The Most Devastating Atrocities Committed By Every European Colonial Empire

European colonialism changed the world in countless ways, but the most blatantly apparent will always be the loss of life and bloodshed that occurred in the name of expansion and progress. Western imperialism, motivated by the desire to find resources, make money, save the "uncivilized," and garner prestige, ultimately brought about death, hardship, and violence for those who received it. The effects of colonialism - everything from genocide to resource exploitation to loss of cultural identity - are still felt today, while many of the lessons of colonialism seem to remain unlearned. Keep in mind, these are only some of the worst events and policies European imperialism had to offer. The horror, tragedy, and pain that was the Atlantic Slave Trade, well, that's a story for another list. 

  • The Belgian Congo, 1885-1908
    Photo: Alice Harris / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Belgian Congo, 1885-1908

    King Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909) took over a large part of central Africa in 1885, claiming that he would bring civility and progress to his newly acquired Congo Free State. King Leopold did the opposite, however, exploiting the land and the people for ivory, rubber, and timber.

    King Leopold wanted to prove to the world that his small country could compete with the other European powers. Rubber was particularly prosperous for Leopold, who had personal control of most of the Congo until 1908. During the late 1880s and early 1890s, the increased production of bicycles and automobiles led to a growing need for rubber that Leopold happily met. He did this with forced labor, placing Africans under the authority of a rubber agent who sent them to the forest with quotas while holding their wives and children hostage. When the Africans did not meet the quota, they were severely punished - usually flogged - and as the demand for rubber continued to go up, men had to venture further and further into the forest to find mature rubber vines. Belgians also used forced labor to cut timber and build roads. 

    Men worked themselves to death, their families starved, and many Africans fled to the forests as an act of rebellion. Leopold's men, part of a private military force called Force Publique (FP), would simply go after them, either killing them or cutting off their hands or genitals to make an example of them and motivate through fear. The Belgian soldiers were told not to waste bullets and were expected to bring back one hand for every bullet they fired. After one village rebelled, one FP officer recalled: "the commanding officer ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross." When a soldier couldn't produce a hand, he would buy one or trade for one - or he would cut one off of a living person to turn into his superior. 

    Entire villages were killed, women were assaulted while their husbands harvested rubber, and once outsiders began to get an idea of what was going on, they appealed to Leopold to stop. When George Washington William visited the Congo in 1890, he wrote a letter to Leopold questioning why there was no "civilizing" going on - meaning Christianity - and leveling charges against him of brutality. He described how the Belgians were "excessively cruel to its prisoners, condemning them, for the slightest offenses, to the chain gang, the like of which can not be seen in any other Government in the civilized or uncivilized world. Often these ox-chains eat into the necks of the prisoners and produce sores about which the flies circle, aggravating the running wound; so the prisoner is constantly worried. These poor creatures are frequently beaten with a dried piece of hippopotamus skin, called a “chicote”, and usually the blood flows at every stroke when well laid on. But the cruelties visited upon soldiers and workmen are not to be compared with the sufferings of the poor natives who, upon the slightest pretext, are thrust into the wretched prisons here in the Upper River."

    International outrage over the conditions in the Congo Free State led to the Belgian government taking over control of the colony, and renaming it the Belgian Congo in 1908. Leopold was said to have made between $100 and $500 million during his run as head of the Congo Free State but as many as 10 million Africans were killed in the process

  • British India And The Famines, 1865-1943

    To be clear, there were numerous famines in India (which then included modern-day Bangladesh and Pakistan) during the time the British East India Company and the British government controlled the sub-continent. The role of the British in the famines is debated among historians, but it is generally accepted that the policies, practices, and reactions by the British during each of the famines increased their death rates.

    When famine struck Orissa in 1865, the British administration chose to ignore it until the British troops themselves began to starve. In 1866, the British began sending rice and other resources into India, but it was too late for many. One third of the population of Orissa died as a result. The same type of attitude toward famine also characterized British reactions to the famine of 1876-1878 in Madras when four to five million Indians perished.

