A Cake, A King, A Forgotten History

Today, November 28, 2016, the Democratic Republic of Congo should have voted for a new president. Instead, President Joseph Kabila has delayed elections to 2018, and the country continues to be torn apart.

Something in me dies a little, when I read news reports that end with brisk sentences such as, “The Congo has never seen a peaceful power transition.”

At college, I wrote a paper on the Congo Free State. After submitting my first draft, I met with my teacher. Concerned, she explained to me that I had said strong things about Leopold II of Belgium in my draft. I could not say such things. “But they’re true,” I protested. She replied that I must show her from sources.

So off I went, to the 9 floors of Harold Washington Library, to our own school library, to online databases. I found much more than I expected. My teacher wrote on a later draft, “I had no idea it was this bad…”

No idea.

So let me tell you a story today. It is the story of how one king deceived the minds of Europe and America. How his scheming cost more lives than had been lost in all of World War I. How a few individuals stood against this man of greed and cunning and exposed the truth.

Consider it your short introduction to a history that has been, for the large part, erased from the memory of history. It’s a story that lives vicariously on in the power struggle that is being played out this very day, this very minute, in the country that is the stomach of Africa.




Once upon a time, an insignificant prince became king of a tiny country. King Leopold II had been an awkward, unsightly child. He was shunned by both his mother and father and uncomfortable with his teenage bride. The young king’s thirst for approval from people translated into an unslakeable drive for power.  He dreamed of an empire.

The problem was where the empire would come from. Leopold’s tiny kingdom of Belgium was sandwiched claustrophobically between European powers. She had only gained independence thirty years prior and was devoted to neutrality policies. Leopold saw only one viable solution: colonies. After all, wasn’t the island of Britain queen of the world through her colonies? Even petit Holland could snob her nose at Belgium because of her colonies. Cautiously, Leopold began his search. Nothing seemed to open. Then, in 1876, Leopold opened The Times and read reports of exploration in Central Africa.

The author of those accounts was Henry Morton Stanley. Fondly remembered for his discovery of Livingstone, Stanley’s other achievements are often neglected. Stanley was one of the first explorers to cut across the African continent in 1876. In so doing he used the Congo River, hoping to find its source just as the urge to find the Nile’s source had driven Livingstone before him. Floating down the 3,000 mile-long river of the Congo, Stanley made note of the fact that the river’s many tributaries provided a ready-made transportation system for the Congo basin, an area of 1.4 million square miles. Later, geographers would record as fact that, apart from rapids and unnavigable waters, the Congo river system provided 7,200 miles of “usable waterways”. Far away in Belgium, Leopold did not miss this significance. He wrote to his Ambassador in London, “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake”.  As soon as Stanley returned to Europe, he was invited to Leopold’s palace. There he was questioned closely.

To cloak his empire-building motives, Leopold portrayed himself to Europe and America as a philanthropist. He hosted a luxurious conference for African explorers in 1876, at the neutral site of Antwerp. That conference initiated the International African Association, which remained under Leopold’s control. It didn’t take long for this king of a neutral country to garner a fine name for himself. He declared, “I will secure to Central Africa the blessing of a civilized government; and I will, if necessary, undertake this giant work alone”. Simultaneously, he dispatched Stanley to make treaties with Congolese chiefs on his behalf. With these treaties, when he offered at the Berlin conference in 1885 to further the work of the International African Association by creating philanthropic stations along the Congo river that would be strictly non-commercial, a sort of ‘Society of the Red Cross’ project, always leaving the interior of the Congo open for free trade, other European powers saw no reason to deny him.

