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The Rise and Fall of Leopold’s Congo Empire: A Brief Overview

The fascinating story of the founding and functioning of the Congo Free State is beyond the scope of the present work. Readable accounts include Barbara Emerson’s Leopold II of the Belgians, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, Jean Stengers and Jan Vansina’s “King Leopold’s Congo, 1886-1908” in The Cambridge History of Africa, Neil Ascherson’s The King Incorporated, and similar titles in the bibliography. A brief introduction will suffice.

In the 1880s, King Leopold II of the Belgians had staked a claim to an area of the Congo basin as large as Western Europe in the name of the International Association of the Congo, an organization that was his personal vehicle. After voyages of exploration and treaty-signing by Henry Stanley and others, Leopold secured the recognition of the Association’s sovereignty (and thus his own personal sovereignty) in bilateral treaties before and during the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85. Furthermore, Leopold’s International

Association of the Congo acceded as a sovereign power to the Act of the Berlin Conference, which committed him to free trade and to improving the moral and material lot of the people living there. In this way, Leopold carried out his colonial ambitions through a territory that was not technically a colony of any country, but instead a free-standing government headquartered anomalously in Brussels that functioned primarily as a vehicle for a commercial enterprise.

Within months he had declared himself the king-sovereign of the Congo Free State, which he ruled as an autocrat from 1885-1908, extracting huge sums of money from the sale of Congo ivory and rubber through a system of government that comingled administration and commercial exploitation. All lands not actively cultivated or inhabited by Africans became the property of the state and thus of Leopold. He granted large tracts to concession companies in exchange for fees and a large ownership stake. Government officials and company agents alike had instructions to increase rubber production, reinforced with the carrot of financial incentives and the stick of possible dismissal or reassignment. In remote districts away from prying eyes, these Europeans terrorized villages to deliver rubber, ivory, provisions, men, and women, relying on the use of armed men—the Free State’s official European-led, African-staffed military, the Force Publique, or the euphemistically named sentries of the concession companies. The massive disruption of local society, the system’s tendency to encourage violent behavior in the pursuit of profits, and the consequent death toll made the Free State a dramatic epitome of exploitation and oppression, a colony in intent if not strictly in name. However, the marriage of commerce and administration, the absence of any checks on state power, and the prioritizing of profit above all other considerations meant that a vast area suffered a level of violence with few colonial parallels.

After a few false starts, the sporadic calls to reform the administration of the Congo became a sustained campaign when the venerable London-based Aborigines’ Protection Society took up the cause under the leadership of its Secretary, Henry Richard Fox Bourne. Despite the Society’s efforts, the British government would not act. Conservative British foreign secretaries Lord Salisbury and Lord Lansdowne were reluctant to interfere in another country’s business and felt that no colonial power’s hands—even Britain’s—were altogether clean. The movement for reform accelerated in 1900 when E.D. Morel, a shipping company department head, compared the falsified official reports of the Free State with shipping records and sales statistics from the Antwerp rubber market. Far from being a money-losing enterprise, as Leopold complained, the Free State had changed years before into a highly profitable venture, on the scale of ?500,000 in two years (1899-1900), or over ?40,000,000 in today’s money.[1]

Finding that the Free State’s imports consisted primarily of munitions, Morel concluded that the Congo Free State reaped these large sums from the coerced labor of unwilling subjects. Morel published his findings, arousing public concern. Information from the Aborigines’ Protection Society and Morel, supported by some chambers of commerce, the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, and journalist W.T. Stead, convinced Parliament in 1903 to pass a resolution protesting mistreatment of the Congo people and Leopold’s trading monopoly. As a result, the Foreign Office dispatched Consul Roger Casement to investigate conditions in the interior. Casement’s report provoked a public outcry. To sustain the outcry and exert pressure on the British government, Casement convinced missionary leader Dr Harry Grattan Guinness, cotton manufacturer and MP Alfred Emmott, and African trader John Holt to join Morel in founding the Congo Reform Association in 1904.

A Commission of Inquiry appointed by Leopold to exonerate the Free State surprised the world by corroborating Casement’s findings. The agitation quickly became international. The CRA supported reformers in Belgium and inspired the formation of an American Congo Reform Association and similar organizations in France, Switzerland, and Germany. By early 1906, the new Liberal Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had committed British foreign policy to reform. Yielding to international pressure from Britain and the United States as well as to alarmed Belgian politicians who fretted that the King’s difficulties could become Belgium’s problem, King Leopold agreed in late 1906 to negotiate the transfer of the Congo to Belgium. After difficult debates and bargaining in Belgium, this occurred in 1908 in exchange for a large financial settlement. A year later, the Belgian government announced substantial reforms to Leopold’s system that became effective in phases from 1910-12. By 1913, British consuls in the Congo and other observers provided evidence that the reforms had largely ended Leopold’s colonial system. Grey presented their reports to Parliament and the Association dissolved as Britain officially recognized Belgium’s annexation of the Congo.

  • [1] E.D. Morel, “History ofthe Congo Reform Movement,” in E.D. Morel’s History of theCongo Reform Movement, eds William Roger Louis and Jean Stengers (Oxford: ClarendonPress, 1968), 39-40; currency deflator at
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