An online petition condemning the brutality King Leopold II was nearing 100,000 signatures as this column went to press. The Belgian king, according to historical accounts including Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book, “King Leopold’s Ghost,” and the Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s 1965 book, “Message To The Black Man,” was responsible for the deaths of 10 million Congolese at the turn of the century.
Mr. Muhammad wrote, “In 1880, Belgian estimated (Congo had) a population of 30 million. By 1911 the population was reduced to 8,500,000.”
Leopold II, the BBC noted, ruled over what was called the Belgian Congo in ways “so bloody it was eventually condemned by other European colonialists in 1908–but it has taken far longer to come under scrutiny at home.”
The reason for some reticence is because all European countries and the United States are implicated in his atrocities. Leopold’s man at the 1884 Berlin Conference much of his life masqueraded as a U.S. citizen. Explorer Henry Morton Stanley, working for Leopold, was the only conference participant who had actually done extensive research by traveling to the area of Africa his boss wanted to take sole ownership of.
Leopold first persuaded the United States to sign on with the help of the American entrepreneur, and former minister to Belgium, Gen. Henry Shelton Sanford. Then, he convinced all the major nations of Western Europe to recognize a huge swath of Central Africa–roughly the same territory as the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo–as his employer’s personal property. It was called Ã‰tat IndÃ©pendant du Congo, the Congo Free State. It was the world’s only private colony, and Leopold referred to himself as its “proprietor.”
The current slow burn to “scrutiny” as reported by the BBC includes the growing global movement to remove physical symbols or statues representing the exploitation of Black and indigenous people. As the BBC also reported, much of Belgium’s citizenry didn’t know anything about the history of Leopold until his statues were recently defaced and “pulled down.”
A bust of Leopold was removed, reported Forbes magazine, just hours after Belgium King Phillipe expressed regret for his ancestor’s actions. His letter to Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi stopped short of being a full apology, “a move that could make Belgium vulnerable to claims of reparations that the United Nations recommended in 2019.”
“Leopold II, despite never stepping foot in the country, privately owned the Congo for two decades and was criticized during his lifetime for the cruel policies that were implemented there that historians say resulted in the deaths of upwards of 10 million Congolese people.”
Hochschild wrote, “From 1885 to 1890, the king spent much of his time looking for money. For a while, he was able to borrow from bankers, but in time even his main creditors, the Rothschilds, would not lend him more.”
Not only were the Rothschilds in bed with Leopold, but also the U.S., Germans and the French, who had peeped his subterfuge, pretending to be an anti-slavery humanitarian, championing the rights of his Congolese subjects, while all along secretly planning the colonization of the Congo and the exploitation of its natural and mineral resources.
Leopold relieved “French anxiety by offering the country droit de preference over the Congo–what real estate lawyers today call a right of first refusal.” The relieved French quickly signed on with him. Confident that Leopold’s planned railway would bankrupt him and allow their takeover of the land, the French thought they were getting an excellent deal.
“Bismark,” wrote Hochschild, “let himself be convinced that it would be better for the Congo to go to the king of a weak little Belgium, and be open to Germain traders, than go to protection-minded France or Portugal or to powerful England. He agreed to recognize the new state.”
In the U.S., Sanford, who had lived in Belgium, sold a story to U.S. president Author Harding and everyone he came in contact with. He said Congo would be similar to Liberia and “much like the generous work the United States itself had done in Liberia, where starting in 1820, freed American slaves had moved to what soon became an independent African country.” This was a shrewdly chosen example, since it had not been the United States government that had resettled ex-slaves in Liberia, but a private society like Leopold’s International Association of the Congo.
In 1884, Senator John Tyler Morgan recognized Leopold’s rights to the Congo. Morgan introduced a Senate resolution. In the resolution Morgan wrote, “It may be safely asserted that no barbarous people have ever so readily adopted the fostering care of benevolent enterprise as have the tribes of the Congo, and never was there a move honest and practical effort made to … secure their welfare.”
A taste of Leopold’s brutality can be seen in the rubber industry that became essential to his profit-making enterprises.
Hochschild observed: “A worldwide rubber boom was underway, kicked off by the invention of the inflatable bicycle tire and spurred on by the rise of the automobile and the use of rubber in industrial belts and gaskets, as well as in coating for telephone and telegraph wires. Throughout the tropics, people rushed to sow rubber trees but those plants could take many years to reach maturity, and in the meantime there was money to be made wherever rubber grew wild. One lucrative source of wild rubber was the Landolphia vines in the great Central African rainforest, and no one owned more of that area than Leopold. Detachments of his 19,000-man private army, the Force Publique, would march into a village and hold the women hostage, forcing the men to scatter into the rainforest and gather a monthly quota of wild rubber. As the price of rubber soared, the quotas increased, and as vines near a village were drained dry, men desperate to free their wives and daughters would have to walk days or weeks to find new vines to tap.
“Other parts of the Congo economy, from road building to chopping wood for steamboat boilers, operated by forced labor as well. The effects were devastating. Many of the women hostages starved, and many of the male rubber gathers were worked to death. Tens, possible hundreds, of thousands of Congolese fled their villages to avoid being impressed as forced laborers, and they sought refuge deep in the forest, where there was little food and shelter. Tens of thousands of others were shot down in failed rebellions against the regime. One particularly notorious practice grew out of the suppression of those rebellions. To prove that he had not wasted bullets–or, worse yet, saved them for use in a mutiny–for each bullet expended, a Congolese soldier of the Force Publique had to present to his white officer the severed hand of rebel killed. Baskets of severed hands thus resulted from expeditions against rebels. If a soldier fired at someone and missed, or used a bullet to shoot game, he then sometimes cut of the hand of a living victim to be able to show it to his officer.”
If the State of Israel has and continues to receive reparations from Germany and is the largest recipient of American largess, why isn’t the Democratic Republic of Congo receiving reparations for the brutal treatment, slave labor and deaths of over 10 million of its citizens? In addition, there is the 20-year rape and plunder of its natural and mineral resources by Leopold that the world benefited from.
(Follow @jehronmuhammad on Twitter.)