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Congo Overview

“Il faut à la Belgique une colonie” (Belgium needs a colony)

1876 Leopold II had to and eventually would provide a colony to his country. After numerous failed attempts and exotic adventures in, among others, Egypt and Asia, it was Africa that caught the sovereign’s eye. In 1876, he convened the international geographic conference in Brussels with a view to a crusade for civilisation. Meanwhile, journalist H.M. Stanley travelled throughout the heart of Africa. However, upon his return, he was not as famous as expected. Leopold II did not hesitate and seized the occasion: he wanted to claim this part of the African continent for himself! Stanley was given the order to set up trading posts in the name of the Comité d’Etudes du Haut-Congo and its successor, the Association internationale du Congo at the Congo estuary. He did so under the flag of the Association internationale africaine, one of the means by which Leopold II veiled his ambitions in Africa. Stanley had to deal with the competition of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who was backed by his country, France.

The biggest satisfaction in my life has been to offer the Congo to Belgium. The Congo is richer than you might think. The duty of a sovereign is to enrich the nation. – Leopold II in 1909 in Antwerp.

In order to be able to compete with this Great Power, Leopold II wanted to have his AIC recognised as a state by both the indigenous chieftains and the Western Great Powers. The cheiftains signed contracts whose consequences they could not foresee. Under the cloak of anti-slavery, civilisation and free trade, Leopold managed to force his point among the European Great Powers with dubious means: the Congo Free State was born.


1887 Was philanthropy the real motive behind the whole undertaking? Quite soon it appeared that this was not the case. In 1887, the mother of all colonial holdings, the Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l’Industrie, was created. Together with its subsidiary company, the Compagnie du Chemin de fer du Congo, it brought about the construction of the first railway, from Matadi to Kinshasa. Labour conditions were harsh and cost over 7000 lives. It was rumoured that one African lied buried under each wooden sleeper. The African adventure seemed less profitable than expected. Sponsors were rare. Leopold II turned to the Belgian government to receive a loan. In order to counter free trade, all grounds not used by the indigenous population were declared vacant or state property in 1891-1892. They were conceded and donated to the large companies. The locals lost hunting and arable lands, fishponds, religious areas and common land. Taxes in kind, in the form of rubber and ivory, were raised. Tax collection often occurred under constraint and with the help of the army, the Public Armed Forces, and agents of the companies. The population fell prey to punitive expeditions, executions and rape. In 1906, when the ivory and rubber exploitation had almost reached its limits, a new chapter in the story of African profit making began with the discovery of the African resources by the Société Générale. These developments did not stop the Congo Free State from becoming a Belgian colony in 1908.


With due diligence

1908 After some reluctance and objection, Belgium was granted a colony. But how did this come about precisely? There was certainly no rupture with the past during the first years. A new ministry was set up for the administration of a country 80 times larger than Belgium. A colonial ‘constitution’, the colonial charter, was authored and the Minister for the Colonies was assisted by the Colonial Council. In the colonies, a governor-general was in charge of executing the decisions taken in Brussels. Belgian-Congo was subdivided in provinces, districts and regions. In Belgium, colonial schools were set up in which civil servants were prepared for a life in the brousse (French for wilderness).


1914 In 1914, Belgium got involved in the First World War. While in the north, a real trench warfare raged, the colony achieved successes in the war against the European Great Powers. The Public Armed Forces took Tabora, in 1916, and occupied some 200,000 km² of land during the war. This way, Belgium had its foot in the door for the negotiations on the Congo estuary.

The results obtained by the Belgian regime were, altogether, among the most brilliant in Africa. – Jean Stengers, Congo, Mythes et réalités, 1989, p. 189-190.

Eventually, diplomat Orts got hold of the territories of Ruanda and Urundi. The League of Nations placed the former German colony under Belgian mandate. The war marks an important episode in the relations between the colonist and the colonised. For the first time, Congolese saw white men fight each other and white people were the target. The war cost many lives among the soldiers, but also among carriers and the common people.


We have experienced that the Law was never the same when it concerned a white or a black person: accommodating for the first, cruel and inhuman for the latter. – Patrice Lumumba, 1960.

1918 After the war, the economy once again boomed and large companies massively recruited. As a result, whole communities were displaced. With the collaboration of the public authorities, even forced labour remained in use until ca. 1930. Many people died due to heavy labour, accidents or illnesses. When the crisis also hit the colonial economy during the interwar period, numerous Africans became unemployed. The remaining had to settle for a minimum wage that was kept extremely low. The countryside too sunk into poverty and had to cope with an aging or invalid population.


1940 When the Second World War broke out the Belgian government rallied behind the Allies. The colonial army fought in Abyssinia and even sent soldiers to the Middle-East and Burma. Here, the soldiers came into contact with other African peoples who were already fighting for independence. The colony provided the resources for warfare, such as copper for arms and uranium for the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


1945-1960 Were the Belgians good colonists? Since the beginning of the Belgian presence in Central Africa this question has been raised at national level but especially at international level. To prove its worth as fully-fledged colonialists, Belgium worked on a ‘model colony’ after the Second World War. Investments were made in the development of the roads and infrastructures, modern means of communication, a real medical system that at the time of the independence was among the most efficient ones in the tropical world. Beside this, education was the gem of the colony. In collaboration with the missions, the highest alphabetisation rate in Africa was achieved. Alphabetisation was not sufficient however, as there was also a need for people with higher education. These needs were neglected indeed. At the moment of independence, only 16 Congolese owned a university degree. The frustration of a group of Westernised Congolese, the so-called évolués, the slow emancipation and education of the population, the segregation according to race or skin colour, the alienation of traditional life through urbanisation and numerous other factors led to a break in 1960. Congo became formally independent.