European nations began exploring the African continent as early as the fifteenth century. Even though the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish, Danish, and French all had established coastal settlements in Africa by 1700, the interior of the continent remained, for the most part, uncharted by Europeans. Malaria was a major deterrent for explorers, but the 1820 development of quinine to treat the disease made possible further European exploration of the region. Within fifty years, Europeans had traveled extensively throughout Africa, reaching its central lakes and mapping the courses of the Nile, Congo, and Zambezi rivers. In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened in Egypt, creating a direct trade route from Europe to Asia. More than ever, European nations recognized the economic importance of Africa and its natural resources. The need for raw materials to support the Industrial Revolution (1750–1850) intensified this interest.
Known as the Scramble for Africa, a late-nineteenth-century race developed among rival European countries to gain African territory. Intrigued by the reports of British naval officer Verney Lovett Cameron (1844–1894) of unlimited opportunities for wealth, Belgian king Leopold II (1835–1909) became one of the movement’s most aggressive players. Leopold met with Cameron, who related the horrors of the African slave trade along with the profitability of the interior’s largely untapped supplies of ivory, coal, sugar cane, copper, iron, and palm oil. Leopold decided to establish an African colony in the name of philanthropy, not imperialism, declaring that Belgium would crusade for the abolition of the slave trade and bring enlightenment to Africans. Still, he needed the cooperation of other European powers.
In September 1876 Leopold convened the Geographical Conference of Brussels, attended by politicians, explorers, missionaries, geographers, and businessmen from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Leopold proposed a line of stations extending coast to coast, from Bagamoyo to Luanda, which would allow explorers venturing into the heart of Africa to replenish their supplies and receive medical treatment. Each center would house a team of scientists who would study the soil, climate, natural resources, and local population. Leopold believed that the stations would extend the fruits of European civilization across the continent, enriching the native populations. Leopold’s vision inspired conference delegates to found the International African Association (IAA), a humanitarian organization, and Leopold was elected its president. Belgium, Switzerland, France, Germany, Spain, Holland, Austria, and the United States formed national committees to raise funds for the IAA. (The British government opted out, anticipating conflicts over trading rights.)
Between 1879 and 1884, British explorer Henry Morgan Stanley (1841–1904), acting as an agent for Leopold, explored the Congo River basin and set up a chain of trading stations along the river. A passage from Stanley’s diary, quoted in Africa: A Biography of the Continent, reads: “The King is a clever statesman. He has not been so frank as to tell me outright what we are to strive for. Nevertheless it has been pretty evident that under the guise of an International Association he hopes to make a Belgian dependency of the Congo basin.” Stanley was correct. The IAA was dissolved in 1882, and the International Association of the Congo (IAC) was formed in its place. This new organization was independent of the national associations that had governed the IAA, and essentially it became a development company controlled by Leopold.
In February 1885 Leopold was awarded rights to the Congo territory at the Berlin Conference, attended by thirteen countries, including Great Britain, Germany, France, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and the United States. Two months later, the Belgian parliament passed a resolution granting the king permission to be sovereign of two independent states at the same time. Leopold named Belgium’s private fiefdom the Congo Free State (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo). He initially considered calling himself emperor of the Congo but elected instead to go by the title king-sovereign of the Congo Free State.
Under the terms of the Berlin Conference, Leopold agreed to promote humanitarian policies, guarantee free trade within the colony, suppress the East African slave trade, and support philanthropic and scientific enterprises. He also pledged not to impose import duties for twenty years. One of Leopold’s first projects was a railway from the Matadi seaport to the capital of Leopoldville (present-day Kinshasa). Due to financial difficulties, the railroad took almost ten years to complete, and almost two hundred Africans working on its construction died each month.
Economic survival was questionable during the colony’s first few years, as Leopold was spending freely and borrowing heavily. The Congo’s ivory and palm oil trades were not profitable enough to sustain expenditures, and Leopold had to depend on a loan from the Belgian government in 1890 to save the territory from bankruptcy. Fortunately for Leopold, the Congo had one raw material that was on the verge of becoming a high-demand resource in many parts of the world: rubber.