    The British continued to export foods to other parts of the Empire but neglected to respond to the needs of India during the famines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The famine of 1943 has gained more international attention than the others as of late; during World War Two, the British: "exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943," enough food to keep almost half a million people alive. Conditions were so bad that "parents dumped their starving children into rivers and wells. Many took their lives by throwing themselves in front of trains. Starving people begged for the starchy water in which rice had been boiled. Children ate leaves and vines, yam stems and grass." The death toll from the Bengal famine of 1943 was as many as between 1.5 and 3.5 million people.

  • Spain, The Aztecs, And Tenochtitlan, 1519-1521

    The Aztec Empire, based in Tenochtitlan and controlling most of modern-day Mexico, made contact with Spanish conquistadors during the first decades of the 16th century; however, when Hernan Cortés arrived in 1519, it quickly descended into war. Montezuma II, the leader of the Aztec empire, sent treasures to Cortés after he heard about the Spaniard's landing, hoping they would go back to Cuba (Spain already controlled the island, with the help of Cortés). Cortés put the treasures on a ship to Spain, and burned the other ships to give his men no other choice but to march to Tenochtitlan. 

    Before getting to the Aztec capital, Cortés earned the backing of rivals to Montezuma, including 3,000 Tlaxcalteca men who urged him to conquer the city of Cholula. Cortés destroyed the city, burning it to the ground, and according to his letters: "in three hours time his troops killed 3,000 people and burned the city. Another witness, Vazquez de Tapia, claimed the death toll was as high as 30,000." 

    Cortés continued on to Tenochtitlan where he came face to face with Montezuma on Novermber 9, 1519. He was received with gifts and fanfare but Montezuma and his people were fearful of the Spaniards, especially after having heard about the massacre at Cholula. They housed the Spanish, including Cortés, who many believed to be the god Quetzalcoatl. Cortés turned on his host a week later, seizing Montezuma on the 16th of November, forcing him to publicly submit to the King of Spain

    Cortés managed to make Montezuma look weak and the Aztec nobility overthrew him, rebelling against their leader and the Spanish presence alike. During several battles, the Aztec and the Spanish traded control of Tenochtitlan, with the Spanish finally taking it as theirs in August of 1521. By that point, the Spanish had starved the Aztec population, and also transmitted smallpox, wiping out a large portion of the population.

    According to sources: "On the day that Tenochtitlán was taken, the Spaniards committed some of the most brutal acts ever inflicted upon the unfortunate people of this land. The cries of the helpless women and children were heart-rending. The Tlaxcalans and other enemies of the Aztecs revenged themselves pitilessly for old offences and robbed them of everything they could find. Only Prince Ixtilxochitl of Texcoco, an ally of Cortés, felt compassion for the Aztecs, because they were of his own homeland. He kept his followers from maltreating the women and children as cruelly as Cortés and the Spaniards did... The anguish and bewilderment of our enemies was pitiful to behold. The warriors gathered on the rooftops and stared at the ruins of their city in a dazed silence, and the women and children and old men were all weeping..."

    Over the next few decades, the Spanish built "New Spain" on the remnants of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec empire, eradicating the people and society entirely. By 1568, only 3 million people of the original 30 million who made up the Aztec population in 1518 remained. The monstrous amount of deaths were caused by fighting and starvation and, in large part, by disease.

  • Boer Concentration Camps, 1900-1902

    The British Empire fought two Boer Wars in South Africa, the first during the 1870s and 1880s, and the second between 1899 and 1902. During the Second Boer War, also known as the South African War, British forces rounded up Boers - individuals of Dutch and African descent - and placed them in concentration camps.

    Who were the Boers? The Boers, which was the Dutch and Afrikaans word for "farmer," inhabited the republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, just to the north of British controlled South Africa. When Transvaal and the Orange Free State established an alliance in 1897, the British feared that the Boers would attempt to take over all of South Africa. To keep that from happening, the British placed troops on the border between the Boer republics and British South Africa. The Boers issued an ultimatum for the British to remove their troops in 1899; the British refused, and war broke out in October of 1899.

    The first six months of the war were successful for the Boers but the British had the upper hand in terms of weapons and manpower. Half a million British troops were more than a match for the almost 90,000 Boer forces. By 1900, the British had control of both Boer republic capitals and annexed the territory. The war went on until early 1902, thanks to a resurgence of Boer action, but the Boers were forced to give into British rule with the Peace of Vereeniging.

