The Belgian Congo



Administration of the Belgian Congo

Leopold II’s reign in the Congo became an international scandal due to large-scale mistreatment of the indigenous peoples, including frequent mutilation and murder of men, women, and children to enforce rubber production quotas.

Learning Objectives

Describe the brutal ways in which the Belgians abused the inhabitants of the Congo

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II of Belgium through his Association internationale africaine, a non-governmental organization supposedly dedicated to humanitarian purposes.
  • Under Leopold II’s administration, the Congo Free State became the site of one of the most infamous international scandals of the turn of the 20th century.
  • In the Free State, colonists brutalized the local population into producing rubber, for which the spread of automobiles and development of rubber tires created a growing international market.
  • The police force, the Force Publique, routinely mutilated (especially cutting off hands) and murdered the indigenous population to enforce rubber production quotas.
  • The report of the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials responsible for cold-blooded killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903, including one Belgian national who caused the shooting of at least 122 Congolese natives.
  • The parliament of Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and took over its administration on November 15, 1908, as the colony of the Belgian Congo.

Key Terms

  • Congo Reform Association: A movement formed with the declared intention to aid the exploited and impoverished workforce of the Congo by drawing attention to their plight. The association was founded in March 1904 by Dr. Henry Grattan Guinness, Edmund Dene Morel, and Roger Casement.
  • Force Publique: A military force in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1885 (when the territory was known as the Congo Free State), through the period of direct Belgian colonial rule (1908 to 1960). Early on, they were used primarily to campaign against the Arab slave trade in the Upper Congo, protect Leopold’s economic interests, and suppress frequent uprisings within the state, but eventually they partook in horrific abuse of the Congolese people, including frequent mutilation and murder.
  • Congo Free State: A large state in Central Africa from 1885 to 1908 in personal union with the Kingdom of Belgium under Leopold II.

Colonization of the Congo

Belgian exploration and administration took place from the 1870s until the 1920s. It was first led by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who explored under the sponsorship of King Leopold II of Belgium. The eastern regions of the precolonial Congo were heavily disrupted by constant slave raiding, mainly from Arab-Swahili slave traders such as the infamous Tippu Tip, who was well-known to Stanley. Leopold had designs on what would become the Congo and was able to procure the region by convincing the European community that he was involved in humanitarian and philanthropic work and would not tax trade. Leopold extracted ivory, rubber, and minerals in the upper Congo basin for sale on the world market, even though his nominal purpose in the region was to uplift the local people and develop the area.

Leopold formally acquired rights to the Congo territory at the Conference of Berlin in 1885 and made the land his private property. On May 29, 1885, the king named his new colony the Congo Free State. The state would eventually include an area now held by the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Leopold’s rėgime began various infrastructure projects, such as construction of the railway that ran from the coast to the capital of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and took eight years to complete. Nearly all such projects were aimed at making it easier to increase the assets Leopold and his associates could extract from the colony.

Administration of the Congo Free State

Leopold used the title Sovereign King as ruler of the Congo Free State. He appointed the heads of the three departments of state: interior, foreign affairs and finances. Each was headed by an administrator-general who was obligated to enact the policies of the sovereign or else resign.

Leopold pledged to suppress the east African slave trade; promote humanitarian policies; guarantee free trade within the colony; impose no import duties for twenty years; and encourage philanthropic and scientific enterprises. Beginning in the mid-1880s, Leopold first decreed that the state asserted rights of proprietorship over all vacant lands throughout the Congo territory. In three successive decrees, Leopold promised the rights of the Congolese in their land to native villages and farms, essentially making nearly all of the Congo Free State state-owned land. Additionally, the colonial administration liberated thousands of slaves.

Shortly after the anti-slavery conference he held in Brussels in 1889, Leopold issued a new decree which said that Africans could only sell their harvested products (mostly ivory and rubber) to the state in a large part of the Free State. This grew out of the earlier decree that all “unoccupied” land belonged to the state and ivory and rubber collected from this land also belonged to the state, creating a de facto state-controlled monopoly. Suddenly, the only outlet a large share of the local population had for its products was the state, which could set purchase prices and therefore control the amount of income the Congolese could receive for their work.

The Force Publique (FP), Leopold’s private army, was used to enforce the rubber quotas. Early on, the FP was used primarily to campaign against the Arab slave trade in the Upper Congo, protect Leopold’s economic interests, and suppress the frequent uprisings within the state. The Force Publique’s officer corps included only white Europeans (Belgian regular soldiers and mercenaries from other countries). On arriving in the Congo, they recruited men from Zanzibar and west Africa, and eventually from the Congo itself. In addition, Leopold actually encouraged the slave trade among Arabs in the Upper Congo in return for slaves to fill the ranks of the FP. During the 1890s, the FP’s primary role was to exploit the natives as corvée laborers to promote the rubber trade.

