By Gary Oswald
Leopold’s aim for his colony in Africa was to make money. His efforts in portraying himself as a humanitarian were always aimed towards collecting donations, or ‘loans’ which he had no intention of paying back, from Europeans and Americans and his actions within the colony were the purest type of wealth extraction. Resources were to be taken out and sold and no money was to be given to the Africans.
Originally, this meant primarily obtaining Ivory. But what became the much more valuable good was Rubber. This was largely due to Dunlop making rubber tires from 1890 onward and so creating a new demand. Rubber had previously mostly been farmed from the trees of Brazil. The UK sent a man to obtain seeds from Brazil under false pretences in order to set up their own plantations in Malaysia but that took a while to get going, due to how slowly the plants mature, and in the meantime the market had a huge demand for more rubber. And in the Congo basin, while there weren’t rubber trees, there were rubber vines.
The vines grew quicker but they produced less rubber and it was much less easy to collect it. The most efficient way was to climb the tree, slash the vine open with a knife then stay there for days while the rubber dripped out of the vine and onto your body where it dried. And then it had to be painfully ripped off your body, often taking hair and skin with it. This was, quite understandably, not something that you got too many volunteers to do.
In the Congo the process was as follows. The Force Publique would arrive at a village, shoot anyone who objected, pillage any food or ivory and then hold various women and children hostage until the men had bought back enough rubber for them to be able to buy back their families. And the army was given strict quotas of goods they had to obtain or they'd be punished. The terrible irony of the Congo was that most of the atrocities were committed by black slaves on black slaves, the hierarchy meant cruelty and brutality cascaded downwards. Governors whipped their black squad leaders who beat their conscripts who beat the workers. And it wasn’t just beatings.
Killings were ripe throughout the system. The lives of Africans were simply worth nothing. If a village resisted, it was to be destroyed. The most notorious aspect of the Free State, the collections of disembodied hands, came from the simple fact that bullets were worth more than black people. If a soldier had shot his gun, he was asked to produce the hand of the person he killed to prove he had not wasted it. Among other things this meant that those who did shoot at nothing then had to find an African to kill in order to get a hand.
Mutilations such as losing a hand also became standard against living workers who hadn't met their quotas. The brutality towards workers was so casual and innate to the officers that when workers were imported from elsewhere, whether from China, the West Indies or elsewhere in Africa, to build railroads, they largely quit and fled within days of working in these conditions. Those forced to stay died in their thousands.
The death toll of the slave labour in the Congo Free State is undoubtedly massive, as indeed the death tolls of slavery tend to be. Thousands were flat out killed by the Force Publique, thousands more died doing slave labour, thousands died of starvation while being kept hostage or of exhaustion fleeing from the slave drivers and thousands more died of diseases spread through weakened and exhausted populations. Massacres happened every day, rapes happened every day. And moreover life simply wasn’t happening as normal. Thousands of babies that would have been born, weren’t because their fathers were in the army or on a plantation. Most estimations indicate that by the 1920s the Congo had around half the population it had in the 1870s, a loss of between five to ten million.
These atrocities have loomed large in the African memory. Trevor Noah, the South African Comedian, recently argued that if offered the chance to go back in time and kill one man most Africans would think of Leopold before Hitler. But, much as killing Hitler doesn’t solve all the many problems of inter-war Germany, killing Leopold doesn’t prevent colonisation entirely, merely his private control. Without him, you’d most likely see France take parts of what would become the Free State, Portugal take others and the areas controlled by Msiri and Tippu Tip go to the UK and Germany, respectively.
Katanga as part of Rhodesia would see some white settlement, minority rule, the seizure of all land by the Company and the natives largely forced into mining. You’d probably see more of a black middle class emerging but you’d also see more Katangans shipped to Southern Rhodesia to work as house servants for the white settlers and brutal conditions in the mines.
The other three would get the more Rubber rich areas and we have good examples of how they’d operate based on colonial lands which boarded the Free State and were all also rubber rich. Land in the French Congo was offered as concessions to various French Companies and those who got into Rubber tended to use the same playbook Leopold did in terms of slave labour, hostages and brutality. German Cameroon and Tanzania was also noted for its brutal use of forced labour, along the Belgian model, and German Congo would doubtless be the same.
Portuguese Congo might be slightly more interesting simply due to them being weaker. They still used slave labour based on the Corvée model of labour instead of taxes. But they also simply bought a lot of rubber from Angolan Chiefs who kept self-governance and in those cases it was the Africans who made bigger profits than the Portuguese. The Bailundo and the other Ovimbundu peoples still remember the rubber trade as bringing prosperity and riches to their leaders. A timeline wherein Portugal owns more of the Congo gives opportunities for more Africans to be enriched rather than impoverished by the rubber trade.
But this comes with three rather large caveats. First of all the Ovimbundu still owned and sold slaves, in fact many of the slaves the Portuguese used were obtained from the Bailundo. So just because Africans were involved, doesn’t mean the workers on the ground are better off. Second, the Rubber trade crashed sharply in the early 20th Century due to the cheap rubber from British Malaysia finally hitting the market. In OTL this hit the Bailundo sharply and it would likewise massively setback our potentially flourishing Congolese. Third, good colonial relationships are innately unstable due to the power imbalance so there's no guarantee they'll remain good without mutual profit. Within months of the rubber trade collapsing, the Bailundo and Portuguese were at war over perceived insults and Portugal would kill around 2,000 before the Bailundo surrendered.
