King Leopold II of Belgium: Birth, Reign, Congo Free State, & Atrocities Committed
Known in his country as the “Builder King”, Leopold II was the second King of the Belgians and the self-proclaimed “sovereign” (supreme authority) of the Free Congo State. This turned out to be ironic because the natives were not free, it has been recorded the level of inhumane treatment meted out to his central African dominion resulted in the deaths of 5 to 10 million native Congolese.
Staying on the throne for 44 years, Leopold went on to be the longest serving Belgian monarch. With no surviving legitimate children, he was succeeded by his nephew Albert I.
Leopold was born the second child of King Leopold l and Louise-Marie, the daughter of King Louis Philippe of France on April 9, 1835. His elder brother, crown prince Louis Philippe died the year he was born. His sister was Empress Carlota of Mexico and Queen Victoria was his first cousin.
He was described as a shy and socially awkward child. By 1853, 18-year-old Leopold reluctantly married Marie Henriette of Austria, fondly called the “Rose of Brabant” for her exceptional beauty. The union produced three daughters and a son who died at the age of nine.
Rise to Power
The young prince became a member of the Belgian senate in 1853 and was adamant about Belgium acquiring colonies. Between 1855 to 1865 he traveled to India, Europe, Africa, and China. He was interested in Belgian trade relationships with other countries. In 1865, King Leopold l died and was succeeded by his eldest son Leopold II, who was crowned king at the age of 30.
The young king was hungry to make significant reforms as outlined in his letter to his brother, Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders. He wanted his nation to be prosperous as as well as a force to be reckoned with.
During Leopold II’s reign, the following reforms were made; universal male suffrage was put on the statutes, trade unions were legalized, and laws against child labor were passed, prohibiting children under twelve from working in factories, and none younger than sixteen was allowed to work at night.
The king of Belgium tried to reform the Belgian military for many years. He acquired and built numerous private properties for himself inside and outside Belgium. He also commissioned a great number of buildings and public works like the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Royal Galleries, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, and the Antwerpen-Centraal railway station in Antwerp.
Read More: The Scramble for Africa and the Berlin Conference of 1884
Congo Free State
Leopold really wanted Belgium to acquire colonies so he set his sights on Africa, central Africa to be specific. With the help of famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Leopold took control of a territory seventy-six times the size of Belgium.
The clan chiefs were deceived to sign over their lands in exchange for the cloth, trinkets, alcohol, and other cheap goods Stanley gave them. In a conference held in Berlin in 1885, imperial powers in Europe resolved to grant Leopold possession of the Congo River basin.
Soon a decree was made insisting the natives trade elephant tusk and rubber saps with the king’s agents only. Leopold enriched himself by profiting from the rubber boom. Using his personal army Force Publique, the natives were forced to meet a daily quota or face severe consequences.
The Congolese rebelled several times, fleeing their villages and setting the rubber plantations on fire, but they were no match for the Force Publique. To serve as a warning to other rebels, the mercenaries would burn down whole villages, decapitate the chiefs and kill the women and children.
Leopold II was called the “Butcher of the Congo” by some leaders who frowned at the brutal treatment he meted out to his Congolese colony. In the late 1890s, a young British clerk, Edmund Dene Morel discovered the natives were held at gunpoint to work. He wrote, “I had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a king for a [partner].”
Leopold’s Force Publique was expanded by recruiting soldiers from Liberia, Zanzibar, and Nigeria. The untrained soldiers were brutal, and laborers who did not work were punished by severing the hands of their family members. It was reported that baskets of severed hands were set down at the feet of the European post commanders. And in some cases, the soldiers were paid bonuses for the number of severed hands they collected.
Another method to force workers was detaining the chiefs, wives, and children of workers. The administration imprisoned hundreds of people in conditions that weren’t even ideal for animals. It is reported over 10 prisoners died daily from starvation, diseases, and the guns of the soldiers.
Leopold ordered the creation of child colonies for children orphaned by the soldiers and forced them to attend missionary schools. 50% of the children in the colonies died from the diseases.
In 1890, an American politician, George Washington Williams traveled to the Free state of Congo and was greatly appalled by what he saw. He wrote a letter to the Belgian king and condemned the abuse of the workers. Williams criticized how Henry Stanley deceived the native chiefs into signing treaties. Rather than take concrete steps to remedy the situation, the king and his councils launched a campaign to discredit Williams and denied the allegations.
According to Edmund Dene Morel, 20 million natives died by the end of Leopold II’s control of the Free State of Congo. Since there was no census, there is no accurate figure for the people that died under Leopold II.
Williams’ letter generated an outcry in the United States, and the British House of Commons also launched an investigation that confirmed the stories of atrocities. In 1908, Leopold was forced to renounce his ownership of the Congo to the Belgian government, creating the Belgian Congo.
Read More: The Congo Crisis 1960-1965
A Tarnished Legacy
Leopold II’s popularity declined in his country because of the brutalities perpetrated during his rule over the Free State of Congo. It came as no surprise when his subjects booed during his funeral procession in 1909.
Following Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960, the statues of Leopold II were moved to the national museum. 110 years after King Leopold’s death, King Philippe sent a letter to the Congolese president and people, expressing regret over the transgressions committed during the colonial period.
In June 2022, King Philippe visited Congo and expressed his deep regrets of the horrific suffering caused by his predecessors, especially that of Leopold II’s. However no formal apology for the treatment of the natives has been issued as of 2022.
King Leopold II and his brutal reign over his African colonies is just a tip of the unimaginable pain inflicted on European powers during the colonial era. This issue came to fore during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Brussel, where tens of thousands of people petitioned for the removal of Leopold’s statues.
Leopold II had six children with two women, however, he died without a male heir. Therefore, the Belgian Crown was passed to Albert I, the son of Leopold’s brother, Philippe, Count of Flanders. In the last decade of his life, the king raised a lot of eyebrows when he began living with a young prostitute called Caroline Lacroix. He thus became the the subject of political cartoonists for his philandering ways.