Congo Free State

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Flag of Congo Free State
Location of the Congo Free State
Leopold II, King of the Belgians and King sovereign of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908
districts of the Congo Free State
The concessions and the Domaine de la Couronne. The infamous A.B.I.R. company is shown in dark red.
Henry Morton Stanley enabled the occupation of the Congo Basin region.
the Force Publique (Colonial Army in Boma, capital city of the Congo Free State, 1899
Construction of the railroad Matadi-Leopoldville
Melting latex of rubber in the forest of Lusambo
Mining by the company Union Minière du Haut Katanga

The Congo Free State, also known as the Independent State of Congo, was a large state in Central Africa from 1885 to 1908. News about abuses and atrocities on the private domains of the king inside the Free State (The Infamous Domaine de la Couronne, literally, "fief of the crown") led to the end of the absolutist rule of Leopold II and to the passing of a law by the Belgian parliament to annex the Congo Free State as a colony of the Belgian Colonial Empire. After that it became known as Belgian Congo in 1908.


  • When the State of Congo was called to economic life by the King of the Belgians, trade was only possible on the ribs. Now, thanks to the activity of His Majesty, he is done safely above the cataracts. This is the result of the peace and order which were introduced by the King of the Belgians incountries where no white merchant could have shown himself before.
  • I found the ardor with which honorable Members sought toto establish that the only motives are the purest and the noblest, the interest of humanity; here is their wordorder. But the heart of all this talk has been trade. It is a thing worth noting, that the progress of this conspiracy to discredit the Congo, parallels the increase in the budget of the Congo. I also believe that it is my duty to state categorically that the question religion plays a role in the current debate. Belgium is a Catholic country and the testimonies in subject of the alleged atrocities are mainly those of Baptist missionaries, men andwomen.
  • When we travel to the Congo and involuntarily make the comparison between the old state thatwe know from the accounts or descriptions of the explorers, and the current state, the impressionholds admiration, wonder. In these regions where the tribes decimated by the raids of Arab traffickers were engaged in fighting without truce and without mercy […] in this sinister and mysterious continent, a State was constituted andorganized with marvelous rapidity, bringing to the heart of Africa the benefits ofcivilization. Today, security reigns in this immense territory.
  • In some cases, the worker has to walk one or two days every fort night, and sometimes more, to get to the place of the forest, where it can be found in rather great abundance, the rubbery lianas. There, the collector leads, for a certain number of days, an existence wretched. He must build himself an improvised shelter, which obviously cannot replace his hut, he does not havenot the food to which he is accustomed, he is deprived of his wife, exposed to the elements of the airand the attacks of wild beasts. His harvest, he must bring it to the post of the State or the Company, and it is only after that, that he returns to his village, where he can hardly stay for more than two or three days, because the new deadline presses him. As a result, whatever his activity in the forest rubber, the native, due to the many displacements which are imposed on him, sees the major part of his time absorbed by the rubber harvest.
  • Following the report of the commission of inquiry, the King had promised reforms. What would he could have done other? A train of no less than twenty-four decrees was announced in June 1906. On two points, they even went beyond the recommendations of the commission-investigation. Thus, the concessionaire companies could no longer levy taxes, which were hence forth the exclusive competence of the State; on the other hand, instead of being counted in hours of labor, taxes were now fixed currency.
  • The white man has never inflicted or caused to be inflicted, as a punishment, for breach ofbenefits or for any other cause, such mutilations to living natives. Facts of this kind have not been brought to our attention by any witnesses and, despite all our investigations, we have not discovered any.
  • Having seen all that I have seen, it would not be fairon my part to keep quiet, because my silence could be misinterpreted. We had occasions exceptional to study the influence of the Belgian administration on the natives. We spent a yearin the rubber region, most often in remote districts, living side by side with the native. Conversing with the heads of villages through which we passed, we never heard of a single case of atrocity.
  • When the Belgium captured the Congo in 1908, 250 tribes had been united into a nation which was beginning to takea wareness of its unity. A territory as large as eighty times Belgium had been gathered, the borders were drawn and guarded, the administrations, the transport and the Post office functioned in these vast expanses, the country was endowed with a solid economic infrastructure, and countless religious missions provided education and medical care everywhere.
  • To my beginnings in colonial life, almost forty years ago, I found my first major lesson in studying the work of King Leopold II in the Congo: model of creation, practical organization and director, broad and liberal initiative, understanding the material, moral and social needs of natives, from whom all colonial works should be inspired and which, for so many years and over so many points, served as a guide.
