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Congo Free State

The Congo Free State was a private kingdom owned by Leopold II of Belgium between about 1877 and 1908 that included the entire area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The kingdom was the scene of exploitation, greed, and mass killings and maimings of those who opposed Leopold's rule or who did not work hard enough as forced laborers in rubber plantations or other profit-making ventures. In 1908, after Leopold's activities had finally been exposed in the Western press, it became, at least in theory, an orthodox colony of Belgium, and known as the Belgian Congo.

The Congo Free State
The Congo Free State

European exploration

The Congo River was the last part of the African continent to yield to European explorers. One by one the other great mysteries had been investigated: the coasts by Prince Henry the Navigator's Portuguese sailors in the 15th century; the Blue Nile by James Bruce in 1773; the remote upper Niger by Mungo Park in 1796; the vast Sahara by competitors Laing , Callié, and Clapperton in the 1820s; the fever-ridden mangroves of the lower Niger by the Lander Brothers in 1830; southern Africa and the Zambezi by Livingstone in the 1850s; the upper Nile by Burton, Speke, and Baker in a succession of expeditions between 1857 and 1868. Though the Congo had been one of the first to be attempted, it remained a mystery.

Since the 15th century, European explorers had sailed into the broad Congo estuary, planning to fight their way up the falls and rapids that begin only 100 miles (160 km) inland, and then travel up the river to its unknown source. All failed. The rapids and falls, had they known it, extended for 220 miles (350 km) inland, and the terrain close by the river was impassable, and remains so to this day. Repeated attempts to travel overland were repulsed with heavy casualties. Accidents, conflicts with natives, and above all disease saw large and well-equipped expeditions got no further than 40 miles (60 km) or so past the western-most rapid, the legendary Cauldron of Hell .

It was not until the late 1870s that the Congo was explored by Europeans, and even then it was not from the sea, but from the other side of the African continent. Setting out from Zanzibar, U.S journalist Henry Morton Stanley aimed to find the famous Dr. Livingstone. Livingstone had not been heard of in several years and was, in fact, exploring the upper reaches of a great navigable inland river called the Lualaba, which Livingstone hoped was connected to the Nile, but which turned out to be the upper Congo.

After leaving Livingstone, Stanley sailed for 1000 miles (1600 km) down the Lualaba (Upper Congo) to the large lake he named Stanley Pool (now called Pool Malebo). Then, rather than perish in the impenetrable country of the cascades, Stanley took a wide detour overland to come within striking distance of the Portuguese trading station at Boma on the Congo estuary.

Prelude to conquest

Henry Morton Stanley found Dr. Livingstone in Africa and brought tales back to Europe.
Henry Morton Stanley found Dr. Livingstone in Africa and brought tales back to Europe.

When Stanley returned to Europe in 1878, he had not only found Dr. Livingstone (an event remembered to this day), resolved the last great mystery of African exploration, and ruined his health: he had also opened the heart of tropical Africa up to the outside world. This was to be his most enduring legacy.

Stanley was lionised across Europe. He wrote articles, appeared at public meetings, lobbied the rich and powerful tirelessly; and always his theme was the boundless opportunity for commercial exploitation of the lands he had discovered or, in his own words, to "pour the civilisation of Europe into the barbarism of Africa".

"There are 40,000,000 naked people" on the other side of the rapids, Stanley wrote, "and the cotton-spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them... Birmingham's factories are glowing with the red metal that shall presently be made into ironwork in every fashion and shape for them... and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold."

Europe, however, was less than keen on the idea: the great European scramble for Africa had not yet begun. Outside of the Cape of Good Hope and the Mediterranean coast, Europe had no African colonies of any significance. The focus of the great powers was still firmly on the lands that had made Europe's fortune: the Americas, the East Indies, China, and Australasia. There seemed no economic sense to investing energy in Africa when the returns from other colonies were likely to be both richer and more immediate. Nor was there a strong humanitarian interest in the continent now that the American slave trade had been extinguished. Stanley was applauded, admired, decorated—and ignored.

