probably the most revolutionary and transformative century in all of human history. But to understand why (as I always say), we have to first look back and understand the context.
The Great March Forward
This may sound boring at first, but bear with me: historians generally agree that, broadly speaking, after the year 500 AD, history can be generally broken down into three main blocks:
- The Medieval Era (lasting from around 500 AD until, depending on who you ask, either 1453 or 1492)
- The Early Modern Era (lasting form either 1454 or 1492 until about 1815)
- The Modern Era (about 1815 to present)
That’s a very broad outline, and scholars argue intensely about it, but for the layman, its good enough. What’s important to note, and something that most historians forget to explain, is that while these dates represent historical milestones (the fall of Rome, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the discovery of the New World, and the Congress of Vienna respectively). The truth of the matter is that history, even economic history, is more like evolution itself—it’s a series of gradual changes. In most respects, we can’t really agree on where one period ended and another began, but there are times when we can point to an event like a biologist can point to a particular species and say “that’s a good symbol to represent how far things had really come.”
When most people think of the Industrial Revolution, they tend to fit it within the box of the 1800s, as if it was unique and unprecedented. That’s true, but it had precipitating factors—parents, if you will. One parent of the Industrial Revolution was Mercantilism.
Most modern economists from both the Left and Right tend to disagree with me when I categorize the Industrial Revolution as a sort of continuation of Mercantilism. They point to specific features (that Mercantilism relied on bullion, for example) to support their idea that true, modern Capitalism had replaced Mercantilism at least by 1850, if not earlier. In my view, that simply isn’t true. 1) Capitalism has never actually existed in any place with a ruling State, and 2) the Industrial Revolution certainly wasn’t laissez-faire. In fact, it was usually a crown that was controlling the “invisible hand.”
Even before Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, Europeans were trading with foreign continents. North Africa, the Middle East, and China were all major sources for exotic spices, silk, and gunpowder throughout the late Medieval Era. Unfortunately for the nobles of Europe, while Rome was able establish permanent colonies overland in Europe, the technology simply did not exist to allow them to establish permanent colonies overseas. But the Portuguese and the Spanish were at the cutting edge. They were throwing money at the most brilliant navigators the world had yet seen, developing technologies and methods that would allow them to sail further than ever before. As the Early Modern period dawned, the empires of Europe began establishing colonies on an ever-widening world map. Britain and France joined in, followed shortly by the Netherlands. The internal strife between empires and city-states that had characterized Medieval Europe sort of gave way (with the exception of the European Wars of Religion, which I will discuss later, that I think were in some ways a vestige) to commercial competition abroad. Soon, there were colonies in places as far-flung as Peru, Virginia, Angola, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. While the primary resources pumped out of these colonies were gold and silver (the heart of Mercantilist economics), there were other things the colonies offered, such as precious stones or sugar cane, that also attracted European buyers. Backing up this great commercial expanse, of course, was force.
There were some native uprisings early on in Early Modern history, but they were rarely successful. Europeans by this point were simply too technologically advanced. With massive cannons, steel swords, and crippling foreign diseases, European colonial powers managed to put much of the world under their thumb. This often involved either slavery, when the populations could be quelled and controlled, or genocide, when they couldn’t (the most obvious examples being African slavery in America and the extermination of Native Americans). This was all so that the colonial powers could accomplish two main tasks: to fill up their treasuries (often serving as backing for the printing of paper money or bonds through the relatively new “central banks”) and to provide the right resources that could then be refined in Europe into purchasable goods.
By the mid-to-late 1700s, there was a new way to make things that would totally change the way markets worked. For the last few centuries, the economies of European countries and their colonies often involved bartering with neighbors, paying with gold or keeping running tabs with craftsmen, or making salable goods at home. By this point, some entrepreneurs had started using machines to make textiles that were relatively easy to use and could replace the spinning wheel and loom. These machines were so easy to use, in fact, that it did not take years of apprenticeship to learn, and several relatively unskilled people could operate them together in one place, increasing output beyond imaginable levels. These places (and textiles is just one early example) were called “manufacturies.” As they became more ubiquitous, and as technology advanced (allowing for a variety of goods to be made quickly and cheaply), people started calling them factories.
