Whilst much of Europe was busy colonising the rest of the world in the 19th century, Belgium was left out and their future King, Leopold II, surmised the key to wealth and influence was to annexe foreign lands. Leopold asked Queen Isabella of Spain to sell him the Philippines to which she politely refused, he unsuccessfully asked the Spanish Government again on her death and also tried to buy Fiji.
So in 1876 he instead set up the International Africa Society; a supposedly philanthropic body with the stated aims of ending the slave trade and improving the lot of Africans by converting them all to Christianity. In fact it was his privately owned company with the sole aim of exploiting Africa’s resources and making himself rich. The explorer Henry Stanley of ‘Dr Livingston I presume’ fame was employed to travel to the Congo and make claim to the area by signing contracts with local chieftains. European legalese ensured the Africans did not understand the small print and within 8 years, 2 million square kilometres lay under King Leopold’s personal control. Buying a country however is not cheap so the Belgian Government kindly granted him a rather large mortgage.
At the Conference of Berlin in 1884 the European countries sat down and divided up Africa like a huge birthday cake between them all, King Leopold officially took ownership of the now ironically named Congo Free State (CFS). The Belgian parliament decreed Leopold as the King of CFS who immediately passed laws decreeing all the Congolese people and land were his to do with as he pleased.
He set up the Force Publique (FP), a military white’s only force that at first tackled the slave trade but then started trading slaves to conscript them into the FP. The FP kept the locals under the firmest and most bloody hand Africa has ever known. King Leopold’s business started with ivory trading but there was not as much profit as he liked from slaughtering elephants. Opportunity knocked with Dunlops’ invention of the inflatable rubber tyre as the Congo was full of wild rubber vines.
Local men had their families held hostage by the FP until they had returned from the
forest with crippling quotas of tapped rubber. If the quotas were not met then their villages would be torched and their families raped, mutilated and murdered. There were frequent uprisings with the mutineers hiding out in the jungle. The FP was sent in to exterminate them with instructions to cut off the right hands of their victims as proof they had not wasted their bullets.
The soldiers mostly being slaves themselves were scared of their masters and instead cut the hands off any living locals they met as proof they had killed their quota. So the horrific practice us westerners condemned in the Hutu/Tutsi wars from 20 years ago in Rwanda was in fact a Belgian invention. All the atrocities were hidden from the world by careful manipulation of the Worlds media.
Edmund Morel was a shipping clerk with a Liverpool firm that had a contract with the CFS, as a French speaker he was often sent to Africa where he discovered that ships travelling from Belgium only took arms, explosives and chains to CFS and returned with ivory and rubber. Morel suspected foul play and even though he had risen to the rank of Head of Trade so he resigned, starting work as a journalist with the aim of exposing the atrocities. His work proved pivotal as Lord Casement, the British Counsel to Congo was sent inland in 1903 to officially investigate.
Public opinion turned against Leopold and in 1908 he handed CFS to Belgium. To hide his despicable actions he ordered all paperwork be destroyed. It’s estimated that at least 10 million Africans were killed in the 30 years that made King Leopold 1.25bn Euros in todays money from his exploits, yet he never set foot in the country!