In the period from 1885 to 1908, a number of well-documented atrocities were perpetrated in the Congo Free State (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) which, at the time, was a colony under the personal rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. These atrocities were sometimes collectively referred to by European contemporaries as the “Congo Horrors”, and were particularly associated with the labour policies used to collect natural rubber for export. Together with epidemic disease, famine, and a falling birth rate caused by these disruptions, the atrocities contributed to a sharp decline in the Congolese population. The magnitude of the population fall over the period is disputed, but it is thought to be between one and 15 million people.
At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, the European powers allocated the Congo Basin region to a private charitable organisation run by Leopold II, who had long held ambitions for colonial expansion. The territory under Leopold’s control exceeded 2,600,000 km2 (1,000,000 sq mi) and, amid financial problems, was ruled by a tiny cadre of white administrators drawn from across Europe. Initially, the colony proved unprofitable and insufficient, with the state always close to bankruptcy. The boom in demand for natural rubber, which was abundant in the territory, created a radical shift in the 1890s—to facilitate the extraction and export of rubber, all “uninhabited” land in the Congo was nationalised, with the majority distributed to private companies as concessions. Some was kept by the state. Between 1891 and 1906, the companies were allowed to do whatever they wished with almost no judicial interference, the result being that forced labour and violent coercion were used to collect the rubber cheaply and maximise profit. A native paramilitary army, the Force Publique, was also created to enforce the labour policies. Individual workers who refused to participate in rubber collection could be killed and entire villages razed. Individual white administrators were also free to indulge their own sadism.
Despite these atrocities, the main cause of the population decline was disease. A number of pandemics, notably African sleeping sickness, smallpox, swine influenza and amoebic dysentery, ravaged indigenous populations. In 1901 alone it was estimated that 500,000 Congolese had died from sleeping sickness. Disease, famine and violence combined to reduce the birth-rate while excess deaths rose.
The severing of workers’ hands achieved particular international notoriety. These were sometimes cut off by rogue Force Publique soldiers who were made to account for every shot they fired by bringing back the hands of their victims. These details were recorded by Christian missionaries working in the Congo and caused public outrage when they were made known to the public in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the United States and elsewhere. An international campaign against the Congo Free State began in 1890 and reached its apogee after 1900 under the leadership of the British activist E. D. Morel. In 1908, as a result of international pressure, the Belgian government annexed the Congo Free State to form the Belgian Congo, and ended many of the systems responsible for the abuses. The size of the population decline during the period is the subject of extensive historiographical debate, and there is an open debate as to whether the atrocities constitute genocide.
Red Rubber system and forced labour
With the majority of the Free State’s revenues derived from the export of rubber, a labour policy (known by critics as the “Red Rubber system”) was created to maximise its extraction. Labour was demanded by the administration as taxation. This created a “slave society” as companies became increasingly dependent on forcibly mobilising Congolese labour for their collection of rubber. The state recruited a number of black officials, known as capitas, to organise local labour. However, the desire to maximise rubber collection, and hence the state’s profits, meant that the centrally-enforced demands were often set arbitrarily without considering the numbers or the welfare of workers. In the concessionary territories, the private companies which had purchased a concession from the Free State administration were able to use virtually any measures they wished to increase production and profits without state interference. Treatment of labourers (especially the duration of service) was not regulated by law and instead was left to the discretion of officials on the ground. ABIR and the Anversoise were particularly noted for the harshness with which officials treated Congolese workers. The historian Jean Stengers described regions controlled by these two companies as “veritable hells-on-earth”.
Workers who refused to supply their labour were coerced with “constraint and repression”. Dissenters were beaten or whipped with the chicotte, hostages were taken to ensure prompt collection and punitive expeditions were sent to destroy villages which refused. The policy led to a collapse of Congolese economic and cultural life, as well as farming in some areas. Much of the enforcement of rubber production was the responsibility of the Force Publique, the colonial military. The Force had originally been established in 1885, with white officers and NCOs and black soldiers, and recruited from as far afield as Zanzibar, Nigeriaand Liberia. In the Congo, it recruited from specific ethnic and social demographics. These included the Bangala, and this contributed to the spread of the Lingala language across the country, and freed slaves from the eastern Congo. The so-called Zappo-Zaps (from the Songye ethnic group) were the most feared. Reportedly cannibals, the Zappo-Zaps frequently abused their official positions to raid the countryside for slaves. By 1900, the Force Publique numbered 19,000 men.
The red rubber system emerged with the creation of the concession regime in 1891 and lasted until 1906 when the concession system was restricted. At its height, it was heavily localised in the Équateur, Bandundu and Kasai regions.
Mutilation and brutality
One of the enduring images of the Free State was the severed hands which became “the most potent symbol of colonial brutality”. The practice was comparatively common in colonial Africa (by the Portuguese in Cabinda, for example) and originated in connection with the rubber industry. Suspected of indiscipline, Force Publique soldiers were expected to provide proof that they had not stolen ammunition or used their military equipment for hunting purposes. The practice of hacking the hands off corpses in the aftermath of punitive expeditions became common as evidence (pièces justificatives) that government supplies had not been misused. When soldiers did misuse their equipment, they cut hands from living people to cover their activities. Photographs of victims, taken by missionaries, were among the most potent evidence for opponents of Leopold’s regime in Belgium and the United Kingdom. Other practices used to force workers to collect rubber were taking women and family members hostage.
Aside from rubber collection, violence in the Free State chiefly occurred in connection with wars and rebellions. Native states, notably Msiri’s Yeke Kingdom, the Zande Federation, and Swahili-speaking territory in the eastern Congo under Tippu Tip, refused to recognise colonial authority and were defeated by the Force Publique with great brutality, during the Congo Arab war. In 1895, a military mutiny broke out among the Batetela in Kasai, leading to a 4-year insurgency. The conflict was particularly brutal and caused a great number of casualties.
Much of the violence perpetrated in the Congo was inflicted on Africans by other Africans. There were, however, a number of notable examples of white colonial administrators known for particular sadism. These included individuals such as Léon Rom, Léon Fiévez (known as the “devil of Équateur”), and René de Permentier who collectively served as inspirations for the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.