The Belgian Congo was the scene of the most brutal colonial oppression in European-controlled Africa. Discuss these images and speculate on their legacy re: the long-standing civil war in the Congo Basin.
The Belgian Congo was the scene of the most brutal colonial oppression in European-controlled Africa. Discuss these images and speculate on their legacy re: the long-standing civil war in the Congo Basin.
14 thoughts on “Honors World Regional Blog Posts – Africa 1”
The Belgian Congo suffered heavily at the hands of its Belgian controllers, and while Belgium’s official end of colonization happened several generations ago its effects are still being felt today. The disruption of the cultural, religious, economic, and traditional elements of a multitude of societies was bound to have lasting effects. Adding insult to injury would be the outright abuse of local populations. Forced labor, as can be seen in the top left picture, amounted to horrendous slavery. The working conditions were far from humane, no doubt. And this is not even the worst of it. Severe punishments for forms of resistance were widespread, as can by the middle picture, left side. These three young men can’t be over thirteen years old, and have already lost one of their hands due to the cruelty of the Belgians. In this awful cocktail of oppression, misery, and violence, the Congo fractured as a functioning society. As horrible as they were, the Belgians were the powerhouse of the region once they began colonization. At the very least they provided a kind of awful stability, or perhaps a better descriptor would be they were predictably harsh. The Kind of Belgium, pictured bottom right, ensured the land was ruled with not only an iron fist but a malicious one at that. While this obviously needed to end, Belgium’s withdrawal from the region as a colonial overseer left the Belgian Congo with problems. A fractured society, it now was left to fend for itself. Unfortunately, Belgium had instated itself as the ruling class for long enough that it was able to sow discord among certain groups. They played tribes against one another in order to lessen the threats to themselves and ultimately boost their control. With a power vacuum in place, the Belgian Congo was easy prey to these tensions built after years of Belgian rule. Thus, despite the Congo’s rich economic possibilities, it was hamstrung by its deep tensions and fractured state of society. Had the circumstances been different, had the map on the top right perhaps not show so many miniature divisions and the Congo had been afforded greater unity, it may well look different today. But as the bottom left picture shows, such is not the case. While certainly many locals died at the hands of Belgian overseers, the killing did not stop when the Belgians left. According to the political cartoon, millions continued to die from the violence in the region in later years. Even today, the violence has not stopped. Clearly these days it’s not due to Belgian colonialists, but the inhabitants themselves are fighting each other for various reasons. While some may argue that many years have passed and we cannot keep blaming Belgium, and it is true at some point blame does start being at the hands of the locals, the effect Belgium had cannot be denied. In my opinion, whatever happens after will always be partially at the hands of Belgium. They came into the region and wrecked it so completely that they fractured it as a functional society, broke it down in every way that they could, and in a way broke the people. Any nation would have a difficult time rebuilding from that.
The Belgian Congo was a colonial factory for labor exploitation and the extraction of rubber. As Roger Casement discusses in his Report on the Congo, the ABIR and La Lulonga rubber factories of the Belgian Congo were primary internal contributors to Congolese exploitation and disparity. One of the images above shows children with hands chopped off – La Lulonga Society was famous for its mass murder and mutilation of workers, often of women and children when they would not meet their rubber quotas, or in the case of protest. Not meeting the rubber quotas was also punished by death. The company was also known for kidnapping the wives of male workers in an attempt to force the workers into increased productivity. The company would tie these women together in a shed on occasion, according to Casement. But the significant factor in the awful conditions and exploitation of the Congo was a direct result of the private ownership had over the land by King Leopold II, which allowed his colony to exploit workers and ignore any regional or global standards of civility. The Belgian Congo placed many of its workers into economic disparity, placing a strict relationship on how much food and resources they could have based on whether or not quotas were filled, and also by using illegitimate forms of currency like metal rods, for example.
