King Leopold II
1835 - 1909
King of Belgium who began imperialistic trade inside of Africa which accentuated the scramble for Africa.by Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
King Leopold II retained the interesting position of being the king of two independent countries at the same time – Belgium and the Congo Free State. His conflicting set of goals and values were as separate as his double title. He espoused the interests of a dedicated philanthropist, yet his actions in Africa labeled him a greedy dictator and the perpetrator of flagrant human rights atrocities. As sovereign over the Congo Free State, he was responsible for the death of somewhere between five to fifteen million Congolese, natives of the Congo River basin.
On April 9th 1835 Leopold (or Léopold) Louis Philippe Marie Victor was born in Brussels, Belgium’s capital. He was the oldest son of Leopold I, the Belgians’ first king. When Leopold was ten his father initiated his military training and Leopold followed the tradition of the Crown Princes by serving in the Grenadiers. At eleven he was titled Duke of the Brabant. Leopold advanced through the ranks of the Belgian Army, serving as lieutenant-general and then honorary commander of his regiment by the age of twenty, and he also held a seat in the Belgian Senate.
In 1853 he married the daughter of Archduke Joseph of Austria. They had four children, although Leopold's only son died. Leopold traveled extensively – much more than was common for European monarchs of the time. He journeyed in Britain, Spain, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, Egypt, India, China, and Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire. As the USA civil war drew to a bloody finale, in 1865 Leopold'succeeded his father as King of Belgium.
Long before Leopold, the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French all begin to converge on Africa, and particularly the Congo, to profit from the slave trade that had been going on for six centuries under Muslim trade routes. In fact, the slave trade had been a consist part of African history as far back as when slave traders sold Joseph into Egypt. By the late seventeenth century, as many as 15,000 slaves from the Congo alone would annually be shipped to Arabia, the Middle East, America, and other markets. Although some Europe's Colonization of Africa existed along the coast and in the southern, northern, and eastern regions, few had traveled into western Africa and the interior.
With the rising tide of nationalistic jeoulosies, King Leopold urged Belgium to follow the example of the other European nations who were accumulating colonies. He said, "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,"
Leopold claimed philanthropic reasons for pursuing colonization. In 1876 he assembled an international geographical conference at Brussels. There he suggested organizing a committee to further the welfare and “propagation of civilization among the peoples of the Congo region by means of scientific exploration, legal trade and war against the Arabic slave traders. To open to civilization 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.” As a result, Leopold became president of the International African Association. In addition, Leopold established the Comité d'Études du Haut Congo in 1878. This was supposed to be an "international commercial, scientific and humanitarian committee;" however, under this disguise, Leopold began to carry out his not so philanthropic intentions for Africa.
For twenty years Leopold used all his influence to direct Belgium toward becoming a constitutional power; however, as the figurehead in a constitutional monarchy, Leopold's influence was limited. Consequently, in 1878 Leopold hired Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who had become famous for finding David Livingstone in 1871, to help him establish a private enterprise free of connection with the Belgium government. Despite his connection with humanitarian interests, Leopold revealed his real intentions when he said, "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."
Stanley hired workers to build a a wagon trail from the lower river upstream past 200 km of rapids to Stanley Pool (now Pool Malebo). He had improvements made to settlements along the Congo River, the world's second longest river, where it was navigable and founded Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). Most significantly, over 450 treaties were signed with chiefs who agreed to give sovereignty of the land and trade over to King Leopold. Stanley used King Leopold's wealth to enrich the various tribal heads of the Congolese through the puchase of land and trade goods such as ivory.
At first, Leopold'saw value in missionaries as they encouraged the development of infastructure includung schools to learn European languages and English. However, as the missionaries added civility they also pushed for social justice. No longer useful, Leopold had the exploited missionaries expeled.