Even by the 1780s, rudimentary factories had started popping up in economic hubs like Paris, London, and New York. Governments certainly had an interest in these systems, probably more than they were interested in agriculture. Factories could make expensive goods cheaply, and not only did this mean money in the form of tariffs and duties, but also taxes (as the GDP grew). The merchant class of the Medieval and Early Modern Eras was slowly absorbed and transformed into the industrial class. By the time of the Congress of Vienna, governments were subsidizing, granting patents to, cutting taxes and tariffs for, and granting land to manufacturers.
Things only got more interesting from there. New inventions seemed to pop up every few years. Reapers, sewing machines, cameras, turbines, and revolver handguns all appeared between 1800 and 1850. Watermills were slowly but surely replaced with coal power. As transportation also evolved—with the advent of highways, canals, and railroads—the once-aged powers of Europe (along with the United States) were truly modernizing. This was the Industrial Revolution.
Nations and States
But it wasn’t just the economy that had been completely transformed by the 1850s. Political ideology, and how statecraft really worked, underwent hundred of often-violent changes between the Medieval and Modern Eras that are also crucial to our understanding of the topic.
By the Early Modern Era, Feudalism was being replaced by Mercantilism in most European countries. While some historians contend that it was not as distinct as others think it, it is safe to say that gone was the manorial system of serfs. There were still peasants, that was true, but the average person actually started experienced much more personal freedom than had ever existed before. While they certainly had existed before, towns and villages began forming where there were true communities of common people. Oftentimes, these people would share a few things in common—usually their language, their religion, and their ethnicity—that we term “culture.” As economic freedom expanded in the Early Modern Era, commoners became more politically active.
The printing press was always a sort of democratic tool, and as more of the European (and later colonial) populace learned to read, they could gather together to discuss tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, and songbooks, often with a particular political and cultural bent. In Europe of the 1600s, this resulted in incredible warfare. The State has never been one to lay its hands off a divisive tool, and print propaganda—which had begun in the mid 15th century—was pervasive. Protestants fought against Catholics (and often with other types of Protestants). The Habsburgs fought against the Valois. Cavaliers fought against Roundheads. Ottomans fought against Slavs. Although most of this conflict was over by the 1700s, it was more due to exhaustion rather than a real desire for peace. There were still sharp cultural divides among Europeans (again, due to religion, language, and ethnicity) that some would call “national” divides.
It is important that we define what is and is not a nation. The trouble with that is nobody really agrees. For the purposes of this discussion, I will define a nation as a group of people with the same or similar cultural features. When enough people share cultural features, they often end up sharing other aspects, like food or music or even social values. This can produce some very cool stuff, of course, and gives different areas a certain vibrancy. Unfortunately, with a shared national identity comes a shared national history. This is the fatal flaw of collectivist thinking. When one group harms another, it’s remembered for generations, and it’s often innocents (be they civilians and/or the descendants of the offenders) that suffer retribution.
When the State is involved, we can easily observe how easily it manipulates feelings of national identity. Instead of blood but short-lived feuds, the State can drag nations into all out war. Sometimes it isn’t even driven by a sense of religious righteousness or ethnic supremacy, but simply by pride. National pride for the sake of national pride is dangerous. In 1800, not everyone knew that. After all, wasn’t it national pride that brought the Americans together for independence? Wasn’t it national pride that was the driving force behind colonial expansion? To the average European at the time, national pride was a good thing. They saw no holocausts, no world wars, to prove otherwise. But Napoleon did just that.
While the Congress of Vienna depicted him as a liberal with unlimited freedom and radical republicanism on his mind, Napoleon (who, I’ll admit, had a controversial and debatable personality) did not really represent those things. Napoleon did not go around conquering other countries for the sake of democracy (cough, cough). Napoleon wanted France to be great. He wanted France to transcend popular revolt. He wanted France to follow in the footsteps of Greece and Rome—maturing from a democracy into an empire—and he, in his own mind at least, would someday eclipse Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. To Napoleon and other Nationalists, France was simply superior in every way, and to prove its superiority, Napoleon and his army conquered anyone who challenged that idea.