As history continued, however, the Dutch did not follow suit with the British or French forms of decolonization, and continued to exploit the Congolese population for resources, while providing little to no access to forms of education or development, forcing the Congo to look at the extraction of raw resources as a main source of income post-independence, which led to serious economic problems. Most of the aid or health care was provided by missionary outposts and relief organizations, but the infrastructure and education to allow the area to autonomously develop was greatly lacking after the withdrawal of colonial forces. Forging a new society in the Congo was extremely difficult without any assistance or establishment of institutions of well-being by the Dutch colonists. Also worth noting is the lack of unity that the Congo had possessed post-independence. Some areas were more rich and resources than others, but developing a government that can properly fix the problems that came with colonial exploitation became very difficult, and often led to a series of Civil Wars in the ‘90’s and into the 2000’s.
But most importantly, what were the psychological effects on the population post-independence? The generation that lived through the colonial era and experienced independence would have most likely gone through immense trauma. I mean, imagine being forced into rubber labor for most of your life, and then gaining freedom from that, all the while having colonial white men try to intimidate you through forms of physical torture and abuse… There is no doubt that a large part of the Congolese population post-independence were highly traumatized- so something that I wonder is how much this level of trauma for the generation that straddled pre and post-independence affect the society of the Congo and may have allowed more people to be willing to mobilize in civil warfare? Just a thought…
Love your last paragraph
King Leopold II of Belgium convinced his government that Belgium needed an African colony. Most other large European countries had one, and Belgium did not want to fall behind. The Congo Basin of central Africa was largely unexplored, and King Leopold was up for the challenge (and the glory) of discovering its contents. King Leopold took this project personally as his government did not regulate him in any way. Leopold established his personal colony the Congo Free State in 1885. Less than 20 years later, the violence used by the officials of the colony to the natives was so great that Belgium was pressured by other countries to take official control of the Congo. The Free State had an intense system of destroying everything and everyone in its way in order to mine resources. These terrible conditions force Belgium to create the Belgian Congo in 1908.
The Belgian government still heavily favored private company and also missionary interest in the Congo over native population needs or environmental security. The areas of the Congo were literally divided into sections based on European business and religious interests (see map from prompt). Often times the government would help a private company remove a native tribe so that the area could be commercialized. Unlike the French and the British, the Belgians did not use local leaders for colonial government. Because of this, when Belgium finally gave into independence, The Congo was in ruin.
Growing up as a native in the Congo, one would see Europeans doing everything in their power to make a profit. Enslaving whole tribes, even women and children for backbreaking labor in mineral mining, displacing and destroying villages, urbanizing areas with no respect for the culture or environment. The Congolese people saw their people chained, beaten, and killed. They lived among intense racism and overwhelming greed.
With no locals trained in leadership, a shrinking fertile land area, racism, and greed, independence for the Congo meant Civil War. Rebel groups waged war fighting for power over a country that has no structure. Corrupt people battle for mining territory and the poor are left just as before- controlled by people who do not care whether they live or die.
King Leopold’s greed destroyed a land and a people for generations. Individuals change the world. His belief that he could do whatever he wanted had an impact on every leader in the Congo after him, causing immense destruction and death.
Good, but a little brief
The image of King Leopold, shows the man directly responsible for the colonization and genocide of the Congolese, and indirectly of the ongoing civil war. This image is the most important one since, King Leopold is the reason for all the other images to be there, since his search for personal wealth was what created such a chaotic mess in the nation of Congo. Despite the different methods used by the different colonial powers of the 19th century, the Portuguese and, most importantly for this case, Belgian colonial methods were by far the harshest and most brutal. While the French and the British strived for assimilation of the local population, teaching them English and French, and building schools, the Belgians were only concerned with maintain power using mutilation and ignorance to control the population. The image of the map illustrates the creation of the “artificial” country of the Congo. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the region of the Congo was divided among different tribes that had varied relationships among them, yet when the Europeans arrived they traced the borders of Africa according to their own negotiations without regard to the inhabitants of the region, thus separating allies or forcing enemy tribes in the same region to live together. The lack of unity among the different inhabitants, meant there never was a Congolese identity, with the Belgian dictatorship being the only thing keeping the colony together, which was one of the main factors leading to the collapse of the country, as once the Belgian control disappeared the country was split among different factions.
