The European Colonization of Africa

1 January 2017

His thirst for expanding his own Belgian empire grew strong. He learned as much as one could about colonization and profit, and when he realized that no colonies were available for purchase, he knew he must use force. His eyes were set on Africa. “Only in Africa could Leopold hope to achieve his dream of seizing a colony, especially one immensely larger than Belgium” (Hochschild 61). As one of the greatest conquests in world history, along with the Jewish holocaust which killed 11 million people, the European conquest of Africa killed over 10 million people cutting the population of the Congo by at least half (Hochschild 233).

In thoroughly understanding this tragic event in history, it is important to explore why Europe conquered and colonized Africa, how this conquer was accomplished, and Africa’s response to it. Greed was at the center of King Leopold’s European conquest and colonization of Africa. In his mid-twenties Leopold read the book “Java” about how to manage a colony, and began corresponding with the author J. W. B. Money (Hochschild 37). Leopold thought colonies existed to make him rich, and dreamed of the money, power, and respect they would bring him.

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Leopold thought the Congo was perfect for colonization because it was still ran by its indigenous people, was rich in resources, and was much larger than the land he already owned. “The Congo River drains more than 1. 3 million square miles, an area larger than India. It has an estimated one sixth of the world’s hydroelectric potential. Most important of all, for a nineteenth-century empire-builder, the river and its fan-shaped web of tributaries constitute more than seven thousand miles of interconnecting waterways, a built-in transportation grid rivaled by few places on earth” (Hochschild 61).

Despite the diseases that were there, such as Malaria and sleeping sickness, Congo was an ideal territory for King Leopold to colonize. King Leopold learned that ivory was very plentiful in the Congo and was their biggest export. An average pair of elephant tusks can produce a hundred pounds of ivory, and King Leopold planned to capitalize from it (Hochschild 64). There was a mass market for goods made from ivory. “Ivory from elephant tusks was shaped into knife handles, billiard balls, combs, fans, napkin rings, piano and organ keys, chess pieces, crucifixes, snuffboxes, brooches, and statuettes” (Hochschild 64).

In addition to ivory, King Leopold made a fortune from rubber, which had become a very lucrative resource. He forced the Congolese into unpaid labor to collect sap from rubber plants. He tricked Europe and the rest of the world into believing that he only wanted to bring Western civilization to the Congo and suppress the slave trade; however, his true aim was for personal profit using forced Congolese labor and torturing or killing anyone who did not cooperate. Leopold profited from the work of unpaid slaves greatly. He treated the slaves harshly without proper food and shelter.

He cut off the workers’ hands as punishment for not meeting the work quota, and he held their wives and children as hostage. The women were often raped and/or starved to death. King Leopold secretly amassed a fortune at the expense of the Congolese people, while several countries believed his facade and honored him for his humanitarian efforts in the Congo. King Leopold used manipulation, deceit and force to build his brutal regime in the Congo. Famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley was already familiar with much of the region along the Congo river basin, and was paid by King Leopold to return to Africa to begin colonizing.

Stanley quickly began this colonization by manipulating over 450 native chiefs into signing over all land ownership in exchange for cloth. “The chiefs had no idea what they were signing. Few had seen the written word before” (Hochschild 72). The chiefs thought they were agreeing to a friendship treaty, as they were accustomed to doing with other villages. Leopold was able to establish control forcefully because of the advantages he had over the Congolese. Stanley had already observed that the Congolese were not of any military threat.

Leopold had gun technology including breech loading rifles, the repeating rifle, and the machine gun. Leopold also had medicine to help combat disease, especially Malaria. Steamboats allowed Leopold to take advantage to the river. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were treated as slaves to perform various labor including to porter, cut wood to fire steamboat boilers, and they often died from exhaustion. As the demand for rubber grew due to the bicycle and car industry, so did the demand for workers. Leopold knew Congo had the largest supply of rubber, and unpaid workers were extremely important in the collection of rubber.

