King Leopold’s concerted effort for the Congo


OPPOSITION to King Leopold II’s ambitions to colonise the Congo came from the French, long before the Berlin Conference.
In the 1870s, Italian-French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, a nominal employee of the French Government, was on an expedition along the Ogowe River in the environs of the Congo Basin (now Gabon) and had successfully concluded a series of treaties with King Makoko of the Teke people in a language the King could neither read nor understand.
As a representative of France, huge tracts of land were ceded to de Brazza by the King.
The French Government, however, showed no interest in de Brazza’s treaties until 1882, after losing control of Egypt to Britain in what became known as the ‘Egypt Crisis’.
Under pressure at home, the French Government suddenly recalled de Brazza’s treaties with King Makoko and the vast territory in Central Africa ready to be claimed.
But Stanley, who had ignited the ‘Great African Land Rush’, had also claimed part of vast Central Africa, on behalf of King Leopold II.
At the same time, the Portuguese also dredge up the fact that they had, in fact, been the first Europeans to enter the territory in 1482, giving them the right to make claims on the territory.
When Diego Cao first arrived in the Kongo (now Congo), he encountered a thriving African kingdom; a sophisticated and well developed state, one of the leading states in Central Africa.
It was an imperial federation of between 2-3million people, covering an area roughly
77 700km2, some of which today form part of several countries as a result of arbitrary border lines drawn across Africa by the Europeans in 1885.
As a result of the multiple claims being made for the Congo Basin, King Leopold II, fearing a setback, hastily dispatched a General Sanford to Washington, to woo the Americans to his side.
Meanwhile, the French were hastily appropriating most of the Congo River Basin within their anticipated boundary lines.
General Henry Shelton Sanford was a privileged American millionaire-investor who had never enlisted in the military, notwithstanding his rank.
President Abraham Lincoln had appointed Sanford as America’s envoy to Belgium.
At the end of his tenure, King Leopold II, in turn, appointed him as his representative in America, with the sole mission to convince the Americans to support King Leopold II’s Congo escapade.
As a result of Sanford’s efforts, and without first establishing the exact demarcation lines, in April 1884, the Americans declared their recognition of King Leopold II’s claim to the Congo Basin, thus becoming the first country to do so.
Fearing defeat, King Leopold II had previously turned, unsuccessfully, to the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, for support; who was said to have retorted: “…his Majesty displays the pretensions and naïve selfishness of an Italian who considers charm and good looks will enable him to get away with anything…”
By now frantic, King Leopold II was at a loss.
With no colonies to be had ‘for sale’, he had to find some means to get his way.
He had to convince everyone that his interests were purely altruistic.
In September 1876, King Leopold II assembled a conference of Belgians and other eminent Europeans who included famous explorers, geographers, business executives, anti-slavery activists and military men, including Bismarck’s influential banker, Gerson Bleichroder, as an intermediary, in Brussels.
Bismarck had been outmanoeuvred; everyone present enthusiastically endorsed King Leopold II’s Congo enterprise and agreed to establish an African association in support, with King Leopold II as its first chairman.
By 1884, Bismarck was confidently convinced that it was better for the Congo to go to Belgium, and thus be open to German traders, than to protection-minded France or Portugal or to dominant England.
Thus, without fully realising the extent of King Leopold II’s true intentions or treaties with African rulers, Bismarck agreed to recognise the new African state of the Belgian Congo in return for guarantees of freedom of trade in the Congo and called for the Kongoconferenze where he backed King Leopold II’s ambition.
King Leopold II however, still had to contend with France and Portugal.
Henry Morton Stanley, meanwhile, although passing himself off as an American, coveted the area of the Congo Basin’s 3 000 000km2, for Britain.
But Britain was not interested in the vast territory, even though Scottish explorer Verney Cameron was the first to explore the area before Stanley, and Stanley was the first to cross the continent from East to West.
For King Leopold II, who also had to deal with the challenge from Portugal and Spain, the bad news on February 26 1884, that Portugal managed to get Britain to sign a treaty to block King Leopold II’s access to the Atlantic, the impending Berlin Kongoconferenze was heaven-sent.
Though King Leopold II was not present at the conference, he was nonetheless in a strong position.
His well-placed collaborators, that included Stanley, Sandford and Bleichroder, ensured he was kept up to date with proceedings.
Bismarck, with German interests in Africa at stake, notably in Namibia, also pandered to King Leopold II’s every whim.
By the end of the conference, King Leopold II of Belgium won the lion’s share of the spoils; the third largest country in Africa became two separate entities; Congo-Brazzaville and Belgian-Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo – DRC).
King Leopold II was apportioned
2 344 869,4km2; covering an area from the Atlantic Ocean in the East to the very heart of Africa’s vast, hitherto unknown ‘dark’ interior; which incorporated the entire 4 827km length of the Congo River and its many tributaries.
France was allocated 665 630km2 on the north bank of the Congo River, which became modern-day Congo Brazzaville and the Central African Republic; and Portugal was assigned 909 090km2 south of the Congo River, which became modern-day Angola and the enclave of Cabinda, which Portugal administered separately from Angola until 1975, when it was thrown into the bargain.
The 7 270km2 enclave of Cabinda is currently a province of Angola, separated from it by a small jut of the DRC where the Congo River enters the Atlantic Ocean at Matadi.
Today, on account of past colonial treaties, Angola holds on to Cabinda on account of its abundant oil resourced lands that are to be found in the enclave.
King Leopold II finally had a colony which he ruled without a Constitution, international supervision and without ever having set foot in the Congo himself.
The vast mineral rich territory was signed and assigned to him exclusively.
He became the solitary ruler of an estimated 30 million people and a territory 80 times the size of Belgium, or as large as 13 European countries put together.
The complex interaction of land both as an economic resource and as a basis of the political super-structure cemented, tied and broke bonds among nations, ethnic groups, beliefs, genders and classes that existed in the pre-colonial and sovereign periods.
After the Berlin Kongoconferenze, the New Africa became a colony of five European nations; principally Britain, France, Portugal, Germany and Spain.
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.
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