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The Congo Free State (1877-1908)

The Democratic Republic of the Congo was formerly, in turn, the Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo-Léopoldville, Congo-Kinshasa, and Zaire (or Zaïre in French).

The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians through a dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman, exploiting the state for rubber, copper and other minerals in the upper Lualaba River basin. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908, when it was annexed by the government of Belgium. The Congo Free State eventually earned infamy due to the brutal mistreatment of the local peoples and plunder of natural resources.

Under Leopold II's administration, the Congo Free State became the site of one of the worst international scandals of the early twentieth century. The report of the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials who had been responsible for killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903 (including one Belgian national for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese natives). In the absence of a census (the first was made in 1924), it is difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. According to Roger Casement's report, depopulation was caused mainly by four causes: "indiscriminate war", starvation, reduction of births and tropical diseases.

The European and U.S. press agencies exposed the conditions in the Congo Free State to the public in 1900. By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic maneuvers led to the end of Leopold II's rule and to the annexation of the Congo as a colony of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo.

European exploration and administration took place from the 1870s until the 1920s. It was first led by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who undertook his explorations under the sponsorship of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold had designs on what was to become the Congo as a colony. In a succession of negotiations, Leopold, professing humanitarian objectives in his capacity as chairman of the Association Internationale Africaine, played one European rival against the other.

Leopold formally acquired rights to the Congo territory at the Conference of Berlin in 1885. He made the land his private property and named it the Congo Free State. Leopold's regime began various infrastructure projects, such as construction of the railway that ran from the coast to the capital of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). It took years to complete. Nearly all such projects were aimed at increasing the capital which Leopold and his associates could extract from the colony, leading to exploitation of Africans.

In the Free State, colonists brutalized the local population to produce rubber, for which the spread of autos and development of rubber tires created a growing international market. The sale of rubber made a fortune for Leopold, who built several buildings in Brussels and Ostend to honour himself and his country. To enforce the rubber quotas, the army, the Force Publique (FP), was called in. The Force Publique made the practice of cutting off the limbs of the natives as a means of enforcing rubber quotas a matter of policy; this practice was widespread. During the period 1885-1908, between 5 and 15 (the commonly accepted figure is about 10) million Congolese died as a consequence of exploitation and diseases. A government commission later concluded that the population of the Congo had been "reduced by half" during this period. The actions of the Free State's administration sparked international protests led by E. D. Morel and British diplomat/Irish patriot Roger Casement, whose 1904 report on the Congo condemned the practice. Famous writers such as Mark Twain also protested, and Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness was set in Congo Free State.

In 1908, the Belgian parliament, despite initial reluctance, bowed to international pressure (especially that from Great Britain) and took over the Free State as a Belgian colony from the king. From then on, it was called the Belgian Congo and was under the rule of the elected Belgian government.


Leopold's rule

Meanwhile the quest for income was unrelenting. District officials' salaries were reduced to a bare minimum, and made up with a commission payment based on the profit that their area returned to Leopold. After widespread criticism, this "primes system" was substituted for the allocation de retraite in which a large part of the payment was granted, at the end of the service, only to those territorial agents and magistrates whose conduct was judged "satisfactory" by their superiors. This meant in practice that nothing changed. Native communities in the Domaine Privé were not merely forbidden by law to sell items to anyone but the State: they were required to provide State officials with set quotas of rubber and ivory at a fixed, government-mandated price and to provide food to the local post.

The rubber came from wild vines in the jungle, unlike the rubber from Brazil, which was tapped from trees. To extract the rubber, instead of tapping the vines, the natives would slash them and lather their bodies with the rubber latex. When the latex hardened, it would be scraped off the skin in a painful manner, as it took off the natives' hair with it. This killing of the vines made it even harder to locate sources of rubber as time went on, but the government was relentless in raising the quotas.

The Force Publique (FP) was called in to enforce the rubber quotas. The officers were white agents of the State. Of the black soldiers, many were from tribes of the upper Congo while others had been kidnapped during the raids on villages in their childhood and brought to Roman Catholic missions, where they received a military training in conditions close to slavery. Armed with modern weapons and the chicotte - a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide - the Force Publique routinely took and tortured hostages (mostly women), flogged, and raped the natives. They also burned recalcitrant villages, and above all, took human hands as trophies on the orders of white officers to show that bullets hadn't been wasted. (As officers were concerned that their subordinates might waste their ammunition on hunting animals for sport, they required soldiers to submit one hand for every bullet spent.)


Humanitarian Disaster:

Severed hands

Villages who failed to meet the rubber collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in cut hands, where each hand would prove a kill. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighboring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.

One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command "ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades ... and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross." After seeing a native killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote: "The soldier said 'Don't take this to heart so much. 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.'" In Forbath's words:

The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber... They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace... the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.

In theory, each right hand proved a killing. In practice, soldiers sometimes "cheated" by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die. More than a few survivors later said that they had lived through a massacre by acting dead, not moving even when their hands were severed, and waiting till the soldiers left before seeking help. In some instances a soldier could shorten his service term by bringing more hands than the other soldiers, which led to widespread mutilations and dismemberment.


Death toll

Estimates of the deaths during the period of Leopold's control vary considerably. The reduction of the population of the Congo was noted by all who have compared the country at the beginning of the colonial rule and the beginning of the 20th century. Estimates of contemporary observers, as well as modern scholars (most authoritatively Jan Vansina, professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin), suggest that the population halved during this period.

