Congo Free State

État indépendant du Congo
Congo Free State
1885 — 1908

Flag of Congo


Capital Boma
Government Monarchy
Ruler and owner Leopold II of Belgium
Historical era New Imperialism
 - Established 1885

The Congo Free State was a kingdom privately and controversially owned by King Leopold II of Belgium that included the entire area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Leopold II began laying the diplomatic, military, and economic groundwork for his control of the Congo in 1877, and ruled it outright from early 1885 until its annexation by Belgium in 1908.

Under Leopold II's administration, the Congo Free State was subject to a terror regime, including atrocities such as mass killings and maimings which were used to subjugate the indigenous peoples of the Congo region and to procure slave labour, although it was not called slavery at the time. Estimates of the death toll range depending on the source.

Beginning in 1900, news of the conditions in the Congo Free State began to be exposed in European and U.S. press. By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic manoeuvres led to the end of Leopold II's rule, and to the annexation of the Congo as a colony of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo.




History of DR Congo
DRC flags over the years
  • Early history
    Migration & states
  • Colonization
    Stanley (1867–1885)
  • Congo Free State
    Leopold II (1885–1908)
  • Belgian Congo
  • Congo Crisis
    First Republic (1960–1965)
  • Zaire
    Mobutu regime (1965–1996)
  • First Congo War
    Kabila's rise (1996–1998)
  • Second Congo War
    Africa's Great War (1998–2003)
  • Transitional government
    Toward unity (since 2003)
edit box

The Congo Free State was established as a neutral independent sovereignty. (1) In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium had organized, with the cooperation of the leading African explorers and the support of several European governments, the International African Association, for the promotion of African exploration and colonization. In 1877, Henry Morton Stanley called attention to the Congo country and was sent there by the association, the expense being defrayed by Leopold. (2) Through corrupt treaties with native chiefs, rights were acquired to a great area along the Congo, and posts were established. The treaties were extremely one-sided in favor of Leopold. In some cases chiefs not only handed over their lands, but also promised to help provide workers for hard labor. It was an even worse trade than the Indians made for Manhattan. After 1879, the work was under the auspices of the Comité d'Etudes du Haut Congo, which developed into the International Association of the Congo. This organization sought to combine the numerous small territories acquired into one sovereign state and asked for recognition from the European Powers. On April 22, 1884, the United States government, having decided that the cessions by the native chiefs were lawful, recognized the International Association of the Congo as a sovereign independent state, under the title of the Congo Free State, and this example was followed by Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, and Sweden. The international conference on African affairs, which met at Berlin, 1884-85, determined the status of the Congo Free State. (3)


Genesis of the Congo Free State

King Leopold initially gained ownership of the Congo largely through the cooperation on the part of the major powers of Europe. Leopold's profits from the region and a general increase in European interest in colonizing Africa led to greater competition in the continent. Leopold's activities in the Congo had already pushed the French into claiming an area (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 their rivals, particularly the French.

In a succession of negotiations, Léopold, professing humanitarian objectives in his capacity as chairman of the Association Internationale Africaine, played one European rival against the other.

Leopold II, King of Belgium and de facto owner of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908.
Leopold II, King of Belgium and de facto owner of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908.

Initial situation


King Léopold

Leopold began a publicity campaign in Britain, harping on Portugal's dreadful slavery record, and quietly let British 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 British explorer Henry Morton 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 that grave responsibility. This was the master stroke.


The Berlin Conference

In November 1884, Otto von Bismarck convened a 14-nation conference (the Berlin Conference) to find a peaceful resolution to the Congo crisis, and after three months of negotiation, Leopold emerged triumphant. France was given 666,000 km² (257,000 square miles) on the north bank (modern Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic), Portugal 909,000 km² (351,000 square miles) to the south (modern Angola), and Leopold's wholly owned, single-shareholder "philanthropic" organisation received the balance: 2,344,000 km² (905,000 square miles), 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 a population that Stanley had estimated at 30 million people, without constitution, without international supervision, without ever having been to the Congo, and without more than a tiny handful of his new subjects having heard of him.


Léopold's conquest

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

  1. Beyond Stanley's eight trading stations, the Free State was unmapped jungle, and offered no commercial return.
  2. 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 Congo area in defiance of the Berlin Treaty and with the tacit connivance of London.
  3. The slaving gangs of Zanzibar trader Tippu Tip 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.

