How King Leopold II grabbed the Congo


AFRICAN discontent over the loss of land in the 18th Century was matched by that of King Leopold II of Belgium’s lack of scruples.
Driven not only by the desire for the acquisition and controlling of land that they did not possess, but also by a desire for its natural resources and labour, Europe colonised land others lived on.
In 1800, Western powers held approximately 40 percent of the earth’s surface. By 1878, the proportion increased to 67 percent; a rate of 83 000 square miles per year. By 1914, the annual rate had risen to an astonishing 240 000 square miles annually.
Europe, alone, held roughly 85 percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions and commonwealths. Poor King Leopold II of Belgium had none. This initially led to the Conference, officially titled ‘Kongoconferenze’ by the Germans, due to the importance of the Congo Basin in the matrix.
Motivated by his insatiable greed and desire for acquisitiveness during a period when the rest of Europe’s search for minerals and markets had become essential for survival, King Leopold II felt derisory.
He could not live down the fact that Belgium, like its other more powerful neighbours, had no colonies.
The Belgian King felt deprived and urgently needed a colony. He spent a great deal of his time scheming how to acquire one – anywhere would do. However, there were no ‘unclaimed’ territories left in the Americas; Asia and the Russian Empire stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The French had colonised Indochina, the Dutch the East Indies and the British empire had already colonised most of southern Asia, from Aden to Singapore, including China, India and Burma (now Myanmar). Only Africa remained an unclaimed option to him and Henry Morton Stanley was the solution to his problem.
Stanley was born in January 1841, in a small Welsh town. His mother, a housemaid, recorded his birth in the register as ‘John Rowlands – Bastard’, after his father, a local drunkard by the same name, died of delirium tremens, a psychotic condition of alcoholism.
John Rowlands Bastard was the first of five illegitimate children. He spent much of his time with foster parents and juvenile workhouses. In 1959, he moved to New Orleans in the US, whereupon he changed his name several times before he settled on the name of Henry Morton Stanley, said to be of a rich benefactor, for himself.
In the course of time, as John Rowlands Bastard changed his name, he also changed his occupations several times.
He became a soldier at one time, then sailor, followed by newspaperman and by default, a famous explorer.
As Henry Morton Stanley, he was feted by high society in both the US and Europe, where he was eventually knighted and even elected to the British Parliament.
In 1869, while working as a newsman with the New York Herald, Henry Morton Stanley was sent to Africa to look for David Livingstone who was thought to be lost.
Livingstone, who had come to Africa in 1866 on a long expedition to look for slave traders and potential Christians, had not been heard of for several years.
Thus, in 1871, with an entourage of almost 200 indigenous guides and porters, Stanley set off inland, from the East coast, in search of his quarry.
Stanley trudged through the dense jungle for eight months before he finally met up with David Livingstone; whereupon he uttered: “Dr Livingstone I presume?”
Stanley’s newspaper reports, regarding his exploits in the ‘dark African interior’, circulated worldwide and further whetted the colonising powers’ appetite for land, in addition to that of King Leopold II of Belgium, who immediately recruited Stanley to his cause.
The ‘Kongoconferenze’ came at the end of 400 years of African slavery that severely dissipated the physical and mental energies of the indigenous Africans and destroyed their economic base.
Its outcome permanently altered the continent’s geo-political map.
By then, Algeria in North Africa was already colonised by France; the Cape Colony and Natal (now South Africa), was colonised by Britain and Angola by Portugal. Both the governments of Portugal and France, who had already been haggling over possession of the Congo Basin, were now in competition with claims by King Leopold II of Belgium.
When the Conference opened on November 15 1884, 14 countries, namely; Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (unified since 1814-1905), Turkey and the US were represented by a plethora of ambassadors and envoys.
At this time, Portugal, France and Germany were already the major players in control of most of colonial Africa.
Among the ministers and plenipotentiaries, dressed in formal attire, who took their seats beneath the room’s vast, vaulted ceiling and sparkling chandeliers, were counts, barons, colonels and a vizier from the Ottoman Empire, who at the time, controlled all the Middle Eastern territories from Iraq to Turkey, the whole of south-eastern Europe and much of North Africa.
The host, Otto von Bismarck, dressed in scarlet court dress, welcomed his guests in French — the diplomatic lingua franca — and seated before a large map of Africa.
The assembled delegates, bickering, began partitioning Africa among themselves.
Ten years earlier, in 1874, Stanley, together with an enormous retinue of African porters and guides, set off on another marathon African expedition.
On August 5 1877, he reached Boma (now part of the DRC), arriving at the mouth of the sprawling, vast Congo River, Africa’s second longest river, which he mistook for the Nile River.
Stanley followed the almost 5 000km-long river to its mouth at Matadi on the West Coast, becoming the first European to chart its course.
The river was known by the people living along its banks by several names, among them, ‘Nzere’ (the river that swallows all rivers), due to the many tributaries along its course; but became known as ‘Zaire’ by the Portuguese and was later changed to the Congo River by the Europeans.
As the river pits its strength against the ocean, a canyon over 160m long and over 1 200m deep in places was carved out of the sea floor. It empties almost four million cubic metres of water per second into the ocean; dwarfing the Victoria Falls — only the Amazon River in South America competes with it.
However, sadly for Stanley, Portuguese sailor and explorer, Diego Cao, was the first European to arrive at the mouth of the Congo River in 1482.
Flowing through the vast, luxuriant territory covered in a network of tributaries, the Congo River is half as long as the
Rhine, but carries as much water as the Volga in Russia, tumbling over 32 separate cataracts as it descends over 354m to sea level.
It holds an estimated one sixth of the world’s hydroelectricity potential.
The unlimited rich resources in the Congo Basin were a source of great envy to the European powers.
It became the cause of conflict among three of the principle actors: France, Portugal and Belgium.
To help him sway Stanley to his cause, King Leopold II recruited General Henry Shelton Sanford, who notwithstanding his high rank, was never enlisted in the military, but was an American millionaire-investor who invested in railroads, citrus farms and real estates in Florida.
Sanford was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as the US representative to Belgium.
After his term of office ended, King Leopold II appointed him his envoy to the US with the principal mission to convince the Americans to support his Congo venture.
King Leopold thus succeeded in gaining a country double the size of Belgium, which he ruled ruthlessly as his private domain and named the Belgian Congo.
At the time, Europe’s colonisation of Africa was mainly concentrated along the coast; the vast interior was still a mystery to them, which led to their fallacious belief that Africa was a ‘dark continent’ inhabited by ‘barbarians’.
During the three months of the Conference, Western European powers haggled over African territories, disregarding natural, cultural and linguistic boundaries established by the many autonomous indigenous populations.
The wrangling over African territory continued well after the Conference.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For views and comments. email:


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