Leopold enforced a taxation that required local chiefs to supply workers to collect rubber without being paid. Those who refused or did not supply enough rubber were punished. Their villages were burned down, children were murdered, and hands and heads were cut off. Entire villages of people were demolished. ” The chicotte was a tool commonly used to beat the people of Congo. It was just as much associated with Leopold’s rule as was the steamboat and rifle. The chicotte is a “whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip…

Its blows would leave permanent scars; more than twenty-five strokes could mean unconsciousness; and a hundred or more-not an uncommon punishment-were often fatal” (Hochschild 120). The Congolese began to rebel, escape, and fight back against King Leopold. Though the people of the Congo were disadvantaged in military power, they escaped and fought back as much as they could. Rebellions were formed in refusal of Belgian sovereignty. The rebels attempted to escape by fleeing their villages and hiding in the forests.

They cut rubber vines so they were no longer useful, and set fire to the rubber vine forests. One of King Leopold’s men was quoted saying “They have just been and cut some rubber vines… We must fight them until their absolute submission has been obtained, or their complete extermination… Inform the natives that if they cut another single vine, I will exterminate them to the last man” (Hochschild 229). In retaliation for the natives leaving their villages, King Leopold’s Force Publique soldiers took their animals and burned their huts and crops, leaving them no food (Hochschild 229).

The Force Publique soldiers went into the forest to find and kill rebels hiding there. The natives sometimes left their young children behind to die in fear that the crying would give away their hiding places. The soldiers were ordered to cut off the hands of every rebel they killed and bring them back as evidence of the killing. Many times, the soldiers cut off and collected the hands of living Congolese in order to meet quotas given to them. Many children were victims also. The few Congolese that lived near the Congo’s borders were lucky enough to escape into a different country.

Around 30,000 natives dispersed into French and British territory, but many of them were unsuccessful and drowned in the Luapula River (Hochschild 229). Everyone else had no recourse but to escape into the deep forest where chance of survival was slim. Most of the Congolese rebellions were unsuccessful, but not in vain. The outcome of King Leopold’s regime was catastrophic. Murder, starvation, exhaustion, disease, and low birth rate left Congo completely depopulated and devastated. No one was safe in King Leopold’s reign during the rubber boom, as even small children were killed during this massacre.

Many of the Congolese survived King Leopold’s murdering sprees, but died from starvation and exhaustion. The Congolese were forced to work hard without adequate food by King Leopold’s officers. When they escaped into the forest they had no food or shelter. Disease had a larger death toll in the Congo than anything else. Malaria was already present in the Congo, but many new diseases were brought into the region from Arab slave-traders. Small pox and sleeping sickness caused the most fatalities. Due to families being separated during the rubber boom, and women being held hostage and starved, the birth rate decreased tremendously.

Many women refused to bear children as it would hamper them from escaping when necessary. Also, families were terrorized, and people did not want to raise a child in those dangerous conditions. The fall of King Leopold began with Edmund Dene Morel, a British shipping clerk who observed King Leopold’s atrocities while working to supervise the loading and unloading of ships in the Congo. In the 1890s, Morel discovered that Congo exported tons of rubber to Belgium, but only guns and bullets were shipped back.

He quit the shipping job and became a newspaper reporter to expose King Leopold’s mistreatment of the Congolese. Roger Casement went to the Congo on behalf of the British government to investigate if the conditions Morel described were true. Casement found that they were, as he discovered evidence of forced labor, hostages, terror, and murder. Casement and Morel then worked together to form the Congo Reform Association, and they exposed Leopold’s murderous regime to the world. The photographs they released of the terror inflicted on the Congolese got the attention of many countries, including the United States.

Under global pressure, King Leopold relinquished control of his regime to the Belgian government. He did shortly after. Ultimately, King Leopold II obtained the colony he dreamed of all his life. He lead the genocide of Congo, leaving it a dark, desolate burial ground. King Leopold was greedy for power and profit, and he lied, manipulated, raped, tortured, and murdered innocent people to get it. For many years he was perceived as a noble humanitarian. As it was revealed, King Leopold II was far from a humanitarian, yet a murderer of genocidal proportions.

The final chapter of Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa” is titled “The Great Forgetting. ” This horrific colonization of Congo is not a part of the general education school curriculum anywhere in the world. Even in African history books, King Leopold is described in a noble, heroic light as someone who fought against the Arab slave-traders to end slavery in Africa. “Remarkably, the colonial Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren Museum) did not mention anything at all regarding the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State.

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The European Colonization of Africa. (2017, Jan 02). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from
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