It is at this point that King Leopold of Belgium took a part. In Peter Forbath 's words, Leopold was:

a tall, imposing man ... enjoying a reputation for hedonistic sensuality, cunning intelligence (his father once described him as subtle and sly as a fox), overweening ambition, and personal ruthlessness. He was, nevertheless, an extremely minor monarch in the realpolitik of the times, ruling a totally insignificant nation, a nation in fact that had come into existence barely four decades before and lived under the constant threat of losing its precarious independence to the great European powers around it. He was a figure who, one might have had every reason to expect, would devote himself to maintaining his country's strict neutrality, avoiding giving offense to any of his powerful neighbours, and indulging his keenly developed tastes for the pleasures of the flesh, rather than one who would make a profound impact on history. Yet, in the most astonishing and improbable way imaginable, he managed virtually single-handedly to upset the balance of power in Africa and usher in the terrible age of European colonialism on the black continent.

As a constitutional monarch, Leopold was charged with the usual constitutional duties of opening parliaments, greeting diplomats, and attending state funerals. He had no power to decide policy. But for over 20 years he had been agitating for Belgium to take its place among the great colonial powers of Europe. Leopold noted, "Our frontiers can never be extended into Europe." However, he added, "since history teaches that colonies are useful, that they play a great part in that which makes up the power and prosperity of states, let us strive to get one in our turn."

At various times, he launched unsuccessful schemes to buy an Argentine province, to buy Borneo from the Dutch, rent the Philippines from Spain, or establish colonies in China, Vietnam, Japan, or the Pacific islands. When the 1860s explorers focussed attention on Africa, Leopold schemed to colonise Mozambique on the east coast, Senegal on the west coast, and the Congo in the centre. None of these schemes came anywhere near fruition: the government of Belgium resolutely resisted all Leopold's suggestions, seeing the acquisition of a colony as a good way to spend large amounts of money for little or no return.

King Leopold II 's determination to conquer a piece of Africa sent Stanley back to establish the Congo Free State.
King Leopold II 's determination to conquer a piece of Africa sent Stanley back to establish the Congo Free State.

Leopold's eventual response was extraordinary in its hubris and simplicity. If the government of Belgium would not take a colony, then he would simply do it himself, acting in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen.

In 1876 Leopold II sponsored an international geographical conference in Brussels, inviting delegates from scientific societies all over Europe to discuss philanthropic and scientific matters such as the best way to coordinate map making, to prevent the re-emergence of the west coast slave trade, and to investigate ways of sending medical aid to Africa. The conference was a sham: at its close, Leopold proposed that they set up a international benevolent committee to carry on, and modestly agreed to accept the chairman's role. For the look of things, he held one more meeting the following year, but from that time on, the Association Internationale Africaine was simply a front for Leopold's ambition. He created a baffling series of subsidiary shell organisations, culminating in the cunningly named Association Internationale du Congo , which had a single shareholder: Leopold himself.

Soon after Stanley returned from the Congo, Leopold tried to recruit him. Stanley, still hopeful for British backing, brushed him off. However, Leopold persisted and eventually Stanley gave in. Leopold, it seemed, was the only European willing to finance Stanley's dream: the building of a railway over the Crystal Mountains from the sea to Stanley Pool, from which river steamers could reach 1000 miles (1600 km) into the heart of Africa. Stanley, much more familiar with the rigours of the African climate and the complexities of local politics than Leopold, persuaded his patron that the first step should be the construction of a wagon trail and a series of forts. Leopold agreed and in deepest secrecy, Stanley signed a five year contract at a salary of £1000 a year, and set off to Zanzibar under an assumed name. To avoid discovery, materials and workers were shipped in by various roundabout routes, and communications between Stanley and Leopold were entrusted to Colonel Maximilian Strauch . It was only at this point that Stanley was informed of the magnitude of Leopold's ambition: Stanley was not merely to construct a series of trading stations, he was to secretly carve out an entire nation. The instructions were direct and to the point: "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 negros. That would be absurd."

