Wednesday, March 19, 2014
The Belgian Colonial Empire
Instead, in 1885 King Leopold II looked to central Africa. He was convinced that this would be the place where Belgium could establish a vast empire and he could also make a strong moral argument in favor of doing so to the European community because of the lucrative slave trade still going on in that region. Slaves were taken from central Africa by various tribes, sold to dealers in places such as Zanzibar and then sold from there often to the Ottoman Empire with slave rings operating throughout Sudan and parts of Arabia. Wiping out this slave trade was the stated intention of King Leopold II as well as investing in central Africa to develop the region and lift the natives out of poverty. It was a noble sounding case; spreading Christianity, the value of hard work, commerce and ending human trafficking. Of course, as we know, it did not quite work out that way and undoubtedly King Leopold expected immense benefits for himself. The fact that it would be for himself and not his country was because the Belgian government (as astonishing as this sounds today) was known for penny-pinching in those days and refused to fund any such colonial enterprises. Not to be thwarted, King Leopold II paid for it himself and he dispatched the intrepid British explorer Henry Morton Stanley to central Africa to get all the local chieftains he could find to sign treaties basically granting sovereignty to the King of the Belgians personally.
Some have said that a genocide occurred in the Congo under Leopold II and that is simply untrue. Others have vastly exaggerated the death toll of this era, some ranging it as high as half to the entire estimated population of the Congo. That is, quite obviously, absurd as there is no way the King could have been making any profit off the region if 50-100% of the population were killed. Few seem to realize the contradictory nature of accusing the King of both enslaving the population and killing them all off at the same time. The truth is that King Leopold did not go into the Congo to kill people, his crime was mostly one of omission. What he did was to divide up the Congo Free State into districts and hire out to companies to exploit the resources in these districts. There would be an agent over each district to oversee the harvesting of first ivory and then rubber. The problem was that these agents worked on commission, which would seem to make good business sense since the more they produced, the more they would be paid. However, there was no oversight and so these agents could resort to brutal methods to extract as much ivory or rubber as possible to gain greater rewards for themselves with no one to call them to account. That was the real source of the problems in the Congo Free State. It was not that King Leopold II was being purposely malicious as much as he was simply not sufficiently involved in what was going on. As long as the colony was profitable, he did not give it a second thought.
Something else which made a difference was that, after Leopold II, Belgian monarchs took a much greater personal interest in the Congo and every one visited the colony, some numerous times. In other areas there was also further, though minor, Belgian colonial expansion. In 1902 King Leopold II obtained a concession in the Chinese city of Tientsin after the Boxer Rebellion and after World War I the Belgians were awarded mandates over Rwanda and Burundi which Belgian colonial forces from the Congo had conquered from German East Africa. In 1919 Belgium also gained some territory in Italy when King Albert I was ceded the island of Comacina in Lake Como for one year (it went back to Italy in 1920). Some have tried to blame the horrors of the Rwandan genocide on the colonial policies of Belgium but, again, this is quite unfair as the system in place had been inherited from the Germans and had never been problematic before. However, the Congo was and will always remain the primary focus of Belgian colonialism and its legacy. The horrors that existed have certainly been exaggerated but there were horrors nonetheless and no one can deny that. There should also, however, be fairness in evaluating the Belgian colonial period as those horrors were generally confined to one period early on and should not be used to hide the many positive aspects of Belgian rule and how the lives of the local Africans improved in numerous ways.
The colonial period for Belgium will certainly always be controversial and to an extent that is completely understandable as some very horrible things did occur. However, all of those events must be seen in context and when one looks at the wider history of Belgian colonialism as a whole, it was not that different from other colonial powers and it had positive aspects which are often ignored while only the negative aspects are highlighted and often exaggerated to ridiculous proportions. Again, just because something is exaggerated does not mean it was not bad enough on its own, but an honest and dispassionate look at the facts will show that the Belgian colonial empire was not the absolute nightmare from start to finish that so many portray it as.