Belgium Annexes the Congo Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As a consequence of the international outcry over the treatment of Africans under the rule of King Leopold II, the Belgian government assumed control of the Congo and initiated reforms.

Summary of Event

The Congo Independent State (also called the Congo Free State; now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was unique among European imperial ventures in Africa. Although it resembled a European colony, technically the Congo State was a sovereign country, recognized as such since 1885 by most of the major powers. Its ruler was King Leopold II of Belgium, but there was no constitutional connection between Belgium and the Congo State until 1908. The state was run largely as Leopold’s private business concern. Imperialism;Congo Belgium, annexation of the Congo Congo;exploitation by Leopold II Belgian Congo [kw]Belgium Annexes the Congo (Nov. 1, 1908) [kw]Annexes the Congo, Belgium (Nov. 1, 1908) [kw]Congo, Belgium Annexes the (Nov. 1, 1908) Imperialism;Congo Belgium, annexation of the Congo Congo;exploitation by Leopold II Belgian Congo [g]Belgium;Nov. 1, 1908: Belgium Annexes the Congo[02220] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Nov. 1, 1908: Belgium Annexes the Congo[02220] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 1, 1908: Belgium Annexes the Congo[02220] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Nov. 1, 1908: Belgium Annexes the Congo[02220] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Nov. 1, 1908: Belgium Annexes the Congo[02220] Leopold II [p]Leopold II[Leopold 02];exploitation of the Congo Morel, Edmond Dene Grey, Sir Edward Renkin, Jules

From the start of his African venture in the 1870’s, Leopold had portrayed his motives in acquiring the Congo watershed as humanitarian. He stated his intentions to suppress the slave trade and to bring commerce, prosperity, and “civilization” to the Africans. He adhered to the 1885 Berlin General Act, which included a pledge to “watch over the preservation of the native tribes and to care for the improvement of their moral and material well-being.” Although the Congo State did take measures to end the slave trade, Leopold in fact exhibited little concern for the rights of Africans in the Congo.

The rule of the Congo Independent State was imposed and maintained, where necessary, by military force. All land that was deemed unoccupied was confiscated by the state. Taxation, especially in the early years, was left to the discretion of local officials and assumed various forms. A considerable amount was collected in the form of export commodities (ivory, groundnuts, and especially wild rubber). Women were required to provide cassava bread for the state’s workers and soldiers. Residents also had to provide government stations with meat and fish. Taxes were also payable in labor for the government: cutting wood for the river steamers, transporting officials in canoes, providing porter labor on expeditions, and working on various public projects. These impositions were spread unevenly, with villages located near government stations bearing the heaviest burdens. Payment of taxes in currency was prohibited in most cases, a policy often criticized as retarding the development of a money economy in the territory. Taxation was enforced with collective penalties, detentions, and corporal punishment. Such policies were not atypical of the early years of European rule in Africa, but the Congo State came under criticism for being much harsher and more exploitative than other colonies in Africa.

King Leopold II of Belgium.

(Library of Congress)

It was the state’s financial weakness that led to the increasingly brutal treatment of the Africans. As an independent state, Leopold’s Congo had no metropolitan power to support it financially, and those who had invested money, including Leopold, sought to profit quickly. Leopold, beginning in the early 1890’s, made concessions of vast territories to various private firms in order to exploit the Congo’s resources. The most notorious of these firms were the Société Anversoise du Commerce du Congo Société Anversoise du Commerce du Congo (known as Anversoise), the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber and Exploring Company Anglo-Belgian India Rubber and Exploring Company[Anglobelgian India Rubber] (Abir), and the Compagnie du Kasai Compagnie du Kasai (created in 1901). The state held a large proportion, usually half, of the stock in these companies, and state officials sat on the firms’ governing boards. Company agents were often hired by the state and had few restrictions on their powers. Most of the territory not parceled out in concessions was assigned to the so-called private domain, which was to be exploited directly by the state.

In the 1890’s, wild rubber replaced ivory as the main focus of economic activity in the Congo, and it was in the rubber industry that the worst abuses of the Africans occurred. Neither the state nor the concession firms were strongly capitalized, and they relied on crude extraction in order to turn a profit. Local officials were given goals to meet; they in turn set the quota of wild rubber each village was required to produce and received a commission on the amount gathered. In addition, private competition was excluded to keep the purchase price of rubber low. European officials often used African assistants, commonly known as capitas, to enforce the quotas. Missionaries reported that the taking of hostages (especially women), whipping, and mutilation (especially the amputation of hands) were not uncommon methods of enforcing the quotas. The practice of mutilation was said to derive from the requirement that (African) soldiers had to account for each bullet used by bringing back the hand of the victim.

Over time, reports of such atrocities, mostly provided by Protestant missionaries, led to criticism of the Congo State in the outside world. The publication in 1904 of the findings of an investigation by the British consul Roger Casement, Casement, Sir Roger which Leopold tried to block, created an uproar in Britain and led journalist Edmond Dene Morel to found the Congo Reform Association Congo Reform Association (CRA). Morel’s campaign soon spread to other countries and became particularly strong in the United States.

In the face of increasing international condemnation, and prodded by the British Foreign Office, Leopold convened an independent commission of inquiry to look into Casement’s charges. The commission failed to find any evidence of mutilation or murder by European officials and attributed the cases of mutilation to an “inveterate native custom” of taking a trophy from the dead or those believed dead. On several issues, such as the use of labor taxes, the commission approved of the government’s policies while criticizing aspects of their implementation. Nevertheless, the resulting report, released in 1905, substantiated most of Casement’s findings. It found abuses in the tax system, unauthorized military expeditions by the concession companies, and improper supervision over the companies. Leopold set up a second commission to recommend proper reforms.

Soon after the commission of inquiry had made its report, Sir Edward Grey, a known critic of Leopold’s Congo, became foreign secretary of Great Britain. By 1906, the Hearst newspapers in the United States had taken up the campaign against Leopold. A reform movement also appeared in Belgium itself, drawing on the growing strength of the Socialist Party in the Belgian parliament. Even the Catholic Party, previously Leopold’s main supporter in Belgium, began to distance itself from his policies.





Belgian public opinion had always been somewhat ambivalent toward Leopold’s imperial ambitions, and many Belgians saw little reason for the government to become involved in them. The idea of annexing the Congo had been raised twice previously, in 1895 and 1901, but the Parliament had voted against it, primarily because the king was opposed. By 1906, the strength of international opinion left little alternative to Belgian annexation. The reform measures introduced by Leopold in that year, including the termination of the Abir and Anversoise concessions, were deemed inadequate by Morel and the CRA, who argued that no true reforms could be expected so long as Leopold controlled the Congo. In November, Grey told a delegation of reformers that he favored a Belgian annexation of the Congo. In December, the Belgian parliament debated the Congo issue and voted to examine the question of annexation.

After many months of difficult negotiations with Leopold, the treaty that transferred the Congo to Belgium and the acts establishing a new colonial charter were passed by the Belgian Chamber in August and September, 1908. The annexation came into force on November 1, 1908, although it was not announced in the Congo until November 16. The annexation did not satisfy Morel. The king retained limited powers in the newly renamed Belgian Congo. Existing concessions remained, although the administrative powers of the companies were curtailed. Forced labor was not outlawed under the new colonial law, and most of Leopold’s officials continued in their jobs. Morel and the CRA convinced the British and American governments to withhold recognition of the annexation until the system had been completely reformed and the rights of Africans were protected.


On paper, the Belgian annexation did little to change the situation in the Congo. The Leopoldian system was gradually dismantled, however, because of continued pressure by Morel and the efforts of Jules Renkin, the new minister of colonies. Renkin introduced his reform program in October, 1909. Free trade was to be introduced area by area over three years, and the importation of consumer goods for Africans would be encouraged. At the same time, payment of taxes in currency was to be introduced, and taxation in the form of provisions was abolished. Morel was still unimpressed and held the most dramatic rally for reform organized up to that time, with the archbishop of Canterbury on the dais, in November.

