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2010 African History Ann-Marie Hartwell [King leopold’s ghost] by Adam Hochschild

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African History
Ann-Marie Hartwell

[King leopold’s ghost]

by Adam Hochschild
“A story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa”.

The Fox Crosses the Stream

When Henry Morton Stanley found Dr. David Livingstone, physician, prospector, missionary, explorer and at one point a British consul who wandered across Africa for three decades, starting in the early 1840, who was the first white man to cross the continent from coast to coast, he became a national hero in England. The man who watched with careful eyes and interest was a tall, august thirty-seven-year old man with a spade-shaped beard, living in the rambling Chateau of Laeken on a low hill on the outskirts of Brussels. Leopold II had inherited the distinctive title King of the Belgians. The country spoke a mixture of French and Flemish. The snobbish Leopold refused to speak the language of half of his subjects – Flemish- but rather French and German and later English. At the time language division marked class as well as region. French was spoken by the professionals who looked down on the improvised Flemish speaking farm workers and factory laborers. He had a cold relationship with his father and showed no interest in anything but geography. His subjects eager to please showed him monarch documents thereby schooling him on how the government ran. His father refers to him as a fox “Leopold is subtle and sly”. Leopold dream of owning a large country since his inherited Belgian was too small to hold him so he turned his eyes abroad.

During the nineteenth century the drive for European to possess Africa and Asia were justified in numerous way. The two most common reason was to Christianized the heathen or civilized the savage races and to bring everyone the miraculous benefits of free trade. Now, with Africa, a new rationalization had emerged: smashing the “Arab” slave trade. At this early stage of his career, the future Leopold II did not try to cloak his ambitions with such speech. For him, the sole purpose of colonies was to make him and his country rich. He did not care whether the colonial wealth he wanted came from the precious metals sought by the Spaniards in South America, from agriculture, or as would turn out to be the case from a raw material whose potential was yet undreamed of. What mattered was the size of the profit. His drive for colonies was shaped by a desire not only for money but for power. After ascending the throne in 1865, Leopold was even more restless than before. At home, life went from bad to worse as the king only son died and when his last daughter Clementine was born “the King was furious and thenceforth refused to have anything to do with his admirable wife.” Lacking a colony to rule, Leopold focused on building projects at home. He had a taste for monuments, great parks, broad boulevards, and grand palaces.

Livingstone, Stanley, and the other explorers, Leopold saw, had succeeded in stirring Europeans by their descriptions of the “Arab” slave-traders leading sad caravans of chained captives to African’s East coast. As king of a small country with no public interest in colonies, he recognized that a colonial push of his own would require a strong humanitarian veneer. Leopold plan of action was use the disguise of claiming slave trade, moral uplift, and the advancement of science to obtain his goals, he would talk humanitarian not profits.

In 1876 he began planning a step to establish his image as a philanthropist to advance his African ambitions; he decided that he would host a conference of explorers and geographers. It was within this setting that most importantly he met the explorer, Cameron, who recently returned from crossing Africa and interrogated him about his travels. To his delight, Leopold finds out that, the British have little interest in the great swath of territory Cameron has explored. This was believed to be the basin of the Congo River; naturally this would be the land that became the object of the king’s desires. Using his instinct, Leopold, had foxlike through the conference learned that it was not possible to buy a colony but it was possible to conquer it. If he was to seize anything in Africa, he could do so only if he convinced everyone that his interest was purely altruistic. In this aim, he succeeded brilliantly, the Viscount de Lesseps, declared Leopold’s plans “the greatest humanitarian work of this time”. His organizational talent and the public’s good will, was proven by the successful Geographical Conference. He has a special kind of capital; and the great public relations power of the throne itself. The script was in place, the stage was set and the star performer had made his appearance; the play now begins.

By supporting Stanley’s exploration, the King, found the right man to help him claimed the rights to the Congo. Stanley got the New York Chamber of commerce to pass a declaration approving the United States recognition of Leopold’s involvement. Favorable account of of the king’s philanthropic work began appearing in major American newspapers, stimulated, in the fashion of the day by quiet payments from Stanford. On April 22, 1884 the secretary of state declared that the Untied States of America recognized King Leopold II’s claim to the Congo. It was the first country to do so.