Moreover the fact the Portuguese were more willing to work with Africans than the Belgians were is a double edged sword in itself. The Portuguese after all were the last European Power to withdraw from the continent. The idea that Angola was Portugal was more widespread than the idea the Congo was Belgium and the result was it took decades of fighting before Angola was free.
In terms of the cruelties some were uniquely Leopold’s. The deals with the Swahili slavers were genuinely unpopular with other Europeans and likewise while all colonies were white supremacist, very few had such open brutality against the natives. Even German South-West Africa at its worse had stronger laws, albeit often poorly enforced ones, against beating Africans.
But a lot more weren’t. The rubber trade was brutal wherever it was based, it was brutal in French and Portuguese colonies in Africa in OTL and it would be brutal in the Belgian Congo regardless of if the Belgians are there or not. Moreover, Leopold never actually visited the Congo. The men who actually committed these crimes were often not Belgian and they might well still be there, regardless of the owner. William Hesketh Lever, the British businessman who ran some of the worst and most brutal plantations in Belgian Congo, also ran some of the worst and most brutal plantations in British Nigeria. He’s likely to still be there regardless.
Yes, you can argue that these men were as bad as they were because of Leopold’s example. That corruption spreads from the top and there is truth in that. But Stanley had been brutalising the residents of the Congo when he was still trying to claim it for the UK and hadn’t even met Leopold yet. And the swap from private rule to Belgian Government control in 1908 didn’t stop the atrocities in OTL.
The Belgians bought the Free State from Leopold due to the outrages he had committed. But they changed very little upon doing so. They kept the same men in charge and the same system. The atrocities that so horrified Europe, the massacres, rapes and mutilations were much reduced as the Force Publique was reigned in but the slave system still ticked on. Until the 1920s villages could still only pay their taxes in rubber. And conscription into the armies and mines still happened and was still enforced by whips and hostages. The population did not bounce back upon Leopold's removal, it kept falling. For that matter the populations of other Central African people who'd never been in the Free State but were still under colonial rule also fell during this time period. A less openly brutal but equally destructive system is probably what you would get without Leopold.
And this could in fact be worse than OTL, at least in some aspects. Thousands of Europeans visited the Congo Free State and reported back to Europe that Leopold was telling the truth and he was doing great work. A mixture of racism, bribes and threats meant they either didn’t see the truth or they didn’t report it. Only a handful of brave men did speak out. The first was George Washington Williams, a black American Civil War veteran who had come to the Congo in the hope, shared by many in the USA, that it could be a site for Black Americans to settle in. His angry expose of the existence and prevalence of slavery in the Free State ended any hope of that happening but Williams was a lone voice and easy to discredit. Other voices, whether Swedish missionaries, Nigerian shopkeepers or Polish authors were likewise powerless against Leopold’s propaganda machine.
The men who repeatedly published exposés of the atrocities committed, who ran the long campaign for the truth, who matched Leopold’s propaganda campaign blow for blow were mostly white British citizens. They were extraordinarily courageous men, led by Edmund Morel and Roger Casement, who unlike so many others could not be bribed or threatened or discouraged. They had discovered an evil and they worked tirelessly to end it and used their privileges as members of the world’s greatest empire to get their voices heard. But they were also initially imperialists who spoke to imperialists. They were allowed to expose Leopold but would they have enjoyed the freedom to expose the UK or Portugal, whose atrocities Morel repeatedly whitewashed? In OTL, Morel and Casement became radicalised by this fight and when they turned against Britain during WW1 they were no longer tolerated and both men were arrested.
Leopold was easy to separate from colonialism. He was the newcomer, the rogue, he could become a sin eater for all the wrongs that happened. It was Leopold who did it wrong, that wouldn’t have happened in a proper colony. There is some truth in that in terms of scale but nothing that happened in the Free State didn’t happen elsewhere, the other rubber colonies were arguably just as bad. If Leopold wasn’t there to be a symbol of all the evils of what happened, how much later until those sins are exposed? Without that scandal, does decolonisation become harder, is there less pressure for reform in the colonies? Is the overall death toll actually higher?
The Post-Colonial Democratic Republic of the Congo would also be very different in a world where Trevor Noah killed Leopold II. It would probably be smaller for one, which given the problems its had with secessionists is probably a blessing (though it might well lose land to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan which would just be transferring the problem from one capital to another). It’d also almost certainly have more Africans in positions of power prior to independence than it did in real life, the Belgian Congo didn’t use indirect rule the way most other colonies did. But the kleptomaniac dictators, the civil wars, the interference by foreign powers, the neo-imperialism of foreign companies? Those are African wide problems, removing one man would not remove them.
The Congo’s problems did not end with Leopold II and they did not begin with him either. The first 19th century invaders after all were not the Belgians but rather the subjects of next week’s article, the Sultanate of Zanzibar.