Belgium is not what most people think of when we say genocide. The truth of the matter is, though, one of the greatest mass murderers in history was born in Brussels in 1835 and carried out the killing of about 10 million people. Why haven’t most people heard about him? Well, for your horror legacy to be forgotten, it might help if you’re not just any Belgian, but the King himself. This guy.
@beaumontourayHis name was Leopold II, and he was King of the Belgians from 1885 to 1908. He’s responsible millions of Africans’ deaths, which amounts to singlehandedly killing about 10% of Africa’s population.
Perhaps what’s most baffling is that Leopold was just your average prince: he learned to ride and shoot, he attended state ceremonies, he was part of the army and even married an Austrian princess. He ascended to the Belgian throne in 1865, but by then, Belgium had undergone a series of reforms that had democratized the country and the King was mostly a symbolic figure, very close to what we have now in Great Britain.
There was one thing Leopold was obsessed about: building an empire. In the 19th century, Europe was slicing up Africa and Asia and setting up colonies of their own, and he wanted to get a piece of that for Belgium, at least as much as he could before the strong powers would take it. After settling on Africa, he financed the exploration of the continent via the International African Society, whose official mission was to bring “civilization” and Christianity to African natives. But this was a sham from the beginning.
That’s when Henry Stanley came in handy. He was the leader of the expedition in Africa, which helped open the rainforest to the King’s lackeys. Eventually, King Leopold requested he’d be given a huge chunk of land in the heart of Africa to run for humanitarian purposes, a land he would then call the “Congo Free State,” an Orwellian name if there ever was one.
Leopold asked the Belgian government (notice he has to ask) to lend him some spare cash for his humanitarian endeavour to set up his project. But as soon as everything was set up, the Congo Free State began making and exporting rubber by enslaving the Congolese people. After he paid his debt, the Congo Free State was “owned” entirely by Leopold. Every cent he made went into his own pocket. In other words, this wasn’t a Belgian colonization per se, it was one European king looking out for number one.
King Leopold wasn’t the first or the last European to ravage and raise hell in Africa, or in any other continent for that matter. However, the version of neocolonialism represented by the Congo Free State was so extreme, it falls under its own category.
He first had to hire an army of local mercenaries to drive Tippu Tip, an Arab slaver away. This army of mercenaries would then enforce his will through the colony. Once he achieved that, he went on to destroy the Congolese wildlife to satisfy quotas of ivory, gold, and rubber. That meant killing elephants and other species, exploiting the mines, and clearing the forests. Officials worked on commission which meant that they had every reason to exploit natural resources as much as possible.
Other than virtually enslaving people, officials in the Congo Free State would depopulate entire villages, just to repurpose particular lands. If a village didn’t produce a sufficient amount of rubber, Leopold would burn the village down, kill all their children, or cut off the workers’ hands.
If the man’s work depended on his hands, they would amputate his wife’s or children’s limbs. At one point, the men in King Leopold’s forces were required to present one severed hand per bullet spent, to prove that they weren’t wasting ammunition.
A Belgian man was recorded saying, “Everywhere I hear the same news of the Congo Free State — rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form.” Leopold kept his personal fiefdom so isolated by controlling all of the trade routes, and pretty much running the land as a factory.
Word eventually got out to the rest of the Western world, who thought Leopold’s level of cruelty was too much, even for them. Here’s a letter published in the Washington Post from 1900: “Frightful atrocities [are being] perpetrated in King Leopold’s name by his white and colored officials on the Congo– atrocities that have excited horror not only throughout the civilized world, but even in the Dark Continent itself, where rapine, bloodshed and slavery are the rule rather than the exception.”
So much pressure was put on the King that he eventually had to sell the Congo to the Belgian government in 1908, who decided to put all of this behind. Leopold died quietly in his home and no one ever heard of this because of the clear European bias in the history books. Spreading the word, however, is of crucial importance. How’s that for “never forget”?
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