Image Credit: History.com
Names like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong are often thrown around as some of the evilest men to have walked the Earth; each one causing the deaths of many millions. But there’s a man equally as despicable as Adolf Hitler, yet very few people have even known of his existence.
King Leopold II is one of the least reviled tyrants from history, yet he was directly responsible for the deaths of an estimated 15 million people. He caused a hidden holocaust that is rarely mentioned, devastating an entire country, murdering the vast majority of its population.
So why is so little spoken about King Leopold II?
Some say it’s because he only murdered Africans. Leopold was the King of the Belgians between 1865 and 1909. Nothing about his upbringing spelled “genocidal psychopath”
As a young prince, he was perfectly well behaved, an upstanding member of the royal family. But it all went to pot when gained ownership of The Congo in 1885.
Throughout the late 1800s, Africa was being slammed by Europe, multiple European countries attempted to and successfully colonized vast parts of the continent.
The methodology behind all this colonization was simple… they looked at Africans as uncivilized or technologically advanced – so the premise was to take their land and freedom, then force them to practice European religion, technology, and the Europeans would take all the profits from their mineral-rich land.
The British empire came went and claimed the South, the North East, and bits of the North West. The French took the North East and Madagascar, the rest was snatched up by the Italians and Portuguese, and Germans.
This left one massive gaping hole in the center of Africa. The Congo was the hardest to take because it was far from the coast and was covered in a treacherous jungle. Leopold set his eyes on it, knowing it was rich in natural resources such as rubber, which was highly valuable in those days.
So how exactly did Leopold come to own the Congo?
Bearing in mind it is 76 times the size of Belgium and was home to millions of people. Did he simply invade and stick flags everywhere?
Nope, he basically said to the world’s most powerful nations “Hey if you guys aren’t using this bit, can I have it?” and they said, “sure if you give us a bit of money for it”.
However, the Congo was different from other African states. Unlike the others, such as South Africa and the Spanish Sahara, which were colonies of European governments, the Congo Free State as it was known, was deemed the private property of one man – his own personal plaything.
Leopold formed the International African Society, which was a supposedly philanthropic scheme to “help” Africans by introducing them to Christianity and giving them clothes. But this was just a ruse to get the Belgian government to give him money to startup his supposed “humanitarian” project in Africa. What Leopold actually did in the Congo was far from “humanitarian” – he forced the Congolese people into hard labor, so hard that millions died from exhaustion, disease, and starvation.
The unfortunate natives were forced to dig up the gold, hunt and kill elephants for their ivory and chop down hundreds of miles of forest, to set up rubber plantations all across the Congo. Gold, Ivory, and rubber were three of the most expensive commodities in the world at that time and King Leopold sold all the resources he ruthlessly mined through slave labor, to European countries, in order to generate vast, vast sums of money for his own personal enjoyment.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Leopold also sold swathes of Congolese into slavery. So how did King Leopold organize such a large operation across an enormous country with millions of natives?.
He was very smart and basically used his wealth and power to turn the Congolese people against themselves. He recruited a large army of mercenaries which he named the “Force Publique” made up of Congolese natives and paid them to enforce his ruthless regime against their own people.
Leopold set up a hierarchy, handpicking the most loyal members of the Force Publique to become governors over a specific region of the country. Governors would be given complete dictatorial control over their realm and they had quotas of ivory, gold, and rubber that they had to enforce. If workers didn’t meet their monthly quota of raw materials, they were mutilated. The most common way was to amputate their hands and feet. And if they fled town, the Force Publique would amputate the limbs of their entire family.
Governors were paid by commission, so it was in their interest to force those under their control to work even harder. The result of this is that millions of natives were literally worked to death either down the mines or in the fields.
If you don’t already hate this guy enough, he also used the Congo as a giant hunting ground for himself and his wealthy friends – where they freely hunted animals such as lions and elephants. No one knows for sure what the exact population of the Congo was before it was colonized by King Leopold since it was so remote and dangerous. But it was estimated to be over 20 million.
By the end of King Leopold’s reign of terror, the population had dropped to well under 10 million.
So what ended his tyranny?
Competition. The United States, Britain, and the Netherlands owned large rubber-producing colonies of their own and so King Leopold’s efforts were stifling their profits on the global market.
The three nations forced Leopold to surrender his land and hand it back to the Belgian Government. Whom by the way still treated the Congolese people horrifically for many years afterward – it wasn’t until the country gained independence in 1971 that the Congo was free from the tyranny of Belgium, but the ripples of history run deep throughout the land - they still have a long way to go to achieve political stability today.