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Crime against Congo: Cases against King Leopold II and Belgium

The intriguing thing about the entrance of King Leopold II into Africa is that it was not with any force or coercion; rather, his gang came with smiling faces with some goody bags, at least that was what they showed.

He founded a group called the International African Association, a humanitarian organisation that promised to make life better in Africa. On that premise, they received donations from around the world.

Most people who donated to the International African Association believed that they were helping to fund public works in the Congo and to put an end to slavery in East Africa.

Sadly, he had other ideas which was about building a personal empire at the expense of the people he claimed that he wanted to help.

The crimes of King Leopold II and Belgium against Congo, according to multiple sources such as Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, have been detailed as horrific monstrosities comparable to a fictional story meant for a horror movie.

Curiously, these crimes have literally been ignored? Why is Belgium and King Leopold not held accountable? The level of cover up is so alarming that till date, children in Belgium are still being brainwashed to believe that King Leopold II was a humanitarian who brought Christianity and civilisation to Congo.

(Leopold II of Belgium: The Biggest Coverup In European History – SquareSpace)

The people of Congo lived in small-scale societies, organised into village communities, forming groups by combining social and economic functions, among small numbers of related and unrelated people. These tribal cleavages fostered into cultural unity among what were distinct communities, like the Bantu and Pygmy groups.

The Bantu communities, who were originally from the West Africa arrived with their iron and craft skills, mingled and intermarried their Pygmy neighbours. The resulting society thrived with some degrees of government system under a well-established Kingdom of Kongo.

Arrival of the Europeans and Slave Trade

The Portuguese ship arrived the Congo River in the 1480s. At this time, the Kongo were glad to trade with the Portuguese, because the relationship provided a new market for their goods, while they received goods from the Portuguese. They also hoped that the Portuguese would share new technological knowledge with them.

In a few years, however, the Portuguese traders found that the Kongo could not supply the volume of gold, copper, and other valuable resources that they wanted. So, the Portuguese established sugarcane plantations on nearby islands off the coast of Central Africa. However, they found African labour—slaves—to be much more valuable commodity.

This discovery of new economic chattels prompted the Portuguese to suggest trading merchandise for slaves. This was not totally new, as they had engaged in slavery, through communal wars.

However, the influence of the Portuguese and their high demand for slaves changed the locals. Conflicts between different groups intensified as they searched for new captives who could be traded for European manufactured goods, which included weapons.

In 1506, King Afonso took the throne of the Kongo. His conversion to Christianity afterwards led to his communication with the Pope in Rome. Subsequently, King Afonso sent his son to study in Portugal, and the latter returned to Kongo to become the first black Catholic bishop.

By the year 1514, the slave trade had become an integral part of the economy of the area. Like all Kongo monarchs, Afonso owned slaves, but he was troubled by the nature of this new slave trade. In 1526, he wrote to the Portuguese king about its disruptive effects on his kingdom.

“Sir, Your Highness should know how our Kingdom is being lost in so many ways…. We cannot reckon how great the damage is, since the mentioned merchants are taking every day our natives, sons of the land and the sons of our noblemen and vassals and our relatives, because the thieves and men of bad conscience grab them wishing to have the things and wares of this Kingdom…. So great, Sir, is the corruption…that our country is being completely depopulated, and Your Highness should not agree with this nor accept it.”

-King Afonso’s letter to the King of Portugal (Wikipedia)

King Afonso of the Kongo KingdomAfonso’s pleas had no effect. Instead, more Europeans—notably the French, British, and Dutch—came to the region to purchase more slaves for their plantations in the new World.

By the late eighteenth century, Europeans were exporting about fifteen thousand slaves per year from the Congo.

European records, from the 1790s, show slaves arriving at the coast from as far inland as seven hundred miles. Until Europeans abandoned the slave trade in the early 1800s, it dominated the commerce of the area.

As the slave trade was coming to an end, the Europeans already had their eyes set on something else – the abundant raw materials scattered all over the continent. This then led to another evil – colonialism.

Berlin Conference and Congo Free State

At the request of Portugal, German Chancellor Otto von Bismark called together major western powers of the then world to negotiate questions and end confusion over the control of Africa.

On his part, King Leopold II never hid his desire to get Belgium into the scramble for colonies in Africa, after hitting a brick wall in Belgian parliament, he was not deterred.

Determined to look for a colony for himself and inspired by recent reports from Central Africa, he convinced European leaders at the conference on his intention to carry out ‘humanitarian works’ in Congo; they also needed the control of over the 2,350,000 km2 (910,000 sq mi) of the notionally independent Congo Free State on the grounds that it would be a free trade area and buffer state between British and French spheres of influence.

In the Free State, Leopold exercised total personal control without much delegation to subordinates. African chiefs played some role in the administration by implementing orders within their communities.

