Sat Feb 04, 2023
February 04, 2023

The genocide in the Belgian Congo and the struggle for reparation

The genocide carried out by the Belgian king resulted in the death of eight to ten million Congolese.

By Cesar Neto

Belgium is a small country, slightly larger than El Salvador and about half the size of Costa Rica. Its eleven million inhabitants enjoy living in the 19th best country for quality of life, while Congo is the 11th worst country. A great inequality that those who are guided by “entrepreneurial ideas” will say: Belgians are “hard-working” and Congolese are “lazy”. Or then, those who are guided by the theology of prosperity will say that the Belgians are a “blessed people”. And what are the Congolese?

Belgian wealth and Congolese poverty are twin sisters

Since 1870, European nations have been looking to take Africa by storm. In those years, the Welshman Henry Morton Stanley made a long expedition and was one of the first to get to know the Congo region. He returned to Europe in 1878 and presented African virtues to bourgeois governments. According to Stanley, it was the opportunity for commercial exploitation of the lands that “he discovered” and he never tired of defending the need to “displace European civilisation in African barbarism“, and even: “there are 40,000,000 naked people on the other side of the falls and the textile industries of Manchester are waiting to clothe them (…) The factories of Birmingham are heating the red metal that will be transformed into metal objects of all kinds and aspects that will decorate it (…) and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring their poor souls to the Christian faith”. The whole fate of the Congo was mapped out since the beginning of interest in the region.

In 1885, the Berlin Conference was held, at which a great treaty was made between the European nations for the division of Africa. Belgium was given an area of 2,343,000 square kilometres of African land or the equivalent of 75 times Belgium’s territory. Belgium as a state did not initially and directly take charge of its possessions. Thus, King Leopold II was given the task of doing so. Leopold II immediately appropriated these lands and created the “Congo Free State”, which was “free” in name only.

Initially, Leopold II was engaged in the slaughter of elephants for their ivory. Business with the killing of elephants and the export of ivory was growing by leaps and bounds. In the same period, the world’s demand for rubber exploded and Belgium turned to rubber extraction using forced labour of the natives, resorting to beatings, killing and mutilation when production quotas were not met. In addition, there was a process of land usurpation, the expulsion of the inhabitants and the burning of their houses.

The creation of the security forces

In order to impose forced labour and land usurpation through the use of terror, the Public Force was created in 1885. The Public Force was commanded by regular officers of the Belgian army, adventurers, and mercenaries, former officers of other nations. Between the years 1886 and 1908, the officer core consisted of 648 Belgians, 112 Italians, 53 Danes, 47 Swedes, 26 Norwegians and smaller numbers recruited from other nations such as the British Empire and the United States.

As an army of occupation, it acted with the worst methods of violence, such as rape, and as if that were not enough, forced the fathers to practice incest with their daughters, or for brothers to do the same with their sisters, in addition to other forms of violence such as the use of whips, torture, mutilations of adults and children, murders, etc.

Congolese holding the severed hands of other natives.
Congolese man looking at his daughter’s severed hands and feet.

The violence against the Congolese cannot be hidden or forgotten. There are countless accounts, documents and books. Arthur Conan Doyle, known for his works on Sherlock Holmes, wrote The Crime of the Congo, one of the best-organised denunciations against Leopold II, King of Belgium. Conan Doyle reproduces excerpts of a document explaining what whips are and how they are used.

“The ‘chicotte’ of raw hippo hide, especially a new one, trimmed like a corkscrew, with edges like knife-blades, and as hard as wood, is a terrible weapon, and a few blows bring blood; not more than twenty-five blows should be given unless the offence is very serious. Though we persuaded ourselves that the African’s skin is very tough it needs an extraordinary constitution to withstand the terrible punishment of one hundred blows; generally the victim is in a state of insensibility after twenty-five or thirty blows. At the first blow he yells abominably; then he quiets down, and is a mere groaning, quivering body till the operation is over, when the culprit stumbles away, often with gashes which will endure a lifetime. It is bad enough the flogging of men, but far worse is this punishment when inflicted on women and children. Small boys of ten or twelve, with excitable, hot-tempered masters, often are most harshly treated. At Kasnogo there is a great deal of cruelty displayed. I saw two boys very badly cut. I conscientiously believe that a man who receives one hundred blows is often nearly killed, and has his spirit broken for life.”

