The Congo, past and present

old photo of men holding baskets

A group of Bongwonga rubber workers, c1905. The Harris Lantern Slide Show © Anti-Slavery International/ Autograph ABP

Leopold: beast not benefactor

In 1876 King Leopold II (1835-1909), first cousin of Queen Victoria, established an international benevolent committee for the "propagation of civilization among the peoples of Central Africa". From 1878 to 1884 the African International Association and the Study Committee of the Upper Congo were presented as humanitarian organisations, but were in fact used to extend Belgian sovereignty in the Congo Basin. They exploited the lucrative commercial markets such as ivory and rubber, soon the colony’s most profitable industry.   

In 1884, the West Africa Conference convened in Berlin to discuss the colonial partitioning of Africa, formalizing the "Scramble for Africa". The following year, a resolution was passed in the Belgian parliament which made Leopold sovereign of the newly formed Congo Free State, enjoying absolute control of a country of more than  two million square kilometres; his personal fiefdom.  

From 1885 to 1908, Leopold amassed a personal fortune through exploitation and forced labour in the Congo. Failure by a village to meet rubber quotas, for companies such as the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (ABIR), was met with brutality by Leopold’s armed Force Publique "Public Force" which consisted of soldiers from African countries and Congolese conscripts, commanded by white officers, who took hostages, killed, looted and maimed. Hands were even severed to show European officials that ammunition had not been squandered shooting animals and that a villager had been killed.

Legacies and ghosts

Independence and a new era of democracy came in 1960, with Patrice Lumumba elected as prime minister and Joseph Kasa-Vubu as president. It was short-lived.  By 1961 the new republic was embroiled in political and military strife and regional secessionist movements. 

After the Katanga province announced its withdrawal from the republic, the nationalist Lumumba and conservative Kasa-Vubu disagreed on how to deal with the crisis. Subsequently, Lumumba was arrested by CIA-backed army commander Joseph Mobutu, and handed to Katangan forces.  Lumumba and two colleagues were tortured and murdered, with Belgian complicity. By 1964 Katanga's secession movement ended, with its leaders joining the government.  

Mobutu seized power in a coup and by 1971 renamed the country Zaire. He was overthrown in 1997 and replaced by rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila.  After Kabila’s assassination in 2001 he was succeeded by his son Joseph who is still President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The DRC is one of the most resource rich countries in the world, a source of gold, diamonds, tin, copper and the world’s largest reserve of coltan - a mineral used to make mobile phones and home electronics. 

Ongoing conflicts for control over access to these lucrative minerals have resulted in many human rights abuses by soldiers and armed militias. From forcing men and boys to become labourers, domestic workers and soldiers to the systematic abuse and rape of women and girls.  

King Leopold's rule, which cost the lives of millions of Congolese, may have ended, but his bloody legacy has left a long shadow.