February 5: Leopold’s Ambition

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Written by Matthew Mendez, Historian

February 5, 1885 CE. Leopold II, King of Belgium, lays the foundations for Belgian imperialism in Africa by establishing the Congo as a personal colonial possession. Prior to the Belgian experiment with colonialism in the Congo, Leopold grew concerned with the acquisition of wealth in order to consolidate his country’s position among the major European powers. To the Belgian king, the only path to prosperity was to establish a colonial Africa in what the Europeans labeled, “The Dark Continent” of Africa. Utilizing the guise of an enlightened philanthropist, eager to spread Christianity and the “civilized” ways of the Western world to the people of Africa, Leopold hosted an international conference of explorers and geographers in 1876 to prepare for his African ambitions. Signing a varieties of treaties with Congolese warlords with the aid of various explorers and geographers, Leopold consolidated control of the heart of Africa, later claiming the region as his private property and christening it, l’État Indépendant du Congo, the Congo Free State. Through the use of brutal force and coercion, Leopold extracted large amounts of wealth from the Congo, mainly through the lucrative ivory and rubber industries. Due to the use of forced labor, a large portion of Congolese men died in the terrible conditions, leaving the women to enter the labor force or face punishment or even death.With the huge population decline, few Congolese were left to gather and cultivate food, leading to mass famine and even more deaths. By 1880, the Congolese population had diminished fifty percent, causing much international outcry. International pressure eventually forced Leopold to relinquish his property in 1908, ending many decades of his tyrannical rule. Though Leopold lost his grip on the Congo, the effects of his brutal regime still echo in the chaos and poverty of the region today.