His comments came in a letter to letter to Félix Tshisekedi, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to mark the 60th anniversary of independence. They will not be enough to close one of the bloodiest chapters in colonial history.
In June, the King’s brother, Prince Laurent, defended King Leopold II, who held the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom from 1885 until the Belgian state took over in 1908. Prince Laurent said that King Leopold never went to the Congo, so he did not see how the king could have caused the Congolese to suffer.
The story is painfully well known to the Congolese. Under King Leopold’s rule, murder, mutilation and slavery were the hallmarks of the pursuit of the era’s most valuable new commodity: rubber. This was needed to replace the old “boneshaker” tyres on bicycles and cars with pneumatic tyres, invented by Dunlop, which allowed a much smoother ride.
- Unlike many other parts of Africa, most of the rubber in the Congo came from vines rather than trees.
- Once the vines were tapped, they were spent and died.
- This meant workers had to penetrate ever deeper into the forest to meet the production targets which the Belgians imposed on them.
The archival records of Leopold’s Congo Free State were deliberately destroyed before the Belgian state became the colonial power in 1908.
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According to David Van Reybrouck in ‘Congo: The Epic History of a People’ it is impossible to say how many people died as a result of Leopold’s quest for rubber. Van Reybrouck argues that it was “definitely a hecatomb, a slaughter on a staggering scale.” Equateur, Bandundu and Kasai on the western side of the Congolese rain forest were the hardest hit, he finds.
Morel and Casement
The cover-up worsens the crime: it was investigative research which Leopold tried to suppress which brought the issue to international attention.
- Edward Morel, a shipping clerk from Liverpool who was working in Antwerp, was disturbed by the quantity of rubber coming from the Congo, and the amount of ammunition that was being shipped there.
- In 1903, the British government sent their consul, Roger Casement, to investigate.
- King Leopold feared Casement’s report. According to the historian William Roger Louis, he tried to get the British Foreign Office to suppress it by threatening to “hand everything over to Germany.”
- Casement’s report, though watered down by the British government, confirmed the atrocities carried out by agents of the Congo Free State, in particular the Force Publique, as they enforced rubber-collection quotas.
- Casement had earlier been to the Upper Congo in 1887, where there had once been thriving towns, there were now only trails of desolation.
Casement’s report led to the appointment of an international commission which confirmed that violence in the enforcement of rubber quotas was the rule rather than the exception. It led directly to Leopold being forced to hand over his personal fiefdom to the Belgian state, and the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo.
Morel summarised King Leopold’s rule as “the reduction of millions of men to a condition of absolute slavery, by a system of legalised robbery enforced by violence.”
Taking down a few statues is beside the point: a formal Belgian apology should be the prelude to meaningful reparations to the DRC.
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