Those treaties. Stanley, employed by Leopold, had used weaponry, scientific stunts, and vague wording to convince 500 chiefs along the Congo River to put their “x” on the white man’s paper. The king had told Stanley, “It is a question of creating a new State, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the negroes. That would be absurd. The white men…retain all power…The President will hold will hold his powers from the King”. Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost writes:

In return for ‘one piece of cloth per month’…they promised to ‘freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors forever…give up…all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories…and to assist by labor or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories…All roads and waterways…the right of collecting toll…and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association’

In this manner Leopold cut himself a “piece of cake” seventy-six times as large as Belgium. By a sleight of hand, it was his alone. Frederick Starr notes this, “[The new state] occupied a unique position in the world. It did not belong to Belgium, but was the absolute property of the king”. Leopold was making good his promise to bring civilized government to the Central Africa alone.

One of the first things he chose to do was start an army.

The Force Publique was created in 1886 and served two purposes: to force the Arab slave traders out of the country and, later, to force the natives to pay taxes. The officers were adventure/wealth-thirsty Europeans and Americans who commanded groups of “volunteers”. Village chiefs were required to give men to the Force Publique. A report in 1892 said that three-quarters of these volunteers died before reaching the Force Publique, some by jumping off their ship to drown themselves in desperation. Unwilling volunteers were treated to heavy discipline. Those who survived learned how to please their European officials, and over time a working army was developed.

Leopold claimed the right to impose taxes on the Congolese to finance his civilizing work. Since there was no monetary system, the native Congolese paid their taxes in labor. Forced labor was supposed to be restricted to 40 hours a month and paid for. In truth, labor excused as tax became the justification for wide scale abuse. Leopold was not concerned if his profit cost lives. Hochschild quotes Leopold’s own ministers observing, “‘[Leopold] treats men as we use lemons, when he has squeezed them dry he throws away the peel’”. In 1880 there were well over twenty million people in the Congo. By 1920, there were ten million. Certain places experienced 60 – 90% death rates. Human lives simply didn’t matter as much as a good return.

A good return is precisely what Leopold got. First, he exported ivory. In the late 1890s Belgium was the world’s largest trader in ivory. But elephants cannot repopulate as speedily as men can turn them into profit, and Leopold looked to a new market. Starting in 1888, Europe needed rubber. Both new telegraph lines and a booming car industry required it. Artificial rubber was not yet a possibility. The West needed the wild product. One of the most plentiful sources of wild rubber was the Congo rainforest: Leopold’s new state. The rubber trade started in 1893 with exports of 250 tons, increased to over 1,500 tons by 1897, and by 1904, 83 percent of Congo’s foreign trade was in rubber exports. Leopold kept pressing for more.

Meanwhile, Europeans lauded Leopold, as Baron Moncheur published in the 1904 edition of The North American Review :

Thirty years ago, the Congo was given over to barbarism, cannibalism, intertribal wars and the horrors of the Arab slave raids…Today it is a flourishing kingdom, governed by an enlightened ruler, who has not only developed the country commercially, but who has absolutely destroyed the slave raids, who has introduced Christianity and civilization, and who has put forth every effort to improve the condition of the natives and to fulfil the motto of the State, which is ‘Work and Progress’.

The “condition of the natives”, however, looked like anything but improvement. Both the harvesting of rubber as well as the trader’s cruel methods caused misery to the Congolese people. First, rubber vines had to be tapped. This process is described by historians Gann and Duignan, “He cuts with his knife a number of incisions in the bark, and, hanging a small earthenware pot below the vine, allows the sap slowly to trickle into it. Should the creeper already have been tapped, the man must climb into the supporting tree…and make an incision in the vine high above the ground…and there he will remain, perhaps the whole day, until the flow has ceased”. To transport the white sap, the harvesters smeared it on their bodies where it hardened and later was peeled off. This caused pain and health problems. It took long days to search for vines in the swampy, bug-infested forest. Harvesters died falling out of trees. With no more time to tend their fields and soldiers continually burning gardens and stealing livestock, hunger spread. In 1893 Congolese villagers testified, “Wild beasts…killed some of us…others got lost or died from exposure or starvation and we begged the white men to leave us alone, saying we could get no more rubber, but the white men and the soldiers said: Go. You are only beasts yourselves. You are only Nyama [meat]”. They continue, “We got no pay. We got nothing.” Most inhumane of all was the way the Congolese were forced into this labor.

