The colonial movement in Africa brought wealth and prestige to several European nations from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Exploitation of these colonies for financial gain had become an accepted practice in Europe during this time and the Congo Free State under King Leopold II of Belgium was no exception. During Leopold’s tenure as sovereign leader of the colony he accumulated a large fortune while the native population was sliced in half due to disease, forced labor, famine, and other oppressive methods used by colonial soldiers and officials. Although it is not clear that King Leopold directly ordered such inhumane treatment, his colonial policies did nothing to prevent it either. King Leopold was responsible for mass murder in the Belgian Free State while at the same time convincing the people of Belgium and the world that his intentions in Africa were noble.
Unlike the Belgian throne, King Leopold did not inherit the Congo in central Africa. He was perhaps frustrated that he had not inherited anything of value other than the small European country over which he had presided since 1865. Leopold saw his opportunity to change this in the heart of Africa and he sent Henry Morton Stanley to lay the groundwork for what would become his most lucrative possession. Stanley used questionable means to convince hundreds of chiefs to sign away their lands to King Leopold. Leopold was not a mere spectator in the process however. He used his diplomatic savvy to convince many world powers to recognize his claim to the Congo Free State making him the largest single owner of a colony in the world. With his possession in hand, Leopold then turned his attention toward exploiting the colony for everything that it was worth to the detriment of the locals.
At about the time that Leopold gained control of the Congo Free State, inventions such as the inflatable bicycle tire and automobile had created an insatiable need for rubber and Leopold’s new colony was one of the richest in the world in the commodity. Colonial officials were appointed by Leopold to administer the gathering of this resource and for meeting the established requirements officials were given bonuses. These bonuses induced colonial officials to place high quotas on the indigenous labor force. To force men to gather as much as possible their wives were kidnapped and held until quotas were filled. Penalties for failure to meet the quotas resulted in severe punishment that included dismemberment and lashings although it was not uncommon for death to follow either one of these. The brutal methods employed by Leopold’s men were not the only causes of death for the Congolese however.
Since men spent most of their time searching for rubber sap, little attention was paid to agriculture which caused mass famine throughout the Congo. Forced migrations to search for new sources of rubber brought Africans into contact with new diseases which killed many more. Some simply ran away...