It took over twenty years for Europeans to pull off the philanthropic mask of King Leopold’s colony. Once people began to look closely, they found atrocities committed systematically, all for the personal profit of the King of Belgium.
The two main sources of revenue in the Leopold’s colony were rubber and ivory. Europeans used ivory from elephant tusks for luxury items such as chess pieces, tobacco boxes, piano keys, and fancy knife handles. Then, after 1890, European demand for rubber skyrocketed with the invention of the bicycle. The rainforests of the Congo had some of the world’s best sources of wild rubber trees. This proved to be the hidden treasure of raw materials that Leopold had hoped for. Between 1892 and 1896 rubber exports from the Congo increased from 250 to 1200 tons per year (Pakenham 524). By 1902, rubber was 80% of all exports from the Congo (Pakenham 588). King Leopold’s devious planning paid off. Historians estimate that the king received profits from the Congo of over 1.1 billion in 1999 dollars (Hochschild 277). As the profits mounted, Leopold bought mansions in Belgium and the French Riviera. How did Leopold make so much money from such labor-intensive commodities as ivory and rubber?
Leopold extracted wealth from the Congo through a brutal system of forced labor. The Congo state employed the Force Publique as an army and police force that controlled and exploited the population through forced labor, torture, and murder. When Europeans finally investigated what was going on in the Congo, they found no public works at all. No hospitals. No schools. Nothing. Just a vicious police force that consumed half of the state’s budget (Hochschild 123). The Congo army compelled villagers to give them a large quota of ivory or rubber for free. If they refused or were unable to acquire the allotted amount in time, they were tortured, maimed, or killed. Imperial officers even paid army soldiers for severed hands as proof that they had carried out the system of terror. One Force Publique officer explained why he killed villagers after they did not bring enough food to the army: “I made war against them. One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies at the station ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people . . . but that allowed five hundred others to live” (Hochschild 166). In short, Leopold had turned the Congo into his own personal and lucrative slave plantation.
The scheme was to demand a rubber “tax” of every villager.
“We were always in the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. Wild beasts—leopards—killed some of us while we were working away in the forest and others got lost or died from exposure or starvation and we begged the white men to leave us alone, saying we could get no more rubber, then the white men and their soldiers said: Go. You are only beasts yourselves. You are only Nyama [meat]. We tried, always going further into the forest, and when we failed and our rubber was short, the soldiers came to our towns and killed us. Many were shot, some had their ears cut off; others were tied up with ropes around their necks and bodies and taken away.” (Pakenham 599).
An American missionary described how officers in villages of the Congo brutalized the virtually enslaved subjects in the Congo Free State:
“Each town in the district is forced to bring a certain quantity of rubber to the headquarters of the commissaire [agent] every Sunday. It is collected by force. The soldiers drive the people into the bush If they will not go they are shot down, and their left hands cut off and taken as trophies to the commissaire . . . The commissaire is paid a commission of about 1d. a pound upon all the rubber he gets. It is therefore to his interest to get as much as he can . . . . Let me give an incident to show how this unrighteous trade affects the people. One day a State corporal, who was in charge of the post of Lolifa, was going round the town collecting rubber. Meeting a poor woman whose husband was away fishing, he said, ‘Where is your husband?’ She answered by pointing to the river. He then said, ‘Where is his rubber?’ She answered, ‘It is ready for you,’ whereupon he said, ‘you lie,’ and, lifting his gun, shot her dead. Shortly afterwards the husband returned, and was told of the murder of his wife. He went straight to the corporal, taking with him his rubber, and asked why he had shot his wife. The wretched man then raised his gun and killed the corporal. The soldiers ran away to the headquarters of the State and made misrepresentations of the case, with the result that the commissaire sent a large force to support the authority of the soldiers; the town was looted, burned, and many people killed and wounded” (Smith 60).
Investigations finally forced Leopold to sell the Congo colony to Belgium. Over the years, Leopold used his many contacts at the highest levels of power in Europe to discredit or repress any reports about atrocities in the Congo. The British investigator Roger Casement spent several months in the Congo and interviewed villagers and missionaries. His accurate reports put enormous pressure on Belgium to act. Finally, Leopold chose a few of his own employees as a “Commission of Inquiry” to conduct a sham investigation. He hoped this would satisfy curious onlookers. His hand picked commission, however, came back detailing the same atrocities reported by outside investigators. The game was up. Leopold finally sold the colony to Belgium in 1908. The shameless man even collected a huge sum of money in the deal “as a mark of gratitude for his great sacrifices made for the Congo” (Hochschild 259). The Congo Free State existed for 23 years from 1885 to 1908. During that time, the virtual slave system reduced the population in half, killing approximately 10 million people (Hochschild 233). European imperial governments had done nothing to stop it, not even a boycott of Congo rubber.