Where There Aren’t No Ten Commandments

Leopold established the capital of his new Congo state at the port town of Boma, just upriver from the Atlantic, where Stanley had finished his epic trans-African trek in 1877. The real headquarters of the Etat Independent du Congo were not in Boma but in the suites of offices in Brussels, one on the grounds of the Royal Place, the others next door or across the street. All the Congo’s administrators were picked and promoted by the king himself, and a cabinet reported to Leopold directly. At the lowest level, the king’s rule over his colony was carried out by white men in charge of districts and river stations throughout the vast territory. For these functionaries there were was an excess of medals, whose grades reflected the burgeoning chain of command of imperial rule. For holders of the Order of the African Star, for instance, there were six classes, ranging from grand croix and commandeurs down to mere medailles. The Royal Order of the Lion, created by Leopold to “recognized merit and acknowledge services rendered to us” also had six classes. For African chiefs who collaborated with the regime, there was a special medal- bronze, silver, or gold-plated, depending on the degree of “service” rendered. It bore Leopold’s profile on one side and on the other, the Congo state coat of arms and the words Loyalty and Devotion. The white officials in Leopold’s Congo were usually single men, many of whom took on more than one African concubine. But by the turn of the century, mail order brides came from Europe.

In 1885 the existence of the Congo state was formally proclaimed; it declared that all “vacant land” was the property of the state. There was no definition of what made the land vacant. Leopold was after whatever he could quickly harvested. So he treated both vacant and non-vacant land as his property, claiming a right to all its products. He made no distinction between the tusks of an elephant roaming wild or villagers’ vegetables that could feed his soldiers; it was all his. Because he did not have the resources to exploit the entire territory, he leased out for long periods as concessions to private companies. These concession companies had shareholders largely through not entirely Belgian. In this structure, Leopold was able to reap fifty percent of the shares and at the same time attracted other people’s capital to his investment schemes while he keeps half the proceeds. In the end, with various taxes and fees the companies paid the state it came up to more than half.

The King organized troops and government officials as well as investment funds. He used them ruthlessly to shut out of the territory most businesses in which he did not have a piece of the action. The king continued to claim that making a profit was the farthest thing from his mind “The Congo state is certainly not a business. “If ivory was gathered on certain of his lands that is only to lessen its deficit.” And if Africans were made to help out in the ivory-gathering, why that too Heaven forbid, was not to make a profit, but to rescue these benighted people from their indolence. Talk of the lazy native accompanied the entire European land grab in Africa, just as it had been used to justify the conquest of the Americas. To an American report Leopold one declared “In dealing with a race composed of cannibals for thousands of year it is necessary to use methods which will best shake their idleness and make them realize the sanctity of work.”

In the 1890’s the work whose sanctity Leopold prized most highly was seizing all the ivory that could be found. Congo state officials and their African auxiliaries swept through the country on ivory raids, shooting elephants, buying tusks from villagers for a pittance, or simply confiscating them. Congo peoples had been hunting elephants for centuries, but now they were forbidden to sell or deliver ivory to anyone other than an agent of Leopold. For ten percent ivory bought at four francs per kilo, the European agents thus had a powerful inducement to force Africans if necessary, at gunpoint to accept extremely low prices. None of the franc’s actually reached any Congolese elephant hunter. They received only small amounts of cloth, beads, lye, or the brass rods that the state decreed as the territory’s main currency. For Africans, transactions in money were not allowed. Money in free circulation might challenge what was essentially a command economy. The command was above all for labor. At the beginning the state mostly wanted porters to carry everything from machine-gun ammunition to all that red wine and pate. These tens of thousands of porters were usually paid for their work in food, the food necessary to keep them going, but most of them were conscript. Even children were put to work: “a file of poor devils, chained by the neck, carried my trunks and boxes toward the dock.” Porters were especially needed at the point where the river system was blocked by rapids. The death toll was high among porters who were forced to carry loads over long distances.