  • I do not believe in the accusations made in England against King Leopold II, the Congo and I do not share the feelings of those who inspire them. No state would be willing to spend the money spent by the King of the Belgians and Belgium in the most dark places of darkest Africa. When I consider the few years that have passed since the Congo became a state, I believe that the work accomplished is a great honor to Belgium. You can be sure that the King of the Belgians is interested in every detail of his administration. I do not claim that he can monitor all the actions of each individual, what Government could? The stories of the atrocities that have been spread are almost all gossip. The English note of month of August is based on biased reports. I am convinced that Leopold II has been doing his best to prevent any crime in the Congo, he is not responsible for the crimes anymore that could be committed there than those that are sometimes committed in Belgium. The reason of all these slanders? Jealousy! The Congo is doing better than any other African state. Those stories of atrocities will not stop, they will persist with the little basis they had, this was never anything but pure invention.
  • There have been cases in which the natives have been maltreated by minor officials, but these are isolated cases, and are severely punished by the authorities. Such cases have occurred in all public services where an attempt has been made to govern inferior races. Such things have happened in the Philippines, in British Africa, and in India. No colonising nation can cast a stone at King Leopold on that score. Among a large number of officials scattered over a vast territory there will often be one or two wicked stewards who despitefully use the natives. All that any State can do is to keep vigilant watch and to punish the wrongdoers, and this the Congo State has done. It has even established a Commission for the protection of the natives. By the decree of 1896, this Commission consisted of seven members, three being Catholic priests and four Protestant missionaries.
  • There were severed hands in the Congo, at the time of the Independent State... by the Officers of the Force Publique, to prevent the waste of ammunition to which their soldiers willingly let go, demanded that they provide proof that they had used their cartridges correctly. The proof was the severed hand of the killed enemy ... Severed hands, it will be noted, never constituted a form of punishment. ... By emphasizing, as they did, on the theme of severed hands - a theme which, we realize, easily provoked emotion -, Morel and his friends gave birth to the ambiguity which finally spread and lasted until our days: the idea that Leopold II had his hands cut off in the Congo, that it was a question of torture inflicted on the population, and even of torture most characteristic of the regime.
  • I did not fail to refer to the "abuses and other undeniable deficiencies that this report rightly stigmatizes. Leopold II, of course, also carefully read this report. He reacted to it very quickly, with an honesty, insight and efficiency worthy of this visionary King. Despite the damning conclusions, he did not hesitate to have it published - in extenso - in the Official Journal of the EIC (Independent State of Congo). He had the perpetrators of the abuses prosecuted and, above all, taken a series of radical measures to put an end to them, by issuing no less than 24 Decrees to this effect.
  • I accuse Leopold's officials of tyranny, i accuse Leopold's government of excessive cruelty, ox chains eaten to the necks of prisoners and produce sores about which flies circle, the courts are aborted unjust and delinquent, not one state official knows the language of the natives, your majesties' government is engaged in slave trade, wholesale and retail.
  • Several of the little girls were so sickly on their arrival that our good sisters wouldn't save them, but all had the happiness of receiving holy baptism, they are now little angels in heaven who are praying for our great king.
  • The change which has occurred in the political condition of the African Coast, today calls for common action on the part of the Powers responsible for the control of that Coast. That action should tend to close all foreign slave markets and should also result in putting down slave hunting in the interior. The great work undertaken by the King of the Belgians, in the constitution of the Congo State, and the lively interest taken by His Majesty in all questions affecting the welfare of the African races, lead Her Majesty's Government to hope that Belgium will be disposed to take the initiative in inviting the Powers to meet in Conference at Brussels, in order to consider the best means of attaining the gradual suppression of the slave-trade on the Continent of Africa and the immediate closing of all the outside markets which the slave-trade daily continues to supply.
  • As to the question whether this modification is opportune, the fact must not be lost sight of that the Berlin Conference never intended to fix unalterably the economic system of the Free State, which, as was already then foreseen, would undergo radical modifications under the influence of progress, nor of establishing for an indefinite period regulations which may hinder, check, and even arrest its development. Provision was wisely made for the probability of future changes, which would require a certain latitude in economic matters in order to secure their easy realization... The moment has now come when the marvellous progress made by the infant State is creating fresh needs, when it would be only in accordance with wisdom and foresight to revise an economic system primarily adapted to a creative and transitional period. Can we blame the infant State for a progress which, in its rapidity, has surpassed the most optimistic forecasts? Can we hinder and arrest this progress in refusing her the means necessary for her development? Can we condemn the Sovereign who has already made such great sacrifices to support for an indefinite period a burden which daily becomes heavier, and at the same time impose upon him new and heavy expenses necessitated by the suppression of the slave-trade? We are convinced that there will be but one answer to these questions.
