Creation of the Congo Free State

The fact that the État Indépendant du Congo was technically the private property of the International Association of the Congo, of which Leopold II was the sole shareholder, gave Leopold II the most absolute rule a leader could imagine. He could have ordered the entire rainforest to be burned down and his only obstacle would be starting the fire.   

In 1876 AD, Leopold II invited Europe’s aristocrats to the Brussels Geographic Conference where they invested in his International African Association. Their aim was to abolish the slave trade being conducted by Arabs in the Congo at the time as well as to send humanitarian aid to Africa. The Association did close to nothing for the next three years. So, in 1879 AD, its shareholders became willing to sell out of the inactive venture, and Leopold II quietly bought up all of their shares, making him the sole owner and shareholder of the now renamed International Association of the Congo. The public still believed the main goal of these associations was to abolish slavery and send aid to Africa; however its true mission, Leopold’s mission, was to establish a new colony, the Congo Free State.

Explorer Henry Morgan Stanley and his adopted son, Kalulu Ndugu M’Hali, 1872

While Leopold was pulling his strings in Europe, his most valuable asset, the world famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley was hard at work mapping the interior of Africa along the Congo River and bamboozling African chiefs into signing treaties that had them hand over their land to the “Association” in exchange for such ridiculous terms as “One piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present cloth in hand.” These “treaties” read like contracts in which Leopold II’s Association was receiving the right to possess the land and all natural resources on it, as well as the right to have Congolese people provide the labor for any projects the Association undertakes. Allegations exist that Stanley’s treaties originally were agreements for access to the land, but that Leopold forged them later to include the outright concession of the land.

To legitimize these “treaties,” Leopold II used his royal charm and his other valuable asset, American diplomat Henry Shelton Sanford, a wealthy American aristocrat, to win over United States government officials. Their lobbying efforts succeeded and in 1884 AD the United States officially recognized the Congo as a territory governed by Leopold’s International Association of the Congo. In 1885 AD, at the Berlin Conference, Europe’s major powers formally recognized these treaties as well. Thus, Leopold II, as sole shareholder of the International Association of the Congo, became the sole owner of the Congo.

The natives of the Congo experienced some of the most inhumane treatments ever witnessed in modern history. There was no effort to put the slave trade to an end as promised. Instead, it flourished along with the trade of ivory and rubber, especially.

Slaves and natives were forced into labor under the power of the newly invented automatic Maxim machine gun and the chicotte, a hard whip made of sharpened strips of hippopotamus hide. These tools were used to dole out disproportionately severe punishment.

Failure to harvest enough rubber often resulted in the dismembership of one’s hands or genitalia. Men, women, and children were all subject to having their hands cut off. In at least once instance, a line of Congolese men and women were chained and bound to each other by their neck and forced to march down a steep ravine to their deaths. Historical consensus holds the number of Congolese people killed during Leopold II’s reign at 10 million dead.

Many, but not all, of the colonial officers were cruel barbarians–living up to the name the Romans gave their ancestors thousands of years prior. A popular Belgian song of the time described the type of men who went to work in the Congo as debtors, alcoholics, and abusive husbands on the run. One of Leopold II’s officers named Leon Rom was even said to have a ring of human heads lay around his garden.

A lack of accountability and the deep, geographic isolation of the Congo allowed this heinous conduct to go unchecked for over two decades.

Eventually, news of what was happening in the Congo came back to Europe and the United States. Men like African American George Washington Williams and Reverend William H. Sheppard, Dutch Edmund Dene Morel, and Irish Roger Casement witnessed and reported these crimes against humanity as well as the economic failures of Leopold’s trade operations. And famous writers like Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, author of the Heart of Darkness, raised public awareness.

As the prosperity of his colony dwindled and profits dissolved, Leopold II struggled to tolerate the intense public scrutiny mounting against him. So, in November of 1908 AD, after approximately two years of deliberation, the Belgian Parliament decided to buy the “Congo Free State” from King Leopold II who was now willing to sell. Congo would not receive its independence from Belgium until 1960 AD.

Believing the Congo had been his private property, Leopold said, “I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.” He had all of the Congo Free State’s business records burned before turning the land over to the Belgian Parliament. He died the following year at the age of 74.

Cartoon of Leopold II and the Congo Free State by Francis Carruthers Gould

Source: Hochschild, Adam (1998). King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Pan Macmillan.

Source: Louis, Wm. Roger; Stengers, Jean, eds. (1968). E. D. Morel’s History of the Congo Reform Movement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Source: Stanley, Henry Morgan (1885). The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State: A Story of Work and Exploration. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers.

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