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Leopold’s Open Letter (Document A)

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Lesson Plan

1. Review motives for Imperialism to start class. Students should be familiar with such factors as religious, social Darwinism/white man’s burden, economic motives, etc.
2. Brief mini-lecture on Berlin Conference and the Scramble for Africa. Congo Free State established as the first European colony in Africa, and is the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium

- Introduce essential question: How did the Belgians treat the native Congolese in the Congo Free State?

3. Hand out evidence round 1 (documents A and B). Have students fill out graphic organizer in pairs.

  • Debrief round 1. Students will find the two documents paint very different pictures of Belgian motives. Ask students why they think this is. Which letter do the students trust more? Why?

4. Hand out Evidence round 2 (Document C: The Casement Report). Have students answer questions in pairs and debrief

5. Hand out round 3 (Document D and E). Have students read and complete the accompanying question in pairs. Be sure to debrief.
6. Students now have their answer to the essential question: the Belgians brutalized and mutilated the native Congolese. Now it is time to corroborate with the textbook. Have students either get out their textbook or use the abbreviated excerpt included here and answer the attached questions labeled “Document F: Textbook”. Debrief
Assessment Option: Have students rewrite their textbook answering the question “How did the Belgians treat the Congolese?.” They should include at least one direct quotation from the documents.

Leopold’s Open Letter (Document A)

The following is an excerpt from an open (public) letter written by King Leopold to all Belgian agents working in the Congo. The letter is dated from June 16, 1897.
“The task which the State agents have to accomplish in the Congo is noble and elevated (honorable). It is necessary for them to carry on the work of civilization in Equatorial Africa.
The aim of all of us is to regenerate, both materially and morally, races whose degradation (savageness) and misfortune is hard to realize. The fearful scourges (terrible problems) which these races seem to be the victim are already lessening, little by little, through our intervention. Each step forward by our people should mark an improvement in the condition of the natives.
In those vast (huge) regions of land, mostly uncultivated (unused) and mainly unproductive, where the natives hardly even knew how to get their own daily food, European experience, knowledge, resources, and enterprise (skills) have brought to light unimaginable wealth. Exploration of virgin (new) lands goes on, communications are established, highways are opened, and legitimate trade and industry are established.
Upon this this material prosperity, in which whites and blacks have evidently (obviously) a common interest, will follow a desire on the part of the blacks to elevate (improve) themselves.

Source: Letter from King Leopold II of Belgium to all government agents in the Congo, June 16, 1897

Leopold to the Missionaries (Document B)

The following is an excerpt from a private letter written by King Leopold to a group of Belgian missionaries about to leave for the Congo in 1883.
“Reverends, Fathers and Dear Compatriots:

The task that is given to you to fulfill is very difficult and requires much tact (careful strategy). You will go to the Congo certainly to evangelize (preach religion), but your evangelization must inspire above all Belgian interests. Your principal (most important) objective in our mission in the Congo is not to teach the savages to know God. They know God already. They speak and submit to a Mungu, one Nzambi, one Nzakomba, and what else I don’t know (all of these are native African gods). They know these many gods, so have courage to admit it; you are not going to teach them what they know already. Your essential role is to facilitate (make easier) the task of administrators and industrialists, which means you will go to interpret the gospel in a way that it will best protect our interests in that part of the world.

Your knowledge of the gospel will allow you to find texts encouraging your followers to love poverty, like “Happier are the poor because they will inherit the heaven" and, "It’s very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God." You have to make them (the Congolese) abandon everything which gives them the courage to affront (resist) us.

Evangelize the savages so that they stay forever in submission to the white colonialists, so they never revolt against the restraints they are undergoing. Recite every day-"Happy are those who are weeping because the kingdom of God is for them." Convert the blacks always by using the whip.

Source: Letter from King Leopold II of Belgium to Colonial Missionaries, 1883

How did the Belgians treat the native Congolese?
Evidence Round 1


Who wrote this? When was it written? Who is the audience and is the audience public or private?

What motive for Imperialism does this document suggest? Based on this, how do you think the Belgians treated the native Congolese?