    Military exchanges during the South African War saw 100,000 British and 14,000 Boer deaths. The larger death toll of the war, however, resulted from the concentration camps established by the British. The British rounded up men, women, and children from the South African countryside, in large part to try to quell guerrilla warfare, and placed them in camps in both Boer republics.

    By September 1901, there were 34 camps holding roughly 110,000 white Boers. Conditions in the camps were brutal, as one visitor described: "the exile camp here is a good two miles from the town, dumped down on the southern slope of a kopje (a small, rocky hill), right out in the bare brown veld, not a vestige of a tree in any direction, nor shade of any description." In some camps, death rates reached 2,000 to 3,000 per month and, by the end of the war, almost 27,000 men, women, and children had died as a result of their treatment. This constituted 15% of the total Boer population in both republics. There were camps for Black people as well, although they didn't garner the outrage those for whites did. Between 14,000 and 20,000 Black individuals died in the British camps.

  • Mau Mau Uprising, 1952-1960

    In British-controlled Kenya during the 1930s and 1940s, the native Kikuyu tribe continued to lose land and agricultural rights. While the tribe remained loyal to the British government, resistance movements within Kenya grew up and a secret society, known as the Mau Mau, began carrying out attacks on the British by 1952. The Mau Mau were banned but continued to gather followers, causing chaos and committing acts of violence that led to the British declaring a state of emergency in 1952.

    The Mau Mau included notable nationalists like Jomo Kenyatta, the future president of Kenya, but after the state of emergency was declared, many members of the group were detained. This only caused the Mau Mau to escalate their acts of violence on Brits and Kikuyu natives alike. The British sent more and more troops to Kenya but over the next eight years Mau Mau attacks continued. The British began carrying out sweeps, rounding up both suspected and actual members of the Mau Mau, and implemented "collective punishment" on villages that were believed to be harboring Mau Mau or were sympathetic to the group. Thousands of Kikuyu and suspected Mau Mau were gathered up and sent to reservations or camps, where "abuse and torture was commonplace... as British guards used beatings, sexual abuse, and executions to extract information from prisoners and to force them to renounce their allegiance to the anti-colonial cause."

    The number of Mau Mau killed during this period is debated, with official numbers of "11,000, including 1,090 convicts hanged by the British administration. Just 32 white settlers were killed in the eight years of emergency." According to the Kenyan Humans Rights Commission, however: "90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed during the crackdown, and 160,000 were detained in appalling conditions."

  • Spain And The Incas, 1532-1572

    When the Spanish conquistadores Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro arrived in modern-day Peru in 1531, they found a civilization in crisis. The Inca were on the heels of a civil war between two rivals for control of the empire: Waskar and Atahualpa. Atahualpa was victorious but internal strife remained problematic for him and his people. In addition to the fight for leadership, there were smaller tribes within the Inca empire that resented being under Inca rule.

    Pizarro, backed by his 80,000 men, met Atahualpa in November 1532 in a peaceful exchange but both men were determined to kill the other upon their next meeting. The next day, Pizarro attacked the Inca, killing 7,000 men and taking Atahualpa hostage. The Spanish very literally out-gunned the Inca forces, who were armed with spears and arrows and experienced no losses in the battle. 

    It's unclear if Atahualpa attempted to ransom himself or if the Spanish offered to let him go in exchange for riches, but over the course of the next eight months, the Inca gathered up silver, gold, jewels, and other valuable items to placate their oppressors. The Spanish gladly accepted all of the rewards but executed Atahualpa during the summer months of 1533. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake but, after he and the Inca agreed to convert to Christianity, he was garroted

    After Atahualpa was killed, the Inca were left without a leader and even more vulnerable to Spanish conquest. Over the following four decades, the Spanish systematically conquered every Inca city and stronghold and, in spite of the continued guerrilla warfare carried on by natives, took complete control of the Empire in 1572.

    Overall, the Spanish presence in the New World brought death by smallpox and other epidemic diseases, as well as by military action, especially as the Inca continued to rebel against them. It's estimated that the Spanish killed 50-90% of the population in the Andes mountain region of South America during this period during the late 15th and 16th centuries.