On this day in 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo as a personal possession.
Until the 1870s, few Europeans had ventured into the Congo. Mosquito-infested swamps and rainforests and the threat of malaria and sleeping sickness kept many Europeans from exploring the region until 1876, when Leopold organised the International African Association, a European initiative to launch exploration and colonisation of the Congo. After explorer Henry Morton Stanley journeyed through the region, Leopold became convinced that colonising Congo would bring wealth and prestige to his homeland.
Belgium, however, was not convinced, so Leopold pursued colonization on his own. He established a dummy non-governmental organisation, the Association Internationale Africaine–of which Leopold was sole shareholder and chairman–to control the Congo Free State, which was essentially a privately-held corporate state. After a period of exploration, Leopold initiated a forced exploitation of rubber, copper, and other minerals from the upper Lualaba River basin. The wealth was channeled into his own purse as well as that of his native country, Belgium. Sadly, the profits Leopold generated were the result of brutal abuse and exploitation of Congo’s people and natural resources.
Leopold’s reign over Congo has been called “one of the worst manmade humanitarian disasters of the turn of the 20th century.” He enslaved the native population of Congo, who were savagely beaten, mutilated, and slaughtered in the line of work.
Upon visiting the Congo, John Harris, a missionary of Baringa, was so saddened by the scene, he wrote, “The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable.” In addition to Leopold’s brutal enslavement of the Congolese, smallpox and sleeping sickness also decimated the population. According to some estimates, two to 15 million people died under Leopold’s reign. Other estimates suggest half the population of the state perished at his hands.
By the early 1900s, reports of the exploitation and abuse led to an international outcry and the first mass human rights movement. Among those who joined the movement against exploitation in the Congo were American writer Mark Twain and Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who lambasted the rubber regime in his 1908 work, “The Crime of the Congo.” By then pressure had mounted against Belgium and in 1908 the Belgian parliament persuaded Leopold to cede the Congo Free State to Belgium.
Though he is credited as a “builder king” of the Congo who commissioned many buildings and urban projects, Leopold remains a controversial figure in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo.