In the history of Belgium, Leopold was the second king who is best remembered for his role in exploiting the Free State of Congo. He was born in Brussels and in 1865, he rose to the throne after succeeding his father. He went on to rule for 44 years, longer than any other Belgian monarch. During his time, Leopold was the sole owner and the founder of the Congo Free State. He privately undertook this project. Helped by Henry Morton Stanley (explorer), he successfully laid a claim to Congo. In a Berlin Conference held in 1884, European colonial nations recognized his role and committed the Congo Free State in order to improve the lives of the native inhabitants. Eventually, Leopold ceded this control to the Belgian government. For this to happen, several factors played a role. Whether some of these factors were more strong than others or not is debatable. All in all, each factor played a role in influencing Leopold’s move to cede control of Congo. This paper discusses such factors and how they influenced this move.
How he obtained the Congo Free State
Leopold was of the belief that overseas-based colonies played a key role to the country’s development and greatness (Hochschild, 32). Because of this, Leopold worked tirelessly in order to acquire the territory for Belgium. He then opted to see the private citizen approach in acquiring the colony. During this time, Leopold received support from the Belgian government which lent him money. His first move, however, was to instruct a Madrid-based Belgian ambassador to request Spain’s Isabella II to cede Philippines to Belgium (MacDonnell, 97). The ambassador ignored this request, prompting Leopold to replace him with an individual who was likely to carry out his plan. It is after these plans to have Philippines failed hat Leopold turned his plans to Africa and Congo in particular (MacDonnell, 102). By February 1885, Leopold had succeeded to establish his rule over Congo Free State
Atrocities and Exploitation
It is believed that Leopold exploited Congo’s natural resources for his personal fortunes. He exported ivory which failed to yield the revenue he expected. He would later use forced labor on the natives in order to collect rubber (MacDonnel, 110). The rubber industry led to abuses and violation of human rights. A good example of these abuses is the fact that he enslaved the native population, encouraged widespread killings, promoted mutilations and increased beatings. He went against the resolutions a promises o the 1890 Berlin Conference. It is believed that Leopold’s reign saw more than half of Congo’s population killed (Hochschild, 54).
Why his rule was criticized
Leopold’s outrageous exploitation and widespread abuse of human rights prompted the British Crown to appoint Roger Casement (their consul) to investigate Leopold’s impact in Congo. Rodger Casement made several travels and extensive interviews in the Congo Free State, resulting in what was referred to as he Casement Report (Hochschild, 43). This report detailed the abuses and murders that the natives were subjected to during the regime of Leopold. This prompted a war of words which ensued later. The initial move was the formation of the Congo Reform Association by E.D. Morel, a former shipping clerk in Britain (he received support from Casement). This proved to be the first human rights movement in the region. Among the supporters of this movement was Mark Twain, an America writer renowned for writing “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” (political satire). In this book, the king is of the opinion that introducing Christianity to the natives would outweigh starvation. He used several quotes from Leopold against him (MacDonnell, 59).
The other major criticism was based on the ‘rubber regime’. In his 1908 book: The Crime of the Congo, Arthur Conan Doyle aimed to aid the Congo Reform Association (Hochschild, 67). To achieve this, the author compared and contrasted the rule of Leopold to that of the British in Nigeria. According o him, “decency required those who ruled primitive peoples to be concerned first with their uplift, not how much could be extracted from them (Hochschild, 45)”. In his book, Hochschild described that most of the policies that Leopold employed were adopted from the practices of the Dutch in the East Indies. Other countries that used forced labor methods that were similar included France, Germany and Portugal. The similarity of this is that the colonies of these countries had rubber as a natural resource.
Relinquishing Congo to the Belgian government
The brutal ways Leopold used raised global concern over the abuse of rights in the colony. Because of this, there was growing criticism internationally from both the Labor Party and the Catholic Party. This prompted the Belgian parliament to intervene by compelling king Leopold to cede to Belgium the Congo Free State in the year 1908. Under parliamentary control, the Congo Free State was successfully transformed to become a colony of Belgium (Hochschild, 92).
Factors that undermined Leopold’s control of Belgium Congo
In his book, Hochschild gives several factors that contributed to Leopold’s unpopularity in the world. After his inhuman behaviors had been exposed to the world in the report by Casement, there was universal objection to his way of rule. This ensured that various groups arose with the determination to overcome his rule. Several factors contributed to this.
