NO doubt, we know a lot about Cecil John Rhodes’s reign of exploitation and plunder in Rhodesia.
We also know that his desire to conquer our land went as far as claiming our own spiritual shrine at Matopos as his burial site.
Rhodes was British.
He was a rogue, and a greedy colonialist.
What most of us do not know, is that the evils of Cecil John Rhodes in Africa did not reach the extent shown during the bloody and ruthless reign of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when it was still The Congo.
It is most surprising that the deaths of over 10 million Congolese people during King Leopold’s reign of terror is hardly mentioned when the world speaks of genocide in some books on African history. Unless we dig deep into the history of Africa’s past, we will never know. The small country of Belgium is the subject of this column and the role played by the notorious King Leopold II who lived between 1835 and 1909.
King Leopold was a constitutional monarch in Belgium with limited powers.
He never set foot in Africa.
But he used his power to make himself the king and owner of a vast empire, so-called the Congo Free State.
In 1876, Belgium’s King Leopold II convened a geographical conference in Brussels.
He proposed establishing an international benevolent committee, whose main purpose was the “propagation of civilisation among the peoples of Central Africa (the Congo region).”
At first the idea for the meeting was meant to focus on a multi-national, scientific, and humanitarian assembly, the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA, African International Association).
But it did not take long before this so-called humanitarian assembly became a development company controlled by Leopold himself.
From 1878 to 1884, Leopold used his company to claim the Congo Basin for Belgian sovereignty.
His main goal was to exploit the ivory market in Central Africa by establishing a secure trade route between the Upper and Lower Congo because the area was very rich in mineral resources and rubber.
The Congo soon became known throughout Africa for producing the most profitable rubber.
At the Berlin Conference of 1884, Berlin (1884-1885), Leopold was given the État Indépendant du Congo or what became the Congo Free State, a country estimated to be two million square kilometres became Leopold’s own personal property.
Just like that.
An agreement was made as part of the terms of the General Act of the Berlin Conference in which Leopold agreed to suppress the East African slave trade, promote humanitarian policies, guarantee free trade within the colony and impose no import duties for 20 years.
He also promised to encourage philanthropic and scientific enterprises. However, Leopold did not honour his promises.
Instead, he actually issued rulings violating the agreements he had made.
He took ownership of all vacant lands throughout the Congo Basin taking all the rights of the Congolese people’s land, making them people without land ownership, terres domainales.
He established an all-white army of mercenaries and soldiers called the Force Publique (FP) whose role was to stop the Arab slave trade in the Upper Congo to promote Leopold’s economic interests and promote the rubber trade.
Towards the end of the 19th century JB Dunlop had invented inflatable rubber bicycle tubes and there was a growing demand for cars and therefore for rubber.
Seeing an easy opportunity to increase his wealth, Leopold took all the rubber resources.
He passed three decrees in 1891 and 1892, reducing Africans of the Congo to serfs or labourers, the same way black Zimbabweans were used by the Rhodesian government in chibaro, forced labour.
The Congolese were forced to harvest, collect and deliver ivory and rubber.
Each individual was forced to fulfil a certain quota while tapping rubber from the trees.
The Force Publique kidnapped rubber tappers’ wives and children, keeping them hostage until the men fulfilled the stipulated rubber quota. The Congolese men who did not deliver the rubber quota had their villages burned down, children murdered and their hands cut off.
Some of the Congolese fled to the wilderness and forests and staged guerrilla type warfare burning rubber vine forests.
There was resistance from the Chiefs like Nzanzu and Kandolo who led rebellions that went on for many years, protesting against Leopold’s reign of terror and genocide.
The FP went out to fight the Congolese in the forests, bringing back dead victims’ right hands to prove the ‘success’ of their operation.
The whole of the Congo Free State became known as a place of murder and the worst kinds of slavery.
But the FP had the power and guns to simply slaughter resistance. Events of that period inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1902.
He highlighted some of Leopold’s genocide activities.
During Leopold’s reign of terror and murder, between 1885 and 1908, millions of the Congolese people died.
In his book, King Leopold’s Ghost, historian Adam Hochshild writes that the causes of death under Leopold’s reign included murder, starvation, exhaustion and exposure, disease and reduced birth rates.
The Congolese historian Ndaywel e Nziem estimates the death toll at 13 million.
A whole country murdered and yet such history remains unknown or hidden from the vast majority of Africans!
In response to public outcry to Leopold’s atrocities, the British government made an investigation and concluded that the evil in the Congo was largely influenced by greed and commercial gain.
By 1908, the Belgian parliament responded to international pressure and removed Leopold from power and took the Congo, calling it the Belgian Congo.
Before he left, Leopold destroyed all evidence of his cruel genocidal activities including the archives of its Departments of Finance and the Interior.
For a good eight days, in 1908, “furnaces in Leopold’s Brussels headquarters were at full blast, as Congo State archives were turned to ash”.
Likewise, archives and records were also set alight in the Congo. Belgium looked at the ashes and buried the events of an African genocide in its memory, as if it was nothing.
There was no formal inquiry into the human rights abuses.
Although Leopold was no longer in control, the Congolese continued to be exploited, enslaved and murdered right up to 1959 when riots in Leopoldville (today Kinshasa) led to the independence of The Congo from Belgium on June 30, 1960.
On that day, the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo was established.
The genocide of Africans during King Leopold’s reign must be revisited and the truth of our experience as Africans told.
Written by Patriot Reporter