Evidence from the document to support your claim

Doc A: Leopold’s Open Letter

Doc B: Leopold to the Missionaries

The Casement Report (Document C)

King Leopold II made many efforts to keep foreigners out of the Congo. However by the 1890s the horrendous reports of missionaries in the area caused alarm. Robert Casement was sent by Britain to investigate these accusations in 1904. His report caused a full scale investigation to be launched.“I visited two large villages where I found that fully half the population now consisted of refugees (people driven from their homes). I saw and questioned several groups of these people. They went on to declare, when asked why they had fled their district (region of the country), that they had endured such ill-treatment at the hands of the government soldiers in their own district that life had become intolerable (unbearable). Nothing had remained for them at home but to be killed for failure to bring in a certain amount of rubber or to die from starvation or exposure (exhaustion) in their attempts to satisfy the demands of the government (the Belgians).

At one of these villages, I saw women coming back from the surrounding forest where they had hidden themselves. I met some of these returning women in one of the fields and asked them why they had run away at my approach, and they said, smiling, 'We thought you were Bula Matadi ' ('men of the Belgian Government').

She said men still came to her whose hands had been cut off by the Government (Belgian) soldiers, and she said there were still many victims of this kind of mutilation in the surrounding country. Two cases of the kind came to my actual notice while I was on the lake. One was a young man whose hands had been beaten off with the butt-ends (back) of rifles, and the other was a young lad of eleven or twelve years of age, whose right hand was cut off at the wrist.”

Source: The Casement Report, by Robert Casement, 1904

Guiding Questions
Casement Report (Document C)

  1. Source: Who is Roger Casement? When did he write this? Why has he been sent to the Congo?

  1. Close Reading: In the second paragraph, why do the Congolese women run away from Casement when they see him? What does this imply about how the Belgians treated the Congolese?

  1. Close Reading: According to the Congolese woman Casement speaks to, what have Belgian soldiers done to the Congolese? Please explain.

  1. Corroboration: Look back at Documents A and B. Which of those two letters by King Leopold does this document more closely match? Please Explain.

Mola and Yoka” (Document D)

Congolese children and wives whose father failed to meet rubber collection quotas were often punished by having their hands cut off. The following image is of Mola and Yoka, victims of Belgian atrocities, taken in 1905.

Source: Anti-Slavery International, 1905

Peter Forbath (Document E)

The following is an excerpt from a history book titled The River Congo by British historian Peter Forbath. The book was published in 1977.

“The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique (Belgian) soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber. They even went out to harvest them instead of rubber. They became a sort of currency (money). They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace the people who were demanded for the forced labor gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.”

Source: The River Congo, by Peter Forbath, 1977

Guiding Questions

Mola and Yoka” (Document D)

  1. Corroboration: When was the photograph of Mola and Yoka (Document D) taken? Is this date similar or different to the Casement Report (Document C)? Why might this be important?

  1. Evaluate: Historians often use pictures like this one as historical sources. What do you think are the advantages of using an image like this as a historical source? What are the disadvantages?

Peter Forbath (Document E)

  1. Source: Who wrote Document E? Is this a primary source or a secondary source?

  1. Close Reading: After reviewing documents C-E, how would you answer the question “how did the Belgians treat the native Congolese in the Congo Free State?” Please explain.

Textbook (Document F)

The following is an excerpt from YOUR textbook explaining the colonization of the Congo by King Leopold II and the Belgians.
“Leopold claimed that his primary motive in establishing the colony was to abolish the slave trade and promote Christianity. However, he licensed companies that brutally exploited Africans by forcing them to collect sap from rubber plants. At least 10 million Congolese died due to the abuses inflicted during Leopold’s rule. As a result of his cruelty, humanitarians around the world demanded changes. In 1908, the Belgian government took control of the colony away from Leopold. The Belgian Congo, as the colony later became known, was 80 times larger than Belgium.”

Source: McDougal Littel, Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction. Published 2006.

Textbook (Document F)

  1. Is there any new information on how the Belgians treated the Congolese that your textbook has provided you? Explain.

  1. Is there any information on how the Belgians treated the Congolese that your textbook is missing? Explain.

  1. On a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best), how would you rate your textbook on telling the history of how the Belgians treated the Congolese? Explain.

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