African colonialism is replete with stories of mass elimination and horrific acts of aggression 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, yet lesser-known, exterminations 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 claiming that the labor was in exchange for civilizing the natives. Far from creating the trappings of what was considered civilized, the modern world committed grave injustices against the people living in the Congo for nearly 25 years. The result was mass loss of life and separation of families on an unimaginable scale.
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 traveled up and down the Congo River basin establishing trading posts and making deals with local rulers–many of whom could not read written languages and, therefore, probably didn't understand the terms of the agreements that they made. He brought these documents back to Leopold, who then doctored them to achieve his agenda.
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.
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 fill the rubber quotas even faster. Because of the countless losses endured by the people of the Congo 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 terminate and not just wasting their bullets. They were required to bring severed body parts as proof that they had been completed their mission. Often times, soldiers would cut off the hands of their victims to show that their ammunition was used to catch fleeing villagers.
Even when villages met the rubber quotas, they were sometimes still punished. In 1896, the town of Bandakea Wijiko was severely punished because the rubber they collected was deemed to be less than perfect. Congo State soldiers went into the village and wiped out 50 of its inhabitants, taking 28 people as prisoners. The right hand of each of the dead bodies was severed and collected by the soldiers.
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 horrific acts of aggression along the way. They were accused of violating women's bodies, 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.