LEOPOLD II AND THE CONGO FREE STATE
Leopold II served as the King of Belgium from 1865 until 1909 and oversaw the Belgian role in the Age of Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa. In fact, Imperialism in Africa occurred from about 1870 until 1914 and had a profound effect on the continent. European exploration sparked European expansion into West and Central Africa. One of the most significant events of this period was that of King Leopold II of Belgium and his role in the Congo, which was a region in West and Central Africa. In fact, Leopold II ruled over the Congo as his personal empire and was responsible for the death of millions Congolese people. Furthermore, his brutal treatment of the local people came to symbolize the worst aspects of European imperialism in Africa.
King Leopold II was born on April 9th, 1835 in Brussels, Belgium. At the time, his father, Leopold I, was the King of Belgium. Leopold II became the next King of Belgium in 1865 and reigned until his death on December 17th, 1909. Leopold II’s reign as King of Belgium coincided with the time period of the Scramble for Africa, during which the European powers of the day raced for control of different regions of Africa.
Leopold II gained access to the territory of the Congo due to several key events. First, in 1878 he hired famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley to carry out expeditions into the Congo River basin of west central Africa. He did this in hopes of building Belgium’s global empire of colonies alongside the other European powers, which were also racing to capture territory in Africa. Henry Morton Stanley explored the central regions of Africa while in search of the origin of the Nile River. His expeditions eventually took him to the Congo River Basin, which led to Leopold II laying claim to the region. The second event that led to Leopold II gaining control of the Congo was the Berlin Conference of 1884. German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, called the Berlin Conference in order to help divide the continent of Africa for the European powers. The goal of the Berlin Conference was to help Europe avoid a war over disagreements in Africa. As part of this agreement, Leopold II of Belgium gained personal control over the Congo region. In fact, Leopold II officially formed the Congo Free State in 1885 and ruled over it as his own private possession. He used his control over the region to as a way of amassing a fortune for himself. The Congo area had valuable resources, such as: rubber, ivory, copper and other raw materials. Rubber was an incredibly valuable resource at the time, as the newly invented rubber tire was being used in bicycles and early automobiles. It is important to note that he ruled over the Congo as a personal possession. As such, this means that he was responsible for it and not the country of Belgium. In fact, the other European nations granted him control over the Congo on the basis that he would help the Congolese people and carry out humanitarian work in the area. In reality, he ruled over the Congo Free State in a brutal fashion and his actions terrorized the people of the region.
As stated above, the Congo contained many resources that Leopold II hoped to extract and sell for his own personal benefit. His efforts to collect and sell these resources led to the brutalization of millions of Congolese people. For instance, Leopold II granted monopolies to European companies for access to the resources of the Congo and used the monopolies as a means of earning large profits for himself. The companies ruthlessly exploited the land and the people in the Congo in their pursuits of profit. In particular, rubber was the main resource that was sought at the time, as it rose in value throughout the late 1800s.
In order to get the rubber (and other resources) out of the Congo, these companies forced the Congo people to work long hours and punished them if they did not meet their quotas. Punishments were brutal and involved: beatings, cutting of their hands or feet, starvation, and imprisonment. For example, women and children were sometimes imprisoned as a way to force men to work harder. The punishment that came to be best associated with the brutal reign of Leopold II is the removal of the hands (and sometimes feet) of the Congolese people. If the people did not meet their quota for rubber then they could have one or both of their hands cut off. In all, it is estimated that as many as 15 million Congolese people died during the years of Leopold II’s reign. However, it should be noted that proper records were not kept and modern historians disagree on the exact number of Congolese people that died due to the actions of Leopold II. As a result, some historians argue that the number is as low as a million, while others argue it is as high as 15 million. Although, many argue that it is likely around 10 million. Regardless of the truth, European imperialism in the Congo had a devastating impact on the people there and left a terrible legacy.
The atrocities eventually drew international attention and the intense pressure caused the Belgian government to investigate what was occurring in the Congo Free State. Eventually, in 1908, the territory was taken over by the Belgian government and renamed Belgian Congo, but not before Leopold II demanded a fee for the sale of his control over the Congo. For his part, Leopold II amassed a substantial fortune and was considered to be one of the richest men in the world near the end of his life. Before he died on December 17th, 1909, he supposedly had a personal fortune as high as $500 million. As a result, Leopold II’s actions in the Congo have come to symbolize the brutality of the period of the Age of Imperialism, and how it created a differing set of legacies for Europe and Africa. For instance, while Europe further developed its power and wealth throughout the 20th century, Africa has largely struggled to do similar. This is especially true in the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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