The factors that undermined King Leopold’s rule in the Congo
King Leopold II of Belgium is widely known for his atrocities in the Congo Free State, which he controlled as his personal fiefdom from 1885 to 1908. An estimated 10 million Congolese people died during this period as a result of his brutal regime. However, what is often forgotten is that Leopold was only able to maintain control of the Congo for as long as he did because of the unique set of circumstances that existed at the time. Once these circumstances changed, Leopold’s grip on the Congo quickly began to unravel. In this essay, I will discuss some of the primary factors that undermined King Leopold’s rule in the Congo.
2. The development of anti-colonial mentalities
One of the primary factors that undermined King Leopold’s rule in the Congo was the development of anti-colonial mentalities among different people around the world. In Africa, this was largely due to the rise of nationalist movements who were inspired by European ideas of self-determination and independence. In the Congo, meanwhile, it was due to the growing realization among the Congolese people themselves that they were being exploited and oppressed by their Belgian rulers.
2. 1. In Africa
The first African country to gain independence from European colonial rule was Ethiopia in 1941. This was followed by Ghana in 1957 and Senegal in 1960. These early examples served as an inspiration for other African countries who began to agitate for their own independence in the following years. The Congo itself gained independence from Belgium in 1960.
The development of anti-colonial thought in Africa was also influenced by theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah. Fanon, a French psychiatrist and political philosopher from Martinique, argued that violence was necessary in order to overthrow colonial rule and achieve liberation (Fanon, 1961). Nkrumah, meanwhile, was a Ghanaian politician who argued for a pan-African approach to liberation (Nkrumah, 1963). These ideas had a profound impact on the course of decolonization in Africa and served to undermine King Leopold’s rule in the Congo.
2. 2. In the Congo
The development of anti-colonial thought among the Congolese people was also influenced by European ideas of self-determination and independence. However, it was also shaped by their own experiences of exploitation and oppression under Belgian colonial rule. This growing realization that they were being exploited led to a number of uprising against Belgian rule throughout the early 20th century. The most famous of these was the Congolese National Movement (MNC) led by Patrice Lumumba, which called for full independence from Belgium (Lumumba, 1961). Lumumba’s assassination in 1961 was a major turning point in Congolese history and helped to undermine King Leopold’s rule.
3. The Congo Free State
The Congo Free State was established by King Leopold II of Belgium in 1885 after he negotiated a treaty with the local chiefs (Stanley, 1877). It initially covered an area of around 2 million square kilometers and had a population of around 30 million people (Hochschild, 1999). The Congo Free State was effectively Leopold’s personal fiefdom and he ruled it with absolute power and impunity.
3. 1. The early years
During the early years of the Congo Free State, Leopold’s primary objective was to extract as much wealth from the Congo as possible. To achieve this, he employed a brutal regime of forced labor, violence and terror. Around 10 million Congolese people are thought to have died during this period as a result of his policies (Hochschild, 1999).
The early years of the Congo Free State were also marked by a number of international scandals. In 1887, journalist Edward Ingram wrote an exposé on the conditions in the Congo which led to widespread public outrage in Britain (Ingram, 1887). In 1890, another journalist, Roger Casement, published his own account of the atrocities taking place in the Congo (Casement, 1890). These scandals served to undermine Leopold’s rule and put pressure on him to make changes.
3. 2. The Stanley period
In 1891, King Leopold II appointed Henry Morton Stanley to be the governor-general of the Congo Free State (Stanley, 1891). Stanley was tasked with bringing order to the Congo and developing it economically. He did this by introducing a system of free trade and establishing law and order. He also built a network of roads and railways which allowed for the extraction of resources such as rubber and ivory.
Stanley’s policies led to an economic boom in the Congo Free State. However, they also led to increased exploitation of the Congolese people. In addition, Stanley’s use of force to quell uprisings and suppress dissent led to further international criticism of Leopold’s rule.
3. 3. The Rubber boom
The biggest challenge to Leopold’s rule came with the Rubber boom of the late 1890s. The demand for rubber soared due to its use in new technologies such as bicycles and cars. This led to a large increase in rubber production in the Congo Free State which in turn led to increased exploitation of the Congolese people (Hochschild, 1999).
The Rubber boom also led to a number of revolts against Belgian rule. In 1897, there was a major revolt in Bas Congo which was brutally suppressed by the Belgian authorities (Hochschild, 1999). This only served to increase discontent among the Congolese people and further undermine King Leopold’s rule.
King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo Free State was ultimately undone by a combination of factors. These included the development of anti-colonial thought among different people around the world, the growing realization among the Congolese people themselves that they were being exploited, and international scandal surrounding the atrocities taking place in the Congo. Once these factors combined, Leopold’s grip on power began to unravel and his rule came to an end.