The framework of control that Leopold extended across his enormous realm was military. For without armed force, it was impossible to get men to leave their homes and families and carry sixty-five pounds loads for weeks or months. Leopold had made use of African mercenaries ever since sending Stanley to stake out his claim. In 1888 he formally organized them into the Force Publique an army for his new state. Over the next dozen years, it grew to more than nineteen thousand officers and men, becoming the most powerful army in central Africa. By the late 1890’s it consumed more than half the state’s budget. At once counter guerrilla troops, an army of occupation, and a corporate labor police force; it was divided mainly into small garrisons, typically, several dozen black soldiers under one or two white officers, on a riverbank. The Force Publique had its hands full as many of the king’s new subjects belonged to warrior peoples who fought back; the Yaka, the Chokwe, the Boa and Budja and the Sanga mobilized more than five thousand men to fight a guerrilla war,. The Nzansu rebelling in particular alarmed the state because it completely stopped traffic on the crucial caravan route to Stanley Pool. To crush the rebels, the authorities sent out a force of fifteen white officers and two hundred black soldiers.

Even children were not safe from the rigors of Leopold’s regime. “We must set up three children’s colonies,” the king wrote on April 27, 1890. “The aim of these colonies was to furnish us with soldiers. We thus have to build three big barracks at Boma, Leo, and near the equator each capable of housing 1500 children and administrative personnel. … from now on to gather the most male children possible for three state colonies.” As the years passed many more children’s colonies were recognized by catholic missionaries. Leopold supported financially the Catholics lavishly and sometimes used this monetary power to install priests, almost as if they were soldiers, to areas where he wanted to strengthen his influence. The children taken in by these missionaries were supposedly, “orphans” to the extent that these children were orphans was frequently because their parents had been killed by the Force Publique. The children’s colonies were usually ruled by the chicotte1 and the chain. There were many mutinies. If they survived their kidnapping, transport, and schooling, most of the male graduates of the state colonies became soldiers, just as Leopold had ordered. These state colonies were the only state-funded schools for Africans in Leopold’s Congo. Among the traumatized and malnourished children packed into both the state and catholic colonies, disease was widespread and the death rate high, often over fifty percent. Thousands more children perished during the long journey to get there.

In the Congo the Ten Commandments were practiced even less than in most colonies. Belgium was small, the Congo was huge, and the white death rate in the African tropics was still notoriously high. In order to find enough men to staff his far-flung network of river posts in malaria ridden territory, Leopold had to recruit not just Belgians but young white men from throughout Europe, attracting them by such get rich quick incentives as the lucrative commission structure for acquiring ivory. With its opportunities for both combat and riches, to Europeans the Congo was a gold rush and the Foreign Legion combined. The first wave of Leopold’s agents included many hard-bitten men fleeing marital troubles, bankruptcy, or alcoholism. The newly arrived sang the tune of their new found freedom in the Congo while the Africans sang how unfortunate they were.

The Wood That Weeps

The raid on the capital in the Congo was triggered by a discovery far away – the discovery of rubber by John Dunlop. In 1890 the Dunlop company began making tires-setting off a bicycle craze and starting a new industry just in time, for the coming of the automobile. Nowhere did the boom have a more drastic impact on people lives than in the equatorial rain forest, where wild rubber vines snaked high into the trees that covered nearly half of the King Leopold’s Congo. For Leopold, the rubber boom was a godsend. He had gone dangerously into debt with his Congo investments, but he now saw that the return would be more lucrative than he had ever imagined. The world did not lose its desire for ivory, but in the 1890s wild rubber had far surpassed it as the main source of revenue for the Congo. His fortune assured, the king eagerly grilled functionaries returning from the Congo about rubber harvest. Through a constant stream of telegrams and reports Leopold was able to capitalize on the market when the plantation of rubber trees in Latin America and Asia reached maturity. In so doing, the Congo had had a wild-rubber boom nearly two decades long that knew no limits.