The top two images on the left side shows the effects of colonization on the original inhabitants of the Congo. In order to keep control over the massive territory of the Congo, King Leopold engaged in the most aggressive colonization campaign seen in history, where he enslaved or mutilated most of the population of the Congo. The bottom image on the left side shows the outcome of this colonization, with Europeans all the riches of the Congo, while the inhabitants are left to deal with the death and chaos left after it’s exploitation. All these images relate to the ongoing civil war in the Congo as the current war is the legacy of what the images represent. One of the most important aspects of King Leopold practices is that he forbade the education of all African’s in the Congo, and based every infrastructure in the Congo on the Belgian colonizers. That means that when the Europeans decolonized the Congo, they left behind a region formed of unrelated tribes that were uneducated and had no infrastructure, a recipe that could only lead to the collapse of the Congolese government and the fragmentation of the region in smaller factions., with the government trying to keep the country together, and the different factions hoping to gain independence or control over the other factions.
Good, nice section at the end relating the colonization to ongoing problems
King Leopold II (pictured bottom right) believed that Belgium needed colonial expansion if it wanted to become a major European power. When his country refused to agree to such an expansion, Leopold decided to purchase territory as an individual. At first, this came in the form of trying to buy The Philippines from Spain. When these talks broke down, however, Leopold sets his eyes on the interior of Africa. By 1885, After numerous talks with European nations, Leopold was able to finagle the Congo for Belgium, an area around 80 times bigger than the country itself (artificially constructed in the map).
The “Congo Free State” was excellent for the home country in terms of economic benefit. The area was replete with ivory and rubber. To expedite the process of securing these resources, however, atrocities occurred as locals were enslaved and forced to work under some of the harshest conditions ever documented. As seen in the top left picture, workers were shackled and held watch by others with weaponry to ensure the work continued. Children were shockingly not immune to this treatment. The picture of the mutilated children is appalling. In many cases, the amount of rubber exported out of the country was hard to keep up with as the resources lessened. The work supervisors saw this reduced product as laziness, and a common punishment was to have a limb chopped off.
King Leopold was well aware of this but worked hard to keep the atrocities out of light in Belgium. He largely silenced missionaries returning from talking about what they saw and worked outwardly in world politics to refute the need for violence in colonies. Only by around the turn of the century did works such as the Casement Report come out documenting what was really occurring in the areas. These works along with public pressure forced an end to the “Free State” and ushered in the Belgian Congo in 1908.
Death tolls are hard to estimate because of the lack of documentation during the time. Many historians believe the tolls to be somewhere between 5 and 15 million, with countless more disfigured. While many of these deaths were from violence, a large portion occurred from European diseases. Either way, Belgian expansion into the area was horrible for local populations. As the cartoon illustrates, Europe and Belgium were able to benefit tremendously from the horrors of colonial expansion into Africa. The Congo, however, still has not fully rebounded from European intervention.
While the area would become independent of Belgium in 1960, violence would occur into present-day. As the cartoon states, 6 million have died since 1996. This is a result of the first and second Congo wars which have been the bloodiest wars since World War II. In many ways, European intervention in the areas laid the groundwork for this violence. By arbitrarily marking countries and regions to their liking, they have pushed violence onto the local populations. It is hard to know the direct impact of King Leopold’s actions in the 19th century to present day conflict. But it would be unfair to not amount some blame on Belgian expansion into the area.
