Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State

by Jae Yong Song

Violence in Leopold II’s Congo Free State was incomparable to that of any other states during the time period (1880s). Leopold II of Belgium (r. 1865-1909) played a key role in the European colonization by conquering areas along the Congo river. He also lied to the other leader of Europe by telling them that he would promote “Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization” to his Congo state. However, African laborers not only suffered from long, hard work in the sun, but faced the most brutal violence than any other state. Instead of promoting Christianity and Civilization as he promised to do, European companies in Leopold II’s Congo Free State introduced slavery, ruthless savagery, and terror. Leopold II did not allow missionaries to enter the colony in fear that they would report the horrors they saw there to Europe.

The Congo Free State first made their profit in the Ivory trade but soon after, elephant herds died out due to over hunting. The state had to find an alternate source of income and trade. In the mid-1880s an Irishman named John Dunlop developed a way to make inflatable rubber tires. And as more scientific developments were introduced, the demand for raw rubber greatly increased. More than half of the Congo Free State had wild rubber vines growing in rain forests of Congo. By the mid-1890s surpassed Ivory as the leading source of income.

As the demand of raw rubber increased, so did the violence in the Congo Free State and other colonies. European mercenaries terrorized massive regions, cutting off hands and feet, and heads and wiping out entire African villages. The purpose ¬†was to spread the idea that they work for them or they will be killed. Because of the great amount of bloodshed, the colony was given a nickname: “red rubber colony.” In the 1900s a Human Rights activist Edmund Morel¬†leaked the truth to the European public and Leopold II was forced to abdicate his rule and turn the colony over to Belgium.

But, what would have been different if Leopold II actually promoted christianity and civilization like he promised? Well, first of all, slavery would have never been established in the Congo Free State because missionaries and other groups would have supported establishment of states in a civil manner. It would also have made relations between Europe and Africa stronger as the Africans probably would have grown to appreciate Europe. Second, people would not have suffered from violence and cruelty. It is possible to have European companies with African workers in the Congo Free State, we have seen that, however it is also possible to do so without considering the African workers as slaves, but rather economic partners. In the end, Africa would be very different if Europe had tried a different approach.

Europe definitely should not have tried to conquer and colonize Africa. The land already belonged to people that inhabited the area for centuries, but yet the Europeans were blinded by power and opulence. And yes, it does bring economic benefits, but at the cost of human morality.

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One Response to “Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State”

  1. carolinesullivan15 says:

    Hi Jae,

    I enjoyed reading you blog regarding the Congo and King Leopold. You wrote a great introduction about what King Leopold said compared to what he actually accomplished when he ruled over the Congo in the 1880s. You also talked about their economic history involving their main exports which fueled their country. I thought it was interesting how you went into detail about what would happen if Leopold stuck to his word and did promote “Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization” in the Congo. Nice job!

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