Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Belgian Colonial Empire

Colonial empires in general are quite controversial these days and tend to be viewed in a negative light. Most people, because of how they were educated, accept gross over-simplifications and generalizations and, to a large extent, simply issue blanket condemnations of colonialism as it existed in the past (few speak of the more hidden economic colonialism going on today). However, none are probably more criticized for their colonial past than the little Kingdom of Belgium. Controversial as it might be to say so, this is quite unfair. In the first place, the name most associated with colonial horror stories is the Belgian Congo and this is unfair since the time period most think of concerning the worst conditions in the Congo was the era of the Congo Free State when central Africa was, more or less, the personal fiefdom of Belgian King Leopold II. When the government took control of this territory, and it became the Belgian Congo, conditions improved dramatically. Secondly, although it is the most notorious, Belgian rule in the Congo was not nearly as bad as most people think. That comment alone will certainly anger many people but the fact is that things can still have been pretty bad without being quite as bad as most think since the negative aspects have, to a large extent, been grossly exaggerated. Also, the Congo was not the only Belgian colony (though it was certainly the largest) and other Belgian colonial holdings and efforts tend to be forgotten.

As most know, Belgian colonialism first came to fruition during the reign of King Leopold II. However, his father, King Leopold I, had been interested in establishing Belgian colonies and looked into several parts of the world for opportunities for his country such as in India, Hawaii, the Philippines, Africa or Sarawak but none came to be. One attempt was made in the 1840’s in Central America where King Leopold I had supported the Guatemalan independence leader Rafael Carrera. In thanks, the Guatemalan government granted a Belgian colonization company perpetual rights to the district of Santo Tomas which was also hoped to offset the influence of a similar British company in the region. However, the Belgian settlers were unable to adapt to the climate and the tropical diseases which took many lives and by 1854 the enterprise was abandoned and Leopold I died without establishing any lasting Belgian colonies. King Leopold II was more successful and it was a driving ambition of his to place Belgium among the ranks of colonial powers. When he came to the throne, France was heavily involved in supporting the restored imperial monarchy in Mexico and since his sister was the Empress of Mexico there were Belgian troops in the country and some Belgian investment. An idea was floated to establish a ‘Nueva Belgica’ colony in the Mexican state of Chihuahua but after a nasty battle wiped out most of the Belgian troops, King Leopold II did not pursue such a venture in that country.

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.

This was done and, after some negotiations with the other European powers, the colony was established as the Congo Free State with King Leopold II as sovereign. The Belgians never invaded or conquered the Congo, everything was done by treaty though most assume the African chiefs had no real idea what they were agreeing to. There were not even a great many Belgians involved in this as the mercenaries sent in to organize the military-police force of the Congo Free State came from a variety of countries, mostly from Scandinavia. The military force, the Force Publique, did fight a war against the slave traders and it was a hard fought campaign. However, one can decide how much credit is deserved for this since it later would seem that, rather than wiping out slavery in central Africa, Leopold II was simply eliminating the competition. The Congo Free State existed from 1885 to 1908 and was, without doubt, the worst period in Belgian colonial history. First, ivory was the most exploited resource but later, as bicycles and then automobiles became all the rage, wild rubber was the real cash crop. Huge numbers of Africans died or suffered other various horrors in the drive to bring in as much rubber as possible. Foreign observers and local missionaries began to complain and report these abuses but his advisors assured King Leopold II there was no truth to them and he took the issue no further. The Congo Free State, an area roughly 80x larger than the whole of Belgium, was essentially the private property of Leopold II and there was simply no way the King could oversee everything.

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.

Eventually, however, the reports of abuses became too widespread to ignore and many other countries began to take up the cry of criticism against Leopold II. Now, it must also be said that some of this was simply driven by jealousy rather than genuine concern by those who felt that Belgium had far too great an empire for such a small kingdom. In any event, although he is seldom given credit for it, King Leopold sent a fact-finding mission to the Congo and the report they brought back after talking to officials, Catholic missionaries (originally only Catholics were allowed in) and to the Africans themselves was quite balanced and honest. It related the good things that were being accomplished in the Congo Free State but also the vicious abuses that were going on. New policies were put in place to stop these abuses but, eventually, the Congo Free State was abolished and the government took control of the region as an official colony; the Belgian Congo. Once that happened, better oversight was established and conditions improved dramatically.

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.

Modern education was brought to the Belgian Congo and, despite what some may think, these taught local languages as well as French in government-sponsored schools. A healthcare system was established and the health of the populace improved steadily. Railways, modern ports, and mines were built that provided jobs and opportunities for the natives and even after the end of the rubber boom there were large and steady increases in the production of palm oil and cotton as new industries were established. A local educated elite was being raised up, commerce was thriving and peace and order were maintained. The trouble was that these local institutions and leaders did not have time to sufficiently develop before Belgium was forced to grant independence to the Congo and the result was a disaster. Today most commerce has stopped due to constant civil wars and political corruption. Furthermore, while Belgium is still being blamed for every problem in the Congo, the country is once again being exploited but in a more dishonest way as republics like the communist regime of China have moved in to take control of the lucrative mining operations in the Congo, paying off the corrupt local officials while they take the resources and leave nothing for the ordinary people whose country is being stripped clean. In fact, it is even worse today because those doing the exploiting are giving nothing back and the failure of the native governments to maintain law and order means that charitable groups are able to do little or do not get involved at all since they are very likely to be robbed or even killed.

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.


  1. Whenever talking to a progressive, notice how they always talk about the Congo from 1885-1905, but they'll never follow up on this. Between 1908-1960, the Congo became the most developed country in Africa. In 1955 Time wrote an article called "Congo: Boom in the Jungle", and the country they describe sounds like paradise compared to the war zone that the Congo has been since independence. It's easy to take shots at the European empires at their worst.

  2. Yes mostly I agree with the author about Congo , but the education for the elites was neglected until 1950s, but it was to late, since in 1960 Congo become independent. Why this african states never managed to work is because their borders were created by colonial powers and after they left the tribes that were in those countries begun a civil war to see who will dominate the countries.By the way i like your blog. Very interesting articles. I too like the history of colonial empires. I myself have a blog about it(

  3. Without Europe, that region would still be under Islamic control and slavery would still be going on. The slave trade was abolished by Europe and American also battled the Barbary pirates. No other nation or race got involved in the slave trade so bashing Europe makes progressive sound uneducated.

    1. Muslim rule? Before the arrival of Europeans, the dominant powers in the Congo Basin were the Kingdom of Kongo and the Kuba Kingdom, who followed traditional African religions. The Kongo Kingdom was later converted to Roman Catholicism by the Portuguese.

    2. The Kingdom of Kongo was not in what is now the Congo but neighboring Angola. Kuba, likewise, was southwest of the former Belgian Congo. Although not ruled directly, the slave trade that did exist in the eastern region of the Congo was under Muslim control, with the Sultanate of Zanzibar as a major hub, particularly after the British eradicated the slave trade in the Sudan.


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