He was the leader of a European country. A head of state with an immense amount of power. And he oversaw one of the most vile genocides that the world has ever seen. Yet we’re not talking about Adolf Hitler here. In fact, there’s a very real chance that you’ve never even heard this tyrant’s name before.
During his reign he was responsible for the slaughter of more than 10 million people. He turned a chunk of Africa into his own personal slave plantation and killing ground, where he ruled with an iron fist. Indeed, the crimes that were carried out in his name are enough to turn anyone’s stomach.
And this horrific piece of history, almost entirely forgotten by the West, still has ramifications in the region today. Meanwhile, one particularly troubling fact stands out. Even with all the bloodshed and oppression, the mutilations and horrific treatment, the rest of the so-called “civilized” world was slow to try to bring an end to the tyranny.
King Leopold II was the cousin of the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria. He was a stout man, often pictured with a beard and a stern look on his face. He ascended to Belgium’s throne in 1865 – a time when other European countries were making large colonial expansions into regions of Africa.
Some had worries about the suitability of the king before his reign began. Indeed, according to a Guardian article from 1999, Queen Victoria had described him as “unfit, idle and unpromising an heir apparent as ever was known.” And he did not even deny charges made against him in London, England, of using underage prostitutes.
Meanwhile, Belgium at the time was in a state of flux. Revolution and reformation had led to the beginnings of democracy in the country. And when Leopold took the throne, the state decided not to fund his desire to create a Belgian empire in Africa. Instead it opted to let Leopold head the expansion himself.
Using democratic ties and diplomacy, Leopold managed to get European heads of state to carve out a section of the Congo basin for him to control. To put the size of the new domain granted to Leopold into context, Belgium could have fitted into it 76 times over. And much of this territory was dense, inhospitable jungle.
Furthermore, on that African territory, Leopold ordered a campaign of violence and intimidation with one single goal: to make as much money as he possibly could by exploiting the area’s resources. But to begin with, things didn’t go to plan.
It wasn’t until the global market for rubber took off that Leopold began making money from the land. And it was then that things began to get truly horrible for the inhabitants of what came to be known as the Congo Free State.
The cheapest way to collect rubber at the time was to send Congolese men into the forests to cut down vines. They’d then cover their skin with the collected rubber latex, scraping it off later. And that scraping would often take off layers of skin and hair. But they didn’t have a choice: the workers were forced into collecting the sticky, lucrative substance.
If that wasn’t bad enough, each village in Leopold’s domain was given a quota that it had to meet. This was enforced by the police in the region. And if the village failed, then hostages were taken and killed. In addition, a grisly, perverse logic would destroy the lives of many more.
To make sure that the members of the police force weren’t wasting bullets by hunting for food in the jungle, for every shot they fired, they had to provide proof that they had killed a person. And that proof was a severed hand. Consequently, a horrifying trade in detached hands developed between villagers and the police who couldn’t account for all their shots.
Another tactic of the gendarmerie was to hold the women and children of a village hostage, sending the men back into the jungles to reach their quota while the rest of the village was abused. Then, if the men came back without enough rubber, everyone in the village was killed.
One report from the time came from Presbyterian missionary William Henry Sheppard. In an extract from his diary, printed in History Today in October 2012, he speaks of passing by a number of burned-down villages. He was then taken to meet a local police recruit, who told him some truly stomach-churning tales.
The local, Mlumba Nkusa, told Sheppard how he had been tasked with collecting 60 slaves and an enormous haul of rubber. And when neither of the quotas were met, Nkusa explained, police had killed around 80 to 90 workers in retaliation.
In addition, Sheppard was shown a hut in which locals were raped to ensure obedience. Then he was taken to a second hut where severed hands were preserved. More than 80 of them were dangling over an open fire in order to prevent them from rotting.
Leopold’s reign over the Free Congo State came to an end in 1908, when control of the region was taken by the Belgian state after international condemnation over the conditions of the people living there. But the numbers of people murdered or maimed during Leopold’s time in charge are still difficult to contemplate.
In fact, some estimates put the death toll as high as 15 million. That ranks the Congolese genocide as one of the most appalling crimes against humanity ever perpetrated. And yet it’s unlikely that many westerners today will have heard about it. It’s a narrative that has been all but forgotten by the history books.
When King Leopold II died in 1909, people jeered his funeral procession. Here was a man who had used the people of Africa as his own personal slave workforce. And in return he’d given them nothing but slaughter, oppression and barbarism. Perhaps worst of all, it was all in the name of greed.
The colonization of Africa in the 19th century is one of the darkest periods in the history of the Western world. And King Leopold II’s actions in the Congo Free State rank among the very worst. He may have never set foot there, but under his orders mutilation, rape and murder were carried out on a massive scale. And it’s something we should never forget.