Where does the Congo come from?

Belgium and the Congo - White King, Black Death

The Congo as a royal private property

"To make the only part of the world accessible to civilization, into which it has not yet penetrated, and to penetrate the darkness that still envelops entire peoples, this is a crusade worthy of our century of progress," said King Leopold II Year 1876.

He invited to the Geographical Conference, a meeting of international researchers and scientists, and impressed with his passionate speech. Thereupon the assembly founded the "International Africa Association" with Leopold II as president. This organization should coordinate the development of Africa.

In 1878 Leopold II was able to engage the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley as the prominent head of his African mission. Officially, Stanley was supposed to scientifically research the unknown parts of Africa. Leopold secretly commissioned him to purchase land. In just a few years, Stanley concluded treaties with around 450 tribal princes in which they assigned their land to Leopold II.

The Africa Conference took place in Berlin in 1884/85. By clever tactics, Leopold II got the 14 European states and the USA to recognize the "Independent Congo State" he had acquired as his personal private property. This was unusual because colonies were usually owned by states and not private individuals. Leopold II was the owner of a country that was about 70 times the size of Belgium.

The rubber boom and the horror of the Congo

Leopold II soon began to ruthlessly exploit the Congo. The Congo had exactly what the world market thirsted for: rubber. In 1888, John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire, which made rubber a coveted commodity.

This was abundant in the tropical rainforests of the Congo Basin. Leopold II committed his Congolese subjects to forced labor in the most cruel way.

Each village had to deliver a certain amount of rubber. If the men did not meet the delivery quotas, their wives were killed. This "hostage" was monitored by the "Force Publique". A kind of army specially formed to coordinate exploitation and slavery. It consisted mostly of blacks - only the officers were white.

And here, too, there was merciless control: the soldiers had to give an account of every cartridge fired. The occupiers wanted to make sure that the expensive ammunition was not used for hunting or even a riot. Therefore, for each cartridge used, the black soldiers had to cut off the right hand of the victim and present it to the officers. Since the population was desperately poor, many still used their weapons for hunting, and many people had to sacrifice a hand while they were still alive.

The Congo made greater profits year after year: According to estimates by the Belgian historian Daniël Vangroenweghe, between 1885 and 1908 it was the equivalent of up to 125 million euros. Other estimates even go up to 500 million euros. With the blood money Leonard II financed magnificent buildings such as today's "Royal Museum for Central Africa" ​​near Brussels.

The end of the reign of terror

The British journalist Edmund Morel discovered that ships going into the Congo were loaded almost entirely with weapons and chains. He did some research and found that the weapons were used to enslave the people of the Congo. Shaken by the suffering in the Congo, Morel organized the first human rights campaign in history at the beginning of the 20th century. He published various reports and used photographs of black people with their hands cut off to draw attention to the extent of the repression around the world.

In the 1903 Casement Report, Great Britain confirmed Morel's allegations. The international and national pressure on Leopold II grew. As a result, the king ceded the Congo to the Belgian state in 1908. The colony was named "Belgian Congo" and was so until it gained independence from Belgium in 1960.

In 1911 a census in the Congo showed that around 25 million Congolese had died in the 23 years of Leopold II's rule. But the people in the Congo also had a difficult life in the period that followed: the Belgian colonial administration promoted the founding of white elites and continued to exploit the resource-rich state.

Coming to terms with the past

"From my own school days I only know Leopold II as a protector of Christianity, a great modernizer and fighter against slavery," says Paul Pauwels, a Belgian film producer. "There was hardly any talk in Belgium about the commercial background and the atrocities."

The posthumous dethronement of the Belgian king has only progressed slowly in Belgium to this day. Some important food for thought comes from outside. The American publicist Adam Hochschild published the book "Shadows over the Congo" in 1999. In it he exposes the "philanthropist" Leopold II and explains, for example, that he fought against Arab slave traders, but only to establish his own reign of terror in the Congo.

The "Royal Museum for Central Africa" ​​near Brussels has meanwhile also begun to take a critical look at its own history. For example, on the occasion of Belgium's 175th birthday in 2005, an exhibition on the colonial past was created together with Congolese scientists. She was concerned with trade and administration, mission schools and homework, but still little with the fear and oppression of the Congolese under Belgian rule. Coming to terms with the past is made more difficult because hardly any sources and testimonies of the victims have been found to date.