In the centuries following the discovery of the New World, the countries of Europe became very wealthy and powerful. Britain, Portugal, Spain, and France acquired new land and resources by colonizing parts of the Americas, Australia, Asia, and Africa. Belgium, as a small, relatively new European country, lagged far behind its rivals as an imperial power. In the late 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium decided that he wanted to make Belgium a major empire by acquiring territory in Africa.
Leopold was an intelligent and ruthless man who wasn’t afraid to lie or kill in order to expand Belgium’s power. Throughout the 1870s, Leopold cunningly established a reputation as a great philanthropist and humanitarian who wanted to spread Christianity and civilization to Africa. Privately, however, Leopold aspired to rule over the land surrounding the Congo River in Africa, using the territory as a source of revenue for his country.
Leopold wanted Henry Morton Stanley, one of the most famous explorers of the era, to work for him in the Congo. In the late 1870s, Stanley sailed across the Congo River, becoming the first European to do so. Leopold arranged for Stanley to come to Belgium, and succeeded in charming and flattering Stanley into entering his employ. Stanley, who’d been born in a working-class Welsh household, was an intensely insecure young man who wanted to be accepted into the ranks of the European aristocracy. Stanley agreed to work for Leopold for five years, developing the Congo and building infrastructure there; he thought that doing so would help him earn a reputation as an English gentleman, not just a great explorer. On Leopold’s orders, Stanley swindled Congolese chiefs (most of whom had never seen writing before) into signing documents surrendering their lands to Leopold forever.
While Stanley worked at developing land in the Congo on behalf of Leopold, Leopold continued to offer awards and host benefits for philanthropic causes, ensuring that European elites thought of him favorably. At the same time, Leopold arranged for the government of the United States to formally recognize Leopold’s landholdings in the Congo. He relied on Henry Shelton Sanford (a former American ambassador to Belgium) and Senator John Tyler Morgan (a white supremacist who wanted to send African Americans “back to Africa”) to urge the American government to recognize Belgium’s presence in the Congo. In part because American politicians believed that the Congo could be a future resettlement site for African Americans, the U.S. government formally recognized the Congo as a Belgian territory, which caused a domino effect whereby the major European powers had to recognize Belgium’s presence in the Congo, too.
With his landholdings now secure, Leopold proceeded to develop his land. He used shockingly brutal methods to control the Congolese tribes. He also ordered his Belgian administrators in the Congo to enslave African people, first as ivory hunters and porters, and later as rubber harvesters. The work was exhausting, and anyone who tried to rebel or slack off was murdered by the Force Publique, the official army of the Belgian Congo.
Though thousands of Westerners visited the Congo in the 1880s and 90s, only a handful spoke out about the atrocities they witnessed there. An African American preacher named George Washington Williams, who had traveled to the Congo to explore the possibility of resettling African Americans there, wrote a series of scathing articles criticizing the brutality of the Force Publique. However, Williams died of tuberculosis shortly after penning his articles, which undercut his efficacy. Furthermore, Leopold’s reputation as a philanthropist was so strong in America and Europe that few people took notice of the criticism.
Throughout the Belgians’ time in the Congo, African tribes often rebelled against their masters’ tyranny. While there were many uprisings, the Force Publique’s technological advantages were enormous, and Belgian soldiers shot tens of thousands of Africans fighting for their freedom. The brutality of the Belgian regime in the Congo inspired one of the most famous books ever written, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad worked in the Congo for several years, and he may have based the character of Mr. Kurtz on a real-life Force Publique captain who was rumored to collect the heads of his African victims.
A turning point for publicity surrounding rights violations in the Congo came in the mid-1890s. A man named Edmund Dene Morel, who was working for a shipping company, realized that, contrary to Leopold’s claims, the Congo must rely on the slave labor; there was no other explanation for the imbalance of shipments in and out of the territory. Morel proved to be a formidable opponent for Leopold, since, like Leopold himself, he was a master of publicity. Morel founded a newspaper in which he criticized Leopold’s cruelty in the Congo, and he assembled a large body of testimonies by witnesses to Belgian atrocity.
Morel’s allies included an Irish government worker named Roger Casement, who also penned many articles condemning the treatment of Africans in the Congo. Paradoxically, like so many “liberal” Europeans of the era, Casement and Morel were shocked at the Belgians’ treatment of the Congolese, but seemed not to disagree with the principle that, by and large, European countries had the right to colonize foreign territories and claim the land for themselves. Morel, it seems, took a condescending, paternalistic view of African people, even as he devoted his adult life to protecting them from exploitation.
In the early 20th century, Leopold was in his 70s. While he continued to work hard to control publicity surrounding the Congo, Morel and Casement proved too strong for him; by 1905, there was an international outcry surrounding Leopold’s regime. Shortly afterwards, Leopold died, leaving his colonial properties to the Belgian government. Over time, the Belgian government announced human rights reforms in the Congo, convincing many that the “Congo question” had been solved for good.
The sad truth, however, is that although Morel and Casement accomplished a great deal, they didn’t solve the problems of Western imperialism, either in the Congo or anywhere else. The Belgian administrators in the Congo continued to use forced African labor to mine for resources, for example. Furthermore, the Belgians’ treatment of the Congolese, while despicable, wasn’t tremendously different from the way other European colonialists treated native peoples in their own territories. The European powers joined together to condemn Belgium not just because of Belgium’s unethical behavior but because Belgium was an easy target.
The legacy of imperialism continues today in the Congo. The Congolese people spent much of the 20th century under the rule of Joseph Mobutu, a U.S.-backed dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people. And just as under Leopold, billions of dollars worth of Congolese metal and rubber continue to flow out of the country and into the pockets of Western businesses. In many ways the Congo reform movement was a triumph of human rights activism, but in other ways, little has changed in the hundred years since the movement ended.