Whipping with a ‘chicotte’ of raw hippo hide.

The author of Sherlock Holmes stories shows himself to be a good investigator, analyses and presents a document that explains the clumsy motive and the destruction of a village:

The people were sleeping still in their beds when they heard a shot and ran to see what the trouble was. Finding the soldiers encircling the town, their only thought was to escape. As they ran out of their homes, men, women and children were mercilessly shot down. Their city was totally destroyed and is a ruin to this day. The only reason for the fighting was that the people failed to bring Kwanga (food) to the State that day.

We have then a testimony:

“Imagine them returning from fighting some ‘rebels’; see, on the bow of the canoe is a pole and a bundle of something on it…. These are the hands (right hands) of sixteen warriors they have slain. ‘Warriors!’ Don’t you see among them the hands of little children and girls (young girls or boys)? I have seen them. I have seen where even the trophy has been cut off while yet the poor heart beat strongly enough to shoot the blood from the cut arteries to a distance of fully four feet.”

As if the accounts and documents on the violence against Congolese people were not enough, photographic records also show mutilated adults and children.

Cover of the 1909 edition of Conan Doyle’s book, “The Crime of the Congo”.

The Belgian state takes over and adopts the same policy in other forms

Leopold II died in 1909, but between 1885 and 1908 he occupied the Congo, the lands of the natives, and forced them into slave labour. For this, he used all the forms of cruelty mentioned above. He amassed an immense fortune and earned the nickname “Construction King”. With the plunder of the Congo he built, among other works, the royal cookers; the Japanese Tower; the Chinese Pavilion; the Antwerp Railway Station; the Royal Museum of Central Africa, etc. All these assets, built with the sweat and blood of the Congolese people, were donated to the Belgian state.

After Leopold II’s death, Belgium took over the Congo as part of its colonies. The Congo only gained its independence in June 1960. In January 1961, the leader of the independence struggle, Patrice Lumumba, in his capacity as prime minister, was imprisoned and shot with the support of the Belgian armed forces. In 1965, Mobutu Sese Seko, through a coup d’état supported by the Belgian government, installed a dictatorship that lasted 32 years.

The need for reparations

The genocide practised during at least those years resulted, according to academic studies, in the deaths of between eight and ten million people, or almost half of the Congolese population at the time. This genocide practised by Leopold II is undoubtedly superior to the Holocaust practised by Hitler against Jews, workers and other minorities during Nazi Germany.

In the last one hundred years of Congolese history, Belgium cannot omit its responsibility for the crimes committed and for obtaining economic advantages. The crimes committed by Leopold II between 1885 and 1908; by the colonial exploitation from 1909 to 1960; and by Mobutu’s dictatorship from 1965 to 1997 were only possible due to the involvement of the Belgian state.

Albert II, King of Belgium, visited the Congo in 2010, as part of the celebrations of 50 years of Congolese independence. Many expected a pronouncement of self-criticism of the historical past from the king. However, Albert II shamelessly avoided speaking on the subject. In fact, the Belgian government had already expressed itself through the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louis Michel, who declared that Leopold II was a visionary who brought civilisation to the Congo.

The paths for historical reparation

There are two paths. One is to take the case to international tribunals, the legal route that exists today; however, in these more than one hundred years almost nothing has been done. The other is mobilisation. Today there are sectors of the Belgian population, especially those whose ancestors were Congolese, who are demanding the removal of statues and names in public places that refer to Leopold II. Exaggeration? No, justice. No one would accept a square named after Adolf Hitler.

The removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Down.

The 2015 experience in South Africa must be vindicated. Cecil Rhodes was a genocidal land-grabber similar to Leopold II, Von Trotta in Namibia, and others. But university youth developed a #RhodesMustFall campaign that sought to remove his statues from inside universities. There were many mobilisations, blockades of avenues, throwing human excrement at the statues, all under heavy police action and repression until eventually the statues were removed. This is the beginning of the long road of reparation for the crimes committed by the imperialist powers.

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