Congo, Part I...King Leopold II
There are those who say the U.S. should abandon any efforts to
help the continent of Africa with its many problems, that the
situation is hopeless. Over the next few weeks we will explore
one nation in detail, the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
which may give you a better understanding of the myriad
political issues facing all of the people in Africa today.
For starters, the uninitiated may feel as though all of sub-Saharan
Africa is basically one people, one language. If that were the
case we wouldn''t need to explore this in any detail.
Columnist Gwynne Dyer recently explained that south of the
Sahara, there are only 3 or 4 African languages with more than
10 million native speakers. There are several hundred languages
with between half a million and a million native speakers.
"African states big enough to make economic sense are usually
so complex ethnically that they are almost impossible to govern,"
And then there is Congo. Formerly Zaire (and not to be confused
with the Republic of the Congo which is far smaller and lies to
Congo''s west), Congo is the second largest country in Africa.
Over 3 times the size of Texas, it is bordered by nine other
nations and is the source of tremendous mineral wealth;
including copper, diamonds, gold and silver. In addition,
contained within its boundaries is the Congo River basin, which
carries more water than any other body in the world except the
Amazon (thus, a tremendous potential source of hydroelectric
So what has Congo done with all of these resources? Nothing,
really. Nothing that benefits the people, that is. But the blame
begins with Belgium, and the first colonial dictatorship, that of
King Leopold II.
Leopold, the son of King Leopold I (the first king of independent
Belgium) ruled Belgium from 1865 until his death in 1909. But
going back to his days as a prince, he always had his eye on
Africa. He would get his wish to control a large part of it.
In 1874, the Anglo-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley
was commissioned by the New York Herald and the Daily
Telegraph to complete the explorations of David Livingstone, the
Scottish missionary who had spent years mapping the Congo
Basin. [Stanley had met Livingstone in their famous exchange
on a previous expedition back in 1871.]
Stanley explored and mapped the Congo River basin for years,
but when he returned to Britain in 1877, the British initially were
ambivalent about his discoveries. But King Leopold II saw an
opportunity to fulfill his imperial ambitions.
Stanley brought back reports of the untapped potential of mineral
wealth throughout the region and Leopold was anxious to extend
his personal domain, while enhancing his wealth. "Ce
magnifique gateau africain," he is alleged to have said upon
hearing of the Congo''s riches.
So Leopold hired Stanley to return to Congo for the purposes of
securing treaties with the local chiefs in order to gain access to
the wealth that lay within. The king then organized the Congo
Company and once Stanley returned with the treaties, Leopold
had his "piece of that great African cake."
For starters, the kings and tribal chiefs that Stanley, and others
that would follow, sat down with probably ceded lands and
granted mineral rights without fully comprehending what they
were doing. Historians Garraty and Gay comment, "Some hoped
that, once the mysterious piece of paper on which their
unwelcome visitors set so much store had been signed and
handed over, the white men would go away." They didn''t.
Leopold named his new toy the Congo Free State. Yes, he just
stole it. But the king''s move caused great concern throughout
the capitals of Europe and the Congress of Berlin (1884-1885)
was convened, setting in motion what came to be known as the
"scramble for Africa."
Other nations were now looking to stake their claims but the
Congress wanted to establish some parameters for future territory
grabs. For starters, a claim would have to be formally
announced, and then the country would have to demonstrate that
the regions were being effectively occupied. King Leopold was
thus granted Congo, provided that he ensure the welfare of its
Leopold pledged to "watch over the preservation of the native
races, and the amelioration of the moral and material conditions
of their existence." But he immediately set about mining, rubber
tapping, and constructing railroads for the purposes of pillaging
the land and raping its people.
From 1885 until 1908, what took place in Congo was nothing
less than a holocaust. Up to 10 million people died, representing
about one-half of the entire population. It is a dark period in
world history that today gets little recognition. The people died
from famine, epidemics, and state-sponsored killings. If the
workers didn''t hit their quotas, they were systematically tortured,
and in many cases executed.
Leopold employed a Force publique that was really nothing more
than a mercenary army comprised of about 360 European
officers of various nationalities, and some 16,000 African troops
drafted to carry out the slaughter. Congo became a giant forced
But by 1908, thanks to the efforts of humanitarians like Sir
Roger Casement, a British consul who exposed the abuses of the
Belgian regime, international opinion was turning against
Leopold. The result was the first worldwide sponsored human
rights movement and the king was finally forced to hand the
colony over to the Belgian government, which renamed it the
Conditions for the people of Congo, however, didn''t improve
that much. Missionary work (the country is 94% Christian
today) did help to alleviate some of the problems, namely of
education, but for the vast majority of the population, the
colonial experience was still Hell on earth.
As the decades rolled on, however, an elite class of citizens
known as the evolues began to have some say in how Congo was
governed. In the 1950s, they petitioned the colonial government
for reforms, including the right to own land, to vote in elections,
and to serve in public office. By 1957, Africans were finally
allowed to participate in municipal elections.
But the old theory of "rising expectations" took hold at this
point. Part II of our story next week.
"Africana," Gates and Appiah
Gwynne Dyer / Star-Ledger
Richard Hamilton / Washington Post
"The Columbia History of the World," Garraty and Gay
"A History of Modern Europe," John Merriman
"The Oxford History of the 20th Century," Howard and Louis