The Belgian king Leopold II reigned over the so-called Congo Free State as a private colony between 1885 and 1909. His reign was extremely violent and tyrannical, and an estimated 10 million Congolese people died during that period. King Leopold’s atrocious reign is synonymous with exploitation and mass murder.
Photo: Alice Harris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In his own country, King Leopold was considered progressive, but he saw Belgium as too small and insignificant. That’s why he decided to partake in the colonisation of Africa to acquire new land. In 1874, he commissioned the British discoverer Henry Morton Stanley to save him a place under the imperial sun. With a lot of diplomatic skill and in the guise of an international organisation, Leopold succeeded in acquiring the country in the Congo Basin as a private colony. On 01 August 1885, he founded the Congo Free State which was to be controlled by a mainly Belgian administration. He was officially going to bring civilisation, Christianity and free trade to the Congolese people. however, in reality he was after ivory and rubber. 
In order to gain control over the vast territory, he joined forces with African mercenaries, local leaders and warlords. The most important instrument of enforcement was the Force Publique, Africa’s biggest army at the time. Those 19,000 African soldiers were forced to either work in the forces for 5 to 7 years or be enslaved.
To ensure the mass production of ivory, rubber and other produce, King Leopold II established a system of forced labour, terror, violence, murder and slavery. He also established a poll tax that the Congolese people had to pay, while design the Congo Free State to be a moneyless system. The native people had to work in order to pay off their ‘debt’. Leopold encumbered them with nearly insatiable demands for the production of rubber, ivory and other natural resources which they then had to relinquish to the colonial administration. The people were also forced to modernise the infrastructure. The Congolese had to build roads, bridges, colonial residences and government buildings, as well as work for the army, in administration or on plantations. If they failed to reach the Belgian quotas, the government, with the help of the Force Publique, issued severe punishments and Leopold granted them a carte blanche.
Photo: via Wikimedia Commons
To pressure the men into carry out their work or services, the elderly, women and children were held hostage. If the set quotas weren’t met, the soldiers showed no mercy – murder, torture and rape were part of their repertoire. Masses of victims, both alive and dead, had their hands, feet, genitals or other body parts chopped off. This practice was not only established to indulge in perversion, but also to justify their actions in front of the colonial administration. The soldiers were not supposed to waste their expensive bullets on hunting, so the administration wanted justification for every used bullet. As the soldiers were very poor and had to use their rifles for hunting, they became creative: they lined up prisoners in order to shoot as many as possible with one bullet; or they beat babies to death with their rifle butts or chopped living people’s hands off.
Violence against the African natives was officially illegal, but the ‘white’ courts did not respect that. Crimes were hardly ever sanctioned and some judges even tolerated the violence. When a conviction did happen, it usually wasn’t enforced. The situation was one of utter arbitrariness. One example is the Lacroix case: Lacroix, a member of staff of the Société Anversoise in Congo, was sentenced for the murder of 150 men, the removal of 60 hands, the crucification of women and children, and the torture of countless other people. The sentence of imprisonment was never enforced.
The number of victims of the ‘Rubber Terror’ is impossible to discern and varies considerably. One of the reasons for that is that it is unclear how many people lived in Congo at the time of the colonisation. Depending on the source, the number of victims varies between 3 and 22 million. The majority of historians estimate 10 million victims – which is more than during the Holocaust. It has to be noted though that not all deaths during this time were murders and not all victims of violence died. During Leopold’s colonial rule, the life expectancy of the Congolese people dropped dramatically, one of the reasons was the structured violence. The forced labour and the king’s land claims put a lot of pressure on the Congolese people. There was not enough free and cultivatable land to grow food and the people had hardly any time to focus on agriculture, hunting or fishing. The land and the crops, and with that their livelihood, were taken off the natives.
Photo: By Alice Harris/John Hobbis Harris (E. D. Morel, King Leopold’s Rule in Africa) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The British journalist Edmund D. Morel noticed at the beginning of the 20th century that nearly all ships heading towards Congo, exclusively carried weapons and ammunition. He consequently did some research and soon found out the gruesome truth. His discoveries were soon confirmed by the British government’s Casement-Report (1904). In light of this revelation, the writers Joseph Conrad and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as the British diplomat Roger Casement, led an international protest movement that soon spread over all of Europe and North America. The pressure on King Leopold II increased when it was proposed to have the colony monitored externally. In 1908, he finally sold the Congo Free State to the state of Belgium which introduced various reforms immediately. The number of deaths consequently decreased but the actual ‘Rubber Terror’ and the accompanying structural violence only ended after the First World War. Belgium kept colonial control over the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo until 1960.
# Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive Introduction. 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.
# Hartmann, S. (2011) „Die Institutionen des Leopoldianischen Systems: Wie pervertierte Anreize zu extremer Gewalt im Kongo beitrugen“. In Afrika – Kontinent der Extreme von Exenberger, A. (Hg.) 1. Auflage Innsbruck University Press; Band 9; Edition Weltordnung – Religion – Gewalt; S. 47- 74
# Hochschild, A. (1998) King Leopold‘s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Horror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Mariner Books.
#Conrad, J. (1899) Hart of Darkness. 3-teilige Serie im Blackwood’s Magazine.
# Doyle, A. C. (1909) The Crime of the Kongo. 4. Edition. London: Hutchinson & Co.
 Hartmann (2011) S. 47 – 49; Jones (2010) S. 70
 Hartmann (2011) S. 51; Jones (2010) S. 70
 Hartmann (2011) S. 52 – 57; 68
 Hartmann (2011) S. 65 – 66; 68
 Hartmann (2011) S. 62
 Hartmann (2011) S. 63
 Hartmann (2011) S. 67 – 68
 Jones (2010) S. 71