Atrocities in the Congo Free State

King Leopold II, whose personal rule of the Congo Free State was marked by severe atrocities, violence and major population decline
Civilian victims of mutilation by Free State authorities

In the period from 1885 to 1908, many well-documented atrocities were perpetrated in the Congo Free State (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) which, at the time, was a colony under the personal rule of King Leopold II of the Belgians. These atrocities were particularly associated with the labour policies used to collect natural rubber for export. Together with epidemic disease, famine, and a falling birth rate caused by these disruptions, the atrocities contributed to a sharp decline in the Congolese population. The magnitude of the population fall over the period is disputed, but it is thought to be between one and fifteen million.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, the European powers allocated the Congo Basin region to a private charitable organisation run by Leopold II, who had long held ambitions for colonial expansion. The territory under Leopold's control exceeded 2,600,000 km2 (1,000,000 sq mi) and, amid financial problems, was ruled by a tiny cadre of administrators drawn from across Europe. Initially, the colony proved unprofitable and insufficient, with the state always close to bankruptcy. The boom in demand for natural rubber, which was abundant in the territory, created a radical shift in the 1890s—to facilitate the extraction and export of rubber, all "uninhabited" land in the Congo was nationalised, with the majority distributed to private companies as concessions. Some was kept by the state. Between 1891 and 1906, the companies were allowed to do whatever they wished with almost no judicial interference, the result being that forced labour and violent coercion were used to collect the rubber cheaply and maximise profit. A native paramilitary army, the Force Publique, was also created to enforce the labour policies. Individual workers who refused to participate in rubber collection could be killed and entire villages razed.

Despite these atrocities, the main cause of the population decline was disease. A number of pandemics, notably African sleeping sickness, smallpox, swine influenza, and amoebic dysentery, ravaged indigenous populations. In 1901 alone it was estimated that 500,000 Congolese had died from sleeping sickness. Disease, famine and violence combined to reduce the birth-rate while excess deaths rose.

The severing of workers' hands achieved particular international notoriety. These were sometimes cut off by Force Publique soldiers who were made to account for every shot they fired by bringing back the hands of their victims. These details were recorded by Christian missionaries working in the Congo and caused public outrage when they were made known in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the United States and elsewhere. An international campaign against the Congo Free State began in 1890 and reached its apogee after 1900 under the leadership of the British activist E. D. Morel. In 1908, as a result of international pressure, the Belgian government annexed the Congo Free State to form the Belgian Congo, and ended many of the systems responsible for the abuses. The size of the population decline during the period is the subject of extensive historiographical debate, and there is an open debate as to whether the atrocities constitute genocide. Neither the Belgian monarchy nor the Belgian state has ever apologised for the atrocities.


Establishment of the Congo Free State

Map of the Congo Free State in 1892

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.[1] 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.[1]

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.[1] 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.[2] In the Free State, Leopold exercised total personal control without much delegation to subordinates.[3] African chiefs played an important role in the administration by implementing government orders within their communities.[4] 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.[5] In 1900, there were just 3,000 white people in the Congo, of whom only half were Belgian.[6] The colony was perpetually short of administrative staff and officials, who numbered between 700 and 1,500 during the period.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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)[10]

The Free State was intended, above all, to be profitable for its investors and Leopold in particular.[11] 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.[12] 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.[12] The rubber boom transformed what had been an unexceptional colonial system before 1890 and led to significant profits.[13] Exports rose from 580 to 3,740 tons between 1895 and 1900.[14]

In order to facilitate economic extraction from the colony, land was divided up under the so-called Domain System (régime domanial) in 1891.[15][16] 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.[15][17] 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.[18] 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).[18][14] Thus most economic exploitation of the Congolese interior was undertaken by Leopold and the major concessionaires.[18] The system was extremely profitable and ABIR made a turnover of over 100 per cent on its initial stake in a single year.[19] The King made 70 million Belgian francs' profit from the system between 1896 and 1905.[16] The Free State's concession system was soon copied by other colonial regimes, notably those in the neighbouring French Congo.[20]