Apparently finding nothing reprehensible about Leopold's ambitions, Stanley set about his task with a will. For all his social shortcomings in European society, he was undoubtedly the right man for the job. Within three years, his capacity for hard work, his skill at playing one social group off against another, his ruthless use of modern weaponry to kill opponents, and above all his relentless determination opened the route to the Upper Congo.

In later years, Stanley would write that the most vexing part of his duties was not the work itself, nor negotiating with the natives, but keeping order amongst the ill-assorted collection of white men he had brought with him as overseers, who squabbled constantly over small matters of rank or status. "Almost all of them", he wrote, "clamoured for expenses of all kinds, which included ... wine, tobacco, cigars, clothes, shoes, board and lodging, and certain nameless extravagances" (by which he meant attractive slaves to warm their beds).

Exhausted, Stanley returned to Europe, only to be sent straight back by Leopold, who promised him an outstanding assistant: 'Chinese' Gordon (who did not in fact take up Leopold's offer but chose instead to go to meet his fate at Khartoum). "It is indispensable", instructed Leopold, "that you should purchase for the Comité d'Études (i.e., Leopold himself) as much land as you can obtain".

Having established a beachhead on the lower Congo, in 1883 Stanley set out upriver to extend Leopold's domain, employing his usual methods: negotiations with local chiefs buying sovereignty in exchange for bolts of cloth and trinkets; playing one tribe off another; and if need be, simply shooting an obstructive chief and negotiating with his cowed successor instead. However, as he approached Stanley Falls at the junction between the Congo proper and the Lualaba (close to the general vicinity of Central Africa where he had found Livingstone six years before), it soon became clear that Stanley's men were not the only intruders.

Zanzibari slave magnate Tippu Tip raided villages to enslave their people in advance of Stanley's arrival.
Zanzibari slave magnate Tippu Tip raided villages to enslave their people in advance of Stanley's arrival.
Tippu Tip, the last and greatest of the Zanzibari slave traders of the 19th century, was well-known to Stanley, as was the social chaos and devastation that slave-hunting brought. It had only been through Tippu Tip's help that Stanley had found Livingstone (who himself had survived years on the Lualaba by virtue of Tippu Tip's friendship). Now, Stanley discovered, Tippu Tip's men had reached still further west in search of fresh populations to enslave.

Six years before, the Zanzibaris had thought the Congo deadly and impassable, and warned Stanley not to attempt to go there, but when Tippu Tip learned in Zanzibar that Stanley had survived, he was quick to act. Villages throughout the region had been burned and depopulated. Bodies floated down the river. Tippu Tip had raided 118 villages, killed 4,000 Africans, and, when Stanley reached his camp, had 2,300 slaves, mostly young women and children, in chains ready to transport half-way across the continent to the markets of Zanzibar.

Having found the new ruler of the upper Congo, Stanley calmly negotiated an agreement to allow him to build his final river station just below Stanley Falls (which prevented vessels sailing further upstream). At the end of his physical resources, Stanley returned home, to be replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Francis de Winton , formerly of the Belgian Army .

The genesis of the Congo Free State

In Europe, Leopold's intrigues began to bear fruit. Whereas he had gained ownership of the Congo largely through the lack of interest of the major powers, now he would confirm and strengthen it because of their interest. In the few years since the establishment of the Congo venture, the mood in Europe had shifted decisively, and the struggle for Africa was about to begin in earnest. Leopold's activities in the Congo had already pushed the French into claiming an area on the north shore (the modern Republic of the Congo on the northern shore of Stanley Pool). While no-one (bar Leopold) particularly wanted such economically unpromising colonies, the other European powers were not prepared to stand idly by and see land snapped up by rivals.

In an astonishingly devious succession of negotiations, Leopold, in his capacity as chairman of the purely humanitarian and disinterested Association Internationale Africaine , played one off against the other.