That biggest tragedy in all this is that the Congress of Vienna refused to recognize that Napoleon was nothing more than a very smart, very violent Nationalist. Why? Because they too were very smart, very violent Nationalists. They did not want popular uprisings. That was one major goal of the Balance of Power—the new borders would (hopefully) separate groups with big enough differences in national identity that would otherwise lead to war.
More uprisings did happen. Some of them were motivated by the desire for Democracy (usually resulting in the establishment of Constitutional Monarchies), some of them were motivated by proto-Socialism (usually resulting in the legalization of trade unions and expansion of suffrage), and others were motivated by, you guessed it, Nationalism. People who saw themselves as different from their ruling class often wanted to break away. Self-determination was a political ideal to most people by that point. When you do not share the same language, religion, or ethnicity as your rulers, it is easy to feel alienated, especially when that feeling of alienation is passed down from generation to generation. This was exactly the case among a small but vocal group of Europeans that today we call Belgians.
David and Goliath
This is the part where the Congress of Vienna comes back in (you’re probably thinking “Thank God, I didn’t read all that for nothing”). Napoleon fell upon Europe like a tsunami. While they fought back throughout his occupation, Napoleon’s western neighbors, the Netherlands, came under his yoke.
Today, we might think of the Netherlands as a charming place full of wooden clogs and windmills, but throughout the Early Modern Era, it was an economic powerhouse. Taking advantage of the natural efficiency of free markets, the Netherlands abandoned the Portuguese model of colonial expansion—whereby colonies were ruled by noble agents of the State (royal governors, dukes, princes, etc.)—and replaced it with a semi-privatized system. This system was epitomized by the Dutch East India Company. At home, the Netherlands was at the forefront of finance, as it was home to the world’s largest stock exchange (keep in mind that New York used to be called New Amsterdam). The Netherlands, for most of its history, was actually a sort of confederation of city-states, ruled by a combination of elected politicians, landed gentry (the House of Orange and Nassau being the most powerful), and merchants/bankers.
In 1801, after a period of civil unrest caused by popular uprisings, there was a coup that ended the confederation system. William V of Orange-Nassau was exiled temporarily, and it was not long before Napoleon invaded. He installed his own chosen king, and while most Dutch citizens were against the idea of a monarchy (still largely being used to their old system), they were even more against the idea of a puppet king controlled by the French. As Napoleon fell, the Great Powers colluded with Dutch elites to merge the republics (and some other republics currently under control of foreign powers) into one new monarchy. These annexed territories included the Austrian Netherlands, Liége, and Belgium. The newly formed United Kingdom of the Netherlands came under the hereditary rule of the House of Orange-Nassau. It was not an autocracy, however. No, the Great Powers were cunning, and they knew the citizens would never accept an absolute monarchy. That age was over with. A Constitutional Monarchy was in order, with a bicameral legislature of both “common” people and noblemen (reminiscent of Britain’s, which the House of Orange had helped establish). It was celebrated at home and abroad as a nice conclusion to the violent instability of the past decade. The historically eminent Netherlands had lost many of its colonies by this point, but still retained much of its former glow. But trouble was brewing within.
The northern parts of the Kingdom (historically called Holland or the Netherlands proper) consisted mainly of ethnic Dutch citizens, who spoke Dutch, and practiced Protestantism. The southern parts of the Kingdom (historically called Flanders, and later Belgium) consisted mainly of ethnic Belgian citizens, who spoke French, and practiced Catholicism. By the 1820s, the government had gone far into debt, and the reigning King William I (the son of the previously referred to William V) had captured the spirit of the revolution that had ousted his father, and in so doing won over a lot of popular support from his Dutch citizens. He presided over nominal liberal reforms, but more in line with the French Revolution, he weakened the power of the clergy, particularly Catholics. Not only that, but the voting rights of the Belgians were unofficially diminished compared to the Dutch citizens. This angered the Belgians of the south, digging up deep-seated national differences, and within 15 years, they rebelled.
