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Belgian Congo, 1888.

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  • Belgian Congo, 1888.

    King Leopold's Congo, 1886-1908.

    By means of bribes and lobbying, Belgium's King Leopold II gained recognition for the Congo in 1884 by the United States, followed by a similar deal with France.
    Owing to the upsetting of Bismark's carefully laid balance of power in European politics caused by Leopold's gamble and the subsequent European race for colonies, Germany felt compelled to act and started launching expeditions of its own which frightened both British and French statesmen. Hoping to quickly soothe this brewing conflict, Leopold was able to convince France and Germany that common trade in Africa was in the best interests of all three countries. Under support from the British and the initiative of Portugal, Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor, called on representatives of Austria–Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (union until 1905), the Ottoman Empire, and the United States to take part in the Berlin Conference (1884-85) to work out policy.


    In the Congo, Leopold developed a military dictatorship over a country 76 times the size of Belgium, with only a small number of white officials. Initially, he paid mercenaries, but in 1888 these were transformed into the “Force Publique”. At its peak, there were 19,000 conscripted African soldiers and 420 white officers. Once his ownership of the Congo was secure, the rubber boom erupted. The first missionaries to go to the Belgian Congo were the White Fathers, arriving there in 1888. They were quickly followed by the Scheut Fathers and by the Jesuits.

    The Congo was a political entity brought into being on African soil completely by the will of one man, and that man - who never visited his dominion - governed it from his residence in Europe in a completely autocratic way. The sentral services of the state were all located in Brussels, and all its officials were Belgian. As for the Congo itself - in the administration, in the army, and in the courts - the essential role was played by Belgians, especially by officers of the Belgian army assigned to African service. Even the religious missions - at any rate those of the Catholics, which were most favoured by the state - almost all had a markedly Belgian character. [...] The Congo Independent State was not merely an absolut monarchy in which the sovereign held all powers; it was a state that was in a way fused with its own sovereign. Sovereignty was invested in the person of the king, who considered the state his private property. [...] A jurist said at the time - and the remark was made in all seriousness - that to find a precedent for such a situation one had to go back in Europe to the time of the Merovingian kings. This does not mean that Leopold was a relic of the past. He was on the contrary quite modern. His spirit was that of a great captain of business. At the price of incessant labour, and at his own expense, he had built up his enterprise; what else could he be than the master of the enterprise ? The master he was, not only theoretically, but also in practice. He never delegated power, he exercised it personally. All the great decisions where his. When his advisers did not agree with him they had to quit. In the daily work, in his office in Brussels, he concerned himself even with details. As a capitalist and as a manager his main concerns were to make his enterprise profitable, and to expand. Curiously enough, Leopold tried to expand even before the enterprise became self-supporting. In the first years of existence of the Congo State, when only a tiny part of the territory of the state was occupied, Leopold tried to extend his frontiers in all directions. In 1888-9, the points he sought to attain where the upper Zambezi, Lake Nyasa (Malawi), Lake Victoria and the Upper Nile. [...]

    In the Congo, however, profit seemed at first very elusive. During the first ten years of its existence, the young state needed help for its very survival. From 1885 to 1895 its normal revenue remained extremely limited; it could cover only a small part of its expenditure. In 1887-8 receipts still represented only a tenth of the expenses. The king had to cover the deficit from his privy purse. In 1888 he was helped by the yield of a lottery loan, issued in Belgium for the benefit of the Congo, which brought in several millions*. This proved still insufficient; in 1890 he had to turn to [the state of] Belgium itsef.


    From 1896 to 1900, as his private letters reveal, he passed through several periods of agony. 'We are condemned by civilized opinion', he wrote in September 1896. 'If there are abuses in the Congo, we must make them stop.' It is necessary to put down the horrible abuses,' he repeated in January 1899. 'These horrors must end or I will retire from the Congo. I will not allow myself to be spattered by blood and mud.' On the occasion of each of these crises of anger and disgust, the king reiterated strict orders: cruelty to the natives should be severely punished. The Congo administration just waited for the storm to pass. It had elaborated a system and stuck to it. Altering the system might weaken it. The lessening of pressure on the Africans would naturally bring about a reduction of revenue, and the administration was well aware that, if this occurred, it would have more than royal anger to face. In other words, the administration distinguished between the king's permanent and fundamental desire - to increase the output of the domain - and his fundamental crises of conscience. It modeled its actions on what was permanent and fundamental. All those linked with the regime, therefore, and desirous of exculpating themselves, tried to convince Leopold II that the accusations against the Congo were unjust or exaggerated and were made in great measure out of ill will. The attitude of Leopold, who, unconsciously no doubt, was ready to be convinced, thus came to undergo profound modification; instead of being affected by the attacks, he began soon to react more and more violently against them. Whereas the king almost always dominated his entourage, it may be said that in this case he allowed himself to be dominated by it.


    *The delimitation commission sent out to determine the frontier as defined in the treaty agreed on a line in the vicinity of Manyanga (November 27, 1885), but came to no agreement as to what stream was designated as the Licona-Nkundja, by which the French contended that the Ubangi was meant. The dispute was carried to Europe, and so irreconcilable were the contending views that in July, 1886, it was agreed to refer the matter to the arbitrament of the President of the Swiss Confederation. But events induced King Leopold to yield ; he was anxious to secure that on his ceasing to be sovereign the State might fall into the hands of Belgium, and to this the right of pre-emption accorded on April 23, 1884, might be deemed to stand in the way ; moreover, he desired to have quoted on the Paris Bourse the lottery loan for 150,000,000 francs which he had induced the Belgian Parliament to authorize.

    Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 6, c. 1870 - c. 1905
    Arthur Berriedale Keith, The Belgian Congo and the Berlin Act


  • #2
    Thanks very much and welcome back, Pilgrim !
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    • #3
      And my thanks to you, Howard. A pleasure to be here.