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I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.
~ Leopold II after incinerating the documents detailing the atrocities he committed in the Congo

Leopold II (April 9th, 1835 – December 17th, 1909) was the second king of Belgium, ruling after the death of his father, Leopold I.

He is mostly known as the founder of the Congo Free State, which he shamelessly exploited for his own personal gain.

History

Early Life

Nsala of Wala in Congo looks at the severed hand and foot of his five-year old daughter, 1904

"He hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers had cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. Her name was Boali. She was five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. Then they killed his wife too. And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalized both Boali and her mother. And they presented Nsala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once living body of his darling child whom he so loved. His life was destroyed. They had partially destroyed it anyway by forcing his servitude but this act finished it for him. All of this filth had occurred because one man, one man who lived thousands of miles across the sea, one man who couldn’t get rich enough, had decreed that this land was his and that these people should serve his own greed. Leopold had not given any thought to the idea that these African children, these men and women, were our fully human brothers, created equally by the same Hand that had created his own lineage of European Royalty." -Photographer of this photo

Leopold II was born as the son of Leopold I, the first king of Belgium. As a child, he developed a hobby with geography, which would later evolve into his obsession with colonies.

He married Marie Henriette (daughter of Archduke Joseph of Austria) in 1853, and the two produced four children, 3 of whom were women. Leopold's only male offspring died at 9 due to pneumonia. Due to the fact that Henriette couldn't bear a male heir, the two separated. One of his daughters later recalled that her father had basically abandoned her because of her sex.

In 1863, Leopold II would be crowned as the King of Belgium following his father's death. His reign, outside of the Congo, marked major reforms within Belgium and he became known for building many lavish palaces.

Leopold, however, became preoccupied with his fascination of colonialism, visiting many areas he saw as potential colonies. Seeing other major European powers setting up puppet nations in Asia, South America, and Africa, he urged the Belgian Parliament do the same. However, his attempts were all in vain.

Acquisition

After searching around the world for an area suitable for a colony, he turned his eyes to the mysterious center of Africa called the Congo. Since nobody else was interested in the area, Leopold saw great potential, dreaming of owning the massive land mass.

About a few years into Leopold's reign, an explorer known as Henry Morton Stanley had rediscovered the legendary David Livingstone in the middle of the Congo Basin after he disappeared a few years earlier. Stanley caught Leopold's eye, and he hired him once his expedition was over.

Leopold established multiple philanthropic associations, claiming that his agenda was to help civilize and Christianize the Congolese people, and had Stanley support him. He also claimed that he would protect the Congolese from the "evil Arab slave traders", a strawman many Europeans used as an excuse to colonize parts of Africa. These organizations, however, were not genuine and served only to garner support for his plans.

After establishing himself as a righteous man in the eyes of the public, he requested funding from the Parliament to support his "philanthropic" goals. The senators obliged, and Leopold sent Stanley to map out the Congo Basin. Stanley would shoot his way through Africa, forcing tribe leaders to sign contracts giving away their people to Belgium, and establishing camps.

During the Berlin Conference, Leopold obtained support from many rivaling European powers who also wished to seek out the Congo Basin. Using this newfound support, Leopold seized control of the center of Africa and turned it into the Congo Free State, a Belgian colony who was exclusively owned by him and him only. After a lifetime of chasing after his dream of owning a colony, it had finally come to fruition.

Atrocities

Leopold II used the railroads and bridges built by Stanley previously to spread his influence quickly across his colony. At the time, ivory was seen as an expensive resource, and conveniently for Leopold, it was common in the Congo.

Belgian troops would force Congolese men to harvest ivory, either at gunpoint or by holding their wives hostage. Porters became needed to transport the large amount of ivory, so Leopold's troops would raid villages and gather slaves. The porters would then be forced to walk miles, and many who collapsed of exhaustion were beaten to death. Babies were left to die on the side of the road in order to maximize productivity.

Leopold also established the Force Publique, a force composed of Congolese slaves led by white generals who enforced Leopold's law. As Congolese leaders began setting up rebellions around the Basin, the Force Publique would be sent to crush the rebels. Sometimes, a war between Leopold's troops and Congolese rebels would last for years.

At the turn of the century, rubber prices skyrocketed, and the resource was seen as a valuable commodity that could only be obtained through exotic plants. Realizing that half of the Congo was covered with rubber trees, Leopold's tyranny took a turn for the worse as he ordered all rubber to be extracted from his colony. The Force Publique would hold villagers hostage in exchange for long hours of labor gathering rubber. If a village refused, they would be slaughtered and raped, and their towns would be burned to ashes, setting up an example for neighboring villages.

