‘Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death. Meanwhile, the Force Publique were required to provide the hand of their victims as proof when they had shot and killed someone, as it was believed that they would otherwise use the munitions (imported from Europe at considerable cost) for hunting. As a consequence, the rubber quotas were in part paid off in chopped-off hands.’
The Congo Free State was a large state in Central Africa, which was in personal union with the Kingdom of Belgium under Leopold II. Leopold was able to procure the region by partaking in humanitarian and philanthropic work and would not tax trade. Via the International Association of the Congo he was able to lay claim to most of the Congo basin. On 29 May 1885, the king named his new colony the Congo Free State. The state would eventually include an area about the size of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Roger Casement wrote his report, known as the Casement Report, that exposed the brutal treatment of the indigenous population in the Congo Free State (1885-1908). Copies of the Report were sent by the British government to the Belgian government as well as to nations who were signatories to the Berlin Agreement in 1885, under which much of Africa had been partitioned. The British Parliament demanded a meeting of the fourteen signatory powers to review the 1885 Berlin Agreement. The Belgian Parliament, pushed by socialist leader Emile Vandervelde and other critics of the King’s Congolese policy, forced a reluctant Leopold to set up an independent commission of enquiry. Its findings confirmed Casement’s report in every detail. This led to the arrest and punishment of officials who had been responsible for murders during a rubber-collection expedition in 1903 (including one Belgian national who was given a five-year sentence for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese natives). The boldest estimate has it that the forced labour system directly and indirectly led to the deaths of 20 percent of the population.
Despite these findings, Leopold managed to retain personal control of the Congo until 1908, when the Parliament of Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and took over its administration as the Belgian Congo. However the final push came from Leopold’s successor King Albert I, and in 1912 the Congo Reform Association had the satisfaction of dissolving itself.
An early day motion presented to the British Parliament in 2006 described ‘the tragedy of King Leopold’s regime’ as genocide and called for an apology from the Belgian government. It received the signature of forty-eight members of parliament.
Photo colourised by My Colorful Past