The Force Publique punished those who did not satisfy the traders’ demands. Shootings and whipping were common punishments. Thomas Pakenham in The Scramble for Africa records the words of an old Congolese man explaining, “When [the rubber] was not enough the white men would put some of us in lines, one behind the other, and would shoot through all our bodies.” Sometimes, the army hired cannibalistic tribes to destroy villages who hadn’t complied. The Zappo Zaps were one such mercenary tribe. Robert Edgerton describes their attacks, “whenever a village failed to produce enough rubber, these men would attack, raping and eating their victims before cutting off their hands.” In 1899 a missionary observed a village burned by the Zappo Zap, 40 corpses were strewn on the ground; that same amount had already been eaten. Eighty-one right hands were strung over a low fire, to be taken back to the army as proof of a job fulfilled. Cutting off hands was a normal practice in the army.  A Swedish missionary recorded how a soldier’s length of service in the Force Publique depended on how many hands he brought in. But, Edgerton continues, “ears, noses, penises, and even heads were also cut off by Free State orders…men who had not delivered enough rubber were made to eat the feces from European latrines and were sometimes shot.” These ideas for torture were not new. But in the Congo Free State they became the systemic norm for traders and officials to use, sanctioned in the name of civilization. They were effective. Officials needed them, since their official salaries depended on how much rubber they could export.

One Congolese woman, Ilanga, formally testified about how she was made a slave. The people of Ilanga’s village were in their fields when they heard the Force Publique approaching. The elders left food in the path to placate them. But the Force Publique returned. They stole goats and ripped plants out of the garden. Some surrounded the chief with their guns while others forced villagers out of their huts. Ilanga, her husband Oleka and her sister Katinga were tied together, weeping. Soldiers forced them to march. Along the way, the soldiers found a cooking pot in a deserted village. They forced Katinga’s baby from her arms, threw it to the side of the road, and made her carry the pot instead. Ilanga’s husband collapsed from exhaustion. The soldiers killed him with the knives on the ends of their guns as Ilanga watched. A Congolese song recorded in 1894 cries,

“we are tired of living under this tyranny

We cannot endure that our women and children are taken away

and dealt with by the white savages

we shall make war….

we know that we shall die, but we want to die

we want to die.”

It is a cruel irony that under the flag of civilization marched white savages.

It is hard to comprehend how people are capable of initiating such cruelties towards other people. But many Europeans genuinely believed that the lifestyles of the “primitive” natives were far insuperior to civilization. Native people were considered to be lazy and childish. Forcing them to work was the best thing, and as Gann and Duignan record the reasoning, since “they would only labor under the threat of force….forced labor was fully justified for public purposes.” If many died in the efforts of civilizing the land, well, then, at least it was for the good of those remaining. Perhaps because so few Europeans spoke any African language or took time to study Congolese culture, they forgot that each Congolese life is a human life; that as humans each villager had emotions and aspirations; that they had never asked to be civilized.

A few Europeans did recognize this. Hebert Ward crafted life-size brass sculptures of the Congolese people when he moved back to Paris, saying, “They are not the altogether degraded race that one might infer…They are very human: they are often cruel but they are often kind.” Another records the heart-wrenching scene of a woman “cradling her dead husband’s head in her lap and sobbing. She ignored the bullets flying only a few inches over her head.” A nameless weeping woman lifts the curtain for us to see the heartbreak behind each of the millions of deaths.  Unfortunately, most of the whites never looked past the curtain. They civilized; the “lazy and childish” Congolese died; rubber tires were manufactured; and Leopold enlarged his lavish building projects in Belgium and abroad.

The people dying for the sake of a king’s villas and the West’s car tires needed to be given a voice. Hochschild tells of the chilling question repeatedly asked of a missionary, “Has the Saviour you tell us of any power to save us from the rubber trouble?” Would the Catholics in the Congo Free State speak? As Belgian citizens they were greatly aided by Leopold’s government. The Pope had blessed Leopold’s work. Few dared to publicly shame Leopold. His criticism would come from another source.

