The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 decreed the division of Africa among Western countries after the first missionaries were sent to Africa, as explorers. The task assigned was to discover the wealth of the continent so that a map of Africa could be provided to the westerners who would use it during the Berlin Conference. The lion’s share fell into the hands of Britain, probably because of their mercantilist mind and culture. The French were second and then the Spanish, Portuguese and Germans had their share of “the cake” too. European colonization came with violence and certain colonizers were generally known to be more violent than others. Sources point to the Belgian colonization of the Congo as the most brutal and cruel.
Congo was called the Free State of the Congo at the Berlin Conference. So, King Leopold II of Belgium was granted total sovereignty over that territory that he ruled as his private property, until 1908, when he passed it into the hands of the Belgian state. Rather than control the Congo as a colony, as other European powers did throughout Africa, Leopold owned the region privately. My position is that none of these rules were justifiable and “clean”. They were all exploitative and bloody, but that of King Leopold stands out because of its gluttony and brutality. Two eras characterize the encounter of Congo with Belgium: King Leopold II’s personal rule of the Free Land of the Congo from 1885 to 1908, and that of the Belgian Congo that followed, from 1908 to 1960.
A document that stands out in history is generally referred to as King Leopold’s Letter to Colonial Missionaries (1883). It was the missive he gave to the missionaries before they set off to Africa. Many academics have read that letter and have copies. It opens with these lines that capture its essence: “Reverends, Fathers and Dear Compatriots: The task that is given to fulfill is very delicate and requires much tact. You will go certainly to evangelize, but your evangelization must inspire above all Belgium interests. Your principal objective in our mission in the Congo is never to teach the niggers to know God, this they know already. They speak and submit to a Mungu, one Nzambi, one Nzakomba, and what else I don’t know. They know that to kill, to sleep with someone else’s wife, to lie and to insult is bad. Have courage to admit it; you are not going to teach them what they know already. Your essential role is to facilitate the task of administrators and industrials, which means you will go to interpret the gospel in the way it will be the best to protect your interests in that part of the world. For these things, you have to keep watch on disinteresting our savages from the richness that is plenty [in their underground. To avoid that, they get interested in it, and make you murderous] competition and dream one day to overthrow you”.
Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o references the same deceit, with humour, that the White man asked Africans to close their eyes and pray. Blacks then closed their eyes so tight and “prayed” and when they opened their eyes, their land had been taken away from them. He goes further to say that “the Bible paved the way for the sword”. King Philippe, the current Belgian ruler traveled to the Congo in 2020 and tried to express his regrets for the conduct of his ancestors in today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. That gesture did not go down well with the Congolese and general opinion sees in King Philippe’s words a twisted and improper action, that falls way short of a sincere regret and a real apology. The press captured the Belgian King’s attitude in these terms: “Belgium’s King Philippe has not apologized for the exploitation, racism and acts of violence during his country’s colonization of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Rather he chose to convey his “deepest regrets” for the colonial humiliation and punishment meted out to the Congolese people”.
King Leopold II had carved his own private colony out of 100km2 of Central African rainforest by claiming to protect the “natives” from Arab slavers. Though the territory was governed from Brussels, the administrative capital was the port city of Boma, from which the massive exports of raw materials were shipped. Boma was the residence of the governor general who was appointed by the Belgian king, to whom he was directly answerable. As stated, earlier, the apologia is always needed in such cases of deceit and exploitation and paternalism was used to justify such an ownership. Colonial Congo was, therefore, labelled a fiefdom which was baptized the Congo Free State. The profits from that land were for King Leopold and also Belgium.
According to some estimates, killings, famine and disease caused the deaths of up to 10 million Congolese during just the first 23 years of Belgium (general) rule from 1885 to 1960. That “special colony” was turned into a massive labour camp and made a big fortune for Belgium from the harvest of wild rubber. Belgium put the machinery in place required for a thorough and unimaginable brutal exploitation. There was a regime of terror, mass killings and of course amputations. During the Belgian rule, the population of the Congo dwindled by half, to 10 million.
The timber, gold, diamond and other invaluable mineral resources extorted from certain colonized lands like the Gold Coast made the industrial revolution possible, in Britain, in the nineteenth century. Some Afrocentric scholars opine that if colonization had not befallen Africa, this continent would have been far ahead of Europe today. Cheikh Anta Diop is one of such erudite persons, and he bases his statement on scientific data, not emotion. Britain does not have any natural resource apart from coal and the sea (for fishing and hydroelectricity). The plundered resources from the “British Empire” enabled the industrial take off of Cecile Rhodes’ country. Walter Rodney summarizes all this in his seminal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972).
The Congo’s rubber harvest contributed directly to Belgium’s economic power. Ivory was, equally, one of the precious materials the Congo offered. The colonial policy in the Congo was so cruel that one finds it difficult to render in words what was meted out to Africans there. At the end of each day, after long hours of forced labour on the rubber plantations, fathers, mothers and children were lined up behind their rubber harvest of the day that was weighed by colonial agents A minimum weight was assigned to everybody called a “quota” (s). Whoever fell short of that quantity had one hand chopped off. If the following day the same person failed to meet that minimum, their second hand was amputated and then the process continued. People were raped and tormented by colonial agents. It is reported that those who resisted King Leopold’s orders had their hands and feet cut off and even the children and wives of the men who couldn’t meet their “quotas” met the same fate. That horrible chopping or amputation and other torments were used to silence people into total submission. Cutting the limbs of Africans was such a central symbol in Belgian colonization: it signified the superiority of Whites over Africans, and it also meant fidelity to the King.
Colonial auxiliaries quelled agitations or anti-colonial movements or sentiments and they had to prove that they were not wasting precious bullets and in order to do that, they had to bring to their superiors the amputated hand of any rebellious Congolese whom they had killed. What is referred to, today, as crimes of Belgium or the Belgian Congo genocide started in 1885 and French born British journalist Edmund Dene Morel was the first to draw the world’s attention to that brutal exploitation. He revealed photos of forced labor, murders, child soldiers, handless people, torture and genocide in the Congo. Then writers Mark Twain in “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” (1905) and Joseph Conrad were critical voices who revealed the atrocities being inflicted on the Congolese people. In 1905, after several months of investigation, a commission published a report that corroborated the abuses that had been denounced.
The Belgian king was finally forced to renounce his rule over the Free State of the Congo which, subsequently, became a colony of Belgium, and was duly renamed the Belgian Congo. Nonetheless, between 1885 and 1960 (year of independence), history records that King Leopold II ruled the Congo. The atrocities might have reduced or not, although there is no documentation to that effect, and it does not come as a surprise when, in 2020, King Leopold II’s statue was removed by protesters from a public square in the city of Antwerp in Belgium during worldwide protests against the West’s racist colonial past.
Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.