The men bringing rubber was rewarded according to the amount they turned. The profits came swiftly because, transportation costs aside, harvesting wild rubber required no cultivation, no fertilizers, no capital investment in expensive equipment; it required only labor. The question was how was this labor to be found? They could not simply round up men, chained them together, and put them to work under the eye of an overseer with a chicotte as they did with the porters.

To gather wild rubber, people must scatter widely through the rain forest and often climb trees. Rubber is a coagulated sap; the French word for it, caoutchouc, comes from a South American Indian word meaning “the wood that weeps.” The wood that wept in the Congo was a long spongy vine of the Landolphia genus. Up to a foot thick at the base, a vine would twine upward around a tree to a hundred feet or more off the ground, where it could reach sunlight. There, branching it might twine its way hundreds of feet through the upper limbs of another half-dozen trees. To gather the rubber, you had to slash the vine with a knife and hang a bucket or earthenware pot to collect the slow drip of thick, milky sap. You could make a small incision to tap the vine, or officially forbidden but widely practiced cut through it entirely, which produced more rubber but killed the vine. Once the vines near a village were drained dry, workers had to go over deeper into the forest until, before long, most harvesters were traveling at least one or two days to find fresh vines. As the lengths of vine within reach of the ground were tapped dry, workers climbed high into the trees to reach the sap. Heavy tropical downpours during much of the year turned large areas of the rain forest, where the rubber wines grew, into swampland. No payments of trinkets or barbwire were enough to make people stay in the flooded forest for days at a time to do work that was so arduous and physically painful. A gatherer had to dry the syrup like rubber so that it would coagulate, and often the only way to do so was to spread the substance on his arms, thighs, and chest. “The first few times it is not without pain that the man pulls it off the hairy parts of his body.”The Chaltin, a Force Publique officer, confided to his journal in 1892. “The native doesn’t like making rubber. He must be compelled to do it.”

How was he to be compelled? The method was reported in 1899 “This officer’s … method… was to arrive in canoes at a village, the inhabitants of which invariably bolted on their arrival; the soldiers were then landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chickens, grain, etc., out of the houses; after this they attacked the natives until able to seize their women; these women were kept as hostages until the Chief of the district brought in the required number of kilogram’s of rubber. The rubber having been brought, the women were sold back to their owners for a couple of goats apiece, and so he continued from village to village until the required amount of rubber had been collected.” The hostages were women, children, elders or chiefs, every state or company post in the rubber areas had a stockade for hostages. A male villager resisting the order to gather rubber could meet death for his wife, who might die anyway, for the stockades food was always short, scare, and conditions harsh. “All the sentries who are supposed to watch them unchained the prettiest ones and rape them.” Leopold of course never proclaimed hostage taking as official policy; if such charges was made, the authorities in Brussels indignantly denied them. But out in the field from prying eyes, the pretense was dropped, instruction on taking hostages were even given in the semi-official instruction book, the revealing Manuel du Voyageur et du Resident au Congo, a copy of which the administration gave to each agent and each state post. The manual’s volumes cover everything from keeping servant obedient to the proper firing of artillery salutes.

Hostage taking set the Congo apart from most other forced-labor regimes. The Congo operated by quotas for kilos of rubber. To get part of the vine high off the ground, men became frantic to get every possible drop of rubber would sometimes tear down the whole vine, slice it into sections, and squeeze the rubber out. Although the Congo state issued strict orders against killing the vines this way, it also applied the chicotte to men who didn’t bring it enough rubber. The chicotte prevailed.

The entire system was militarized. Force Publique garrisons were scattered everywhere, often supplying their firepower to the companies under contract. In addition, each company had its own militia force, euphemistically called “sentries.” In military matters as in almost everything else, the companies operated as an extension of the Congo state, and when hostages had to be taken or a rebellious village subdued, company sentries and Force Publique soldiers often took to the field together.