Like the Catholics, initially Protestants stayed mute, preferring the favour of those in charge. The first scream of protest was from George Washington Williams, a young black American man. Williams had been entertained by Leopold in Belgium in September 1889. Williams’ impression was that he was “one of the noblest sovereigns in the world.” But when Williams reached Congo in February 1890, he described it as “the Siberia of the African Continent.” Everywhere he looked there were slaves doing forced labor. After two months of travel, he arrived at Stanley Pool. Stanley had previously estimated 50 million people to live there, and Williams could only make a generous guess of 15 million. Alarmed at the depopulation, Williams wrote an Open Letter to Leopold.

William’s letter summarized important charges against the king: Stanley’s treaties were made through trickery; Force Publique soldiers were ordered to steal food from villagers; people were imprisoned for the smallest offense;  despite the claims of the king, there was not one school or hospital; white officials could not speak any African languages and judged trials falsely; whites were “kidnapping African women and using them as concubines”; whites shot blacks for leisure, to take their women, or to force them to work; and finally, Williams wrote, “Your Majesty’s Government is engaged in the slave-trade, wholesale and retail…the labor force at the stations of your Majesty’s Government in the Upper River is composed of slaves of all ages and both sexes.” A few months after publishing his letter, Williams died. He was the first of over a thousand visitors and workers in the Congo to speak out against what he saw.

Another black American, William Shepperd, was the first to publicize a graphic, eyewitness account of destroyed villages. He wrote of people killed and hands cut off for failing to collect rubber.

In a surprising twist of events, Leopold’s most influential and vocal opponent turned out to be a man who did not speak of what he saw, but of what he did not see. In 1900 anonymous articles were published in The Speaker offering facts about the exploitation of the Congo Free State. The author was E.D. Morel – the man who became Leopold’s chief opponent. As a shipping agent for the Liverpool company that Leopold used, Morel began taking note of disparity in what the Congo Free State’s import/export reports. He watched, and recorded, tons of rubber be unloaded from the steamboats. But nothing was sent back across the ocean except guns, ammunition, and chains. Morel left the shipping line and began campaigning against the king. He started his own newspaper, gathering first-hand information from missionaries and businessmen, and using detailed data instead of moral arguments to expose the injustice. For the rest of his life, Morel pressured governments, wrote innumerable letters, and lobbied.

Leopold was not about to hand over his empire to an unemployed shipping agent. He spared no money to salvage his reputation in media, he lobbied through agents in different governments, and fought to keep his personal empire as long as he could. But the public pressure, fanned by Morel’s faithful reporting, was too much. Leopold eventually accepted the annexation of Congo in 1908, requiring a handsome sum of money from the Belgian government and the cancellation of all his debts. Congo was now in the hands of the Belgian government. Things did not get much better. The government had changed but the local traders and authorities did not. For four years things remained essentially the same. However, a shift was made to cultivating plantations of rubber instead of harvesting it from the wild. The gruesome stories that E.D. Morel had held before England’s attention for over a decade became scarcer. People forgot about Congo.

Today, some fifty years later, that decade of outrage in England and America that Morel fueled has been wiped out. Leopold caused murders on the scales of Stalin and Hitler. But today it is his elaborate statues and buildings in Belgium that are remembered. The blood that bought his elegance is forgotten. We have forgotten.

Congo has not. There are still memories and songs among the oral histories of some tribes. But the whole country remembers the greed of Leopold because they still live its reality; it is perpetuated. From the 1960s till 1997 Mobutu reigned as totalitarian dictator over Congo (renamed Zaire). In a chillingly similar way to Leopold, Mobutu pillaged his country to buy villas and expensive clothes while his people died in poverty and the infrastructure crumbled. After Mobutu came a five year war. From August 1998 to 2007, the International Rescue Committee reports 5.4 million deaths caused by fighting – mostly in the Eastern mineral-rich province, as Peter Eichstaedt reports in his book Consuming the Congo:

“Eastern Congo defies comparison. The loss of life far exceeds deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined…The lives and deaths of these millions of Congolese are linked to us all. The mines that scar the verdant hills and mountains of eastern Congo produce a very small but very bloody portion of the tin and coltan metal that is critical to our modern lives.”