By the time the fourteen European powers met in November, 1884 to agree on the carving up of Africa, Stanley had obtained for Leopold treaties giving him sole possession of nearly 905,000 square miles of the Congo Basin, 67 times the size of Belgium or nearly three and a half times larger than present day Texas. In 1885 the grand the scramble for Africa conference in Berlin recognized Leopold's personal sovereignty over the “Congo Free State.”
Over the next twenty-three years Leopold ran a regime that became notorious for gross exploitation and countless human rights atrocities. Leopold never visited his country, but was content to enrich himself by developing a network of agents and administrators to oversee his lucrative trade. What had began as primarily a quest for ivory (to make knife handles, billiard balls, piano keys and jewelry) shifted to rubber after the inflatable rubber bicycle tire was invented in 1885 by Dunlop in Belfast and a mass production factory opened in 1890. Leopold's profits from rubber vines began to increase to nearly 700%.
In this same year (1890), the African American, William Sheppard, and his white companion, Samuel Lapsley, were sent as missionaries by the USA Presbyterian Church. Although Lapsley died early on, Sheppard documented the atrocities of the Belgian task masters and their hired mercenaries such as the cannibalistic Zappo-Zaps who terrorized and slaughter other natives who refused to harvest rubber. In 1892-1893 the People's Army engaged the Arabs in war seeking to drive them out. Reports arrived that "burial parties were not needed as both sides ate the dead."
Leopold's army of conscripted natives under European officers constantly dealt with rebellions and mutinies. Although one of Leopold's initial goals had been to stop slavery, Booker T. Washington said of his treatment of the natives, “There was never anything in American slavery that could be compared to the barbarous conditions existing today in the Congo Free State". When the forced laborers did not meet their quotas, their families might be killed or taken hostage. Mutilation, floggings, and torture were also common.
In order to hide the brutal methods used to extract quotas, Protestant missionaries were denied access and Roman Catholic missionaries were barely tolerated making this the worse example of colonialism. The truth of the atrocities began to leak out, despite the bribes Leopold used to hide his crimes. He tried to keep up his propoganda ruse of philanthorpy by having Congelese and a couple Pygmies sing and dance at the 1897 World's Fair in Belgium.
He eventually resorted to borrowing money from the Belgian government, but in 1908 after investigation, the Belgian Parliament annexed the Congo Free State and it became the Belgian Congo. In 1909 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published 'The Crime of the Congo' recording how the Congolese were "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." His critique is confirmed by the fact that during Leopold's reign, the Congo population dropped from 20-30 million people to less than 9 million by 1911.
King Leopold II followed the carving up of, as he said, "that magnificent African cake." Today the social and political instability of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may be in part a result of Leopold's selfish exploitation. However, for nearly one hundred years after Leopold, the riches of the Congo continues to be exchanged by corrupt government officials greedy to line their pockets at the expense of the populace. The wars of neighboring countries spill across borders as military troops take plunder in the chaos. This situation does not sound too far away from the chiefs who acted with the same greed in granting Leopold the right to plunder subordinates and manipulate ancient tribal fueds.
In 2005, a statue honoring Leopold was set up in the country’s capital, Kinshasa; however the statue was removed again without notice in a matter of hours. The attempt to view his influence in any better light than genocide seemed to have failed. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, "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."
John Mitchell. 23 September 2005. http://www.pvhs.chico.k12.ca.us/~bsilva/projects/scramble/Leopold.htm.
Wikipedia.com. “Leopold the II of Belgium.” 14 September 2005. Wikipedia encyclopedia. 23 September 2005. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_II_of_Belgium.
A Short History and Facts about the Congo, http://www.answeringthecall.org/facts/congo.php
Moreorless: heroes & killers of the 20th century. “King Leopold II of Belgium.” 20 September 2003. Moreorless. 22 September 2005. http://www.moreorless.au.com/killers/Leopold.html
Christopher Wagner. “European Royalty: Belgium--Leopold II.” 26 November, 2002. Historical Boys Royal Costume. 22 September 2005. http://histclo.hispeed.com/royal/bel/royal-bell2.htm.