  • This much i can speak of with certainty and emphasis : that from the British frontier hear Fort George to the limit of my journeys into the Mbuba country of the Congo Free State, up and down the Semliki, the natives appear to be prosperous and happy... The extent to which they were building their villages and cultivating their plantations within the precincts of Fort Mbeni showed that they had no fear of the Belgians.
  • By the end of 1892, all the King's collaborators during the first and second phases of Belgian work in the Congo had therefore ceased to participate. M. van Eetvelde, who had increasingly isolated himself from them, remained alone in possession of the sovereign's confidence, with the sole program of being the passive instrument of his designs. This third phase of the administration of the state of Congo affected all signs of impending dissolution.
  • In many ways a model colony was realized after 1908. A handful of whites turned the wheels in Congo and laid the foundations of the modern state structure. Remarkable achievements were made in the field of education, the traffic network, health care and development in general. This was made possible by the cooperation between the three pillars on which the entire colonial system rested, in particular the interaction between the firm civil administration, the extensive mission network and the powerful colonial private sector. However, there were also dark sides, but no looting was committed. Unfortunately, the former colonials do not receive the appreciation and prestige to which they are entitled. Belgium need not be ashamed of its colonial period, certainly not in view of the failed decolonization.
  • Congo reformers like Morel, much to the annoyance of Hochschild, advocated either German or British colonization of the area (Congo). Morel’s view, according to Hochschild, speaking ex cathedra from the hallowed seat of modern California, “seems surprising to us today” and was among his “faults” and “political limitations.” Quite the opposite. The moment the Belgians colonized the Congo in 1908, a miraculous improvement was noted on all fronts. Seeking to debunk colonialism, Hochschild’s book demonstrates the opposite. This is the first and biggest lie at the heart of King Leopold’s Ghost.
  • By 1891, six years into the attempt to build the EIC, the whole project was on the verge of bankruptcy. It would have been easy for Léopold to raise revenues by sanctioning imports of liquor that could be taxed or by levying fees on the number of huts in each village, both of which would have caused harm to the native population. A truly “greedy” king, as Hochschild repeatedly calls him, had many fiscal options that Léopold did not exercise.
  • The rubber quotas imposed on natives in this 15 percent of the territory were enforced by native soldiers working for the companies or for the EIC itself. In many areas, the rubber came with ease and the natives prospered. The rubber station at Irengi, for instance, was known for its bulging stores and hospitable locals, whose women spent a lot of time making bracelets and where “no one ever misses a meal,” noted the EIC soldier George Bricusse in his memoirs. Elsewhere, however, absent direct supervision, and with the difficulties of meeting quotas greater, some native soldiers engaged in abusive behavior to force the collection. Bricusse noted these areas as well, especially where locals had sabotaged rubber stations and then fled to the French Congo to the north. In rare cases, native soldiers kidnapped women or killed men to exact revenge. When they fell into skirmishes, they sometimes followed long-standing Arab and African traditions by cutting off the hands or feet of the fallen as trophies, or to show that the bullets they fired had been used in battle. How many locals died in these frays is unclear, but the confirmed cases might put the figure at about 10,000, a terrible number.
  • The abuses were first reported by an American missionary in The Times of London in 1895 and quickly brought Léopold’s censure: “If there are these abuses in the Congo, we must stop them,” he warned EIC officials in 1896. “If they continue, it will be the end of the state.” For the next ten years, reforming the Congo’s rubber industry absorbed an inordinate amount of attention in the British and American press and legislatures, not to mention within Belgium and the EIC itself, leading to formal Belgian colonization in 1908. Hochschild thus takes a very limited, unintentional, unforeseen, and perhaps unavoidable problem of native-on-native conflict over rubber harvesting and blows it up into a “forgotten Holocaust” to quote the subtitle given to the French edition of his book. Inside this great invention are many more perfidious Russian dolls.
  • Even taking Sanderson’s pessimistic estimate as correct, does this mean that Léopold’s rule “killed” 500,000 people? Of course not, because, in addition to the misplaced personalization of long-term population changes, the rubber regions, as mentioned, experienced both population increases and declines. Even in the latter, such as the rubber-producing Bolobo area in the lower reaches of the Congo river, population decline was a result of the brutalities of freelance native chiefs and ended with the arrival of an EIC officer. More generally, the stability and enforced peace of the EIC caused birth rates to rise near EIC centers, such as at the Catholic mission under EIC protection at Baudouinville (today’s Kirungu). Population declines were in areas outside of effective EIC control. The modest population gains caused by EIC interventions were overwhelmed by a range of wholly separate factors, which in order of importance were: the slave trade, sleeping sickness, inter-tribal warfare, other endemic diseases (smallpox, beriberi, influenza, yellow fever, pneumonia, dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and venereal disease), cannibalism, and human sacrifice.

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