In the early years of the colony, much of the administration’s attention was focused on consolidating its control by fighting the African peoples on the colony’s periphery who resisted colonial rule.

Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company
Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company official examining the rubber collected by the locals to ensure they met their quota.

Years later, the unrestrained personal control of King Leopold II became notorious for the ill-treatment of the Congolese people.

Forced labour was used to gather wild rubber, palm oil, and ivory. Locals were beaten and lashed to force them to meet their rubber-gathering quotas, as well as taking of hostages. One method employed by Leopold’s agents was kidnapping the families of Congolese men, who were then coerced into trying to meet work quotas (often unattainable) in order to secure the release of their families.

Basket Full of Severed Hands, Cannibalism and Deaths

Mark Oliver wrote in an article contributed to Listverse that, in order to enforce the unrealisable rubber quota, King Leopold II’s men recruited African soldiers to enforce the rules, but that left a risk for the Belgians. These soldiers might spare their victims or waste their ammunition on something else.

So the Belgians set up a law: Every time a worker was killed, the African soldiers had to chop off and deliver his hand. The soldiers followed their orders because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t.

They were required to meet their quotas by filling baskets with hands, sometimes even gathered from their own mothers.

After killing an old man in front of a missionary, an African soldier explained why he did it. “Don’t take this to heart so much,” the soldier told the missionary.

“They kill us if we don’t bring the rubber. The commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service. I have brought in plenty of hands already, and I expect my time of service will soon be finished.”

– (10 Horrifying Facts About The Genocide In The Congo Free State by Mark Oliver)

Mr. Nsala looking at his daughter's severed hand and footA particular case was captured and the picture shared wildly; it was the story of a man named Nsala whose image was captured by Alice Seeley Harris and she told the story.

Here is her account; “Mr Nsala hadn’t made his rubber quota for the day so the Belgian-appointed overseers cut off his daughter’s hand and foot. The daughter’s name was Boali. She was only five years old. Then they killed her. But they weren’t finished. They also killed his wife too.

“And because that didn’t seem quite cruel enough, quite strong enough to make their case, they cannibalised both Boali and her mother. And they presented Nsala with the tokens, the leftovers from the once living body of his darling child whom he so loved. His life was destroyed.

They had partially destroyed it anyway by forcing his servitude but this act finished it for him.”

(Rare Historical Photos 1904)

The deaths were so many that the number can only be estimated. A Swedish missionary reported that 45 towns had been burnt and all the people killed in his area alone, since his arrival.

By 1908 when King Leopold II relinquished the control of Congo Free State to Belgium, the death toll estimate was more than 10 million Congolese.

Belgian Congo, Colonialism and Racial Discrimination

When the Belgian government took over the administration in 1908, the situation in the Congo improved in certain respects.

The brutal exploitation and arbitrary use of violence, in which some of the concessionary companies had excelled, were curbed. The crime of “red rubber” was put to a stop. Article 3 of the new Colonial Charter of 18 October 1908 stated that: “Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or privates”.

However, this was not enforced, and the Belgian government continued to impose forced labour on the natives, albeit by less obvious means.

There was an “implicit apartheid”, typically as there were restrictions of movement for Congolese city-dwellers and similar racial restrictions were commonplace. Though there were no specific laws imposing racial segregation and barring blacks from establishments frequented by whites, de facto segregation operated in most areas.

In the Force Publique, black people could not pass the rank of non-commissioned officer. The black population in the cities could not leave their houses from 9 pm to 4 am. This type of segregation began to disappear gradually only in the 1950s, but even then the Congolese remained or felt treated in many respects as second-rate citizens.

Following changes in other European colonies in Asia made it clear that Congo would not remain the same for much longer. More so, a good number of Congolese had become educated, formed pressure groups and started to demand their independence. Towards the end, the Belgian Metropolitan Government removed mixed-race children from their indigenous African families and placed them in specialised institutions.

Then on the eve of independence, hundreds of these children were ‘evacuated’ to Belgium. Protests and complaints of their Congolese parents amounted to nothing.

Proceeds of Crime

What is even more disturbing is that the proceeds of this crime (unlike the proceeds of other crimes) are still being enjoyed by Belgium, namely:

  1. The Hippodrome Wellington Racetrack,
  2. The Royal Galleries and Maria Hendrikapark in Ostend;
  3. The Royal Museum for Central Africa and its surrounding park in Tervuren;
  4. The Cinquantenaire Park,
  5. Triumphal Arch and Complex,
  6. The Duden Park in Brussels,
  7. The 1895-1905 Antwerpen-Centraal Railway Station.

All these structures and more, some of which are not listed here for space constraint, were largely built with the profits generated from the exploitation of the natural resources of the Congo and the blood, flesh and labour of its past subjugated ancestors by the Belgian vanquishers. Will the world continue to sleep on the justice of the Congolese people?

by Oruruo Samuel Okechukwu

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