Wherever rubber vines grew, the population was forcefully controlled. Permission was given from the state or company agent in order to visit a friend or relative in another village. In some areas you were required to wear a numbered metal disk, attached to a cord around your neck, so that company agents could keep track of whether you had met your quota. Huge numbers of Africans were conscripted into this labor army. All along the river, columns of exhausted men, carrying baskets of lumpy gray rubber on their heads, walked twenty miles or more to assemble near the houses of European agents, who sat on their verandas and weighed the loads of rubber. After the sap was turned in, it was formed into rough slabs, each the size of a small suitcase, and left to dry in the sun. Then it was shipped downriver on a barge or scow towed by a steamboat, the first stage of the long journey to Europe. The villagers were paid with a piece of cloth, beads, a few spoonfuls of salt, or a knife.

The rain forest bordering the Kasai River was rich in rubber and William Sheppard and other American Presbyterians found themselves in the midst of a cataclysm. The Kasai was also the scene of some of the strongest resistance to Leopold’s rule. Armed men of a chief allied with the regime went wild through the region where Sheppard worked, plundering and burning more than a dozen villages. Floods of desperate refugees sought help at Sheppard’s mission station. When Sheppard investigated the source of the fighting, he found blood stained ground, destroyed villages, and many bodies; the air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh. On the day he reached the marauders’ camp his eye was caught by a large number of objects being smoked. The chief “conducted us to a framework of sticks, under which was burning slow fire, and there they were, the right hands, I counted them, 81 in all” the chief told Sheppard, “see! Here is our evidence. I always have to cut off the right hands of those we kill in order to show the State how many we have killed.” Showing the smoking conserved the hands in the hot, moist climate, for it might be days or weeks before the chief could display them to the proper official and receive credit for his kills. Sheppard had stumbled on one of the most gruesome aspects of Leopold’s rubber system. Like the hostage taking, the severing of hands was a deliberate policy as even high officials would later admit. “to gather rubber in the district…one must cut off hands, noses and ears.”

If a village refused to submit to the rubber regime, state or company troops or their allies sometimes shot everyone in sight, so that nearby villages would get the message. But on such occasions some European officers were mistrustful. For each cartridge issued to their soldiers they demanded proof that the bullet had been used to kill someone, not “wasted” in hunting or worse yet saved for possible use in a mutiny. The standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. In some military units there was even a “keeper of the hands”; his job was the smoking. A Force Publique officer described what he did when the surrounding villages failed to supply his troops with the fish and manioc he had demanded: “I made war against them. One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies at the station every since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people …but that allowed five hundred others to live.” With “humanitarian” ground rules that included cutting off hands and heads, sadist had a field day. The station chief at M’ Bima used his revolver to shoot holes in Africans ear lobes. Raoul de Premorel, an agent working along the Kasai River, enjoyed giving large doses of castor oil to people he considered wasted time. When villages, in a desperate attempt to meet the weigh quota, turned in rubber mixed with dirt or pebbles to the agent he made them eat it. When two porters failed to use a designated latrine, a district commissioner ordered them display in front of troops their faces rubbed with excrement. Once under way, mass killing is hard to stop; it becomes a kind of sport, like hunting. The Congo archives are abounded in cases like that of Rene de Permentier, an officer in the Equator district in the late 1890s. The Africans nicknamed him Bajunu (for bas genoux, on your knees), because he always made people kneel before him. He had all the bushes and trees cut down around his house so that from his porch he could use passersby for target practice. If he found a leaf in a courtyard that women prisoners had swept, he ordered a dozen of them beheaded. If he found a path in the forest not well-maintained, he ordered a child killed in the nearest village. Two Force Publique officers, Clement Brasseur and Leon Cerckel, once ordered a man hung from a palm tree by his feet while a fire was lit beneath him and he was cooked to death. Two missionaries found one post where prisoners were killed by having resin poured over their heads, then set on fire. In the voice of one American soldier “we’d rip out the hedges and burn the hooches and blow all the wells and kill every chicken, pig and cow in the whole fucking ville. I mean, if we can’t shoot these people, what the fuck are we doing here?”

As news of the white man’s soldiers and their baskets of severed hands spread through the Congo, a myth gained weight with Africans that was a curious reversal of the white obsession with black cannibalism. The cans of corned beef seen in white men’s houses, it was said, did not contain meat for the animals shown on the label; they contained chopped up hands.