According to British diplomat Roger Casement, this depopulation had four main causes: "indiscriminate war", starvation, reduction of births and diseases. Sleeping sickness ravaged the country and was used by the regime to account for demographic decrease. Opponents of King Leopold's rule stated, however, that the administration itself was to be considered responsible for the spreading of this dreadful epidemic. One of the greatest specialists on sleeping sickness, P.G. Janssens, Professor at the Ghent University, wrote:

It seems reasonable to admit the existence on the territories of the Congo Free State, of French Congo and Angola of a certain number of permanent sources that have been put again in activity by the brutal changement of ancestral conditions and ways of life that has accompanied the accelerated occupation of the territories.

In the absence of a census (the first was taken in 1924) to provide an opening figure, it is even more difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. Forbath said it was at least 5 million; Adam Hochschild, and Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem, 10 million; the Encyclopædia Britannica and Fredric Wertham's 1966 book "A Sign For Cain: An Exploration of Human Violence" estimate that the population of the Congo dropped from 30 million to 8 and 8.5 million, respectively, in that period. Similarly, the New York Times reports that "Under the reign of terror instituted by King Leopold II of Belgium (who ran the Congo Free State as his personal fief from 1885 to 1908), the population of the Congo was reduced by half -- as many as 8 million Africans."

In 1900 Africa had between 90 million (African Studies Review 49.1 (2006) 179-181) and 133 million people (World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision).


End of the Congo Free State

Leopold ran up high debts with his Congo investments before salvation came with the beginning of the worldwide rubber boom in the 1890s. Prices went up at a fevered pitch throughout the decade as industries discovered new uses for rubber in tires, hoses, tubing, insulation for telegraph and telephone cables and wiring, and so on. By the late 1890s, wild rubber had far surpassed ivory as the main source of revenue from the Congo Free State. The peak year was 1903, with rubber fetching the highest price and concessionary companies raking in the highest profits.

Like Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness, Mark Twain saw a colonial regime of plunder, slave labor, rape, and mutilation. Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy was a biting, sarcastic satire.

However, the boom sparked efforts to find lower-cost producers. Congolese concessionary companies started facing competition from rubber cultivation in South-east Asia and Latin America. As plantations were begun in other tropical areas - mostly under the ownership of the rival British firms world rubber prices started to dip. Competition heightened the drive to exploit forced labour in the Congo in order to lower production costs. Meanwhile, the cost of enforcement was eating away at profit margins, along with the toll taken by the increasingly unsustainable harvesting methods. As competition from other areas of rubber cultivation mounted, Leopold's private rule was left increasingly vulnerable to international scrutiny, especially from Britain.

To visit the country was difficult. Missionaries were allowed only on sufferance, and mostly only if they were Belgian Catholics that Leopold could keep quiet. White employees were forbidden to leave the country. Nevertheless, rumours circulated and Leopold ran an enormous publicity campaign to discredit them, even creating a bogus Commission for the Protection of the Natives to root out the "few isolated instances" of abuse. Publishers were bribed, critics accused of running secret campaigns to further other nations' colonial ambitions, and eyewitness reports from missionaries such as William Henry Sheppard dismissed as attempts by Protestants to smear honest Roman Catholic priests. And for a decade or more, Leopold was successful. The secret was out, but few believed it.

Eventually the most telling blows came from a most unexpected source. E. D. Morel, a clerk in a major Liverpool shipping office and a part-time journalist, began to wonder why the ships that brought vast loads of rubber from the Congo returned full of guns and ammunition for the Force Publique. He left his job and became a full-time investigative journalist and then a publisher with help from merchants who wanted to break into Leopold's monopoly or, in the case of chocolate millionaire William Cadbury, philanthropists. Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness was released in 1902. Based on his brief experience as a steamer captain on the Congo ten years before, Conrad's novel encapsulated the public's growing concerns about what was happening in the Congo. In 1903, Morel and those who agreed with him in the House of Commons succeeded in passing a resolution which called on the British government to conduct an inquiry into alleged violations of the Berlin Agreement. Roger Casement, then the British Consul at Boma, delivered a long, detailed eyewitness report which was made public in 1904. The British Congo Reform Association, founded by Morel with Casement's support, demanded action. Other European nations and the United States followed suit. The British Parliament demanded a meeting of the 14 signatory powers to review the 1885 Berlin Agreement. The Belgian Parliament, pushed by Emile Vandervelde and other critics of the King's Congolese policy, forced Leopold to set up an independent commission of inquiry, and despite the King's efforts, in 1905 it confirmed Casement's report.

The mass-deaths in the Congo Free State became a cause celèbre in the last years of the 19th century and a great embarrassment not only to the King but to Belgium, which had portrayed itself as progressive and attentive to human rights. The Congo Reform Movement, which included among its members Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Booker T. Washington, and Bertrand Russell, led a vigorous international movement against the mistreatment of the indigenous population of the Congo.

Leopold offered to reform his regime, but few took him seriously. All nations were now agreed that the King's rule must be ended as soon as possible, but no nation was willing to take on the responsibility. No nation seriously considered returning control of the land to the native population. Belgium was the obvious European candidate to run the Congo, but the Belgians were still unwilling. For two years, Belgium debated the question and held fresh elections on the issue. Leopold opportunistically enlarged the Domaine de la Couronne so as to milk the last possible ounce of personal profit while he could.

The Parliament of Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and took over its administration on November 15, 1908, four years after the Casement Report and six years after the first printing of Heart of Darkness. However, the international scrutiny was no major loss to Leopold or the concessionary companies in the Belgian Congo. By then Southeast Asia and Latin America had become lower-cost producers of rubber. Along with the effects of resource depletion in the Congo, international commodity prices had fallen to a level that rendered Congolese extraction unprofitable. The state took over Leopold's private dominion and bailed out the company, but the rubber boom was already over.

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congo_Free_State, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belgian_Congo

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