Action from Europeans
Rodger Casement, the British Consul, made a detailed report about the state of events in Congo under the Leopold regime. This report thoroughly exposed the inhuman treatment that the natives were subjected to, such as forced labor and brutal killings (Hochschild, 73). According to the report, almost a half of the Congo population was killed by Leopold and his agents. Consequently, the white officials who were responsible for the killings of the natives were arrested and punished. Hochschild states that, for instance, a single Belgian international shot and killed at least 122 natives in Congo in a single incident. It is however difficult to assert whether the figures reported were correct because there was no census by this time. The report by Casement highlighted four causes as the cause of depopulation (Hochschild, 80). Indiscriminate war was the first cause. Reduction of births, starvation, and tropical diseases were the other causes of depopulation.
Following Casement’s report, the U.S and European press agencies followed suit by exposing to the public the conditions in Congo by 1900. This expose increased diplomatic maneuvers and public pressure, with the aim of ending the rule of Leopold II. This pressure also was geared towards attempts to annex Congo as Belgium’s colony (which would be referred to as the Belgian Congo).
Actions from Africans
Hochschild does not widely explain the role that Africans played in ending Leopold’s rule in Congo. Arguably, this period saw Africans being treated inhumanly because they were considered to be less human (MacDonnel, 112). Most colonizers saw them as objects of work, hence they were subjected to inhuman treatment
Humanitarian disasters facilitated by Leopold
Both locally and internationally, Leopold’s rule had caused too much suffering and pain to humanitarian sympathizers. This ensured that Leopold faced rejection for the inhuman actions he promoted. Casement’s report indicated that the natives who would not meet the quotas of rubber collection would have their hands chopped off. The system worked in a way that each hand proved a kill. These hands were at times collected by the villagers and the Force Publique (MacDonnell, 66). This facilitated inter-village clashes in order to gather hands when it was unrealistic to meet the quotas imposed. Such inhuman treatment led to widespread opposition of the rule, making Leopold’s reign more difficult.
The role of protesters
Although protests about Leopold’s rule were widespread, some of them had a larger impact. A Hochschild puts it, the work of Edmund Dene Morel and George Washington Williams cannot be understated. Morel was an employee at a British shipping company. Hi role in exposing the actions f the king to the world worked miracles (MacDonnel, 43). The efforts that these men put helped build pressure against Leopold. When it was clear that he would not go on controlling Congo by himself, Leopold responded to the pressure by selling Congo to the Belgian government. To cover up is crimes and avoid going into history books for his inhuman actions, he was determined to destroy any piece of evidence available. Hochschild describes this vividly, arguing that the furnaces burned for more than eight days ‘turning most of the Congo state records to ash and smoke’. According to Hochschild, people had no right of knowing what he had done n Congo, hence his choice to ‘give them his Congo’ (Hochschild, 123).
The Belgian Parliament
This parliament also played a role in ensuring Leopold ceded control of Congo to the Belgian government. After the atrocities had been exposed to the world, there was a public backlash about the inhuman treatment the natives and villagers were subjected to. In particular, these atrocities were not treated well by the Europeans and the Americans. The international relationship of Belgium was under threat. Because of this, the parliament saw it necessary to take over Congo from Leopold in order to save their international image which had been damaged by king Leopold’s rule. This factor worked against Leopold, who had no choice but cede Congo to the government.
In practice, some of the factors that led to Leopold ceding Congo to the Belgium government were more important than others. Although all of them had an impact, some were as a result of the others. For instance, consider the role that the Belgian government played in compelling him to cede Congo. Whereas this played some significant role, it was induced by the protests that were going on in Europe and America. Essentially, the parliament was aware of the role that Leopold played in Congo. Although they knew this, no attempt was made to prevent him from doing this. It was not until the pressure increased that the Belgium government became concerned of the public image and international relationships. This is what motivated them to compel Leopold to cede control.
The role that Casement played cannot be understated. His bold move to expose the atrocities to the public ensured that the issue came to the limelight, gathering widespread condemnation. Hochschild argues that this expose was the beginning of the process, ensuring that Leopold ceded Congo to Belgium.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.
Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.
MacDonnell, John De Courcy. King Leopold II, His Rule in Belgium and the Congo. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.