Léopold-Louis-Philippe-Marie-Victor, commonly called King Leopold II, (1835-1909) was king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909. Focused on making Belgium an imperial power, he led the first European efforts to develop the Congo River basin, making possible the formation of the Congo Free State in 1885 which became annexed in 1908 as the Belgian Congo and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although he played a significant role in the development of the modern Belgian state, he was also said to have been responsible for widespread atrocities committed under his rule against his colonial subjects.
Belgium itself was only about five years old at the birth of Leopold II, who became the eldest surviving son of Leopold I, first king of Belgium, and his second wife, Louise-Marie of Orléans. As it was the case in the 21st century, most of the royal families of Europe were related. For instance, Leopold II was a first cousin of Queen Victoria of Britain. He became duke of Brabant in 1846 and served in the Belgian army.
In 1853 he married Marie-Henriette, daughter of the Austrian archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary, and became king of the Belgians on his father’s death in December 1865.
Leopold II presented himself like someone who wanted to bring the benefits of Christianity, Western civilization and commerce to African natives –a deceptive tactic which he maintained for many years. However, his real intent was to turn his acquisition (Congo) into a gold mine. Therefore, he delved into the exploration of ivory— a material that was greatly valued in the days before plastics because it could be carved into different shapes. By the early 1890s a new source of riches had appeared and this was rubber.
Throughout the tropics, people sowed rubber trees and one major source of rubber at the time was the Landolphia Vines in the great Central Africa rainforest and no one owned more of the area than Leopold. He used his private army of 19,000 soldiers to march into the villages and hold the women hostage, forcing the men to scatter into the rainforest and gather a monthly quota of wild rubber. As the price of rubber soared, the quotas increased, and as vines near a village were drained dry, men desperate to free their wives and daughters would have to walk days or weeks to find new vines to tap.
The people were also forced to chop wood for steamboat boilers. As a result of this, some of the women hostages starved while their male counterparts were worked to death. Tens and hundreds of thousands of Congolese fled their villages to avoid being forced into work and they took refuge in the forests where there was little food or shelter.
Thousands were shot dead in failed rebellions against the regime. One notorious and utterly evil practice in the process of suppressing the rebellion was the accounting of bullets by Congolese soldiers. For the soldiers to prove that they had not wasted bullets, they were ordered to bring the severed hands of their victims in order to present them to their superior white officer.
With the women as hostages and the men forced to tap rubber, just a few people were left to fish and cultivate crops. Millions of Congolese were suffering near-famine, which made them vulnerable to diseases they otherwise might have survived. This crisis made birth rates drop massively. Demographers project that the population of Congo as a result of a reduction in birth rates 1880-1920 dropped by fifty percent. This is perhaps a drop from twenty million to ten million.
The Congolese horror ended when an international outrage forced the Belgian state to take control of the colony in 1908. The number of people killed is said to be close to 15 million, easily putting Leopold in the top ten of history’s mass murders. When Leopold died in 1909, his funeral procession was booed.
He is called the “Butcher” of Congo and he committed some of the biggest crimes against Africans and humanity.