Leopold II loots the Congo

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BELGIAN King Leopold II’s conquest of the Congo was a brutal process and an expensive one.  

To recoup the tremendous outlay he made of his personal funds, King Leopold II imposed heavy taxes and labour demands on the local population. 

As another means of raising money, he proclaimed that all lands not directly occupied by indigenous African people belonged to the state.  

He then granted huge tracts of land for development by ‘concessionaire’ companies.  

These companies used forced labour to produce cash crops, which generated income for the state. 

Cotton and palm oil were the most immediate sources of wealth, but were quickly replaced in importance by rubber, which grew wild, and was of crucial importance to automobile production and other modern industries.  

Rubber rapidly became a vital product for the Congo; in no time rubber exports grew from 110 tonnes in 1890, to 6 614 tonnes in 1901.

An early 20th Century description of Leopoldville, the major commercial centre of the Congo Free State, noted that: “Trade is the life of Leopoldville. In the warehouses we see along the beach are stored rubber, ivory, palm oil, coffee, cocoa, lumber (timber).”

The colonial authorities often resorted to violence to obtain these commodities in the form of colonial taxation or compulsory labour for the state; trade, however, only benefitted Europeans substantially and the African population very little, if at all.  

King Leopold II claimed to rule the Congo in a beneficent manner, promoting Christianity and education. The truth, however, was quite different.    

While both foreign Protestant and Catholic missionaries were active, their work was a veneer that, for a short time, covered up the harsh realities of life for the ordinary Congolese. 

The novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), described the horrors of the Congo in a novel, after witnessing the situation firsthand during his own experiences in Africa.  

His descriptions of what was taking place in the Congo Free State were so shocking that they have struck many readers as being allegorical or symbolic rather than realistic. 

As a result, it was several more years before the true state of affairs in the Congo Free State became widely known, mainly through E. D. Morel (1873–1924) and his Congo Reform Association, among other individuals and organisations.

Morel was to publish a book that provided irrefutable information which exposed and condemned the brutality of the Free State’s rubber-collection regime.  

He specifically coined the term ‘red rubber’ to connote the bloodshed involved in the industry at the time.  

The book generated sufficient international pressure to force King Leopold II to turn over the Congo to Belgium, in 1908, which then ruled it as the Belgian Congo until 1960.

Once in control, Belgium consolidated the colony into four semi-autonomous administrative provinces.

Like Britain, Belgium tried to incorporate local African leaders to help administer its colony.  

However, the Belgian style of indirect rule did not make provisions for any Congolese leaders to become more involved in the colonial government. 

As a result, Belgium sent thousands of officials to settle in the Congo’s administrative centres, including Leopoldville, Stanleyville and Elizabethville.

In 1971, Congolese president Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997) ‘re-Africanised’ the geographical names of the Belgian Congo. 

For example, he renamed his country Zaire; Leopoldville became Kinshasa; Stanleyville became Kisingani; and Elizabethville became Lubumbashi.

The resources that were major export items during Leopold II’s rule, especially rubber, ivory and palm products, remained important trade items under the Belgian administration as well.  

When world rubber prices dropped, however, the Congo’s rubber industry trailed off.   

This development also scaled back the widespread abuse that both corporations and the state employed to coerce the African people to perform the backbreaking work to harvest rubber for export.

After the First World War (1914–18), the administration required African people to produce agricultural products. 

Some products, such as cotton, were grown for export. Others, such as rice, were grown to feed the settlers in the colony. 

In order to make its agricultural programmes more efficient, the Belgian administration relocated thousands of Africans to indigenous farming settlements and imposed high production quotas.  

Mining, however, was the core of Congo’s economy by the 1920s, with diamonds and copper becoming the primary products. By the 1930s, Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, founded in 1906, was the world’s largest copper-producing company. 

As in other parts of the African continent, such as South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, indigenous Africans in the Congo were encouraged, or even coerced directly or indirectly through taxation, to leave their homes and take jobs in the mines.  

As a result, Africans became the primary workforce in the income-producing mines, with settler-Europeans providing supervision.

Although administration by the Belgian Government put an end to the worst of the abuses seen during the rule of Leopold II, the Congo remained a relatively harsh and brutal colony.  

Education was limited, with little made available to Africans beyond the most basic elementary level. Indeed, it was not until the 1950s that the first universities were founded in the colony. 

The Belgian administration retained an equally firm control in the political arena, preventing even its own white colonial residents from taking part in elections until the late 1950s.

In spite of the repressive atmosphere, African nationalism remained alive in the Congo. During the 1920s, the religious movement of Simon Kimbangu (c. 1887-1951), gained particular strength among the people of the colony.   

Proclaiming himself a prophet, Kimbangu assailed European cultural and religious institutions. 

Believing Kimbangu and his growing number of followers to represent a significant threat, the colonial authorities had him arrested in 1921. 

In spite of the Belgian actions, what became known as ‘Kimbanguism’ survived; feeding increasing anti-Belgian and anti-European feelings among the indigenous people of the Kongo.

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 comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com

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