Turning a profit

Leopold was one of the richest men in Europe, but not even he could afford the expense. He needed to extract riches from the Congo, not expend them. He set in train a brutal colonial regime to maximise profitability. The first change was the introduction of the concept of terres vacantes — "vacant" land, which was anything that no European was living on. This was deemed to belong to the state, and servants of the state (i.e., any white men in Léopold'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 European 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. This did not satisfy Leopold, however. In 1893, he excised the most readily accessible 259,000 km² (100,000 square miles) 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 Léopold in person. Léopold did not publicly disclose his profits made from the Congo Free State, but it was estimated at many tens of millions (and this in a time when even one million was a massive fortune), and vastly more than Leopold could spend.


Britain in the south

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 Congo 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.


War with African slavers

In the short term, the third problem, that of the African slavers, like Zanzibari/swahili strongman, Tippu Tip 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 tribes of the upper Congo forests in a conflict of unparalleled ferocity. Tippu Tip's muskets were no match for Léopold'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 (Baringa, Equateur) is emptied and levelled 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 (Baringa, Equateur) is emptied and levelled 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 Léopold. After widespread criticism, this "primes system" was substituted for the allocation de retraite: in which a large part of the payment was granted, at the end of the service, only to those territorial agents and magistrates whose conduct was judged "satisfying" by their superiors. This meant in practice that nothing changed. 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.

The rubber came from wild vines in the jungle, unlike the rubber from Brazil, which was tapped from trees. To extract the rubber, instead of tapping the vines, the natives would slash them and lather their bodies with the rubber latex. When the latex hardened, it would be scraped off the skin in a painful manner, as it took off the natives' hair with it. This killing of the vines made it even harder to locate sources of rubber as time went on, but the government was relentless in raising the quotas. (Cawthorne, 1999)

To enforce the rubber quotas, the Force Publique (FP) was called in. The FP was an army, but its aim was not to defend the country, but to terrorize the local population. The officers were white agents of the State. Of the black soldiers, many were cannibals from the fiercest tribes from upper Congo while others had been kidnapped during the raids on villages in their childhood and brought to 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 (mostly women), flogged, and raped the natives. They also burned recalcitrant villages, and above all, took human hands as trophies on the orders of white officers to show that bullets hadn't been wasted. (As officers were concerned that their subordinates might waste their ammunition on hunting animals for sport, they required soldiers to submit one hand for every bullet spent.) (Cawthorne, 1999)


A Currency of Severed Hands

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 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. In some instances a soldier could shorten his service term by bringing more hands than the other soldiers, which led to widespread mutilations and "unjust" dismemberment.


Demographic catastrophe?

Estimates of the total death toll vary considerably. Nevertheless, it is impossible to speak of a genocide because a genuine will to exterminate a certain group must exist. The reduction of the population of the Congo was noted by all who have compared the country at the beginning of the colonial rule and the beginning of the 20th century. Estimates of observers of the time, as well as modern scholars (most authoritatively Jan Vansina, professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin), show that the population halved during this period. According to Roger Casement's report, this depopulation was caused mainly by four causes: indiscriminate "war", starvation, reduction of births and diseases. Sleeping sickness ravaged the country and was used by the regime to justify demographic decrease. Opponents of King Léopold's rule stated, however, that the administration itself was to be considered responsible for the spreading of this dreadful epidemic. One of the greatest specialists on sleeping sickness, P.G. Janssens, Professor at the Ghent University, wrote:

It seems reasonable to admit the existence on the territories of the Congo Free State, of French Congo and Angola of a certain number of permanent sources that have been put again in activity by the brutal changement of ancestral conditions and ways of life that has accompanied the accelered occupation of the territories.

In the absence of a census (the first was made in 1924), it is even more difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. 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 of 8 million to 30 million.

On 24 May 2006, a motion (EDM 2251) was presented to the British Parliament, recognising the tragedy caused by King Leopold II as genocide and calling upon Belgium to apologise to the people of Congo for it. As of 16 June 2006, EDM 2251 is officially backed by 42 British MPs.


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 labour 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.

To visit the country was difficult. 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 such as William Henry Sheppard 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. E. D. Morel, a clerk in a major Liverpool shipping office and a part-time journalist, 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. He left his job and became a full-time investigative journalist, and then (aided by merchants who wanted to break into Léopold's monopoly or, as chocolate millionaire William Cadbury that joined his campaign later, used their money to support humanitarian causes), 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 concerns about what was happening in the Congo. In 1903, Morel and those who agreed with him in the House of Commons succeeded in passing a resolution which called on the British government to conduct an inquiry into alleged violations of the Berlin Agreement. 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 with Casement's support, 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, pushed by socialist leader Emile Vandervelde and other critics of the King's Congolese policy, forced Léopold to set up an independent commission of inquiry, and despite the King's 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 it was not seriously considered to return control of the land 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 opportunistically 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 Léopold's private dominion and bailed out the company, but the rubber boom was already over.


See also






External links

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