Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

King Leopold II of Belgium created the Congo Free State as his private fiefdom—a business venture—during Europe’s scramble for African territories. The Belgian government seized the state from Leopold after public revelations of his brutal and ruthless exploitation of the Congolese people. In twenty-two years, an estimated ten million Congolese—half the population—were forced into labor and were murdered or died from disease or starvation.

Summary of Event

In September, 1908, the Belgian parliament passed an annexation treaty and a colonial charter that specified how the Congo Free State (CFS) would be managed, without Belgian king Leopold II. On November 15, in a ceremony in the state’s capital of Boma, the CFS became the Belgian Congo. The worst of the abuses perpetrated by Leopold’s administration had finally decreased because of international and domestic pressure, and the abuses were prohibited with the transfer of power. The economic exploitation and the political and cultural repression of colonial rule persisted, albeit in a more benign manner, but nothing compared to Leopold’s twenty-two-year exploitation of the Congolese people. [kw]Congo Free State from King Leopold II, Belgium Confiscates (Nov. 15, 1908) [kw]Leopold II, Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King (Nov. 15, 1908) Stanley, Henry Morton Morel, Edmund Dene Casement, Roger Leopold II Congo Free State Rubber;in Congo Free State[Congo Free State] Stanley, Henry Morton Morel, Edmund Dene Casement, Roger Leopold II Congo Free State Rubber;in Congo Free State[Congo Free State] [g]Europe;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110] [g]Africa;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110] [g]Congo, Democratic Republic of the;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110] [g]Belgium;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110] [c]Colonialism and imperialism;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110] [c]royalty;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110] [c]Human rights;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110] [c]Government;Nov. 15, 1908: Belgium Confiscates Congo Free State from King Leopold II[00110]

King Leopold II.

(Library of Congress)

Newly independent Belgium had no interest in colonialism, but its second king, Leopold II, had always coveted an overseas colony. He had explored the purchase or acquisition of areas around the world. During the mid-nineteenth century, sub-Saharan Africa was largely unexplored and, except for the coastal areas, was mostly unclaimed by European countries, leading Leopold to Africa’s interior.

In 1879, Leopold hired the British American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to survey the Congo River area and to build a road, establish posts along the navigable river, and make treaties with Congolese chiefs along the way. The survey was made under the guise of the International Association of the Congo International Association of the Congo, a private holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association, headed by Leopold. Ostensibly, the IAC was devoted to free trade and elimination of the slave Slavery;African slave trade trade. At the fourteen-nation Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, however, Leopold used skillful and cunning diplomacy to play the major powers against each other to get de facto recognition of his claim to the Congo River basin. Leopold changed the name of the IAC to Congo Free State and became the absolute ruler of an area larger than Western Europe and eighty times the size of Belgium.

Leopold quickly abandoned the pretense of a free trade zone and instead controlled the country through private trusts. He declared that any uncultivated land was vacant and available for exploitation. He authorized forced labor for the Congolese population on behalf of his economic interests, primarily the collection of rubber and ivory. Congolese who refused to provide labor, rubber, and ivory, or who did not meet their assigned quotas, were beaten and mutilated (amputating hands was a common practice), their wives and children were kidnapped, women were raped, their villages were burned, and many of the uncooperative were executed. In the twenty-two years the CFS existed, an estimated ten million Congolese—half the population—lost their lives to murder, starvation, and disease.

The CFS was unique in being a personal fiefdom rather than a colony. Accordingly, Leopold had total control of its resources and was answerable to no one. He chose to maximize his short-term economic gains at all costs. He gave his agents the authority to impose draconian methods to maximize his return. They took possession of all lands and forced compliance with demands for labor, rubber, and ivory.

When novelist Joseph Conrad Conrad, Joseph captained a steamboat up the Congo in 1889, the crimes and plunder he saw formed the basis for his novella Heart of Darkness Heart of Darkness (Conrad) (1902), first published as a magazine serial in 1899. He indicated that the novella was only a slightly fictionalized version of what he saw. The atrocities also were clear in 1890, when Williams, George Washington George Washington Williams, an African American Baptist minister, made a trip across the country. In an open letter to Leopold, written from the Congo, he condemned the brutal and inhuman treatment of the Congolese. Williams reminded the king that the crimes committed were done in his name, making him as guilty as the actual perpetrators. Williams appealed to the international community to investigate these crimes against humanity, marking, as well, the first time the phrase “crimes against humanity” was used. Leopold disparaged the report and, because Williams died on his way home, he did not feel compelled to investigate the accusations. Various Protestant missionaries in the Congo also brought attention to the atrocities. Prominent among these was Sheppard, William Henry William Henry Sheppard, an African American Presbyterian missionary, whose outspokenness earned him a Libel cases libel suit brought by one of Leopold’s companies.