Many of the black soldiers were from far-off peoples of the Upper Congo, while others had been kidnapped in raids on villages in their childhood and brought to Roman Catholic missions, where they received a military training in conditions close to slavery. Armed with modern weapons and the chicotte—a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide—the Force Publique routinely took and tortured hostages, slaughtered families of rebels, and flogged and raped Congolese people. They also burned recalcitrant villages, and above all, cut off the hands of Congolese natives, including children.

Human Rights Abuses

Leopold’s reign in the Congo eventually earned infamy due to the increasing mistreatment of the indigenous peoples. Under Leopold II’s administration, the Congo Free State became one of the greatest international scandals of the early-20th century. The report of the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials who were responsible for killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903.

From 1885–1908, millions of Congolese died as a consequence of exploitation and disease. In some areas, the population declined dramatically; it has been estimated that sleeping sickness and smallpox killed nearly half the population in the areas surrounding the lower Congo River. A government commission later concluded that the population of the Congo was “reduced by half” during this period, but no accurate records exist.

Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death. Meanwhile, the FP was required to provide the hands of their victims as proof when they had shot and killed someone, as it was believed they would otherwise use the munitions (imported from Europe at considerable cost) for hunting. As a consequence, the rubber quotas were in part paid in severed hands. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the FP and sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighboring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.

One junior European officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The European officer in command “ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades… and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross.” After seeing a Congolese person 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 his words:

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.
Images of Congolese people, including children, with one of their hands cut off, a punishment typical during Leopold II's reign over the Congo.

Mutilated Children From the Congo: Congolese children and wives whose fathers or husbands failed to meet rubber collection quotas were often punished by having their hands cut off.

International Outcry

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, originally published in 1899 as a three-part series in Blackwood’s Magazine based on a brief experience as a steamer captain on the Congo 12 years before, sparked an organized international opposition to Leopold’s genocidal activities. Increasing public outcry over the atrocities in the CFS moved the British government to launch an official investigation. Roger Casement, then the British Consul at Boma (at the mouth of the Congo River), was sent to the Congo Free State to investigate. Reporting back to the Foreign Office in 1900, Casement wrote, “The root of the evil lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain…”

The Congo Reform Association (CRA) was established in Great Britain by Morel as a direct result of Casement’s 1904 detailed, eyewitness Congo report, known as the Casement Report. The Congo Reform movement’s members included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Booker T. Washington, and Bertrand Russell.

Leopold offered to reform his regime, but international opinion supported an end to the king’s rule, and no nation was willing to accept this responsibility. Belgium was the obvious European candidate to run the Congo. For two years, it debated the question and held new elections on the issue.

Yielding to international pressure, the parliament of Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and took over its administration on November 15, 1908, as the colony of the Belgian Congo. Despite being effectively removed from power, the international scrutiny was no major loss to Leopold or the concessionary companies in the 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 fell to a level that rendered Congolese extraction unprofitable. Just prior to releasing sovereignty over the CFS, Leopold had all evidence of his activities in the CFS destroyed, including the archives of the departments of finance and of the interior. Leopold lost the absolute power he had had there, but the population still had a Belgian colonial regime, which had become heavily paternalistic, with church, state, and private companies instructed to oversee the welfare of the inhabitants.

The Rubber Industry

In the 1890’s, rubber saw a major price boom with the invention of inflatable rubber bicycle tubes and the growing popularity of the automobile. This led to massive profits for the Belgian colonists in the Congo and increased exploitation of the native population.

Learning Objectives

Calculate the value of the rubber industry to the Belgian government

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • King Leopold II, who owned the Congo Free State as a private enterprise, systematically exploited the native population for his own commercial benefit, most notably with the production of wild rubber.
  • To enforce the rubber quotas, the colonists cut off the limbs of the natives as a matter of policy.
  • To extract the rubber, Congolese workers would lather their bodies with latex, which hardened and was painfully scraped off the skin.
  • By the final decade of the 19th century, John Boyd Dunlop’s 1887 invention of inflatable rubber bicycle tubes and the growing popularity of the automobile dramatically increased global demand for rubber, leading to major economic boom for rubber production and an increase in the exploitation of the natives.
  • The Abir Congo Company was one of the main companies that exploited rubber during the time of Leopold’s rule.

