Congo Free State

The Belgian Genocide and the Slave State in the Congo:

The Congo Free State

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost,
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell,
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.

— Vachel Lindsay’s 1914 poem, The Congo

Death Toll: 10,000,000

“Leopold II…has knit adventurers, traders and missionaries of many races into one band of men, under the most illustrious of modern travellers (H.M. Stanley) to carry into the interior of Africa new ideas of law, order, humanity, and protection of the natives.”
— The Daily Telegraph, 22nd of October 1884

“I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people’s stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit.”

— John Harris, Missionary in Baringa

“The condition of things in the Congo is atrocious, as shown by the photographs of children whose hands have been cut off. Leopold thinks this can go on because the Congo is a distant out-of-the-way country. But once we can get England and America to investigate, and take this matter up, something will be done. We Americans are especially interested, because it was our recognition of the flag there that led to recognition by other powers.”

— Mark Twain — Interview Boston Herald (Nov. 6, 1905)

“To his Excellency the vice governor general. I have just returned back from a journey in land to the village of N’songo M’boyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. A few months ago Monsieur Pile took his sentries there. A young woman, Imanega, was tied to a forked tree and chopped in half with a machete. Beginning at her left shoulder, chopping through the chest and abdomen and out at the side. It was in this way the sentries punished the woman’s husband. Another woman, Balumba, wishing to stay faithful to her husband, had a pointed stake forced in to her womb, and, as this did not kill her, she was shot. I found that, as in other towns, enforced public incest formed amusement for the sentries.”

— John H. Harris – Missionary. Letter to the Vice General of the CFS

“When we arrived at Bolima, the chief , Isekifasu, was in his hut. He had been killed by the sentry Isekitoki. They had also killed two of Isekifasu’s wives and a baby, who had been sliced in half. One of the women had had her intestines ripped out. They had also strung the entrails of a child around the huts, and stuck parts of his body on sticks.

Back at the state post in Baringa the whites told of the sentries for not having killed enough people and for not having enough prisoners.”

— Bonkoko – Testimony to Leopold Commission. 1903

“The white man, Ikatankoy (the leopards paw), was not far off, and could see what they were doing. Ikatankoy was drinking palm wine while the soldiers beat the boy’s hands off with their rifle butts against a tree.”

— Roger Casement – The Casement Report 1904

“On December the third 1893 the State sent down some canoes under cover of night to the town of Inego. The people were quietly sleeping in their beds when they heard a shot fired and ran out to see what was the matter. Finding the soldiers had surrounded the town, their only thought was to escape. As they ran out of their homes, men, women, and children, they were ruthlessly shot down. The town was utterly destroyed and is a ruin until this day.

The only reason for this fight was that the people had failed to bring in food to the State upon that one day.”

— John B. Murphy – Missionary

“After three days, we returned to the village. We saw dead bodies. And we saw, hanging on a line, fixed between to sticks, tied up genital organs.”

— Bwitaka – Testimony 1904

“I called together the chiefs of the villages and ordered them to bring some manioc, fish. On the agreed day, no manioc. Faced with such flagrant bad will, I declared war on them. One example sufficed. A hundred heads were cut off, and after that supplies were plentiful in the station. My aim was humanitarian. I ended a hundred lives, but that allowed five hundred others to live”.

— Leon Fievez – Governor of the Equator Province

The Congo Free State was a privately-controlled colonial state created by King Leopold II, King of the Belgians, through a non-governmental organization, the Association internationale africaine.

Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman, who increasingly used it for rubber, copper and other minerals in the upper Lualaba River basin.

The Belgians opened it to settlement and trade by all nations. The territory was under the personal rule of Leopold. The people of Congo were exploited and brutally oppressed.

The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908. The general consensus is that the forced labor system imposed by Belgian colonialism directly and indirectly eliminated 20% of the population of the Congo.

Some of the worst atrocities committed during the European powers’ partition of Africa during the latter decades of the 19th Century were carried out in King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. There are estimates of ten million casualties as a direct consequence of his reign and it has made a profound impact upon the Congo’s later development into what one might refer to as a failed state.

However it was not incidental that this level of violence would be exerted within this particular colonial possession. The Congo Free State fulfilled several of the criteria needed for development into such an atrocious regime. The combination of a comparatively small state apparatus with little resources in terms of military and economic power, controlled by a ruthless leader attempting to rule and maximise profits made from extracting the resources of a vast territory led to the use of significant administrative coercion. The colonial leadership identified the use of terror as the most cost-efficient method of imposing rule and facilitating extraction, devising a systematic approach towards the territory’s population.

This system of terror was structured in several layers. One of which was an incentive system indirectly rewarding the colonial administration for the use of excessive force, another was the recruitment and collaboration of different native peoples acting as soldiers for the colonial officials. As the administration’s wages were directly linked to the profits made from extracted resources, it created incentives for the use of ruthless measures, linking the market mechanism with violence.

Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year old daughter, Boali, who was killed and allegedly cannibalized by the members of Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (A.B.I.R.) militia. Source: E. D Morel, King Leopold's rule in Africa, between pages 144 and 145
Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year old daughter, Boali, who was killed and allegedly cannibalized by the members of Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (A.B.I.R.) militia. Source: E. D Morel, King Leopold’s rule in Africa, between pages 144 and 145

Forever in Chains: The Tragic History of Congo


From the end of the 19th century through the turn of the 20th century, King Leopold II of Belgium ran the so-called Congo Free State as his private property, amassing an enormous fortune by turning most adult males into slaves to collect wild rubber and ivory from the jungle. The women and children were held hostages—their hands, noses and ears often chopped off when the men in their families did not meet their rubber quota or failed to return.

For over 23 years, Leopold’s army forced hundreds of thousands of slaves to work in killing conditions where many died from exhaustion. Some 20 slave uprisings were put down with extreme bloodthirstiness. After the Belgians discovered gold in 1903, they worked thousands to death in gold mines. It has been estimated that about 10 million people out of a population of 20 million lost their lives under King Leopold’s barbarous rule.

The massive loss of life and atrocities inspired literature such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Severed Hands

Villages which failed to meet the rubber collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in severed hands, where each hand would prove a kill. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighbouring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.

One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command

‘ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades … and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross.’

After seeing a Congolese person killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote:

‘The soldier said “Don’t take this to heart so much. They kill us if we don’t bring the rubber. The Commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service.”‘

In Forbath’s words:

The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. … The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber… They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace… the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.

In theory, each right hand proved a killing. In practice, soldiers sometimes “cheated” by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die. More than a few survivors later said that they had lived through a massacre by acting dead, not moving even when their hands were severed, and waiting till the soldiers left before seeking help. In some instances a soldier could shorten his service term by bringing more hands than the other soldiers, which led to widespread mutilations and dismemberment.

Congo Free State hostages. Two semi-naked women are chained together by the neck under armed guard. They were taken hostage by sentries of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber company (ABIR) after their husbands fled into the forest to escape slavery.

Economy of Genocide

Leopold could not meet the costs of running the Congo Free State so set in train a regime to maximize profitability. The first change was the introduction of the concept of terres vacantes—”vacant” land, which was anything that no European was living on. This was deemed to belong to the state, and servants of the state (i.e., any men in Leopold’s employ) were encouraged to exploit it.

Next, the state was divided into two economic zones: the Free Trade Zone was open to entrepreneurs of any European nation, who were allowed to buy 10- and 15-year monopoly leases on anything of value: ivory from a particular district, or the rubber concession, for example. The other zone—almost two-thirds of the Congo—became the Domaine Privé: the exclusive private property of the State, in turn Leopold’s.

Further, in 1893, he excised the most readily accessible 259,000 km² (100,000 square miles) portion of the Free Trade Zone and declared it to be the Domaine de la Couronne. Here the same rules applied as in the Domaine Privé except that all revenue went directly to Leopold.

King Leopold’s legacy of DR Congo violence

Mark Dummett
Former BBC Kinshasa correspondent

Of the Europeans who scrambled for control of Africa at the end of the 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold II left arguably the largest and most horrid legacy of all.

While the Great Powers competed for territory elsewhere, the king of one of Europe’s smallest countries carved his own private colony out of 100km2 of Central African rainforest.

He claimed he was doing it to protect the “natives” from Arab slavers, and to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries, and Western capitalists.

Instead, as the makers of BBC Four documentary White King, Red Rubber, Black Death powerfully argue, the king unleashed new horrors on the African continent.

Torment and rape

He turned his “Congo Free State” into a massive labour camp, made a fortune for himself from the harvest of its wild rubber, and contributed in a large way to the death of perhaps 10 million innocent people.

What is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo has clearly never recovered.

“Legalized robbery enforced by violence”, as Leopold’s reign was described at the time, has remained, more or less, the template by which Congo’s rulers have governed ever since.

Meanwhile Congo’s soldiers have never moved away from the role allocated to them by Leopold – as a force to coerce, torment and rape an unarmed civilian population.

Chopping hands

As the BBC’s reporter in DR Congo, I covered stories that were loud echoes of what was happening 100 years earlier.

The film opens with the shocking images of some of Leopold’s victims – children and adults whose right hands had been hacked off by his agents.

They needed these to prove to their superiors that they had not been “wasting” their bullets on animals.

This rule was seldom observed as soldiers kept shooting monkeys and then later chopping off human hands to provide their alibis.

‘Foreign correspondents’

Director Peter Bate uses documented accounts of such atrocities to present an imaginary court case against the monarch who he compares to a subsequent European tyrant, Adolf Hitler.

He has an actor play the bearded, heavily-set Leopold, fidgeting nervously as damning testimonies are read out, compiled by the foreign correspondents of the day, the missionaries.

John Harris of Baringa, for example, was so shocked by what he had come across that he felt moved to write a letter to Leopold’s chief agent in the Congo.

“I have just returned from a journey inland to the village of Insongo Mboyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people’s stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit.”

In the film’s most powerful sequences we see reconstructions of the terror caused by Leopold’s enforcers and agents.

We see a village burnt without warning and its people rounded up; its men sent off into the forests, and its women tied up as hostages and helpless targets of abuse until their husbands return with enough wild rubber to satisfy the agent.

This, we are told, was the “moment of truth” for the whole community.

If the men did not bring back enough and the agent lost his commission, he would order the deaths of everyone.

There is no doubt that Congo’s history, and White King, Red Rubber, Black Death are almost too upsetting to bear[.]

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