The Congo Free State (1877 – 1908)

August 22, 2008 at 5:16 pm (Blogging, Culture, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guide, Nature, Photo, Photography, Photos, Pictures, Travel, Trip, Vacation)

European exploration and administration took place from the 1870s until the 1920s — first by Sir Henry Morton Stanley who undertook his explorations mainly under the sponsorship of King Leopold II of Belgium, who desired 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. The Congo territory was acquired formally by Leopold 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 undertaking various projects, such as the railway that ran from the coast to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) which took years to complete. Nearly all these projects were aimed at increasing the capital Leopold and his associates could extract from the colony, leading to exploitation of Africans. In the Free State, the local population was brutalized in exchange for rubber, a growing market with the development of rubber tires. The selling of the 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 Force Publique (FP) was called in. The FP was an army, but its aim was not to defend the country, but to terrorize the local population. 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 between 1885 and 1908, between five and 15 (the commonly accepted figure is about ten) 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 brutal 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, as well as famous writers such as Mark Twain. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness also takes place in Congo Free State. In 1908, the Belgian parliament, which was at first reluctant, bowed to international pressure (especially from Great Britain) by taking over the Free State from the king as a Belgian colony. From then on, it became the Belgian Congo, under the rule of the elected Belgian government.

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