The fighting did not last long, but it was passionate and fairly bloody. King William I and his son, William II, thought the rebellion would pass, but it did not. Lasting from August to November of 1830. The Great Powers feared that these rebels would ask France to invade on their behalf, and so they called the “Belgian Congress” to discuss what to do. Britain had marriage ties to a German duke, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. He was seen as a neutral force, and his presence would further ensure that France would remain weak. After some diplomacy, the Belgians invited him to be their king, becoming Leopold I of Belgium.
Leopold I is generally looked upon favorably as a monarch. He had a few imperial “adventures,” but these were not impressive undertakings with large payoffs. He mainly focused on internal affairs, seeking to further modernize Belgium, strengthening it in its independence. The Belgian constitution limited him from becoming a despot, even though he was a German protestant with virtually nothing in common with his subjects, but he married the French princess, which curried some favor among them. He prevented the Revolutions of 1848—which were successful in removing monarchs from most European countries and establishing proto-Socialist regimes—from spreading to Belgium. All in all, his reign was fairly uneventful.
By the end of his life, in 1865, Leopold I’s eldest son had died, leaving his second son, Leopold, to run the country. Leopold II was very different from his father, and he had a far darker legacy.
Scrambling for Power
While he was seen as reserved and intelligent, the adage that “it’s always the quiet ones” proved to be true in Leopold’s case. He was a master of deception, manipulation, and strategy. His citizens saw in him a solid monarch, who at worst would be remembered as mediocre. He knew how to play to the growing Socialist movement while at the same time preserving the Constitutional Monarchy and most of its traditions. Leopold wanted the world to take him and his country seriously. At home, this meant modernizing transportation and commissioning architecture that would rival that of Vienna, Paris, and London. He had a pretty positive image among his citizens. But Leopold wasn’t too focused on domestic matters. No—he would make the small and nascent Belgium into a respected and powerful country, but the source of that power was not to be found at home.
By the time Leopold was crowned, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Agriculture rarely involved a scythe or thresher anymore. There were machines that could actually make other machines. Guns had been invented that could fire 200 rounds per minute. Coal was king.
This was a tantalizing opportunity for Imperialist powers looking southward toward Africa. During the Early Modern period, Europeans had learned to sail around the Sahara, and thereby opening up the coasts of Africa to colonization. For a few centuries, Britain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands had been exporting gold, ivory, and slaves. By the 1800s, these colonies had been largely expended. Asia seemed to be the main area of focus. As far as most people were concerned, the jungles of Africa’s interior were far too dangerous and dense for Europeans to really explore. But, in order to keep up the industrial advances back home, the empires had to do what empires do: expand. The advent of the steamboat and the train provided just the right means to do that. Instead of being confined to the outer edges of Africa, colonial outfits could push further inland. Soon, empires were taking advantage of this, at first searching for more elephants to produce their precious ivory.
As they pushed further and further, explorers were finding huge deposits of minerals with diverse uses in manufacturing and luxury goods. On top of that, they found forests full of trees that they thought could only be found in large numbers in South America and parts of Asia—trees that secreted a dark sap that could be shipped home, refined, and made into an extremely versatile and important material: rubber. Whether used in gaskets or tires, rubber was quickly matching coal as the lifeblood of the Industrial Revolution. Euruope’s industrial and imperial classes knew this, and Leopold was not about to be left behind in what would soon be called the Scramble for Africa.
In Brussels, Belgium, Leopold invited the top American and European explorers, scientists, anthropologists, and philanthropists together for a conference. It was at this conference that Leopold befriended the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley (who will become integral to our story shortly). At this conference, they voted to establish the International African Association (or AIA in French). The children and grandchildren of those who presided over the Congress of Vienna, along with some new powers, all looked favorably on the AIA, of which Leopold was elected chairman. The stated mission of the AIA was humanitarian. You might be wondering: But why go through the trouble of establishing a humanitarian organization for the purposes of Imperialism in an age when the “white man’s burden” was reason enough? A good question, indeed. There were, of course, some political motivations.