Britain was uneasy at French expansion and had a technical claim on the Congo via Lt. Cameron's 1873 expedition from Zanzibar to bring home Livingstone's body, but was reluctant to take on yet another expensive, unproductive colony. Portugal had a much older claim, dating back to Diego Cão's discovery of the mouth of the river in 1482 and, having ignored it for centuries, were stimulated into remembering it. Portugal flirted with the French at first, but the British offered to support Portugal's claim to the entire Congo in return for a free trade agreement. For the English, the free trade was a minor issue: the real benefit was frustration of the French. Next Bismarck entered the fray on behalf of Germany: with vast new holdings in South-West Africa already, he had no desire for the Congo, but every intention of seeing that it did not go to either Britain or France.

At this point Leopold acted. He began a publicity campaign in England, harping on Portugal's dreadful slavery record, and quietly let English merchant houses know that he would, if given formal control of the Congo, give them the same "most favoured nation" status that Portugal offered. At the same time, Leopold promised Bismarck that he would not give any one nation special status, and that German traders would be as welcome as any other. Then Leopold offered France the support of the Association for French ownership of the entire northern bank, and sweetened the deal by proposing that, if his personal wealth proved insufficient to hold the entire Congo (as seemed utterly inevitable), that it should revert to France. Finally, he enlisted the aid of the United States, sending President Arthur carefully edited copies of the cloth-and-trinket treaties Stanley had extracted from various local chiefs, and proposing that, as an entirely disinterested humanitarian body, the Association would administer the Congo for the good of all, handing over power to the locals as soon as they were ready for the grave responsibility. This was the master stroke.

In November 1884 Bismarck convened a 14-nation conference to find a peaceful resolution to the Congo crisis, and after three months of negotiation, Leopold emerged triumphant. France was given 257,000 square miles (666,0000 km²) on the north bank (modern Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic), Portugal 351,000 square miles (909,000 km²) to the south (modern Angola), and Leopold's wholly-owned, single-shareholder "philanthropic"organisation received the balance: 905,000 square miles (2,344,000 km²), to be constituted as the Congo Free State.

In a dazzling display of diplomatic virtuosity, Leopold had the conference agree not to a transfer of the Congo to one of his many philanthropic shell organisations, nor even to his care in his capacity as King of the Belgians, but simply to himself. He became sole ruler of 30 million people, without constitution, without international supervision, without ever having been to the Congo, and without more than a tiny handful of his subjects having heard of him.

Leopold's conquest

In one of three problems for Leopold, Cecil Rhodes attempted to expand English territory northward into the Congo basin .
In one of three problems for Leopold, Cecil Rhodes attempted to expand English territory northward into the Congo basin .

Leopold no longer needed the façade of the Association, and replaced it with an appointed cabinet of Belgians who would do his bidding. To the temporary new capital of Boma, he sent a Governor-General and a chief of police. The vast Congo basin was split up into 14 administrative districts, each district into zones, each zone into sectors, and each sector into posts. From the District Commissioners down to post level, every appointed head was European: mercenaries and adventurers of every kind.

Three main problems presented themselves over the next few years. First, beyond Stanley's eight trading stations, the Free State was unmapped jungle, and offered no commercial return. Second, Cecil Rhodes, then Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony (part of modern South Africa) was expanding from the south and threatening to occupy the southern Lualaba area in defiance of the Berlin Treaty and with the tacit connivance of London. Third, Tippu Tip's slaving gangs had established a strong presence in the north and east of the country and the area to the east of it (modern Uganda), and had effectively established an independent state.

Leopold was one of the richest men in Europe, but not even he could afford to keep the expense. He needed to extract riches from the Congo, not expend them. In flagrant violation of his mandate, he set out to do just that, and set in train the most brutal colonial regime in modern history.

The first change was the introduction of terres vacantes — "vacant" land, which was anything that no-one was actually living on. This was deemed to belong to the state, and servants of the state (i.e., any white men in Leopold's employ) were encouraged to exploit it.

