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This week in history: Disaster follows Leopold II's acquisition of the Congo

Statue in Brussels of Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, chiefly remembered for the founding and exploitation of the Congo Free State.
Statue in Brussels of Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, chiefly remembered for the founding and exploitation of the Congo Free State.

On Feb. 5, 1885, the Great Powers of Europe officially recognized the claim of King Leopold II of Belgium on the African Congo. The acquisition of the territory soon enriched Leopold and led to decades of despair and oppression for the native population.

A vain and greedy member of Belgium's royal family, Leopold had succeeded his father as monarch in late 1865. Cold and overbearing, he alienated his wife and children and was known for philandering with young mistresses. Though a king, Leopold envied the crowned heads of England, Germany and Russia — powerful, dynamic states with which tiny Belgium could not compete on the world stage.

As the 20th century approached, European powers began to scramble for territory in Africa. Europeans had traditionally been concerned only with trading enclaves and ports along the coasts, but medical advancements to fight off disease, the creation of the shallow draft steamboat for navigating rivers, and improvements in weaponry meant the interior of the continent was open to exploration and exploitation.

Leopold watched on jealously as other European states, led by the great powers, began to gobble up massive African territories. It came to his attention that no other nation was making a serious claim to a largely unexplored region — the Congo. The Congo River is one of the world's longest, and it winds around one of the world's largest rainforests. The region promised to be a bonanza of natural resources, including ivory, which could bring wealth to whatever nation possessed it.

The reason the region had not been claimed, however, was that each of the great powers feared it falling into the hands of a rival, and therefore decided not to rock the boat by making a claim. While parts of the territory fell within the jurisdiction of various European nations, the bulk of the Congo remained largely unmolested by outsiders. With covetous eyes, Leopold looked upon the Congo and its great potential for wealth.

It was because Belgium wasn't a great power that Leopold believed he could acquire the Congo. Though all of the great powers wanted the region for themselves, Leopold believed their fear that a rival would acquire it was greater. Thus, he put forward Belgium's claim as an honest broker, a party without a dog in the fight, as it were. His agents began to tell the international community that Leopold wanted the territory, not for avaricious reasons but out of a sincere desire to safeguard the native population and look after their interests.

To add incentive to the European powers, Leopold announced that the Congo under his rule would be a free trade zone. All other European powers could buy and sell in the territory, without excessive fees and taxes. Leopold founded an organization that, on the surface, held to the ideals of his claims of bringing Christianity and civilization to the natives but, in reality, prepared the groundwork for the Congo's exploitation.

In 1876, Leopold enlisted the help of famous Welsh-born American explorer Henry Morton Stanley, of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame, to lend his scheme some measure of credibility. Stanley had recently returned from an expedition through the Congo and was, at the time, one of the Europe's most celebrated explorers.

By the early 1880s, the issue of the Congo was unresolved and, though many European nations claimed to see the wisdom of Leopold's apparent philanthropic claim, not one had recognized it. Leopold believed his scheme would go nowhere until at least one other powerful nation recognized his claim, and he soon looked beyond Europe.

Henry Shelton Sanford had been Abraham Lincoln's minister to Brussels during the U.S. Civil War, and the American had remained in Belgium for some time after his position ended. Leopold requested that Sanford return to his native land and petition for American recognition of his claim. Finally, in April 1884, President Chester A. Arthur and the United States Congress agreed that Leopold's claim had merit, and endorsed it.

U.S. Secretary of State Frederick Frelinghuysen said, “The Government of the United States announces its sympathy with and approval of the humane and benevolent purposes of the International Association of the Congo…” (see “King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” by Adam Hochschild). Leopold finally had recognition from one powerful nation. Would the great powers of Europe follow suit?

Eager to assert its position as a colonial power and aware that many issues, including the Congo, needed to be addressed, Germany called for a conference of European powers in late 1884. Chaired by Germany's “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, the Berlin Conference lasted into early 1885, and over its course many agreements were made and disputes settled.

In the book, “King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” historian Adam Hochschild wrote, “The conference ended in February 1885, with signatures on an agreement and a final round of speechmaking. No one benefited more than… King Leopold II. At the mention of his name during the signing ceremony, the audience rose and applauded. In his closing speech to the delegates, Chancellor Bismarck said, 'The new Congo state is destined to be one of the most important executors of the work we intend to do, and I express my best wishes for for its speedy development, and for the noble aspirations of its illustrious creator.'”

Few Belgians realized the enormity of this acquisition. Over 75 times the size of Belgium, the Congo was larger than most of Western Europe. In addition to his title as King of the Belgians, Leopold now styled himself King-Sovereign of what, a few months later, he would officially title the Congo Free State. Most Belgians were surprised to learn that the Congo was not formally a part of the Belgium Kingdom but technically was the personal property of Leopold.

Leopold soon began to move his company men into the Congo to establish his rule, which proved far from benevolent. Even as Europeans denounced the slave trade and vowed to end it in those places where it still existed, they began to practice slavery in Africa. Euphemistically referring to their slaves as “porters,” no European colonial power drove their native population as hard as the Belgians did. Leopold's officers initially forced the natives to collect ivory, though a new and more lucrative market soon opened in Europe.

In the book, “The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914,” historian Philipp Bloom wrote, “(Veterinarian Doctor John Dunlop of Belfast) had devised air-filled rubber tubes for his son's tricycle and had begun to market them. Soon the demand was so great that by 1890 he had ceased to look after horses and invested in the transport of the future. Fitted with miraculously shock-absorbent rubber tyres, bicycles became a cultural phenomenon, a symbol for the young generation and its time, for speed, freedom, and physical fitness. The worldwide demand for rubber boomed.”

Leopold wasted no time capitalizing on this fad. Knowing his fief was rich in caoutchouc vines, he ordered vast amounts of rubber to be harvested. The Force Publique, the Congo Free State's police force, was officered by Europeans but staffed by native Africans. The force frequently attacked a village and overwhelmed it with weapons and training, holding the women and children hostage and forcing the men to meet a rubber quota. Rapes and murders were common.

One of the most detestable practices was mutilation. The European officers and African troops frequently used their Congo Free State issued rifles and ammunition to hunt elephants for their ivory. When the state's accountants noted the costs, the Force Publique was ordered not to hunt. When the losses in ammunition continued, a new law was proclaimed. Because the weapons were only to be used against unruly natives, and not for hunting, every time a bullet was fired, proof must be presented that the ammunition was spent on a human target. The required evidence was a human hand.

The hunting continued, only now the Force Publique would stop on the way back from their expeditions at a village and cut off a few hands from living natives or, if they resisted, from their corpses, in order to justify spent ammunition.

Ironically, during the German occupation of Belgium during the First World War, Belgians spread stories of atrocities against the Germans, claiming that, among other things, they were chopping hands off of Belgian children so they wouldn't grow up to take up arms against them. Such stories were fiction. What occurred in the Congo was not.

With a death toll of as many as 20 million Congo natives, the horror in the Congo Free State stopped only after international outrage led by British subjects Edmund Morel and Roger Casement, forced Leopold to sell the Congo to the state of Belgium in 1908. Morel and Casement's Congo Reform Association, which included such literary luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain, was the world's first international human rights campaign.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at Email: