Belgian Colonial Empire

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Flag of the Belgian Colonial Empire
La Brabançonne (National Anthem Of Belgium and The Belgian Congo)
Map of Belgium's colonies at their maximum extent

Belgium acquired two large colonies in its history, namely Belgian Congo from 1908 to 1960 and Ruanda-Urundi from 1922 to 1962. Smaller colonization projects of Belgium were the Belgian colony in Santo Tomás in Guatemala from 1843 to 1854, the Belgian colony on the Rio Nuñez in Guinea from 1848 to 1858, the Belgian concession in Tianjin, China from 1900 to 1931 and the Belgian Colony in Santa Catarina in Brazil from 1844 to 1875. Belgium was also a co-administrator of the Tangier International Zone in Morocco from 1955 to 1956.


  • Belgium should become the capital of the Belgian Empire, which, with the help of God, will consist of Borneo, islands in the Pacific, some places in Africa and America, and also areas of China and Japan. I am the only one pursuing this for now, but by over-exposing the national fever, I will find support and create apostles.
    • Leopold II as world traveller and builder. Leopold II's first trip is to Thuringia and Bavaria, where the dynasty originated. His attention turns to the castles and other sights in Coburg, Nuremberg, Regensburg and Munich. Leopold retains a good feeling from that trip: he sees a role model in Bavarian King Ludwig I. Leopold wants to inspire a similar sense of national superiority.
  • A few years ago, these two authors produced a stimulating essay on the state of the art and the future perspectives of colonial historiography in Belgium, introducing a special issue of the Belgian review of contemporary history, consisting of several articles on Belgian colonial history. This is certainly the symptom of the fact that something is indeed changing in the Belgian historical world. But in comparison to other former imperial countries, Belgian colonial historiography is lagging behind. The heavy institutional and political weight attached to the Leopoldian heritage had something to do with this. Much remains to be done, but luckily, new perspectives and approaches (anthropology, cultural studies) undoubtedly will fertilize historical work on colonial Congo. The new generation of Belgian historians has never known colonialism. They do not want to “prove” anything and do not have any special feelings of guilt, nostalgia or justification towards what happened in the Congo under Belgian rule. In their eyes, there is only one thing left in eulogy and in national pride: these old fetters, which have influenced so deeply the beginnings of colonial historiography, have themselves become objects of scientific enquiry. Understanding and explaining colonialism, a complex phenomenon of societal contact: this is the huge task that lays ahead. If their new approach and the resulting new insights percolate through to public opinion, politicians and school children, these historians will not have wasted their time. If Vanthemsche is right, than perhaps we will be better able to know how long and fateful the shadow of Leopold I influenced Leopold II and Belgian colonialism.
  • One of the most industrialized countries in the world throughout the nineteenth century, Belgium needed the global market to export the products of its industry. Unlike most Western nations, and despite the ambitions of King Leopold II who, in a personal capacity, rushed into the colonization of Congo Free State, Belgium did not carve out a colonial empire for itself through military expeditions and “politics of the gunboat.” Based on capital, knowledge and engineering, Belgian imperialism was peaceful, such as the various universal and international expositions organized in Brussels, Antwerp, Liège and Ghent.
    • Michel Dumoulin, Vincent Dujardin, Emmanuel Gerard and Mark Van den Wijngaert (eds.), Nouvelle histoire de Belgique, Brussels: Éditions Complexe, 9 vol., 2005–2011 (Questions à l’histoire).

Belgian attempt to Colonize Texas

Map of Texas.jpg
Leopold I Of Belgium
  • The result of all these considerations is that the Government of Belgium has no interest in favoring the emigration of Belgian families to Texas, whether it be to produce more ample resources to them or to obey the instincts of the few rare ones who crave for adventurous undertakings.
  • Belgium, in the Texas affair, does not have all the liberty of action she desires. Considerations such as the pending negotiations with the Mexican and American Governments dictate the avoidance of potential evils… abandoning any measures with Texas completely.
  • Although Pirson’s mission to Texas was not apparently known in Guatemala, the lesson of the Texas Rebellion was fresh on the minds of the opponents of the Belgian grant. “What was Texas when it began,” they asked. “and what is it today? Was it not a colony formed under the same illusions, with the same hopes, and with the same desire of accelerating time that has moved us in the approval of the contract with the Belgian company? And is it not today the cancer, the opprobrium, and the crowning evil that afflicts Mexico? Who assures us that our colony will not be for Guatemala what Texas has been for Mexico?”
  • It is interesting to note however, that Leopold’s penchant for secrecy was also evident in the Texas project. Pirson was under strict orders not to reveal anything about his mission other than that he was sent to Texas to study the potential commercial and economic advantages of trade between the two countries. There was to be no mention of the colonial or loan aspects of his mission. “…(your ) mission must maintain a confidential character as much as possible…
  • Constitutional government, especially in a small country, takes a great deal of time, and causes sight to be lost of the questions, which lone can secure to the country a political future. I have many a time that I saw you feeling more and more interest therein, and I am very anxious that it should be so, for it is time to be seriously occupied with those questions; otherwise Belgium will find herself at the tail of all other countries. I have heard that an association of German princes is actively occupied in an attempt at colonization in Texas…

Belgian colony in Santo Tomás

Belgian colony in Santo Tomás
Belgian establishment of Santo Thomas
Map of the Belgian colony in Guatemala.
  • Santo Tomas was based on emigration and was therefore bound to fail, Belgians do not emigrate.
  • For the present time, I see only certain ruin for the settler; for the European who is not used and cannot get used to living like the natives, animal life is very expensive. 'He also insisted on the scarcity of cash and the resulting difficulty for traders who did not failed to get paid. The Belgians could sell Linen, sheets and cottons in Central America provided that they were manufactured in such a way as to withstand the English competition as much by their lightness and their smoothness as by their good.
  • He concluded that the Verapaz, despite its fertility, did not present a good or secure future for colonization. The District of Santo Tomas, on the other hand, offered the same agricultural advantages as the interior province as well as additional advantages for commerce. He opined that a Belgian colony at Santo Tomas could avoid the mismanagement and disaster which had befallen the English at Abbottsville.
  • The temperature is hot, but the country is healthy. Europeans can easily acclimatize there, live well there, and maintain their activity.
  • Any family of settlers, he wrote, on arriving in Santo-Tomas, must find their home and their plantations. Men who leave their homeland to go and work in a foreign land always create more or less illusions for themselves; some precautions that we take to protect them against this tendency, some warnings that we give them, we cannot prevent them from imagining an Eldorado, at least one country where without great difficulty we find the comfort we enjoy in Europe.
  • Disappointed expectations, naturally follow-up of nostalgia, the rigor of the old direction, the excessive and forced work, the military exercises right in the sun during the intended hours to rest and factions during the humid nights without the least shelter against rains, the bad food regime, the discouragement, the moral constraint, the deprivation during a certain emergency time of the religion, the total absence of distractions, the bad choice of a big number of colonists under the report of health and the constitution (imagine that one sends into a newly established colony, where the question of the healthiness is not entirely resolute, of families, of people reaches of the caries, idiots, the rickety, the lame, blinds, asthmatics and dunces?), the clutter and the humidity of homes, the big heats to which the most was not accustomed, the long and extraordinary rains, the stagnant puddles due to the defect of out-flow, different natural poisonous fumes that result from it, the poor state of roofing, the dirtiness, as much inside as outside, poverty and finally, in excesses of drink and food.
  • Behr's (special diplomatic agent to Guatemala Baron de Behr) general impression of the colony was devastating. He wrote Brouckére (Belgian Foreign Minister) that the Belgian government had been ignobly deceived and misled by all reports. The colony was only a miserable village whose inhabitants lived for the most part from fishing. The actions of the Company agents had generated disgust everywhere and had disgraced the name of Belgium. All of the public works—roads, wharves, canals, municipal buildings were a mere fiction. The Company had squandered 3,200,000 francs without a trace. Any money put up by the Belgian government would disappear in the same fashion. The stocks backed by land lots in portfolio which the Company offered as guarantee against monies borrowed, were, in Behr's opinion, worthless. He thought that the Company courted Belgian government intervention in a speculator's venture which had miscarried.
  • At the time when the government intervened in the Guatemalan affair, the European colonies were closed to Belgian trade by prohibitive laws or high differential duties ... We therefore had to think about creating our own bases of operations for trade. national. From this point of view, we can only applaud the idea of ​​forming a Belgian colony on the vast American continent. Since this initiative, which our lack of initiative and perseverance alone failed, the situation has changed completely. Under the impetus of the great economic reform, led by the illustrious Robert Peel, ideas about free trade have gained ground in Europe, and the time may not be far off when all the powers will remove the barriers with which they have surrounded their transatlantic possessions. Therefore, the need to create agricultural colonies to promote the development of trade and national industry will no longer exist to the same degree.

Colonial projects in Brazil


Belgian Colony in Santa Catarina

Map of of Santa Catarina
  • If some colonies are still available, someone will populate them. I am sure that these colonists, although isolated, will thank your majesty. They will find some Belgians among them who work hard and persevere to advance the country despite the fact that distance to the market place reduces of their harvest the value by half.

Belgian Colony in Ilhota

Flag of ilhota
Location of Ilhota
  • If life in Europe was difficult because of the various conflicts and poverty faced by European families, life in the Brazilian interior was anything but easy in the early decades of colonization, given the climatic conditions, the wildlife and the many snakes.
    • Marc Storms, BELGIAN SETTLEMENT IN ILHOTA (SC) According to historians Ana Luiz Mette and Elaine Cristina de Souza, in the book Ilhota - Encanto dos Belgas no Vale do Grande Rio there were disputes about the compensation for the work performed - Brazilian workers received a higher compensation - and about the scarcity of food. There were regular revolts in the colony that made the Belgians known as fighters and villains. Several migrants therefore decided to leave, either to another region in Brazil or back to Belgium. Gonçalves, the grandson of a Belgian woman, describes the living conditions of immigrants.
  • Philippe Fontaine burned all the colonial correspondence and all documents in 1847. Subsequently, the area was hit by floods several times, including in 1911. The church, built in 1845 by Van Lede, was spared. But she did not survive the next flood of 1925 and was completely destroyed. There are few visible traces. In this part of Brazil, the Belgians belong to the past but have not been forgotten. The adventures of Charles Van Lede and the Belgian-Brazilian Society for Colonization are still well known. The opening sentence of the advertising brochure of the town of Ilhota refers to the Belgian roots. Some street names have Belgian names and it was even the intention to establish a Belgian museum. Here too, the descendants of the Belgian settlers are the most important remains! They proudly use their typical Belgian surnames, such as Maes, De Gand or Castellain. In this way it remains a hard-to-erasable legacy of the Belgian-Brazilian adventure of the XIXth century, which is automatically passed on from generation to generation.
    • Marc Storms, BELGIAN SETTLEMENT IN ILHOTA (SC) Life in the colony flourished only thanks to the hard labor of the immigrants. In 1874 a new fact disturbed the peace of the inhabitants. The heir of Van Lede - the Hospital of Bruges - claimed to own the land. The Belgian Consul in Desterro, Henry Schutel, was also involved in the conflict by using a power of attorney from Van Lede to negotiate the sale of some sites. When the Belgian surveyor Van Dale began surveying the land in 1889, more than 80 residents of Ilhota and the surrounding areas forced him out with more force and destroyed his instruments. In the end, the Belgian ministry spoke out in favor of the settlers and the case was closed.

Belgian Colony in Campos dos Goytacazes

Location of Campos dos Goytacazes
  • The Belgian Ludgero José Nelis has committed himself to founding a small colony of his compatriots in the province of Rio de Janeiro, the main purpose of which is the cultivation of flax, cannabis and oil plants, as well as livestock; to then set up industrial production for the raw materials produced here. For the establishment of the colony, the entrepreneur received the necessary land from the President of the Province, and the Imperial Government provided his company with assistance by the constant manner of conditions approved by Decree of June 6 of last year​.

Belgian Colony in Porto Feliz

1893 Plan of Belgian Colonial Settlement 'Rodrigo Silva' in Porto Feliz, Brazil.
  • In November 1887, the government bought land in the municipality of Porto Feliz with an area of 1,601 hectares, to allocate it to this settlement, at a cost of 23,000$000. According to the contract of November 18, 1887 by the government with Father João Baptista Vanesse, this land is intended for the housing of Belgian immigrants, whom the priest will recruit. The government commits itself to demarcate the land in lots of 25 to 30 hectares, as well as to carry out other works such as the construction of a building for divine worship, a school, temporary housing for the settlers, restoration of the existing residence for the residence of the director and Vanesse priest, and the construction of the necessary roads and paths.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture has ordered the Treasury to make the following payments, effective May 1. to the priest João Baptista Vanesse, a monthly bonus of two hundred thousand journeys.
  • The twenty-five original families were chosen in their homeland by the priest Jean Baptiste Vanesse, who signed a contract with the Ministry of Agriculture of Brazil. This priest has been criticized from the very beginning, leaving him largely to blame for the colony's failure. He is accused of being authoritarian, despotic and drinking way too much. It is a fact that most of the settlers had a background in their homeland in the service sector, trade or industry, and had little affinity with agricultural activities. They were unfamiliar with the Brazilian weather, the jungle that surrounded the colony, and the hard work of felling reeds. Most returned to Belgium. A few families remained active in the region in mixed farming, animal husbandry and the production of brandies.

Belgian Colony in Botucatu

Location of Botucatu
The Monte Alegre Milk Cooperative.
Colonial-style house of Fazenda Velha. preserved space in the municipality of Telêmaco Borba, Paraná.
Catholic church in the rural area of the municipality of Ortigueira, Paraná.
  • I was born in Charleroi. I had lived with my parents in Congo for 8 years. At independence we lost everything and returned to Belgium. It was then that the Belgian government proposed to come to Brazil to start our lives over. Because we had lost everything in Congo, Belgium wanted to buy itself out.
  • This Belgian company made the first pasteurized milk packed in plastic bags in all of Brazil. They also made cheese and butter here before the dairy became a brewery. In the 1980s, the company Cervejaria BELCO produced massive beer while it was still brewed by Belgians. Today the brand has been bought out, but it still exists and BELCO beers are still sold in stores in the state of Sao Paulo.
  • When we arrived it was a culture shock. Not because we were Belgians, but because we were Congolese. We were used to the situation in Congo. In Congo, the Belgians were the big masters. And here in Brazil, despite the attention we've attracted... we weren't the big masters. I think that was the biggest shock. Our arrival here was quite an event”
  • When I was in university, there were young people who said to me: 'You come to eat the bread of the Brazilians'”, I had to explain that we got credits from Belgium, that the school was paid for by Belgium, and that one day we have to pay this back, neither the Brazilian government nor the municipality here has intervened financially.
  • I adapted very quickly. I immediately started learning Portuguese in the wooden school in Monte Alegre, built by the Belgians. The Brazilian teacher had come directly from the city of Botucatu for this. It was more difficult for our parents to learn Portuguese. Often we, the children, were the interpreters for our parents when they had to communicate with the Brazilians. In Congo we arrived in our country, it was Belgium. here not at all. And the customs were very different also. We had to integrate. We got to know the local customs and the Brazilians wanted to know ours too.
  • After a few years, the financial aid stopped. Some cooperatives have bought back their land. Others bought it and then sold it before leaving the place. Of the approximately 130 Belgian families who had settled in Monte Alegre, only a handful of houses still have descendants. The others have rebuilt their lives in Belgium or elsewhere in Brazil.

Belgian colony on the Rio Nuñez

Belgian and French warships during the Rio Nuñez Incident by Paul Jean Clays
The French-Belgian commercial outpost of Bicaise on the Rio Nunez.
  • The Foulahs come from the high mountains of the interior of the country where the big rivers, Senegal, Gambia, have their source. Those are the most beautiful Negros that one meets on the coast. They are reddish brown, have many Arabic features and resemble them by the shape the shape of the skull and the development of their intelligence. They are superior to all Negro types. One would be able to call them the Indians of Africa, as one gives the name Indians to the Redskins of America.
  • All the most disadvantageous conditions one might think of can be found together in the land adjacent to the Rio Nunez. This is especially so in the area around Debocca, where the bed of the river, narrow and snaky, is densely compacted between two very heavily wooded banks which comprise an insurmountable barrier to the gentle winds of the open sea…It is this that causes a rejection of any idea to undertake at some point on this coast, the formation by Europeans of an agricultural colonization center. Attempts that one would make towards this goal would only serve to condemn some poor wretches sent to this inhospitable place to an unavoidable death. The formation of a commercial establishment would be far from presenting the same dangers and would be able to have some chances of success. The rivers of the Rio Nunez by virtue of the importance and the variety of their products, by the easiness of communications that they offer with the central market of Africa, with the different points of the coast, could become for Belgium a source of income as well as an important outlet. But again, in this case the care of the maintenance of those of our nation that agreed to go into this fatal climate to serve as pioneers to Belgian trade, would call for all the government's concern. We take for granted the proposition that Belgium judges it appropriate to establish in the Rio Nunez either a commercial counter or military stations. In both cases, it would be good not to send to occupy and especially to found these establishments anything but the absolutely minimum necessary number of Belgians. The first work to clear the area could be performed by natives under the direction of some capable men, appointed to this position by the government. Would one not also be able to use for rest of the work, which Blacks would be unfit, some of the numerous convicts that clutter our prisons? If the government judged it necessary to protect our trade on the river by the establishment of military posts, it would be easy to recruit among the natives, of the islands of Cape Vert, the necessary soldiers to form the garrison of these posts. This method of recruiting would have the double advantage of procuring for us men already acclimated to the climate and sparing the health of our nationals. It would be sufficient of put at the head of these posts a small number of Belgians to maintain our influence on the river. In general, men of a weak constitution should be separated out. Those that one would send into the Rio Nunez…

Colonial projects in China

The battle of Palikiao (Second Opium War)
Belgian concession of Tianjin.
  • Although China attracted Belgian investors and missionaries from the 1860s, it is especially after 1900 that major investments began to take place in various industrial, financial and commercial sectors, such as banking, railways, metallurgy and real estate. The most famous companies were the Banque sino-belge, the Compagnie financière belgo-chinoise, the Société belge d’entreprise en Chine, the Compagnie générale des chemins de fer en Chine and the cfeo. The Beijing-Hankou (present Wuhan) railway line, the mines of Lincheng, the trams of Tientsin and the steel mills of Hanyang were among the most successful results of the Belgian “informal empire.”
    • Ginette Kurgan-Van Hentenryk, Léopold II et les groupes financiers en Chine. La politique royale et ses prolongements, Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1972 (Mémoires de la classe des lettres, 2e série 61-2).

Belgian attempt to Colonize New Guinea

Map of New Guinea

Belgian attempt to Colonize Tonkin

1873 map of the deltaic plain of Tonkin region (northern Vietnam).