Next, the Free State was divided into two economic zones: the Free Trade Zone was open to entrepreneurs of any nation, who were allowed to buy 10 and 15-year monopoly leases on anything of value: ivory from a particular district, or the rubber concession, for example. The other zone - almost two-thirds of the Congo - became the Domaine Privé: the exclusive private property of the State, which was in turn the exclusive private property of King Leopold.

On this basis, the Congo became financially self-sufficient. It was not sufficient for Leopold's boundless greed, however. In 1893 he excised the most readily accessible 100,000 square mile (259,000 km²) portion of the Free Trade Zone and declared it to be the Domaine de la Couronne: here the same rules applied as in the Domaine Privé, except that all revenue went directly to Leopold in person. No-one knows how much Leopold made from the Congo Free State, but it was certainly many tens of millions (and this in a time when even one million was a massive fortune), and vastly more than even Leopold could spend.

Early in his rule, the second problem — British expansionism into the southern part of the Congo Basin — was addressed. The vulnerable and distant district of Katanga on the upper Lualaba was occupied by a powerful chief named Msiri who had already rejected overtures from Rhodes. Leopold did not trouble to negotiate: he sent well-armed military expeditions to occupy the capital. Msiri retreated into the forest, was captured, and still refused to give up his sovereignty. On Leopold's orders, a Free State officer assassinated Msiri, and the replacement chief proved to be more amenable.

In the short term, the third problem, that of the Arab slavers, was simply solved: Leopold negotiated an alliance, and later appointed Tippu Tip as governor of the Stanley Falls district. In the longer term, this was unsatisfactory. At home, Leopold found it embarrassing to be allied with the last slaver in the world of any consequence and, worse, Tippu Tip and Leopold were direct commercial rivals: every slave that Tippu Tip extracted from his realm, every pound of ivory, was a loss to Leopold. War was inevitable.

Both sides fought by proxy, arming and leading the cannibal tribes of the Lualaba forests in a conflict of unparalleled ferocity. They believed that suffering tenderised the meat, and prisoners were prepared for the pot still living; nor was it just the native tribesman who indulged: European officers too ate human flesh. Tippu Tip's muskets were no match for Leopold's artillery and machine guns, however, and by early 1894 the war was over.

Leopold's rule

Clearing tropical forests ate away at profit margins. However, ample plots of cleared land were already available. Above, a Congolese farming village is emptied and leveled to make way for a rubber plantation.
Clearing tropical forests ate away at profit margins. However, ample plots of cleared land were already available. Above, a Congolese farming village is emptied and leveled to make way for a rubber plantation.

Meanwhile, the quest for income was unrelenting. District officials' salaries were reduced to a bare minimum, and made up with a commission payment based on the profit that their area returned to Leopold. Native communities in the Domaine Privé were not merely forbidden by law to sell items to anyone but the State: they were required to provide State officials with set quotas of rubber and ivory at a fixed, government-mandated price, to provide food to the local post, and to provide 10% of their number as full-time forced labourers — slaves in all but name — and another 25% part-time.

To enforce the rubber quotas, the Force Publique was called in: nominally policemen, most were cannibals from the Lualaba. Armed with modern weapons and the chicotte — a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide — the Force Publique routinely took and tortured hostages (mostly women), flogged, raped, burned recalcitrant villages, and above all, took human hands as trophies to show that, even though the rubber quota had still not been met, it was not through want of trying.

One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command: "ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross." After seeing a native killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote: "The soldier said 'Don't take this to heart so much. They kill us if we don't bring the rubber. The Commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service.'" In Forbath's words again:

The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber... They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace... the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.

In theory, each right hand proved a judicial murder. In practice, soldiers sometimes "cheated" by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die. More than a few survivors later said that they had lived through a massacre by acting dead, not moving even when their hand was severed, and waiting till the soldiers left before seeking help.

Estimates of the total death toll vary considerably. British diplomat Roger Casement's famous 1904 report set it at 3 million for just twelve of the twenty years Leopold's regime lasted; Forbath, at least 5 million; Adam Hochschild, 10 million; the Encyclopædia Britannica gives a total population decline from 20 or 30 million to 8 million.