In 1900, Edmund Dene Morel was a clerk for an English company with a shipping contract for the CFS. He noticed that returning ships were full of valuable products, such as raw rubber and ivory, while the outgoing ships carried guns, ordnance, explosives, and chains, but no commercial goods. After realizing that Leopold had created a forced labor system of immense proportions, in essence Slavery;in Congo[Congo] slave labor, Morel began to publish a series of articles in the weekly magazine Speaker. By 1902, Morel had given up his job to become a full-time investigative reporter, continuing to expose the deplorable conditions in the Congo. Morel had contacts with agents of the CFS and with missionaries who furnished eyewitness accounts and photographs of atrocities. He published in 1906 the book Red Rubber (Morel) Red Rubber: The Story of the Rubber Slave Trade Flourishing on the Congo in the Year of Grace, 1906.

In response to Morel’s accounts, the British House of Commons passed a 1903 resolution on the Congo and subsequently ordered the British consul in the Congo, Roger Casement, to inspect the region. His 1904 report, which meticulously confirmed Morel’s accusations, had a considerable impact on public opinion. Morel and Casement established the Congo Reform Association Congo Reform Association (CRA), with branches around the world, including the United States. The CRA, acknowledged as the first large-scale human rights organization, publicized accounts of the atrocities and lobbied against Leopold’s rule of the Congo. The CRA earned the support of famous writers such as Conrad, France, Anatole Anatole France, Twain, Mark Mark Twain, and Doyle, Arthur Conan Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1905, Twain published King Leopold’s Soliloquy (Twain) King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a fiercely satirical pamphlet, and Doyle published The Crime of the Congo Crime of the Congo, The (Doyle) in 1909, a book that included photographs of Congolese women and children whose hands had been cut off.

Leopold rebutted the accusations, belittled them, and suggested they were part of a British campaign of expansionism. However, under external pressure, he instituted his own commission of enquiry in 1904. Its report, which Leopold tried to suppress, substantially confirmed the accusations. After being shown the report, the vice governor-general of the Congo committed suicide. In 1906, Cattier, Félicien Félicien Cattier, a professor of colonial law at Brussels University, published his own study, Etude sur la situation de l’Etat indépendant du Congo (study of the situation of the independent state of the Congo), and Jesuit priest Arthur Vermeersch Vermeersch, Arthur published La Question Congolaise (the Congolese question). Both books were damning indictments of the abuses in the CFS that persuaded the Roman Catholic Roman Catholic Church;and Belgian Congo[Belgian Congo] community in Belgium to take action as well.

The United States, Britain, France, and Germany pressured Belgium to take over the Congo and remove Leopold from its control. In 1906 the Belgian parliament voted in principle to do so. Leopold, however, insisted on being paid to give up his rights to the country and managed to extract 110 million francs to cover his outstanding debts, 45 million francs to complete the building projects in Belgium he had started, and 50 million francs in future receipts from the Congo. He also destroyed many records of his tenure in the Congo.


The atrocities perpetrated by Leopold II’s administration, unthinkable in their severity and scale, also led to the formation of a new awareness of crimes against humanity (indeed, the phrase was coined at this time) and to the founding of the first large-scale human rights group, the Congo Reform Association Congo Reform Association. The association galvanized public opinion at both the local and global levels and insisted on government action against Leopold. This call for action culminated in the confiscation in 1908 of the Congo Free State by the Belgian government, its annexation, and its formation as the Belgian Congo. Stanley, Henry Morton Morel, Edmund Dene Casement, Roger Leopold II Congo Free State Rubber;in Congo Free State[Congo Free State]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ewans, Martin. European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State, and Its Aftermath. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. A well-documented book exploring Leopold’s abuses in the Congo Free State.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gondola, Charles Didier. The History of the Congo. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Places the Leopoldian years in the context of Congo history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. A readable and well-researched history of the Congo Free State.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twain, Mark. King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule. Boston: P. R. Warren, 1905. Satirical pamphlet that includes biting cartoons and pictures of maimed women and children. Part of the campaign to bring attention to Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo. Available in several modern reprint editions.

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Categories: History