African Congo Free State

The African Congo Free State (1877–1908)
Colonisation of the Congo, Congo Free State, and Belgian Congo

Belgian exploration, exploitation, and administration took place from the 1870s until the 1920s. It was first led by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who undertook his explorations under the sponsorship of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold had designs on what was to become the Congo as a colony. In a succession of negotiations, Leopold – professing humanitarian objectives in his capacity as chairman of the front organization Association Internationale Africaine – played one European rival against another.

Leopold formally acquired rights to the Congo territory at the Conference of Berlin in 1885 and made the land his private property and named it the Congo Free State. Leopold’s regime began various infrastructure projects, such as construction of the railway that ran from the coast to the capital of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). It took years to complete. Nearly all such projects were aimed at increasing the capital which Leopold and his associates could extract from the colony, leading to exploitation of Africans.

In the Free State, colonists brutalized the local population to produce rubber, for which the spread of automobiles and development of rubber tires created a growing international market. The sale of rubber made a fortune for Leopold, who built several buildings in Brussels and Ostend to honor himself and his country. To enforce the rubber quotas, the army, the Force Publique (FP), was called in. The Force Publique made the practice of cutting off the limbs of the natives as a means of enforcing rubber quotas a matter of policy; this practice was widespread. During the period of 1885–1908, millions of Congolese died as a consequence of exploitation and disease. In some areas the population declined dramatically; it has been estimated that sleeping sickness and smallpox killed nearly half the population in the areas surrounding the lower Congo River. A government commission later concluded that the population of the Congo had been “reduced by half” during this period, but determining precisely how many people died is impossible, as no accurate records exist.

The actions of the Free State’s administration sparked international protests led by British reporter Edmund Dene Morel and British diplomat/Irish rebel Roger Casement, whose 1904 report on the Congo condemned the practice. Famous writers such as Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle also protested, and Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was set in Congo Free State.