Belgian Congo

Belgian Congo
   A enormous territory of the sub-Saharan African interior conforming to the shape of the Congo River Basin and a Belgian colony from 1908 to 1960. It had hitherto been under the personal rule of the Belgian King, Leopold II (1835–1909), as the Congo Free State. Leopold had long wanted a colony for Belgium, but the country’s politicians preferred to concentrate on the domestic economy. Leopold established independently the Association Internationale du Congo, ostensibly a benevolent organization but in fact a vehicle through which Leopold, the Association ’s sole shareholder, could enrich himself. Leopold focused his ambitions on the Congo River basin, a region largely unexplored by Europeans, and in 1879 independently financed Henry Stanley, the American-born British explorer, to undertake a philanthropic and scientific mission that for Leopold and his associates was nonetheless a colonial and commercial venture.
   Stanley had gained international fame the previous year by finding the British explorer and missionary Dr. David Livingstone, who had set out to find the source of the Nile and disappeared. Stanley established way-stations and hospitals in the region to stake Leopold’s claim, signed treaties on Leopold’s behalf with local leaders, and helped open up the river basin to outside trade. In 1884, Leopold’s claims to the region were recognized by his European peers at the Berlin Conference on West Africa and Congo. The Conference declared the new Congo Free State an international free trade zone. In 1885, Leopold proclaimed himself sovereign of the Congo Free State and in 1888 organized the many African mercenaries in his pay into the Force Publique, the colony’s army. Leopold subsequently tried to extend his influence into Sudan, striking a secret Congo treaty with the British, which would have granted the latter their long-wished-for Cape-to-Cairo line. French and German protests, however, squashed the treaty.
   Under Leopold’s rule, the Congo Free State combated the Arab slave trade in eastern Congo. Such humanitarianism was undercut, however, by Leopold’s alliance with Tippu Tip, the Zanzibari slave trader who was the de facto ruler of the eastern Congo. Belgian businessmen, colonial officers, and foreign traders also exploited the colony for its rich natural resources, including lumber, ivory, and especially rubber. Rubber was needed for new industrial products like tires and cable insulation. To meet the demand, Belgian companies put horrendous pressures on their Congolese employees. Congolese rubber harvesters who failed to meet quotas had their hands chopped off, a practice that, combined with disease and poor living conditions, caused millions of deaths. Leopold’s “personal rule” was among the most violent and tragic manifestations of European colonial rule.
   By 1900, international protest against these atrocities increased, led by British activists like E. D. Morel and Sir Roger Casement. The latter’s fact-finding mission to the Congo, where he met with indigenous opponents of Leopold, publicized the abuses for the international press and inspired a campaign for Leopold’s ouster. In 1908, bowing to international pressure, Leopold transferred authority of the Congo Free State to the Belgian government, whereby it became the Belgian Congo. The Belgian Congo was governed as a formal colony, with a colonial governor responsible to the King of Belgium. Christian missionaries directed indigenous education. The Belgian Congo gained its independence in 1960, immediately followed by five years of war.
   Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness, published in 1902, was inspired by his work as a steamer captain on the Congo. Mr. Kurtz, the European “corrupted” by “going native,” is based in part on Arthur Hodister, a British ivory trader who was murdered in the Congo in 1892. Heart of Darkness portrays both the growing ambivalence with which some Europeans began to view imperialism by the early twentieth century and the racial prejudices that continued to determine relations between Europeans and Africans.
   See also <>.
    Gann, L. H., and Peter Duigen. The Rulers of Belgian Africa 1884-1914. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979;
    Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold ’ s Ghost. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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