Establishment of the Congo Free State
Even before his accession to the throne of Belgium in 1865, the future king Leopold II began lobbying leading Belgian politicians to create a colonial empire in the Far East or Africa, which would expand and enhance Belgian prestige. Politically, however, colonisation was unpopular in Belgium as it was perceived as a risky and expensive gamble with no obvious benefit to the country and his many attempts to persuade politicians met with little success.
Determined to look for a colony for himself and inspired by recent reports from central Africa, Leopold began patronising a number of leading explorers, including Henry Morton Stanley. Leopold established the International African Association (Association internationale africaine), a "charitable" organisation to oversee the exploration and surveying of a territory based around the Congo River, with the stated goal of bringing humanitarian assistance and "civilisation" to the natives. In the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, European leaders officially recognised Leopold's control over the 2,350,000 km2 (910,000 sq mi) of the notionally-independent Congo Free State on the grounds that it would be a free trade area and buffer state between British and French spheres of influence. In the Free State, Leopold exercised total personal control without much delegation to subordinates. African chiefs played an important role in the administration by implementing government orders within their communities. Throughout much of its existence, however, Free State presence in the territory that it claimed was patchy, with its few officials concentrated in a number of small and widely dispersed "stations" which controlled only small amounts of hinterland. In 1900, there were just 3,000 white people in the Congo, of whom only half were Belgian. The colony was perpetually short of administrative staff and officials, who numbered between 700 and 1,500 during the period.
In the early years of the colony, much of the administration's attention was focused on consolidating its control by fighting the African peoples on the colony's periphery who resisted colonial rule. These included the tribes around the Kwango river, in the south-west, and the Uélé in the north-east. Some of the violence of the period can be attributed to African groups using colonial support to settle scores or white administrators acting without state approval.
Economic and administrative situation
"Ultimately the state's policy towards its African subjects became dominated by the demands which were made—both by the state itself and by the concessionary companies—for labour for the collection of wild produce of the territory. The system itself engendered abuses ..."
Ruth Slade (1962)
The Free State was intended, above all, to be profitable for its investors and Leopold in particular. Its finances were frequently precarious. Early reliance on ivory exports did not make as much money as hoped and the colonial administration was frequently in debt, nearly defaulting on a number of occasions. A boom in demand for natural rubber in the 1890s, however, ended these problems as the colonial state was able to force Congolese males to work as forced labour collecting wild rubber which could then be exported to Europe and North America. The rubber boom transformed what had been an unexceptional colonial system before 1890 and led to significant profits. Exports rose from 580 to 3,740 tons between 1895 and 1900.
In order to facilitate economic extraction from the colony, land was divided up under the so-called Domain System (régime domanial) in 1891. All vacant land, including forests and areas not under cultivation, was decreed to be "uninhabited" and thus in the possession of the state, leaving many of the Congo's resources (especially rubber and ivory) under direct colonial ownership. Concessions were allocated to private companies. In the north, the Société Anversoise was given 160,000 km2 (62,000 sq mi), while the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (ABIR) was given a comparable territory in the south. The Compagnie du Katanga and Compagnie des Grands Lacs were given smaller concessions in the south and east respectively. Leopold kept a large proportion of territory under personal rule, known as the Crown Domain (Domaine de la Couronne), of 250,000 km2 (97,000 sq mi) which was added to the territory he already controlled under the Private Domain (Domaine privé). Thus most economic exploitation of the Congolese interior was undertaken by Leopold and the major concessionaires. The system was extremely profitable and ABIR made a turnover of over 100 per cent on its initial stake in a single year. The King made 70 million Belgian francs' profit from the system between 1896 and 1905. The Free State's concession system was soon copied by other colonial regimes, notably those in the neighbouring French Congo.