A Secret Society of Murderers

Leopold was quick to embellish his imperial schemes with any humanitarian sentiment in the air. When there was a crisis in Crete, he suggest that Congolese troops help restore order. After the United States won the Spanish-American War, he proposed that a corporation lease some of Spain’s remaining territories, such as the Canary Islands in the Atlantic or the Caroline’s in the South Pacific. The corporation he suggested could be registered in a “neutral” state such as for example the Etat Independent du Congo. None of these dream distracted Leopold from managing his main source of income. He kept the Congo’s growing profitability as secret as possible, lest it stir up demands that he pay back the Belgian government’s big loan. For as long as Leopold could get away with it, the Congo state, did not publish a budget. When at last is did so it offered revenue figures that disgustingly low key the state’s real profits.

Leopold advantage of controlling his own country enabled him to issue bonds. This was a source of revenue that almost equal to that of rubber. He issued bonds worth more than a hundred million francs, or roughly half a billion of today’s dollars. Some bond he sold; some he gave to his favorites; some he kept for his personal portfolio; some used was used in lieu of cash to pay for public works projects in Belgium. The bonds were for terms as long as ninety-nine years, he knew that paying back the principal would be somebody else’s problem. Supposedly the bond money was for development in the Congo, but needless to say, little of it was ever spent there.

Leopold much preferred to spend it and his Congo rubber profits, in Europe. A string of monuments, new palace wings, museums, and pavilions began going up all over Belgium. At his favorite seaside resort, he poured millions of francs into a promenade, several parks, and an elaborately turreted gallery. Rubber earnings also financed a golf course, a royal chalet, endless renovations, and enlargement of the Chateau of Laeken. To ensured that the properties was kept out of the s hands of his three daughters, to whom Belgian law required that he leave his personal possessions, he bestowed his country with Royal Gift.

In 1895 at aged sixty as he grew older he became a hypochondriac. Any aide who coughed risked banishment for several days. Always fearful of getting a cold, he wore a waterproof bag around his beard when he went outside in wet weather or swam in the sea. He ordered that the palace tablecloths be boiled daily to kill germs. In 1897 he started to invest Congo state profits in a railway in China making big money on the deal. He saw that China as he had seen the “magnificent African cake” a feast to be consumed and he was as ready as ever to invite himself to the table. He tried to arrange an exchange Chinese laborer for the Congo; Congolese soldiers for China that would give him a military foot in the door, like the other Western powers now maneuvering in the Far East. He brought several small parcels of land in China in the name of the Etat Independent du Congo. When Leopold sent a Congo state delegation all Belgian to offer negotiations, the Chinese viceroy Li Hung-Chang feigned surprise: “Am I right in thinking that Africans are black?”

Except for those employed by the state or on projects like the railways Leopold was tired of foreigners in the Congo. Due to the missionaries from the mid-1890s on Leopold had to deal with scattered protests like Sheppard’s’ articles about severed hands and slaughtered Africans. Publicly Leopold took the high road pronouncing himself deeply shocked at reports of misdeed in his domain. He was able to survive most of the accusations with little damage for they concerned murder committed against Africans. The Congo in Leopold’s mind was not the one of starving porters, raped hostages, emaciated rubber slaves, and severed hands. It was the empire of his dreams, with gigantic trees exotic animals, and inhabitants grateful for his wise rule. The campaign to examine Leopold’s regime, led by British diplomat Roger Casement and former shipping clerk, Andrew Shanu and reble leaders like Nzansu, Mulume Niama, Kandolo and E.D. Morel under the auspices of the Congo Reform Association, became the first mass human rights movement. Supporters included American writer Mark Twain, who wrote a stinging political satire entitled King Leopold’s Soliloquy, in which the King supposedly argues that bringing Christianity to the country outweighs a little starvation. Rubber gathers were tortured, maimed and slaughtered until the turn of the century, when the Western world forced Brussel to call a halt.