Portugal, building off their existing colony of Angola, laid claim to most of the Congo river basin, although no European had really explored the area. Leopold sought to challenge that claim. He knew that in Europe and America, slavery had lost nearly all of its support, and there was increasing anti-colonial sentiment growing across the political spectrum, from Socialists on the Left and anti-interventionist Conservatives on the Right. So, Leopold did what any good politician would do and began to play the PR game. He pushed anti-Portuguese propaganda around Europe, with the message that Portugal’s long history as a slave empire should invalidate its claim to the Congo region. Portugal had, according to Leopold, overstayed its welcome, and the AIA agreed.
Britain, France, and Germany were the main powers seeking to carve out a piece of Africa, with Portugal and Spain holding onto their old colonies and Italy picking at what it could. These elites knew that none of their missions would be humanitarian. They also knew that the resultant fruits of their colonization would keep most of the population fat and happy enough to lose interest in moral crusades. Leopold knew all this as well, and so he started to “work the room.” If little Belgium could not force its way into Africa, it could persuade. The Portuguese were offering Britain very low tariffs on their African exports, so Leopold offered Britain the same thing (and this would favor him, since almost everyone knew Portugal was a “sick” empire). Meanwhile, he turned around and told the German Empire that he denied the rumors of his dealings with Britain. In an about-face, he told the United States that his interests in the Congo were purely humanitarian, but told France that he planned on making quite a lot of money from his pursuits, and that if he could capture the whole region, he would turn it over to them. With each party satisfied and ignorant of his deals with the others, Leopold proceeded with his plan.
The Many Lies of Leopold
Henry Morton Stanley, famous for navigating the Nile and exploring much of the Congo River basin, was a household name among those seeking to push into the African interior. Britain had lost interest with him, so after meeting him at the Brussels conference, Leopold enlisted Stanley’s help in setting up military posts and launching steamboats through the Congo. The AIA provided much of the funding for these expeditions, and as he came across them, Stanley drew up contracts with local leaders in exchange for “cloth and trinkets.” These leaders, by most standards, had no idea what they were signing, and in most cases probably thought they were just signing agreements not to attack the explorers. Over the next eight years, Stanley and his crews set up roads, railways, bridges, docks, and military posts throughout their acquired territory. Any villages that resisted him (at least 28 by Stanley’s own count) were destroyed. Piece by piece, they would eventually take control of an area about 75 times the size of Belgium.
Portugal was not happy with how these events played out. At their behest, Otto von Bismarck of Germany convened a new conference, dubbed the West Africa Conference (or the Berlin Conference) in 1884. Little did Portugal know that almost every party in attendance, and there were many, had already made secret pacts with Leopold. At the conference, the powers outlawed slavery in their African colonies—a laughable agreement that was followed by none, and whose purpose was only to finally force Portugal out of the Congo. They also declared the Congo area “neutral territory.” By this point, the AIA had fallen apart, to be succeeded by the International Congo Association (AIC in french), which was under Leopold’s de facto direction. The powers claimed did not want Belgium dictating how the new colony would be administered (really, they didn’t want the profits all going to Belgium) and so agreed that Leopold would be the sole owner of the colony. By the end of the conference, European leaders recognized King Leopold II as the sovereign of the newly formed Congo Free State.
By this point, Leopold no longer needed the guise of private contracts to lay claim to the area. He had his international support, and so sent a governor to administer his declared capital of Boma. Leopold still maintained the guise of being an anti-slavery monarch, however, and after hosting an anti-slavery conference in 1889, he declared that all citizens of the Congo were forbidden from selling the products of their labor to private companies, and instead were obliged to sell it to the state. The state would be the only power capable of setting purchase prices and hours worked. In tandem with this declaration, Leopold followed the suit of the Americans, and declared that all land without houses or farmed plots would be declared “vacant.” This nullified the sovereignty of any nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples in the area, or anyone who did not practice permanent farming, and so by law all of their “vacant” territory belonged solely to Leopold.