Belgian attempt to Colonize the Philippines

Map of the Philippines.
Flag of Belgian Congo
Location of the Belgian Congo
King Leopold II of Belgium was king sovereign of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1808 and King of the belgian Congo from 1908 to 1909
Map of the Belgian Congo
King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth inspecting the military camp of Léopoldville during their visit to the Belgian Congo, 1928
Colonial officials, including the Governor-General Pierre Ryckmans, in Léopoldville in 1938
  • This part of the State, that is to say the east of the Congo, is inhabited by happy blacks who often and without bringing them there, compared before me the happy present with the misery and the terror of when the Arabs had established themselves as slave traders in the region.
  • The Tambatamba, Bokusu, Batetela, and other followers of Arab families are congregated at Stanley Falls on both banks as far down as'La Romee. These two latter tribes live in large mud wall houses, detached, with yards or courts. They are both farmers and stock breeders. The former are clean, clothed, and polite, while the latter are like the Arabs, superior in appearance, dress, and manners in fact, the aristocracy of the land. Their fields are tilled by women and dependents and slaves. They are not true Arabs, though there are a few of these too among them. In all things except religion the Tambatambas follow their Arab conquerors of earlier days, but of religion they have only the superstitions without the bonds, rules, or system of worship of the Mahommedans.
  • Having a proper sense of her duty, and the means to carry it out, Belgium has mapped out her own course, and intends to keep to it. It entails a policy of humanity and progress. To a nation whos only aim is justice, the mission of colonization can only be a mission of high civilization: a small nation proves it greatness by carrying it out faithfully. Belgium has kept her word.
  • Visit of the incomparable and impressive installations of Union Minière. We go up the hill. The sight is prestigious: the station, one of the most important in Africa, the buildings, the Europeans with the houses surrounded by gardens, the vast chessboard of the native city. The Negro workers that we see do not look unhappy, they are in good health.
  • In short, there is a great deal of stagnation among the settlers and the medium-sized enterprises. The native there is often mistreated, exploited and has no medical care. In the Menteau farm, we observed a considerable number of varicose ulcers, which hardly exists at UM and La Forminière. There is no dispensary on this farm. The small settler can succeed in the Congo, one can doubt it, he lives by the exploitation of the native whom he makes work like a convict and moreover, he takes back his meager salary by selling him bad goods. The settler is often doubled as a trafficker, they complement each other, the system truck. Besides, the whole colonial edifice rests on the negro's shoulders. He alone is the source of profit, thanks to the excessive exploitation of which he is the object. In a colony, where there are few transport routes, where those that exist demand exorbitant prices, where there is little or no mechanical handling, no workhorse, only the degradation of the workforce - work can maintain the commercial level of the cost price. Large companies have the merit, through their tools, their medical assistance, their works of providing more treatment and of not wasting manpower.
  • In view of the rapid changes taking place in the world today, it seemed to me desirable to preserve in picture and sound some reflection of the surviving vestiges of the ancient life of the Congo, there is a communion between the man of the forest and his natural surroundings which inspires us in a sense of respect a recognition of spiritual heritage, I thank all those who have helped me to achieve this task which combines beauty and scientific truth.
    • Masters of the Congo Jungle. (1958 Documentary showing the struggles of the inhabitants of the Belgian Congo.)
  • For eighty years Belgium has sent your land the best of her sons, first to deliver the Congo basin from the odious slave trade which was decimating its population. Later to bring together the different tribes which, though former enemies, are now preparing to form the greatest of the Independent states of Africa.
  • The natives while working on the mines are very well treated. They live in compounds, which appeared to be run on model lines. I was told that there had been cases of brutality and ill-treatment, but the compound managers concerned had been instantly dismissed. The Union Minière are strongly opposed to anything in the nature of brutal treatment of the natives.
Ruanda-Urundi in 1938.
  • Our mission has been favorably impressed by the material develpment brought about the native welfare fund. I have personaly observed how the native population apreciates Belgium"s efforts in this direction and how it has understood the benefits of derived by Ruanda-Urundi from the activities of this institution.
  • After having elaborated a vast plan of action for the benefit of the native but, to a large extent, outside his knowledge and comprehension, we must gradually obtain his acceptance and make him ever more conscious of it, as well as actively engaged in his own uplift. Gaining the native conscious and active acceptance of our civilizing ideal must be the primary object of our task of teaching and education in Belgian Africa.
  • The British exploited differences between the Hindu and Muslim communities in the sub‐continent, creating deep resentments and divisions that persist today due to the 1947 Partition. Similarly, differences between the Hutus and Tutsis that led to the Rwandan genocide were created and exploited by Belgian colonizers.
  • Burundians, Rwandans, and outside specialists of the region disagree almost totally on the nature of precolonial social…[and on] the impact of colonization...There is no scholarly consensus on answers to these questions.

See also

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