To Leopold, the international explosion of bad publicity triggered by the Kowalsky disaster was a turning point: instead of grandly bequeathing the Congo to Belgium at his death as he had planned, he understood that he would have to take the change before then. With his extraordinary knack for making the best of an apparently difficult situation, he began to maneuver. If these do-gooders were forcing him to give up his beloved colony he decided, he was not going to give it away. He would sell it and Belgium, the buyer, would have to pay dearly. Negotiations dragged on through 1907 and into early 1908. Leopold grumped and raged at the officials who tried to talk with him. At one point he slammed the door in his secretary’s face, accusing him of being in league with the forces trying to take away his Congo. With the time that they bought him, he secretly did everything possible to hide his bewildering web of Congo-related riches, all the while claiming that he had no such wealth at all. Finally the king hinted that he was ready to give in. He named his price he yielded a little and in March 1908 the deal was done.

In return for receiving the Congo, the Belgian government first of all agreed to assume its 110 million francs’ worth of debts, much of them in the form of bonds. Leopold had freely dispensed over the years to favorites like Caroline his mistress. Some of the debt the outmaneuvered Belgian government assumes was in effect to itself the nearly 32 million francs worth of loans Leopold had never paid back. As part of the deal, Belgium also agreed to pay 45.5 million francs toward completing certain of the king’s pet building projects. Fully a third of the amount was targeted for the extensive renovations under way at the height of reconstruction, 700 stone masons, 150 horses, and seven stream cranes had been at work following Leopold grand blueprint to build a center for world conferences. Finally on top of all this, Leopold was to receive, in installments, another fifty million francs “as a mark of gratitude for his great sacrifices made for the Congo.” Those funds were not expected to come from the Belgian taxpayer; they were to be extracted from the Congo himself.

In December 1909 less than two months after the seventy-four year old king fell gravely ill with an intestinal blockage possibly an euphemism for cancer. Caroline, his mistress, and her two illegitimate sons rushed to Leopold’s side and a hasty private wedding was performed. The royal physician ordered an operation but it was unsuccessful. Parliament had just passed a pet bill of Leopold’s instituting compulsory military service. When he came out of the anesthetic after is surgery, the king signed the bill with a trembling hand. The next day he was dead Leopold was little mourned by his people. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary once described his fellow ruler as a “thoroughly bad man.”


After the Belgian takeover of 1908, there was far less news of villages burned or of women and children held hostage. There was no more officially sanctioned severing of hands. One development was the gradual shift from wild rubber to cultivated rubber. Another was the introduction of a new method of forcing people to work that drew much less protest from missionaries and humanitarians: taxes. The Belgian administrators took over form Leopold saw that they needed plantation of cultivated rubber, because if all the rubber harvested came from wild vines, Africans desperate to meet their quotas would cut them all down; vines were already becoming scarce in parts of the country. The imposition of a heavy head tax forced people to go to work on the plantations or in harvesting cotton, palm oil, and other products and proved an effective means of continuing to collect some wild rubber as well. The central part of what E.D. Morel called the “System” forced labor, remained in place and applied to all kinds of work. Force labor became particularly brutal during the First World War as enormous numbers of Congolese were conscripted as soldiers or porter.

The years after the war saw growth of copper, gold, and tin mining. It was legal for mine management to use the chicotte. With the start of the Second World War, the legal maximum for forced labor in the Congo was increased to 120 days per man per year as the Allies wanted ever more rubber for the tires of hundreds of thousands of military trucks, jeeps, and warplanes. Some of the rubber came from the Congo’s new plantation of cultivated rubber trees. But in the villages Africans were forced to go into the rain forest, sometimes for weeks at a time to search for wild vines once again.

1 The chiotte (French) also known as sjambok or litupa is the traditional heavy leather whip of South Africa. A strip of the animal's hide is cut and carved into a strip 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 m) long, tapering from about 1 inch (25 mm) thick at the handle to about 3/8” (9 mm) at the tip. This strip is then rolled (possibly between heavy metal plates) until reaching a near circular form. It is synonymous with discipline of people.

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