Key Terms

  • Congo rubber: Rubbers obtained from a wild species of vines, namely the Landolphia. Unlike rubber from Brazil and other places, which comes from trees, this type of rubber cannot be cultivated. The intense drive to collect latex from wild plants was responsible for many of the atrocities committed under the Congo Free State.
  • Abir Congo Company: A company that exploited natural rubber in the Congo Free State, the private property of King Leopold II of Belgium.
  • Casement Report: A 1904 document written by the British diplomat Roger Casement (1864–1916) detailing abuses in the Congo Free State under the private ownership of King Leopold II of Belgium. This report was instrumental in Leopold relinquishing his private holdings in Africa. He had owned the Congolese state since 1885, granted to him by the Berlin Conference, and exploited its natural resources (mostly rubber) for his own private wealth.

Rubber Production in the Congo Free State

In the Congo Free State, colonists brutalized the local population into producing rubber, for which the spread of automobiles and development of rubber tires created a growing international market. Rubber sales made a fortune for Leopold, who built several buildings in Brussels and Ostend to honor himself and his country. To enforce the rubber quotas, the army, the Force Publique, cut off the limbs of the natives as a matter of policy. Rubber revenue went directly to King Leopold II, who paid the Free State for the high costs of exploitation. Because of the human rights abuses suffered under King Leopold II’s rule, Congo rubber was eventually nicknamed “red rubber,” in reference to the blood of the Africans killed during production.

By the final decade of the 19th century, John Boyd Dunlop’s 1887 invention of inflatable rubber bicycle tubes and the growing popularity of the automobile dramatically increased global demand for rubber. To monopolize the resources of the entire Congo Free State, Leopold issued three decrees in 1891 and 1892 that reduced the native population to serfs. These forced the natives to deliver all ivory and rubber, harvested or found, to state officers, thus nearly completing Leopold’s monopoly of the ivory and rubber trade. The Congo rubber (genus Landolphia) came from wild vines in the jungle, which cannot be cultivated, unlike the rubber from Brazil (Hevea brasiliensis), which was tapped from trees and could be cultivated. The intense drive to collect latex from these wild plants was responsible for many of the atrocities committed under the Congo Free State. To extract the rubber, instead of tapping the vines, the Congolese workers slashed them and lathered their bodies with the ensuing latex. When the latex hardened, it was painfully scraped off the skin, taking the hair with it.

Leopold ran up high debts with his Congo investments before the beginning of the worldwide rubber boom in the 1890s. Prices increased throughout the decade as industries discovered new uses for rubber in tires, hoses, tubing, insulation for telegraph and telephone cables, and wiring. 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 faced competition from rubber cultivation in Southeast Asia and Latin America. As plantations were started 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 to lower production costs. Meanwhile, the cost of enforcement and the increasingly unsustainable harvesting methods ate away at profit margins. As competition from other areas of rubber cultivation mounted, Leopold’s private rule was left increasingly vulnerable to international scrutiny.

A cartoon depicting Leopold II as a rubber vine entangling a Congolese rubber collector.

A cartoon depicting Leopold II as a rubber vine entangling a Congolese rubber collector.

Abir Congo Company

The Abir Congo Company (founded as the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company) exploited natural rubber in the Congo Free State, the private property of King Leopold II of Belgium. The company was founded with British and Belgian capital and was based in Belgium. By 1898 there were no longer any British shareholders and the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company changed its name to the Abir Congo Company and its residence for tax purposes to the Free State. The company was granted a large concession in the north of the country and the rights to tax the inhabitants. This tax was taken in the form of rubber obtained from a relatively rare rubber vine. The collection system revolved around a series of trade posts along the two main rivers in the concession. Each post was commanded by a European agent and manned with armed sentries to enforce taxation and punish any rebels.

Abir enjoyed a boom through the late 1890s, by selling a kilogram of rubber in Europe that cost them just 1.35 francs for up to 10 francs. However, this came at a cost to the human rights of those who couldn’t pay the tax, with imprisonment, flogging, and other corporal punishment recorded. Abir’s failure to suppress destructive harvesting methods and maintain rubber plantations meant that the vines became increasingly scarce, and by 1904 profits began to fall. During the early 1900s, famine and disease spread across the concession, a natural disaster judged by some to have been exacerbated by Abir’s operations, further hindering rubber collection. The 1900s also saw widespread rebellions against Abir’s rule in the concession and attempts at mass migration to the French Congo or southwards. These events typically resulted in Abir dispatching an armed force to restore order.

A series of reports into the operation of the Free State were issued, starting with the British Consul Roger Casement’s “Casement Report” and followed by reports commissioned by the Free State and Leopold II. These detailed unlawful killings and other abuses by Abir, and Leopold II was embarrassed into instituting reforms. These began with the appointment of American Richard Mohun by Leopold II as director of Abir. However, rubber exports continued to fall and rebellions increased, resulting in the Free State assuming control of the concession in 1906. Abir continued to receive a portion of profits from rubber exports and in 1911 was refounded as a rubber plantation harvesting company.