African colonialism is replete with stories of mass death and horrific acts of violence committed in the name of European imperialism. The Congo Free State history is not unique in that regard, but it is one of the worst lesser-known genocides in history. The Congo Free State was formed in 1885 after Belgian King Leopold II, one of the cruelest leaders in history, convinced his European peers that he should be in charge of a territory over 70 times the size of his own country. Leopold promised that he would civilize the Congo while also exploiting its natural resources and trading with the region.
However, the civilization that Leopold had in mind was a grotesque vision that ended in human tragedy. The Europeans forced the Africans to work without pay, justifying their actions by saying that the labor was in exchange for civilizing the natives. Far from creating the trappings of what was considered civilized, the modern world committed atrocities against the people living in the Congo that lasted for nearly 25 years. The result was mass murder, kidnappings, and genocide on an unimaginable scale.
The Congo Free State Was Created Without The Actual, Informed Consent Of The People Of The Congo
The Congo Free State was founded under the claim of colonialism, an arrangement where a stronger country imposes itself on a weaker one for economic and political gain. King Leopold II of Belgium sent British explorer Henry Morton Stanley to the Congo to create treaties with the rulers of the region. From 1879 to 1884, Stanley made over 400 treaties with many of the rulers, who were illiterate. He brought these documents back to Leopold, who then doctored them to achieve his purposes.
The Congo Free State was officially founded when the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85 sanctioned the formation of the state with Leopold as its ruler. There was no period of time when the people he had sovereignty over elected him. Leopold also never visited the Congo.
Soldiers Had To Prove Their Kills With Severed Hands And Decapitated Heads
A boom in the rubber industry in the 1890s gave birth to gruesome practices in the Congo Free State. Out of greed, King Leopold imposed higher and higher quotas of wild rubber to be gathered throughout the villages in the country. If a village failed to meet the quota, some of its members were taken away and shot. Other times, Leopold's army would take women as hostages to "encourage" men to fil the rubber quotas even faster. Because of the death and cruelty associated with the profitable resource, it became known as "red rubber."
Leopold was in the business of making money. Because bullets cost money, he imposed strict rules about the use of ammunition. Soldiers had to prove that they were shooting to kill humans and not just wasting their bullets. They were required to bring a severed head as proof that they had killed someone. Oftentimes, soldiers would cut off the hands of their victims to show that their ammunition was used to catch fleeing villagers.
Villages Were Brutally Slaughtered If The Rubber They Offered Was Not The Best
Even when villages met the rubber quotas, they were sometimes still punished. In 1896, the town of Bandakea Wijiko was massacred because the rubber they collected was deemed to be less than perfect. Congo State soldiers went into the village and killed 50 of its inhabitants, taking 28 people as prisoners. Every one of the dead bodies had its right hand chopped off by the soldiers.
A Legendary Explorer's Legacy Became Dark Through His Association With Leopold
Henry Morton Stanley is known for exploring Africa through various expeditions. His stories and journeys "enthralled the public," with figures like Mark Twain commenting:
"When I contrast what I have achieved in my measurably brief life with what [Stanley] has achieved in his possibly briefer one, the effect is to sweep utterly away the ten-story edifice of my own self-appreciation and leave nothing behind but the cellar."
By 1887, Stanley was on his third expedition to Africa, which was ordered by King Leopold II. At some point, Stanley and a few other men pushed ahead, leaving a group of others behind. The men left behind were slowly bringing up the rear and committing horrifying atrocities along the way. They were accused of rape, starving their African workers, beating locals, buying women, and shooting people for minor crimes. Stanley's reputation and popularity steadily began plummeting into darkness over the next century as he was criticized for his association with Leopold and colonialism.