Leopold could make a profit because Europe and North America needed rubber for their new technologies. The Equator province of Congo remembers with a proverb “beto febole yiwo: Rubber is death.” Today, men make a profit because the West still needs minerals for new technologies. Often a blind eye is turned to the sources of resources. Today, coltan is death. Gold is death. Diamonds are death. If Congo is a piece of the African cake, as Leopold said, then there are many, many fingers digging into it. Many mouths are smeared with Congolese icing.

Let me add one more story, one that is often left out of the history of the Congo Free State. Maria Fearing, a tiny, one-hundred-pound black woman, decided to go to Congo in 1984 at the age of 56. She sold her house, took her life savings, and through networking with missionaries found her way to Congo. Fearing taught, sang, and played with children. She was a mother to over one hundred orphaned girls. After twelve years, she was lacking teeth and eyesight, but she continued in her role as mother until the age of 77.

Congo is not the heart of darkness. The God who created the country, created the people, created the ocean, the forest and the savanna is the God who carries all the unique tribes of Congolese people in His heart. Leopold II, Mobutu, and many other men have used their power to steal and destroy to their own profit. But God’s work continues. He uses normal people. The church in Congo, completely run by Congolese, is growing and deepening. People from our Western countries and heritage have done unspeakable damage. But God uses them too. E.D. Morel deserted the riches and position of life to campaign for the rights of a people he never met and a country he never saw. Missionaries who had already sacrificed much to arrive in Congo sacrificed their reputations and safety by providing evidence. There have been many Maria Fearings, unknown to the world yet quietly committed to the people of Congo.

I tell you this story, to beg you answer these questions: Is Congo a cake to be sliced or is it a nation of people created imago Dei? Are the Congolese natives needing civilization or are they our global neighbors, needing love? Think on the answer of your mouth, and the answer of your life. Remember that Leopold II was a philanthropist. The honest answer to those questions will change the way you look at history. It will change the way you look to the present. Because there is a grace that puts to death racism and greed in our deepest parts, the grace that moves in ordinary people to build His kingdom, it will change the future.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

As part of Missions Week at my school, all international students line up with their country’s flag and march into the darkened auditorium. With no Congolese student present, I was honoured to represent. We were taking our places, finding our “partner”, the person who would enter opposite, synchronizing the procession of flags down two aisles. A young man stepped towards me. His flag was folded in his hands. “Who are you?” he asked. “Democratic Republic of Congo,” I answered, briefly showing him the bright blue flag. “Oh,” he replied. “I am Belgium. I am sorry.”

Those words, offered so sincerely, brought healing. Through living in Congo and researching her history, I have struggled both with my own guilt (as a white child of Europe) and my anger (as Congo became another home to me). I knew I had no right to carry the flag of a country that has suffered when I have not shared that suffering. Yet, somehow, there I was. And there was Belgium. In a sacred moment, to a world of witnesses, Belgium and Congo entered a dark auditorium at the same moment, declaring gospel peace and reconciliation.

The only thing that breaks down dividing walls is the blood of Christ.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —- — – – —- – – – —— – – —

To learn more about the Congo Free State, I cannot recommend enough King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild.

Also, for a general history of Congo, The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo, by Robert Edgerton.

If you wish, contact me for a full list of the sources used to tell this story.



4 thoughts on “A Cake, A King, A Forgotten History

  1. Maaike, Thanks for this informative missile. When I was thirteen, I did a project on the Republic of the Congo- for Grade 8 History. I thought you might find it interesting? I’ve unearthed it, just in case….

  2. Wow, thank you so much for this. I am teaching about imperialism and this history will absolutely not be ignored in my classroom.

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