The history of the Congo Free State is one of devastating genocide, ruthless colonialism, and massive greed, all on the part of one man. Leopold II served as King of Belgium from 1865 to 1909, during which time he managed to create a colony in the Congo over 70 times the size of his Belgian kingdom. Leopold's hunger for power led to devastation in the Congo, a humanitarian disaster that included mutilation, psychological torture, and murder.
Leopold created the Belgian Congo slave trade in order to collect rubber, ivory, and palm oil, and it was quotas of these items that led to brutal treatment of the Congolese slaves forced to fulfill them. This particular photo depicts a Congolese slave staring dejectedly at the severed hands and feet of his five-year-old daughter, his punishment for failing to fulfill a rubber quota. But the dark truth behind this photo is much more gruesome than you would ever imagine.
Hands Like The Severed One In The Photograph Were Used As A Morbid Currency In The Congo
The brutality of the Belgian militia stationed in the Congo Free State was systematic, and it was premised on the threat of extreme bodily harm to all those who committed an infraction of any kind. The military force, known as the Force Publique, was a mercenary force comprised of Belgian commanding officers with African soldiers. These mercenaries were required to cut off the hands of those they murdered for not fulfilling the rubber quota. It was believed that if they did not show proof of how the ammunition was used, they must have wasted it on hunting.
A stockpile of hands meant good things for a soldier, and hands became a sort of currency for the Force Publique. This led to mass mutilation of innocent victims who often died as a result. Some slaves managed to play dead by not moving after having their hands chopped off.
The Actual Process Of Gathering Rubber Was Brutal And Painful, Too
The Congolese suffered immensely under Belgian rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not only were their hands chopped off for failing to meet their rubber collection quota, but Congolese slaves also endured many other hardships as well. In order to fulfill entirely unrealistic rubber collection quotas, Congolese slaves were forced to venture deep into the forests and often end up covered in the extracted rubber, which would then harden on their skin and have to be painfully scraped off.
Joseph Conrad's 'Heart Of Darkness' Drew Inspiration From The Real Events In The Congo
One of the most well known literary depictions of the Congo Free State is Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. The story, set in the Congo Free State, is a gruesome tale of men traveling up the Congo river into Africa. The 2016 film The Legend of Tarzan is also set in the Congo Free State, and despite not being a historical film, it does touch on the historical events of Leopold II's reign of terror.
Despite His Attempts to Cover It Up, The Truth About Leopold II's Gruesome Rule Was Revealed
Complaints from around the globe, many instigated by literary works such as Heart of Darkness, led to action. The United Kingdom appointing their consul, Roger Casement, to investigate; in his report, Casement detailed the atrocities inflicted upon the Congolese at the behest of Leopold II. By 1908, international pressure forced Leopold II to relinquish control over the Congo. According to author Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold's Ghost, Leopold II attempted to cover up his inhumane practices by burning the archive of the Congo Free State, but it was too late. He reportedly told his aide after it all, "They have no right to know what I did there."