King Leopold and the Conquest of the Congo

The story of the Scramble for territory in Africa is full of powerful European countries making game changing moves to outplay and outlast their rivals. An unremarkable monarch of an insignificant little kingdom, however, outwitted them all. Like a tiny yapping watchdog that wakes up the bigger dogs at the slightest sound of a disturbance, Leopold II, king of Belgium, made the first bold imperial move into new territory in the interior of Africa. His bark quickly awoke the bigger dogs in the imperial neighborhood.

For decades, most Europeans mistakenly believed that King Leopold spent his considerable fortune funding public works in the Congo and stopping slavery in East Africa. He was the unintimidating King of Belgium, cousin of Queen Victoria of England—a wealthy, noble and philanthropic modern king. But it was all a sham. Underneath the veneer of generosity and graciousness laid a cunning and self-engrossed scoundrel, a duplicitous fraud to rival the evil charm of Iago or Richard III. Under the guise of an international charitable foundation, he personally owned the colony of the Congo, and he ran it as a brutal business investment. His “charity” resulted in the death of ten million people, approximately 50% of the population in the Congo (Hochschild 3).

King Leopold convinced explorers, politicians, and newspapers alike that he intended to help Africans, though, in reality, he was driven to find some imperial territory for himself. In 1876, Leopold hosted a Geographical Conference on Central Africa, to which he invited famous explorers to discuss ending the slave trade in East Africa and spreading European civilization (Pakenham 15). At the conference, he appealed to the explorers’ interests in an ideological quest: “To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress” (Hochschild 44). The group founded a charitable organization, the International African Association, with Leopold as the chairperson. The king promised to spend his own fortune to fund the enterprise. Newspapers and politicians heralded the conference throughout Europe and donations poured in. But the group never met again. Rather, Leopold used its name as a shell and cover for his private ownership of the Congo. To his ambassador in London Leopold revealed his true intent: “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake” (Pakenham 22).

Leopold hired the famous Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley to serve as the head of the spear in the Congo. Back in 1871, Stanley had made a name for himself by setting out to find the long lost explorer David Livingstone. After many months wandering East Africa, Stanley did finally catch up to Livingstone, and supposedly asked the famous explorer the famous question, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” (Wikipedia). Livingstone died in Africa soon after the meeting so we never learned his side of the story, but Stanley saw himself as the heir to the great explorer and his crusade to open up Africa to Europe. Stanley said that his goal was to “flash a torch of light across the western half of the Dark Continent” (Hochschild 57). The brazen self-promoter returned to London in 1878 as a hero after he mapped most of the Congo River.

Unlike Livingstone, who travelled for decades through Africa with few assistants, Stanley explored with a veritable army of porters and soldiers. Also unlike Livingstone, Stanley was quick to resort to violence at the slightest provocation, including when he felt disrespected. “The beach was crowded with infuriates and mockers,” he wrote. “We perceived we were followed by several canoes in some of which we saw spears shaken at us . . . I opened on them with the Winchester Repeating Rifle. Six shots and four deaths were sufficient to quiet the mocking” (Hochschild 49). Stanley seemed uninterested in a peaceful “exploration”. He wrote in his journal: “We have attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages” (Hochschild 49).

Since Britain declined interest in making the Congo a colony, Stanley agreed to work secretly and for a large paycheck for Leopold for five years to help him turn the Congo into a colony (Pakenham 60). Stanley explained his motivation: “As yet the Congo basin is a blank, a fruitless waste, a desolate and unproductive area . . . It has been our purpose to fill this blank with life, to redeem this waste, to plant and sow that the dark man may gather, to vivify the wide, wild lands so long forgotten by Europe. But cursed be he or they who, animated by causeless jealousy and a spirit of mischief, will compel us to fire our station, destroy our work so conspicuously begun, and abandon Africa to its pristine helplessness and savagery” (Pakenham 160).

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton