The history of the Congo Free State is one that is thick with roots extending to nearly all corners of the world. While rich and deep, its history is one that is filled with tragedies such as slavery, genocide, and war that still hold lasting effects today.
The history of the Congo Free State began in 1885 during what is known as “The Scramble For Africa”. During a thirty-year period, countless Western European countries invaded most of Africa, with the largest powers being Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Belgium. By 1913, 97% of African land was colonized. With this invasion, many African citizens felt the pain of cruel and inhumane methods of torture, but none felt it worse than those of the Congo.
The Congo Free State was colonialized by Belgium, but, unlike all the other European countries, the land of the Congo became privately owned by King Leopold II instead of publicly owned by the country. Because of this, Leopold was able to treat the people of the Congo in unthinkable and inexcusable ways.
Leopeold’s incentive for colonizing this piece of Africa was to reap the rewards of the natural riches hidden in the land. Resources such as rubber, ivory, and oil were common in the Congo during this time, and so the citizens of the colonized land were forced under horrific conditions to extract these (at the time) precious elements for Leopold’s reward. Throughout the king’s control of the African land, half of the Congolese population was due to excruciating labor, punishment, and malnutrition. And among the ones that survived, many suffered from illnesses and diseases that went untreated by the people of Belgium. On top of this, countless others had to live through the pain of slavery and torture, such as arms and legs being cut off as prizes for the Belgian soldiers to show to their generals.
While they suffered from Leopold’s oppresion, the people of the Congo Free State were not compliant and tried to fight back multiple times. Many citizens started and led rebellions with burning hopes of seizing back control of their land, however, they were unsuccessful every time simply due to the sheer power Belgium had over them.
To get funding for his actions in the Congo, King Leopold II relied on funds from the Belgian government and international countries as well, specifically the United States. During the early years of his control, many European countries helped financially as well since Leopold was able to mask the atrocities by labeling his activities as a plan to bring civilization to the people of the Congo. While this worked at the beginning, the suffering in the Congo slowly became revealed, causing many Europeans to protest against Leopold. In addition to European countries withdrawing their donations, many also began to speak publicly about the horrors happening in the Congo. This caused the United States to become increasingly hesitant about supporting the Belgian’s actions, but they continued doing so because Leopold created what was known as the American Congo Lobby.
King Leopold II created the American Congo Lobby in 1904 as a secret propaganda machine to persuade the US to continue providing support to Leopold and not interfere with his actions. The king appointed ministers, attorneys, and professors who had strong ties with America and ordered them to “feed” the US positive media about Leopold in hopes of making a strong enough impression for the country to remain on good terms with Belgium. The leader of this group, Belgian minister Baron Moncheur, was tasked with writing and publishing articles that falsified information about the events in the Congo to spotlight a better image of the Belgian king.
While Leopold’s actions worked and the United States didn’t interfere for another four years, the veil was ultimately removed and the horrific events that were taking place were exposed, causing King Leopold II to give up his control of the Congo and release it to the Belgian government in 1908. While the Congo wouldn’t gain its independence until 1960, the amount of atrocities and the viciousness of the torture subsided.
The story of the Congo Free State has been the center of novels and movies, such as Joseph Conrad’s 18999 novella Heart of Darkness and the 2006 documentary “King Leopold’s Ghost”. But the deaths of 10 million Congolese and the sufferings of countless others still go unknown to many today.