The end of the Congo Free State

Like Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness, Mark Twain (above) saw a colonial regime of plunder, slave labor, rape, and mutilation. Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy was a biting, sarcastic satire.
Like Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness, Mark Twain (above) saw a colonial regime of plunder, slave labor, rape, and mutilation. Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy was a biting, sarcastic satire.

Leopold ran up high debts with his Congo investments before salvation came with the beginning of the worldwide rubber boom in the 1890s. Prices went up at a fevered pitch throughout the decade as industries discovered new uses for rubber in tires, hoses, tubing, insulation for telegraph and telephone cables and wiring, and so on. By the late 1890s wild rubber had far surpassed ivory as the main source of revenue from the Congo Free State. The peak year was 1903, with rubber fetching the highest price and concessionary companies raking in the highest profits.

However, the boom sparked efforts to find lower-cost producers. Congolese concessionary companies started facing competition from rubber cultivation in South-east Asia and Latin America. As plantations were begun in other tropical areas-- mostly under the ownership of the rival British firms-- world rubber prices started to dip. Competition heightened the drive to exploit forced labor in the Congo in order to lower production costs. Meanwhile, the cost of enforcement was eating away at profit margins, along with the toll taken by the increasingly unsustainable harvesting methods. As competition from other areas of rubber cultivation mounted, Leopold's private rule was left increasingly vulnerable to international scrutiny, especially from Britain.

As the Congolese rubber boom reached its peak, visitors to the country were barred. Missionaries were allowed only on sufferance, and mostly only if they were Belgian Catholics that Leopold could keep quiet. White employees were forbidden to leave the country. Nevertheless, rumours circulated and Leopold ran an enormous publicity campaign to discredit them, even creating a bogus Commission for the Protection of the Natives to root out the "few isolated instances" of abuse. Publishers were bribed, critics accused of running secret campaigns to further other nations' colonial ambitions, eyewitness reports from missionaries dismissed as attempts by Protestants to smear honest Catholic priests. And for a decade or more, Leopold was successful. The secret was out, but few believed it.

Eventually, the most telling blows came from a most unexpected source. Clerks in major London shipping offices began to wonder why the ships that brought vast loads of rubber from the Congo returned full of guns and ammunition for the Force Publique. Edmund Morel was the most famous of these: he became a full-time investigative journalist, and then (aided by merchants who wanted to break into Leopold's monopoly), a publisher. In 1902 Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness was released: based on his brief experience as a steamer captain on the Congo ten years before, it encapsulated the public's growing fears, and in 1904, Sir Roger Casement, then the British Consul, delivered a long, detailed eyewitness report which was made public. The British Congo Reform Association , founded by Morel, demanded action. Other European nations followed suit, as did the United States, and the British Parliament demanded a meeting of the 14 signatory powers to review the 1885 Berlin Agreement. The Belgian Parliament forced Leopold to set up an independent commission of enquiry, and despite the King's desperate efforts, in 1905 it confirmed Casement's report in every damning detail.

Leopold offered to reform his regime, but few took him seriously. All nations were now agreed that the King's rule must be ended as soon as possible, but no nation was willing to take on the responsibility, and never once was it suggested that that the land might be given back to the native population. Belgium was the obvious European candidate to run the Congo, but the Belgians were still unwilling. For two years Belgium debated the question and held fresh elections on the issue; meanwhile Leopold made the most of his last opportunity and-- incredibly-- enlarged the Domaine de la Couronne so as to milk the last possible ounce of personal profit while he could.

Finally, on November 15, 1908, four years after the Casement Report and six years after Heart of Darkness was first printed, the Parliament of Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and took over its administration. However, the international scrutiny was no major loss to Leopold or the concessionary companies in the Belgian Congo. By then, Southeast Asia and Latin America had become lower-cost producers of rubber. Along with the effects of resource depletion in the Congo, international commodity prices had fallen to a level that rendered Congolese extraction unprofitable. The state took over Leopold's private dominion and bailed out the company, but the rubber boom was already over.


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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45