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. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908. Immensely profitable, the Congo Free State eventually earned infamy due to the brutal mistreatment of native peoples and plunder of natural resources. 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 (perhaps even 10 million, in Hochschild's opinion) lost their lives."
Until the middle of the 19th century, the Congo was on the edge of unexplored Africa, as Europeans seldom ventured into its interior. The rainforest, swamps and attendant malaria, and other diseases such as sleeping sickness made it a difficult environment for European exploration and exploitation. Imperialists were at first reluctant to colonize the area in the absence of obvious economic benefits.
King Leopold managed to secure it in 1885 through his private efforts, ruling the state personally until its annexation by the government of Belgium in 1908. Other powers vied with Leopold for the land when natural resources, first rubber, and then copper and other minerals in the upper Lualaba River basin, were discovered.
Under Leopold II's administration, the Congo Free State became the site of one of the most infamous international scandals of the turn of the 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). Estimates of the total death toll vary considerably. In the absence of a census (the first was made in 1924), it is even more difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. Roger Casement's famous 1904 report set it at 3 million. According to Roger Casement's report, this 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.
The Congo Free State was established as a neutral independent sovereignty without reference to its inhabitants save a few autocratic chiefs. In 1876 Leopold II, King of the Belgians organized the International African Association with the cooperation of the leading African explorers and the support of several European governments for the promotion of African exploration and colonization. In 1877, Henry Morton Stanley called attention to the Congo region and was sent there by the association, the expense being defrayed by Leopold. Through corrupt treaties with native chiefs, rights were acquired to a great area along the Congo, and military posts were established. The treaties were extremely one-sided in favor of Leopold. In some cases chiefs not only handed over their lands, but also promised to help provide workers for forced labor.
Christian de Bonchamps, a French explorer who served Leopold in Katanga, expressed a cynicism towards such treaties shared by many Europeans, saying, "The treaties with these little African tyrants, which generally consist of four long pages of which they do not understand a word, and to which they sign a cross in order to have peace and to receive gifts, are really only serious matters for the European powers, in the event of disputes over the territories. They do not concern the black sovereign who signs them for a moment."
After 1879, the work was under the auspices of the Comité d'Études du Haut Congo, which developed into the International Association of the Congo. This organization sought to combine the numerous small territories acquired into one sovereign state and asked for recognition from the European Powers. On April 22, 1884, the United States government, having decided that the cessions by the native chiefs were lawful, recognized the International Association of the Congo as a sovereign independent state, under the title of the Congo Free State, and this example was followed by Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, and Sweden. The international conference on African affairs, which met at Berlin, 1884–85, determined the status of the Congo Free State.
King Leopold initially gained ownership of the Congo largely through the cooperation on the part of the major powers of Europe. Leopold's profits from the region and a general increase in European interest in colonizing Africa led to greater competition in the continent. Leopold's activities in the Congo had already pushed the French into claiming an area (the modern Republic of the Congo) on the northern shore of Stanley Pool. While no one (bar Leopold) particularly wanted such economically unpromising colonies, the other European powers were not prepared to stand idly by and see land snapped up by their rivals, particularly the French.
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 then offered France the support of the Association for French ownership of the entire northern bank, and sweetened the deal by proposing that, if his personal wealth proved insufficient to hold the entire Congo, as seemed utterly inevitable, that it should revert to France.
He also enlisted the aid of the United States, sending President Chester A. Arthur carefully edited copies of the cloth-and-trinket treaties British explorer Henry Morton Stanley had extracted from various local chiefs, and proposing that, as an entirely disinterested humanitarian body, the Association would administer the Congo for the good of all, handing over power to the locals as soon as they were ready for that grave responsibility.
In a display of diplomatic virtuosity, Leopold had the conference agree not to a transfer of the Congo to one of his many philanthropic shell organisations, nor even to his care in his capacity as King of the Belgians, but simply to himself. He became sole ruler of a population that Stanley had estimated at 30 million people, without constitution, without international supervision, without ever having been to the Congo, and without more than a tiny handful of his new subjects having heard of him.
Leopold no longer needed the façade of the Association, and replaced it with an appointed cabinet of Belgians who would do his bidding. To the temporary new capital of Boma, he sent a Governor-General and a chief of police. The vast Congo basin was split up into 14 administrative districts, each district into zones, each zone into sectors, and each sector into posts. From the District Commissioners down to post level, every appointed head was European: mercenaries and adventurers of every kind.
Three main problems presented themselves over the next few years.
Next, the Free State was divided into two economic zones: the Free Trade Zone was open to entrepreneurs of any European nation, who were allowed to buy 10- and 15-year monopoly leases on anything of value: ivory from a particular district, or the rubber concession, for example. The other zone — almost two-thirds of the Congo — became the Domaine Privé: the exclusive private property of the State, which was in turn the exclusive private property of King Leopold.
On this basis, the Congo became financially self-sufficient. This did not satisfy Leopold, however. In 1893 he excised the most readily accessible 259,000 km² (100,000 square miles) portion of the Free Trade Zone and declared it to be the Domaine de la Couronne. Here the same rules applied as in the Domaine Privé except that all revenue went directly to Leopold. He did not publicly disclose his profits made from the Congo Free State, but it was estimated at many tens of millions (and this in a time when even one million was a massive fortune), and vastly more than Leopold could spend.
Both sides fought by proxy, arming and leading the tribes of the upper Congo forests in a conflict. Tip's muskets were no match for Leopold's artillery and machine guns. By early 1894 the war was over.
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 cannibals from the fiercest tribes from 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.)
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.
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 accelered occupation of the territories.
In the absence of a census (the first was taken in 1924), it is even more difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. Casement's 1904 report set it at 3 million for just twelve of the twenty years Leopold's regime lasted; Forbath, at least 5 million; Adam Hochschild, 10 million; the Encyclopædia Britannica gives a total population decline of 8 million to 30 million.
It should be noted that 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).
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.
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, 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. Sir Roger Casement, then the British Consul, 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.
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.