Although Morel held out for strong guarantees for African property rights, world interest in the Congo soon flagged. Leopold’s death in December, 1909, left the reformers without a convenient target for their outrage. Leopold’s successor, Albert I, favored a humane policy in Africa and had even visited the colony himself, something Leopold never did. In 1912, Renkin was 1‘granted the authority to remove officials who were known to be corrupt or who had misbehaved under the old regime. That same year, the old governor, Baron Théophile Wahis, a staunch supporter of Leopold, was also replaced. Renkin also established a training academy for colonial officials that included courses emphasizing ethics and toleration for local customs. In June, 1913, the Congo Reform Association dissolved itself, having determined that its job was done. The United States and Great Britain granted recognition to the Belgian Congo.

Underlying many of the improvements in the Congo after 1908 was a shift in the focus of commercial exploitation from forest products to mining and plantations. The wild rubber industry was on the decline after 1907, largely as the result of the use of destructive methods to tap the trees. Elephant herds were being exterminated. Copper, cobalt, and diamonds began to replace rubber and ivory at the top of the list of exports. The big mining concerns, notably the Union Miniére du Haut Katanga, came to realize that they needed a steady, experienced workforce and could not rely on forced labor or seasonal levies. In the 1920’s, they adopted a more benevolent policy toward their workers, providing housing, health care, food, and education for them and their families. The crude exploitation of the red rubber era became a thing of the past, to be replaced by a more subtle, and more profitable, approach.

Gradually, the Belgian Congo came to resemble other European colonies in Africa, which is to say that it was paternalistic. Africans still had few legal rights, faced open discrimination, and had no voice in government, but outright brutalization was curbed. Forced labor remained but was more closely regulated. In later decades, the government required Africans to grow specific crops. Although the government encouraged mission schools through subsidies, producing in the long run a relatively high literacy rate, it discouraged advanced education for Africans. When independence came suddenly in 1960, the tensions implicit in this more humane, paternalistic colonial system found their outlet in a bloody civil war. Imperialism;Congo Belgium, annexation of the Congo Congo;exploitation by Leopold II Belgian Congo

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anstey, Roger. King Leopold’s Legacy: The Congo Under Belgian Rule, 1908-1960. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. An excellent companion volume to the Slade book listed below. Particularly useful for its emphasis on social trends in addition to economic and political developments. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brausch, Georges. Belgian Administration in the Congo. 1961. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. A concise work, written by a former Belgian administrator. Although his concern is mainly to defend Belgium’s record in the Congo, the author provides useful information about changes in policy, particularly after World War II. Brief bibliography, no index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cookey, S. J. S. Britain and the Congo Question, 1885-1913. New York: Humanities Press, 1968. A detailed account of British diplomacy regarding the Congo. Well documented, using both Belgian and British archival materials. Includes a solid account of the reform campaign and the political debates on the issue. Not concerned with events in the Congo except as they affected relations between Britain and Belgium. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edgerton, Robert B. The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Documents the history of the Congo from the fifteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Chapter 5 is devoted to the Belgian Congo. Includes map, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gann, Lewis H., and Peter Duignan. The Rules of Belgian Africa, 1884-1914. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. Concerned mainly with the backgrounds, motivations, and experiences of colonial officials. Also strong in discussions of economics and of changing colonial policies, but not on the whole concerned with the African perspective. Includes a critical examination of some of the accusations against the Congo Independent State. Index and good bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York: Mariner Books, 1999. Focuses on the exploitation of the Congo’s resources and the abuses of Africans by Leopold’s regime as well as on the reform efforts of Edmond Morel and others. Draws on many eyewitness accounts. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martelli, George. Leopold to Lumumba: A History of the Belgian Congo, 1877-1960. London: Chapman & Hall, 1962. A well-written book, at times dramatic and at times polemical in defense of the European record in Africa. Strongest on the Congo Independent State, particularly its founding, but offers only superficial discussion of the Belgian period. Index, map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morel, Edmond Dene. E. D. Morel’s History of the Congo Reform Movement. Edited by W. Roger Louis and Jean Stengers. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968. Morel’s own history of his campaign up to 1904 provides an interesting insight into the personality of Leopold’s nemesis. The editors have added chapters carrying the story to 1913, as well as a series of critical discussions of several of Morel’s more controversial claims.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slade, Ruth. King Leopold’s Congo: Aspects of the Development of Race Relations in the Congo Independent State. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. The standard political and diplomatic history in English of the Congo Independent State. The subtitle is somewhat misleading, as race relations are not the main focus of the work. Index, bibliography, and map.

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Categories: History