In 1888 John B. Dunlop (1840–1921) invented pneumatic (air-filled) bicycle tubes. In 1895 brothers Édouard (1859–1940) and André (1853–1931) Michelin introduced the first pneumatic tire for automobiles. The growing popularity of the automobile dramatically increased global demand for rubber, which up to that point had been used mainly for the production of waterproof clothing. Prices shot up dramatically in the 1890s as industries discovered new uses for rubber in hoses, tubing, and insulation for telegraph and telephone wires. By the late 1890s, rubber would surpass ivory as the Congo Free State’s main source of revenue.
Issuing three decrees in 1891 and 1892 that forced natives to deliver all rubber to state agents, Leopold created a monopoly of the rubber trade. Local populations were required to meet rubber quotas, enforced by the Force Publique (FP). The FP was comprised of white officers of the state whose original purpose in the Congo Free State was to campaign against the slave trade, protect Leopold’s economic interests, and suppress native uprisings within the territory. The FP often held the families of rubber collectors hostage until they had returned with the required amount of rubber. Those workers who failed to meet their quotas had their villages burned, their hands cut off, or their children mutilated. Such atrocities became more prevalent as the Congo’s rubber supply declined due to overharvesting.
In South America, the world’s leading rubber producer in earlier years, the natural latex used to manufacture rubber was tapped from Funtumia elastica trees. Most latex in the Congo, however, came from Landolphia vines in the jungle. Instead of tapping the vines, harvesters peeled the bark or cut the vines into sections to extract the latex. (Some natives lathered their bodies with the fresh latex, which would be scraped off the skin after it hardened.) Once cut, the vines died, making it necessary for workers to find new areas where Landolphia grew. Within only a few years, rubber in the Congo was scarce due to overharvesting, yet the FP still demanded that quotas be met.
In the early 1890s, reports of abuse of the indigenous peoples in the Congo Free State circulated around Europe, even as Leopold continued to emphasize his humanitarian objectives. He claimed that people’s hands had been bitten off by wild animals or had been removed because of disease. Such stories did not ring true with individuals who had knowledge of the Congo, even from a distance.
For example, Edmund D. Morel (1873–1924), who worked as clerk for Elder Dempster, a Liverpool, England, shipping firm, discovered that ships headed from Belgium to the Congo carried no commercial products. Instead, they transported guns, chains, and explosives. Since ships returned from the Congo with rubber and ivory, Morel suspected that the Congolese people were being enslaved. He resigned from his job as Elder Dempster’s head of trade with the Congo and founded a magazine, The West African Mail, in which he campaigned to expose human rights violations taking place in the Congo.
In 1903 Roger Casement (1864–1916), British consul to the Congo Free State, set out to investigate the situation. The disturbing, graphic report he issued in 1904 incited public outcry for reform. Along with Morel and evangelist Henry Grattan Guinness (1861–1915), Casement launched the Congo Reform Association in 1904, an organization dedicated to exposing violent acts against Congolese people. Damning evidence included photographs (a new technology at the time) of mutilated men, women, and children. Literary works such as Heart of Darkness (1902), by Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), and King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905), by Mark Twain (1835–1910), further heightened public awareness about the horrors taking place in the Congo.
Finally bowing to international pressure, the Belgian parliament annexed the Congo Free State as the Belgian Congo and took over its administration in November 1908. Despite the atrocities committed under Leopold’s rule as king-sovereign of the Congo Free State, parliament refused to conduct an inquiry into the human rights abuses that had occurred. In fact, the Belgian government gave Leopold money to compensate for his loss.
The Congolese people had suffered considerably under the Congo Free State. Before the rubber trade exploded in the 1890s, the Congolese population was estimated to be at least twenty million. A 1911 census recorded only 8.5 million. Entire regions of the Congo Free State had been decimated.
By 1959 a series of riots in Leopoldville had eroded Belgium’s authority in the Belgian Congo. On June 30, 1960, the Republic of the Congo was established. The country’s name was changed to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1964 in order to distinguish it from the former French Congo, which was also called the Republic of the Congo.