There have been many cases of genocide in the last 60 years, but what of the atrocities which are beyond our culture’s living memory? Unfortunately the history of our world is littered with unfair moments when someone who has all the power takes what they want form a group of people who don’t have the power. One instance of this is the genocide of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1912.
It all started when the reigning monarch of Belgium, King Léopold II, sought to expand his territory and his power. In 1876 he devised a way to start a colony in the Congo under the guise of scientific research. He gained control of the natives through cloth and trinket treaties where they believed they were signing a friendship agreement, but in fact were signing away their land.
Within a short period the Belgium forces occupied a new territorial space of 905,000 square miles, an area 76 times larger than Belgium, where Léopold was free to rule without any outside influence (other European powers strongly believed that his interest was purely scientific).
…face atrocious consequences…
With this power base solidified Léopold ordered several new reforms to his new territory. Firstly any land that a non-European occupied would automatically seized by the state and/or any European who wanted it. Next he split the Congo into two: The free trade zone where rich Europeans could buy stakes in the land and the Domaine Privé: the exclusive private property of the State, which was in turn the personal property of King Léopold.
The native population were enslaved to bring in huge quotas of ivory, having to bring a certain amount or face atrocious consequences.
They routinely took and tortured hostages from tribes…
To enforce his will, Léopold introduced the Force Publique (FP), a military force that was used to strike terror into the native population. They were armed with modern weapons and bull whips made from the skin of hippopotamus hide. They routinely took and tortured hostages from tribes, burned down villages and took human hand trophies to prove how vicious they had been and that they had not wasted any bullets.
In 1908 Léopold’s grip on the territory was shattered when the atrocities were shown to the Belgium government and the European community. The territory was annexed from him; however he had made a fortune on the rubber boom that had dried up the previous year. The death toll in the Congo was horrifying, but estimates are sketchy at best: between 5 and 30 million.
Even today Léopold’s name is a touchy subject in the Congo and many are upset that a large part of the Western world knows nothing about what happened in the 27 years of Belgium rule.
The worse thing about the whole affair is that Léopold was never brought to justice for his crimes.
He died in 1909.