Of Belgian kings, past and present

congo free state slavery

For just the seventh time in its 183-year history, the small European nation of Belgium has ushered in a new king, Philippe, who replaced his ailing father Albert II on Sunday.

If history is any indication, Philippe can expect a lengthy reign.

Of his six predecessors formally installed as monarchs since Belgium declared its independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, all have reigned at least 17 years.

The longest-tenured was a rather detestable individual named Leopold II, who took over in 1865 and ruled until his death in 1909.

Under Leopold’s rule, Belgium exploited the Congo Free State for decades, resulting in the deaths of millions of native Africans in a harrowing bit of colonialism that is all but forgotten today.

Leopold was envious of the colonial empires of other European nations and spent 20 years trying to acquire territory to satiate his desire for a far-flung realm.

He finally found it in 1885 when he finagled control of the Congo Free State, much of which is today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But instead of having Belgium control the vast African colony, Leopold was himself the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State.

British editorial cartoon showing Leopold II as a rubber vine entwined around African native.

British editorial cartoon showing Leopold II as a rubber vine entwined around African native.

From the outset, Leopold, employing his own mercenary army known as the Force Publique, ran the Congo for his personal gain.

Leopold operated the territory as little more than an expansive, brutal work camp, exploiting its people and resource to a degree almost unimaginable.

He earned a fortune from the Congo; at first from the collection of ivory, then later, after a rise in the price of rubber in the 1890s, by forcing the population to collect sap from rubber plants.

Villagers were required to collect massive amounts of rubber, and workers who failed to meet quotas had their hands cut off.

Many Congolese were beaten to death, starved, executed outright or died of disease in addition to being mutilated.

According to author Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,the Congo Free State lost approximately half its population between the mid-1880s and the early 1900s, about 10 million people. Other estimates have ranged as high as 15 million dead.

Joseph’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is set in this period of African history and based at least partially on Conrad’s experience in the Congo in the 1890s.

Fortunately, Belgium’s newest king has had some better role models to emulate, including Albert I, who ruled from 1909-1934.

However, Belgium has, as yet, failed to fully own up to its role in the atrocities committed in Africa a little more than a century ago.

In fact, the topic is practically unknown within the country, according to Hochschild. Given what went on during the period, perhaps that’s not all that surprising.

(Top: Congolese enslaved during the period in which Leopold II operated the Congo Free State as a giant work camp.)

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4 thoughts on “Of Belgian kings, past and present

  1. Cutting off their hands for not meeting quotas? Well, they will never meet them again then will they? Funny how these terrible leaders never think of the carrot, only the stick. 😦

    • Having read the book on the entire miserable affair, apparently the idea was to scare everyone else by cutting off the hands of those who didn’t make quota. The whole thing was awful – from start to finish.

    • I had not heard of any of it either until I read the book I mentioned, King Leopold’s Ghost, earlier this year. Talk about an eye-opener. It seems hard to believe that such atrocities can all but have slipped from the world’s radar.

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