His enslavement of the Africans to the Belgian Crown set almost every private trader in the area against Leopold. After all, he was essentially violating the agreements made at Berlin in 1884-5. Being the cunning sociopath that he was, Leopold knew exactly how to satisfy them. He would pick certain companies, be they miners or elephant hunters or rubber foresters, and allow them to trade in delineated sub-territories of the Free State. These lucrative contracts allowed him to take a large cut of their earnings. For others, he allowed very restricted trade, and (again violating the terms of Berlin Conference) heavily taxed their exports. He had become a proto-corporatist monarch in control of a resource-rich colony. Depending on the terms of the contracts and his mood, Leopold would grant temporary monopolies to some non-Belgian companies while denying them to the ones who wouldn’t play by his rules. This was the new Mercantilism in action.
Leopold faced a few challenges to his reign in the Free State. The southern region of Katanga was ruled by a chieftain named Msiri, who was being courted both by Leopold and by his British counterpart, Cecil Rhodes. Leopold was all business, however. In 1891, he sent out an expedition to tell Msiri that his time was up. When the Yeke Kingdom of Katanga put up a fight, the expeditionary forces chased Msiri down. They killed Msiri, put his head high on a pike, and raised the flag of the Congo Free State. Msiri’s successor signed over the kingdom to Leopold.
There were still others who attempted to resist Leopold’s iron grip, be they rival slave traders or native freedom fighters. He would have none of it, and by 1894 his hegemony was established, but at great and grave cost.
Into the Heart of Darkness
Leopold had a colossal undertaking on his hands—the Congo Free State was about 1 million square miles (an area between the size of Mexico and India). In order to maintain his imperial bureaucracy, he had to make a lot of money off of this venture, and quickly, before the other European powers tried muscling in.
Whether he knew it or not, Leopold took a page out of the book of Christopher Columbus and other explorers of the New World. In order to maintain his earnings, Leopold declared that workers would need to meet quotas, especially when it came to rubber. Rubber harvesting—especially in the Congo’s hilly, wooded terrain—is incredibly hard work. Often the sap would stick to the hair or skin of the workers, and they would be forced to peel it off, along with whatever parts of the body it stuck to. Often without the proper tools or help, the masses of Congolese slaves would fail to meet quotas. In order to enforce the punishment, Leopold set up the Force Publique.
There can be volumes dedicated to the Force and their unspeakable brutality. From the eyewitnesses who managed to get their accounts out into the world, the picture we can gather of what the Congo Free State looked like under their watch is nothing short of hellish. Staffed by native Congolese (who were most likely forced into service) and led by Belgian officers, the Force struck terror into each and every worker. Their punishment for failing to meet rubber and mineral quotas was execution. As proof of the executions, members of the Force would provide some mutilated body part, usually a hand, to their superiors. Eventually, the high cost of munitions drove members of the Force to just start chopping off hands, which could be used as a substitute for rubber quotas. The Congolese workers knew this, so a black market for hands developed, using baskets or barrels of hands to ease their labor requirements. Rival villages even started attacking each other in order to gather hands. The quotas were a serious measure taken by Leopold, and whether or not he ordered it himself, there were occasions that arose when some workers from the same village failed to meet the quota or some village banded together in resistance, and as punishment the Force would burn down their entire village.
The Force was headed up by a man known to the workers as the “devil of the Equator.” His name has been given as Leon Rom or Leon Fievez, and he earned that title. A former Belgian soldier, Leon (who may have been the inspiration for Kurtz in Conrad’s novel) had literally no pity for the Congolese. His tools of intimidation were severe and stomach-turning, even causing the governor to write back in disgust. Leon was reportedly unpredictable; most times he would kill as punishment for not meeting quota, but there were occasions according to those who were there that he would start a massacre simply because he was in a bad mood. He was most famous for being a fan of gallows and for decorating the exterior of government offices, including his own, with heads on pikes. In once instance he supposedly ordered that the bodies of women and children who had lived in a rebellious village be nailed to the palisades of the village in the shape of a cross.
