Before Europe set its sights on Africa, the Congo was an independent nation relatively untouched by imperialism. The Congo had suffered under the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, during which the Portuguese captured residents of the Congo and sold them into slavery. The people captured by the Portuguese would be taken away from their people and forced to serve strangers until their death, all while the Portuguese criticized the Congo for their “uncivilized” behavior.
The Portuguese captured residents of the Congo and sold them into slavery
However, Europe’s interest in the African slave trade eventually died down leaving the Congo once again independent, but even greater atrocities would soon follow.
During the mid 1800’s, Europe was at the height of its Industrial Revolution.
A fierce sense of nationalism encouraged countries to fight to outpace other nations’ production. Europe faced a massive surge in industry without the workers or raw materials to fuel its growth. Since many of the natural resources in Europe were either under other nations’ control or completely used up, many nations looked to conquer more territory to gain an advantage in the fight for economic superiority.
During the mid 1800’s, Europe was at the height of its Industrial Revolution
One such nation, Belgium, began to explore Africa, which was fabled to contain vast, untapped supplies of gold, ivory, and other important resources.
Henry Morton Stanley was one of the first and most important European explorers in the Congo.
Stanley frequently used violence to intimidate local leaders and mistreated his guides on his expedition. Despite his cruel tendencies, Stanley’s exploration of the Congo made him the foremost expert on the country. King Leopold, the king of Belgium at the time, asked Stanley to convince local leaders in the Congo to sign their land into Belgian control.
Henry Morton Stanley was one of the first European explorers in the Congo
In his next expedition, Stanley carved his way through the country and signed over 450 treaties, which traded almost nothing for the land and which most local leaders couldn’t read. If the leaders refused to sign the treaties, Stanley would use either trickery, threats, or brute strength to force the leaders to sign. Claiming that Belgian control of the Congo was a humanitarian effort that would open up new economies, Leopold convinced European and U.S. leaders to support his efforts.
By the end of Stanley’s expeditions, Leopold now held treaties from almost all of the Congo and had European support, giving him complete control over the Congo. After gaining control of the Congo, Leopold immediately set out to make as much money as possible.
After gaining control of Congo, King Leopold II of Belgium immediately set out to make as much money as possible.
He asked Stanley to convince local leaders in Congo to sign their land into Belgian control; Leopold was interested in Congo’s vast supply of ivory
Leopold was particularly interested in the Congo’s vast supply of ivory, and he forced native people to collect large quantities of ivory without any payment in return. Leopold’s soldiers enslaved Africans and moved them to labor camps, where they would be given mandatory quotas for ivory collection. If they didn’t meet the quotas, they could be beaten, mutilated, or publicly executed. The situation only worsened with the discovery of rubber in the Congo, which quickly overshadowed the ivory industry.
Leopold’s soldiers enslaved Africans and moved them to labor camps, with mandatory quotas; if they didn’t meet the quotas, they were beaten, mutilated, or publicly executed
Leopold decided to increase the number of slave laborers in the Congo and encouraged his soldiers to use any methods necessary to collect the largest quantity of rubber. Although some activists witnessed the atrocities taking place in Belgium and spoke out against him, Leopold quickly silenced any opposition and continued to build goodwill with his allies. Despite the obvious exploitation taking place in the Congo, world leaders still saw Leopold’s rule as a humanitarian effort.
While he completely controlled production in the Congo, Leopold could not silence dissent forever.
Social activist and journalist Edmond Dean Morel spoke out against violence in Congo and Leopold’s attempts to control the media; Africans in the Congo shared their stories
Activists such as E.D. Morel and Henry I. Kowalsky spoke out against the violence in the Congo and Leopold’s attempts to control the media. Africans in the Congo shared their stories and swayed even a Commission of Inquiry sent by Leopold to provide an inaccurate report of the situation in the Congo.
The Commission wrote a testimony of their experience in the Congo and destroyed the idea of Leopold being a benevolent caretaker.
Since he controlled the Congo completely independently of the Belgian government, Leopold decided to give the Belgian government the Congo in an attempt to stop the negative press coverage. Although he no longer had control over the Congo, Leopold had made a fortune by exploiting its people and natural resources. Under the Belgian government, conditions in the Congo slightly improved.
The new Belgian King, Albert I, stopped the forced labor camps and harsh punishments
The new Belgian King, Albert I, stopped the forced labor camps and harsh punishments.
He made an effort to improve the lives of his subjects in the Congo and to slowly give back control. However, conditions did not improve overnight; Belgian rule had destroyed the country’s population and social structure. Forced rubber production no longer had official support, so the business moved underground. The destruction and massive migrations forced previously distinct groups of people with their own governments to create a new forms of government. Congo gained independence in 1960, but Belgium stilled considered Congo to be a part of the Belgian economy. While they slowly granted Africans increased control in their government, the Congo would never truly become free of European control.
The history of atrocities and European economic control still have a stranglehold on the Congo.
King Leopold’s Ghost:
8-9, 27, 49, 67, 71-72, 109-111, 79-86, 118, 120, 132-133, 159, 220-221, 245-248, 250-254, 272, 278, 301
Congo: 37-38, 40, 91, 97, 105-106
History of Africa: 312