The legacy left by western colonization of Africa is very visible and fresh, but no where else is it as obvious in the Congo. Belgium’s harsh oppression in its colony has had lasting effects. King Leopold the second’s Belgian Congo exploited the region for everything it had. The photo of a native holding a gun and in charge of a group of chained natives shows the use of tribal conflict by the colonizers to accomplish tasks. Tribes did not have the extreme uneven distribution of power that existed during colonial times before Europeans arrived and made friends with some tribes, and traded weapons that had never been seen in the Congo before. This created personal and violent conflict between tribes in the Congo that lasts today and is the cause still of civil war and political instability today. Oppression of natives is shown to be maximally brutal in the photo of three young boys with one hand removed. The psychological repercussions of this kind of treatment are unimaginable, but they yet remain prevalent in the culture of the Congo today. The map of Congo with different regions seemingly named after various religious missions is an ironic contrast to the reality of the purpose and actions of the Belgians in the Congo. I am sure that somewhere, in some one or few, there were good intentions, but they did not make a good impact in truth. From the legacy, one wouldn’t think religion was actually effective anywhere in the Congo. The Congo today is so unstable that no foreign nations really want to take the risk of investing in the ever changing and instable region. However, the Congo has been able to generate significant profit for both the Belgians and the powerful in the Congo today. The political cartoon sheds light on how that wealth came to fruition. Millions of people have died in the strife for wealth and control in the Congo. So many current issues in the Congo, and for that matter other African countries, are related to the mess that was left from colonization. What must be asked now, is how the problems can be remedied, who is responsible for helping solve the problems, and whether these countries can be trusted to help out the nations which the so badly harmed. The civil war in the Congo is related to the ethnic conflicts that are a result of the tribal conflicts of colonial times. In the modern world, the Congo falls further and further behind in industrialization because it cannot get its act together for a long enough time to make progress. I think investment from several countries in a stable government and then in the private sector would help the region find stability. It is a worthwhile investment because the Congo has a vast amount of untapped resources that could create a strong Congolese economy which would benefit the whole globe.
The world has witnessed the extensive repercussions from European colonialism that has extended throughout the African continent. Evidence has shown a direct correlation between the standard of living and stability of African countries’ post-colonialism and the type of colonialism they endured. British and French Assimilation and Paternal Colonial systems were exploitative but provided some native residences with resources to become educated and gain leadership skills while Belgium colonies were under a brutal exploitative system.
The most horrendous example of Belgium’s system and its repercussions is the Congo. One primary difference between the Colonial Congo and its neighbors was that it started not as a national territory of Belgium but as a privately owned territory by Belgium’s King Leopold II (pictured in the bottom right of prompt). Because of its private ownership and lack of any real accountability for King Leopold’s actions, his focus for the Congo was stripping it of its resources and profiting from them at the expense of Congo’s native inhabitants.
Leopold’s focus was on extracting the Congo’s plentiful rubber resources and using brutal slave labor to do it. Even after political outrage lead to the transfer of the Congo from private to Belgium national rule, this trend of explanation and slave labor continued. Due to little oversight, the Europeans could freely subject the native slaves to kidnapping, mutilation, and murder. A common mutilation tactic was used for punishment when quota demands for rubber or ivory from workers within a specified area was not met. If this quota was not met, the hands and feet of men, woman, and children would be amputated, which is pictured in the prompt. This was used as an example to the people of the repercussions for not collecting enough resources for their European oppressors. Other tactics included taking hostages to ransom them for the payment of completing specified quotas as well as killing and also displaying the bodies of those murdered for refusing to work as a scare tactics which greatly worsened disease conditions.
The death toll was catastrophic due to the murder, disease, mutilation, and inhuman work conditions. Some historians project that over 10 million Congolese people died between 1885 and 1908 alone. All of these lives were traded for the western procurement of resources and profits.
Another aspect of the colonial Congo was a high involvement of religion. The map shown above depicts the Congo divided into areas based in the kinds of Church missions taking place in each area. Religion was used as a tactic to promote colonialism and gain more Belgium public support. The Belgium government left educating the population to the missionaries. This was a colossal failure due to the fact that there was an inadequate number of missionaries to educate more than a minuscule portion of the population and the missionaries’ teachings were unappealing to most Congolese people due to the fact they undermined their culture and worked to support the colonial practices.
This lack of focus on education and opportunity for Congolese natives to be involved in leadership left the country severely damaged and unequipped to deal with independence in 1960. The country quickly fell into a brutal series of civil wars with catastrophic death rates. The country is still enduring repercussions of their colonial rule as death, destruction, and conflict still continue today.
Very nice, very thorough…good work.