In the last edition of this blog, we saw how multiple shifting kingdoms made up eastern DRC prior to colonisation, and how their power was gradually eroded as the slave trade swelled to chronic levels, particularly under arab-Swahili businessman-turned-King Tippu Tip, who stripped the region of its human and material resources throughout much of the 19th century.
It is at this point which Henry Morton Stanley becomes a key figure in the history of theCongo. The explorer was made famous by his explorations throughout theCongo, notably his hunt, on behalf of the New York Herald, to find David Livingstone, the explorer long-lost in the deepest heart ofAfrica. This he did, during a meeting on the eastern banks ofLake Tanganyikawhich later became legend:
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
It was during his quest for Livingstone and subsequent exploratory missions along the Congo river thatStanleyencountered the slave trade which was devastating the east. Apparently genuinely appalled by what he found, he took news of the enterprise back to Europe, allegedly harbouring hopes that his home country, Britain, would take theCongointo its colonial mother-fold. His disappointment by the British Empire’s disinterest did not last long, as King Leopold of Belgium expressed his desire to ‘civilise’ the vast territories at the centre ofAfrica’s continent.
King Leopold’s Reign
In 1979 Leopold created the Association International du Congo – (AIC) a “humanitarian organisation” charged with bringing civilisation and development to the Congo. He enlisted Stanley to begin convincing village chiefs along the south-eastern most banks of the Congo River to sign agreements handing over their territorial and trading rights. The Chiefs, mostly unwittingly, and often following intimidating displays of the awesome destructive power of Belgium’s latest weaponry, signed away all of their authority to the AIC.
By 1884, when the Berlin Conference took place – the event at which the Colonial powers sat and carved up the African continent as they saw fit: into that bizarre jumble of lines, many clumsily drawn straight with a ruler, which we have since expected Africans to see as the rightful borders of their nation states – Leopold stepped forward with his mission for the Congo. He offered to take the DRC on as his own personal humanitarian project, and promised to rid the region of slavery, civilise it’s population, and – best of all – declare the entire territory a ‘free trade zone’ for all. One can’t help but wonder if he ended his speech on: ‘NOW HOW’S THAT FOR A SLICE OF FRIED GOLD, COLONIALISTS?!’
“HURRAH!!” they cheered as one, congratulating Leopold on his selflessness and kindness of spirit for promising to civilise those helpless Africans, whilst simultaneously giving capitalism a big fat leg-up.
And so the Congo Free State, now a personal belonging of King Leopold, was born.
King Leopold’s humanitarian mission was in reality the ironic front for a draconian system of forced labour and terrorisation of the population, which he used to enrich his own fortune beyond belief, whilst keeping out other powers to prevent them from gaining access to Congo’s resources, or giving away his dirty secret to the rest of the world. Soon after the Berlin Conference, the invention of the pneumatic tyre sent demand for rubber soaring. The population of theCongo, with their own labour, sweat, blood, and no doubt tears, were soon providing ten per cent of the world’s overall rubber production.
Leopold’s Force Publique, an army (for want of a more fitting word, since armies are designed to protect their native population) made up of Belgian officers and African mercenaries, provided ‘encouragement’ for the local population’s toils. Cripplingly high rubber quotas were set for each village, and when these were not fulfilled, punishment was doled out in the form of kidnappings of local women, children and Chiefs, burning and killing, or if one was lucky, lashes with the chicotte (a lethal whip made out of dried hippopotamus hide), or mutilation of limbs and genitals. Since the Belgian officers of the Force Publique were held accountable for each bullet used, they developed a highly creative catalogue of sadistic corporal punishments for those who failed to meet their impossible targets (again, any of this sound familiar, people?). Rebellions and resistance were swiftly and violently crushed.
The Congo Reform Association and the Demise of the Congo Free State
Despite Leopold’s best efforts to keep prying eyes out of his prize investment, a few individuals, having witnessed the tyrannical enterprise, began campaigning for an end to Leopold’s sadistic enterprise. Most notable were Roger Casement and Edmund Morel, who in 1904 formed the Congo Reform Association – one of the worlds first ever human rights advocacy organisations, and a precursor to organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and The Advocacy Project. Their campaigning eventually resulted in Leopold facing overwhelming pressure to hand over the Congo Free State to the Belgian authorities.
In 1908, leaving the Congo in over one hundred million Belgian francs-worth of debt, Leopold eventually conceded to hand over his experiment to Belgium for the sweet sum of 50 million Belgian francs paid to him personally, in acknowledgement of his valiant efforts to “develop” the region. It was calculated later that his draconian regime had succeeded in halving the Congolese population; an incredible endeavour if one considers that his reign lasted little over 14 years. This means that some 10 million people had either died or fled the region as a result of the regime.
Satisfied with the outcome of events, the Congo Reform Association dissolved, and the colonial powers were left unscrutinized. The Belgian government did indeed make some changes – infrastructure projects were put in place to support burgeoning material extraction, and it was decided that kidnapping women and children probably wasn’t an acceptable punishment after all. However, as the demand for rubber was displaced by one for cotton and precious minerals, the Union Minière du Haut Katanga began establishing mines deeper and deeper into the continent, and forced labour re-intensified.
Throughout the C20th, the Belgian powers kept a tight reign on the country, and the Congolese were forcibly repressed and treated as second class human beings, referred to as macaques – monkeys – by scornful Belgian settlers and authorities. “Pas d’elites, pas d’ennemies” (no elites = no enemies) was the motto of the day, as the Belgians believed that an educated black middle class may start getting audacious ideas regarding, oh, freedom from colonial repression and the right to self-rule, perhaps? It was only in 1950 that the Congolese population received citizenship status and voting rights, and upon Belgium’s incredibly hasty withdrawal in 1960, at independence only seventeen Congolese had received a university education.
And so, after over a hundred years of slavery, forced labour, colonisation and oppression, the Congolese people were – in the blink of an eye – left to rule their vast, rich, and diverse country with an educated elite numbering less than twenty. A staunch foundation for a peaceful and prosperous future, no?
Stay tuned for the next edition of A Brief History of Slavery, Colonisation, Conflict and Rape in the DRC for Mobutu’s corrupted 30 year rule and the devastating conflict that has rocked the DRC since his demise in 1994.
Posted By Charlie Walker
Posted Oct 24th, 2011