Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
The battle for Africa became more than just a battle on paper or on a distant map. It spread out from Europe to upturn a continent and create problems that would last for generations. The worst influence of all was that of King Leopold II of Belgium who took the spread of the colonization bug from Britain and France and found something that became his personal toy. Leopold became the poster child of European colonialism and the drastic impact it had on the continent of Africa.
In the mid-1800s, Britain and France began to dissect the African continent in a race to have the most influence and possess the most power when compared to their fellow Europeans and each other. Their greed for resources and land had the countries from Europe seeing “themselves as competitors and viewed one another with suspicion.” A sense of power over other nations came from accumulating large amounts of land within the African continent. African colonies became a European status symbol as the “acquisition of a large colony was regarded as evidence of imperial power.” Acquired land would have settlements, explorers, treaties, and a physical presence. This urge to take more African land was also strong at this point at the now obvious loss of the Americas to their new independent status. European nations had to find an outlet to feel stronger and more superior. Africa was the logical choice.
The large continent had resources that ranged from diamonds and gold to rubber and men. It was ripe for European supremacy as the nations began to believe that “Europeans were superior” which then led to “the claim that they had a right to conquer Africa.” They began to hunger to conquer the land and gobble up the resources it contained. That hunger began to spread to other nations in Europe that were much smaller. One was Belgium were King Leopold yearned to have his own playground in the new imperialist drug called Africa. The recognition of the Congo under Leopold’s control was a “triumph for the personal diplomacy” of the king. This was not for Belgium. It was for him.
Leopold informed the rest of the European community that he longed to become the protector for the area from “Arab slaver, and to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries, and Western capitalists”. The words sounded sincere as he reached out for approval from the rest of his royal peers. What he did not reveal to them and what they did not expect was his plan to turn this protected and free area “into a massive labour camp” that would give him millions of dollars at the expense of “the death of perhaps 10 million innocent people.” His playground would become a death trap for those under his toys.
The Belgian king was not an anomaly in the conquest of Africa. He was the one that fully allowed it all to happen at once in his realm and did not try to hide it. His desire was not to protect the Africans as much as it was to “exploit the lucrative ivory market” as well as to tap the rich mineral resources the area produced. It was not just full of resources. It was the perfect location for resources from other regions to cross through and leave a little wealth behind. The Conference of Berlin in 1884 was what Leopold needed to give his adventure international acceptance as the nations of Europe and beyond awarded Leopold the Congo Basin as a free area for all international countries could access and move through. Leopold would be the governor of that ‘free’ state. In return, he promised his peers to protect those within the district and “promote humanitarian policies”. Europe did not question if he was the right choice. They wanted a free area, and Leopold wanted a playground. Each got what they wanted at a very high cost. They even turned a blind eye to the fact that immediately the governor broke every promise he made at the Conference of Berlin. The residents of the Congo quickly became his slaves. All of his actions, including that of the fighting the Arabs from taking Africans as slaves, was done to protect his rights and the money he was raking in under his own interests while behind his own back and that of Europe he was encouraging the slave trade. The playground began to get treacherous as he created his own police force to enforce his treachery and increase his the wealth in his pockets.
While Europe sat back and did nothing, the people of the Congo tried to resist but were no match for the brutality Leopold encouraged in his police force. They did not hesitate to burn homes and killing anything in their path to prove a point. To show they were successful in fighting the rebels a quota was established of the number of right hands that were to be returned as proof of their capture of rebels and the proof that the bullets were not wasted. If there were no rebels or they used the bullets for other things such as killing animals, the quota still had to be met. The result was police cutting “off the hands of the living and wounded to meet their quotas.” The more the police force pushed the brutality line, the more the voices of the Congo cried out and were heard in Britain.
In 1900, a British diplomat, Sir Roger Casement investigated and discovered that the interests of the government of the Congo was to line the pockets of King Leopold at the expense of all lives. As more of the atrocities came to the surface, the power of Leopold diminished. It was in 1908 that Belgium took the nation away from the king who fought back by destroying as many documents as he could find so his guilt would not be admitted publically through his own actions and words. The Belgian government did not correct the inhumane practices and continued until 1960 when Congo actually found complete independence.
King Leopold was the one European country that raped the land of all it had. The fact that the area was small in comparison to France and Britain made the atrocities much easier to see and hear. He caught the African conquest fever from the other nations and took it to far extremes that would cost the lives of millions of people. While the nations that cut up Africa saw the land they conquered as proof of their power, Leopold saw the land as his personal playground. It was not a status symbol for his nation. It was a status symbol for himself. He took the money he accumulated to build “grand palaces and monuments including the Royal Museum for Central Africa” located in Tervuren.
Dummett, Mark. “King Leopold’s legacy of DR Congo violence.” BBC. February 24, 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3516965.stm.
Falola, Toyin. Key Events in African History: A Reference Guide. Westport: Greenwood Press. 2002.
Schimmer, Russell. “Belfian Congo.” Yale University. 2010. http://www.yale.edu/gsp/colonial/belgian_congo/index.html.
Vansina, Jan. Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880-1960. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press. 2010.