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What Did King Leopold II Do with the Congo Free State?

King Leopold II established Belgium as a colonial power in Africa, but he is best known for the atrocities done under his regime. But the worst he’s done was at the time he acquired the Congo Free State. 

In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium personally acquired the “Congo Free State” in the Berlin conference of 1884-1885. He ended up enslaving the people of the state to gather ivory and natural rubber.

Who was King Leopold II of Belgium?

Léopold-Louis-Philippe-Marie-Victor, better known as King Leopold II, was born on April 9, 1835, in Brussels, Belgium, to Leopold I and Louise-Marie. By the age of 18, Leopold II entered the senate as a member by right, and in the same year, he married the Arch-Duchess of Austria, Marie-Henriette of Habsburg-Lorraine.

By the age of 30, Leopold II took the constitutional oath and became the second king of independent Belgium. He was best known for his acquisition of the Congo Free State and the commission of several buildings and urban projects in Belgium. (Source: Monarchie)

Leopold II fathered six children in total, four with his wife the Arch-Duchess of Austria and two with a Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix, a prostitute. His youngest daughter with Marie-Henriette, Clémentine Albertine Marie Léopoldine, soon married Prince Napoléon Victor Jérôme Frédéric Bonaparte, known as Bonaparte V.

Leopold II was quite unpopular with the citizens of Belgium, but not because he acquired the Congo Free State, but because of his character. Leopold II could not speak Dutch properly. He was known to spend long, luxurious winter vacations, were estranged from two of her daughters, and liked teenage girls.

On December 17, 1909, Leopold II passed away three days after signing the law on compulsory military service. (Source: New World Encyclopedia)

The Congo Free State

In 1876, Leopold II hosted an international conference of explorers and geographers, and soon he hired Henry Morton Stanley as his envoy into the African region. Stanley was tasked to build trading posts, roads, and, more importantly, persuading local chiefs, who were all illiterate, to sign treaties with Leopold.

Leopold II was known to present himself as a philanthropist whose goal was to spread Christianity, the Western civilization, and commerce to unknown regions, with Africa included. He soon persuaded the United States and several European countries to recognize that the new territory of Congo was his private colony, calling it État Indépendant du Congo, The Congo Free State.

In his private colony, Leopold II was able to acquire a great fortune. This was due to his exploitation of ivory, which was popular back then. 

The invention of the inflatable bicycle wheel and the rise of the automobile industry gave way for Leopold II to amass more fortune in the 1890s. These led to the significant demand for rubber. Fortunately for Leopold II, his private colony encompassed the Landolphia vines rich in wild rubber trees.

Leopold II would send his private army known as the Force Publique into the region and force male villagers to produce monthly quotas of wild rubber in exchange for the freedom of their hostage wives and children.

Most of the industries developed in the colony were accomplished through slavery and forced labor. Most villagers decided to leave their villages to avoid becoming hostages or slaves, and some raised rebellions. Those who were caught in failed attempts of revolution were shot, and their hands were cut off.

The severed hands were returned to the Force Publique’s main camps. This practice was to show proof to the officers that the army did not waste any bullets, and the hands served as a claim to a kill. If a soldier fired and missed, he would cut off the hands of living victims to show proof that he didn’t waste a bullet.

Soon, countries like France, Germany, and Portugal followed suit, copying Leopold’s style in forced labor. This resulted in an international rage against Leopold, forcing him to relinquish his ownership of Congo. In 1908, the Congo Free State became Belgian Congo, with Leopold II demanding payment for his colony. (Source: Britannica)

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