Leopold II inherited the Belgian throne in 1865. In 1879, envious of other European nations’ overseas empires, Leopold tasked famed British explorer Henry Morton Stanley to establish a Belgian colony in Central Africa. On 5 February 1885, the “Congo Free State” (an area 76 times larger than Belgium) was founded. Unlike other government-run European colonies, the Congo Free State was the personal possession of King Leopold himself (a single individual), independent of the Belgian government.
In the Congo Free State, ivory (the initial focus of attention) was soon sidelined for something that would come to solidify Leopold’s infamy: rubber. Large portions of the native population were enslaved to satisfy rubber quotas set by Belgian colonial officials. If quotas were not met, workers frequently had their limbs cut off. Many accounts from the time mention “baskets of severed hands” being presented to colonial officials. As the horrors of the Congo became more known worldwide, Leopold faced increasing political pressure and ceded his personal fiefdom to the Belgian government in 1908. It became known thereafter as the Belgian Congo (1908-1960).
Though the Congo Free State existed for less than 30 years (1885-1908), it is still one of the most brutal time periods in human history. Many historians place the death toll under Leopold’s colonial rule at approximately 50% of the Congolese population, or between 10 to 15 million people. British journalist E. D. Morel even placed the death count as high as ‘20 million souls’. Interestingly enough, though the number of people killed under Leopold’s rule ranks equally to (or even exceeds) those killed by other notorious historical figures such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot, Leopold has somehow managed to escape such notoriety, and remains relatively unknown to the general public. Additionally, King Leopold himself never set foot in the Congo, and neither the Belgian monarchy nor the Belgian state has ever apologized for the atrocities committed in the Congo.
By Tre Hunt
(Image: Rare Historical Photos)