King Leopold II (1835-1909) of Belgium created the Congo Free State in 1885 as part of a professed desire to bring civilization and modernity to Africans. The results proved devastating to the region in many ways. To enforce his authority, Leopold relied upon a violent military squad, known as the Force Publique. While Leopold died a year after he was forced from power, his regime oversaw a heavy death toll, loss of land, the creation of a new nation with little regard for previous identities and extraction of natural resources from the Congo for the benefit of Belgium.
Belgian colonization of the Congo region resulted in a massive death toll among the Congolese. The Congolese had to work in industries set up by the Belgian government. Government agents held families hostage until men completed their work quota. To protest the harsh working conditions, the Congolese rebelled on many occasions. In response, the Force Publique destroyed whole villages. Reports of soldiers decapitating villagers were common. Between 10 and 23 million people died during Leopold’s rule, from 1885 to 1908. Though not all died as a direct result of physical violence, the many starvation and work exhaustion deaths were manifestations of the Leopold regime.
King Leopold claimed ownership of the land, displacing the Africans. The Berlin Act, signed in 1885, recognized Leopold as the authority of 1 to 2 million square miles of land in the region. Africans lost all rights to land ownership. Under Leopold, Africans had property rights only in their villages.
By establishing the Congo Free State, King Leopold helped destroy the link between the people and their homeland. Before the Belgians entered Africa, the people identified themselves by ethnicity. The creation of a single country blurred these distinctions. The international community, made aware of the atrocities against the people, forced Leopold to end his Congo Free State in 1908. From that time until the 1960s, the Belgian Congo, which replaced the Free State, retained a national structure, the antithesis of the localized living arrangements preferred by the Africans.
The Congo possessed a wealth of natural resources. King Leopold extracted ivory and rubber from the Congo to use in the manufacture of goods in Belgium. These goods in turn sold on the international market for a profit. The people who actually performed the work in the Congo received none of these profits. Leopold enriched himself at the expense of the Africans. Further ensuring the impoverishment of the people, Leopold enacted laws preventing European traders from paying Africans currency in exchange for rubber. Instead, Europeans could only exchange other goods, in a barter system, to any Africans who might somehow come into possession of rubber. The Congolese became a poor and uneducated people. In 1960, when Patrice Lumumba became the first elected prime minister, Belgian colonists living in the Congo enjoyed 95 percent of the wealth. Moreover, at the time only 17 Congolese natives had ever graduated from college.
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