Over the course of Leopold’s rule, the Congo lost somewhere between 10 and 12 million people. Some historians point to disease as a major causal factor of these numbers, but few can deny that the Imperial occupiers could not care less when it came to the health of their slaves. Conditions in mines and rubber plantations inevitably led to the spread of disease, and even if they may have had the means to treat some diseases, it is highly doubtful that Leopold’s representatives would have. By the early 1900s, word was spreading (partly thanks to a British anti-Belgium PR campaign) of Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo. Most of the news was too graphic and disturbing to publish at the time, but the incredible cruelty exacted upon the Congolese grabbed the attention of the world. By 1908, the Belgian government (mostly led by its parliament) in conjunction with Britain and other European powers decided that Leopold had to relinquish his control. The Congo Free State was abolished, and the Belgian Congo took its place.
The Lines We Draw
It may shock you, as it shocked my, and as it still shocks many today, that Leopold’s actions in the Congo are rarely recognized as genocide. It is exaggeration to say that what happened there is comparable to the Holocaust. At best, Leopold’s labor camp system was a proto-Gulag, and at worst, near-extermination of an entire nation.
As I stated before, there were many in Europe who genuinely were disgusted by the aggressions made in the name of imperial prosperity and power. We have to note, however, that despite how much Britain and other European nations condemned Leopold, they were by no means innocent. Even disregarding the Imperialist ventures in South America, South Asia, and East Asia, the Scramble for Africa revealed some astounding inhumanity on part of Europe’s “civilized” powers. The crimes against humanity committed by the French, the British, the German, and the Italian governments across Africa did not rise above Leopold’s legacy in the matter of raw numbers, but the sick brutality executed on the native populations should not go forgotten.
The German Empire committed outright genocide against the Herero (burning their towns, starving them, putting them in concentration camps, and poisoning their water supplies). The atrocities by the British are almost too numerous to count, whether committed against the Zulu or against Dutch settlers. The Italians fought wars against their new subjects in Liberia and Somalia. The French wrested control over much of central Africa, often employing methods of torture (like the chicotte whip) on top of murder. Millions upon millions upon millions of Africans lost their lives to Imperialism. Millions more were terrorized into submission.
The after-effects of Imperialism have not only been limited to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Drawing more or less arbitrary borders in Africa—to keep in line with the “balance of power” theory first agreed to at the Congress of Vienna about 100 years before—have contributed to the destruction of Africa. Forcing rival clans and ethnicities (the nations I mentioned before) within the same borders has created inter-generational strife. In many cases, these massive blood feuds have resulted in native African genocide. For example, the unfair favor the British gave to the (largely Christian) Tutsi largely precipitated years of Hutu hatred, ending in the Rwandan Genocide.
This all isn’t to say that Africa was sunshine and rainbows before Europeans arrived. This isn’t to say that Africa, in some ways, hasn’t benefited from contact with Europeans. But let us never forget the human cost. Let us also never forget that it was not the citizens of Europe who did this. It was not the bakers or the book printers or the shoemakers who caused the crisis in the Congo or anywhere else in Africa. It was the governments of Europe, who had followed the logic laid forth by the Congress of Vienna, that divided Africa amongst themselves. In their hubris, greed, and vainglory, the “civilized” proto-fascists carved up what Leopold called the “magnificent African cake” without once asking for permission. But, we should not be surprised. This is what states do; this is what states have always done. The point of war, the point of conquest, has always ultimately been to support the politically-connected classes. Whether they were the priest class of Sumeria or the patricians of Rome or the industrialists of Belgium, the friends of politicians, along with the kings, queens, princes, dukes, and governors of the day, took what they believed was theirs. Unabashedly resting on a philosophy of “might makes right,” a philosophy that underpins Statism even today, they took and they took and they took. They took land, they took resources, and they took lives.
I hope that one day, we as a species will look back on this time and remember: This is the legacy of the State. This was the legacy of the State. This is how states grew, this is how they supported their economies, and this is how they made a name for themselves. And I hope that one day the whole world will understand, condemn, and abolish the State.
“The best way to look at countries on a map is like a chalk outline drawn by the police when someone dies… what you are seeing with the borders are just outlines of historical crimes… past warlords… empires… its nothing to be loyal to. Have loyalty to reason, to evidence, to ideals… not to lines drawn up mostly by criminals.”