Congolese men were subjected to daily rubber quotas, and if they failed to meet their goal, they or their loved ones would be shot. Anyone who refused to subject themselves to hours of forced labor was whipped and beaten to death. The bodies of anyone who showed any hints of resistance were cannibalized. Multiple children were lashed to death after laughing in the presence of a Belgian.

In order to conserve bullets, the Force Publique had to provide the hand of every person they shot, as proof that they did not waste any bullets. This system made hands a currency in the Congo Free State. Rubber quotas would be paid off using amputated hands. Villages would go into wars with other villages in order to obtain more hands if their rubber quota was unrealistic. Sometimes the Force Publique would cheat the system and directly cut off the hands of a live person and leave them to die.

Plague and famine went rampant across the Congo Free State. Anyone who wasn't killed by the Force Publique suffered and died under widespread diseases such as the sleeping sickness. Many also starved to death from a lack of food, and many resorted to eating their own feces and urine to survive.

All of the profits from the rubber went directly to Leopold II, who used the money for personal gain.

While Leopold was squeezing rubber from the Congo, he was also having affairs with a teenage prostitute named Caroline Lacroix. After Henriette died, the two fell deeply in love and they embarked on a romantic relationship. Leopold and Lacroix were heavily criticized after their romance caught the public eye. Leopold would use the money earned from the Congo to buy gifts for Lacroix. Since she benefited immensely from the abusive practices of the Congo Free State, she was named the "Queen of the Congo."

Downfall

Slowly but surely, records of the brutality in the Congo started to leak out into the public eye. Accounts of widespread genocide circulated throughout the media and settled in the public conscious. In order to combat this, Leopold hired reporters to concoct phony stories denouncing and discrediting the reports and claiming that the Congolese were better off with Leopold ruling over them. He then bribed editors of influential newspapers to include the bogus stories in their issue. This tactic kept Leopold's reputation and ownership over the Congo Free State intact.

However, as time went on, more and more accounts about the horrors of the Congo Free State was released, and the evidence became irrefutable. Many accused Leopold of committing crimes against humanity, a phrase later used in international politics. In order to save himself, Leopold II announced multiple reforms to the Congo Free State, but they would never actually happen.

The controversy surrounding Leopold reached widespread fame in America and the United Kingdom. Many influential figures, such as Mark Twain publicly condemned the Congo Free State. A debate within the British House of Commons resulted in the passing of a resolution condemning Leopold's reign of terror. E. D. Moore, a former shopkeeper, set up the Congo Reform Association, an organization bent on ending the abusive practices within the Congo.

Eventually, pressure from both the Catholic and Labor Party forced the Belgian Parliament to relive Leopold's ownership of the Congo Free State, which had lasted a long and brutal 23 years. Because of this, the Congo became a Belgian colony, and Leopold had little to no ownership of it.

Leopold went to great lengths to conceal all evidence of his crimes in the Congo. After he lost ownership over his colony, he ordered all documents in the Congo Free State archive to be burned, stating that only he could know what he had done there.

A year later, Leopold suffered a stroke and died soon after. With his crimes exposed and his tyranny in the limelight, his funeral procession was booed from onlookers. All of his profits earned from the Congo Free State was inherited by Lacroix, who used it to live lavishly for the rest of her life.

After the dust had settled, an estimated 10 million Congolese had died under Leopold II's regime.

Legacy

Despite Leopold II's best efforts to erase all memory of his horrible rule, his name has become synonymous with the Congo Free State. And even though his actions aren't as well known as more modern genocides such as the Holocaust, he will be remembered for what he was; a greedy authoritarian whose selfishness was only rivaled by his cunning.

The Congo Free State destroyed all social structure within the Congo with its abusive practices, and the aftereffects are still seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today. Belgian-owned Congo wasn't a big improvement from Leopold's Congo. For the first half of the 20th Century, many Africans were forced to work in mines, extracting uranium for nuclear programs such as the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. Only when the Congo declared independence did the Congolese experience freedom for the first time. That freedom was shortlived, however, as a few years later Mobutu Sese Seko would seize control of the Congo Basin and the Congolese would fall into the grip of another terrible tyrant.

Trivia

  • Despite committing genocide against the Congolese within the Congo Free State, Leopold had never actually stepped onto Congo soil.
  • Leopold II was the first cousin of both Queen Victoria of England and her husband Prince Albert. King Fernando II of Portugal and Leopold II were also first cousins.
  • Leopold enjoyed riding around in his tricycle.
  • Ironically, Leopold took great pride in his hands, claiming that they were near perfect.

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