The Congo: From Leopold to Lumumba

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The Congo: From Leopold to Lumumba

Whitaker R. Birt

Engr. 297B

Prof. Bruce Lusignan


This is a tale of horror and tragedy in the Congo, beginning with the brutal and exploitative regime of King Leopold II of Belgium, and culminating with the downfall of one of Africa’s most influential figures, Patrice Lumumba. The Congo is but one example of the greater phenomenon of European occupation of Africa. The legacy of this period gives rise to persistent problems in the Congo and throughout Africa. Understanding the roots and causes of this event, as focused through the lense of the Congo, is the subject of this paper.

Primarily this paper will investigate the massacre of more than 10 million the Congolese by Leopold from 1885 and 1908. Although this is a massacre on the scale of the Jewish Holocaust dimensions, which began only thirty years later, little is told today about the injustices that took place. This event is not discussed within the standard litany of our world’s horrors because it exemplifies the worst of European colonial expansion into Africa

The Belgians, under the rule of Leopold, assumed control over the Congo, and exploited its resources and its inhabitants for material gain. Leopold instituted a virtual slave labor system that used the Congolese as tools to extract wild rubber, ivory, and other natural resources from the Congo for the benefit of private enterprises owned or controlled by Leopold. He exploited the vulnerability of the Africans, in an effort to amass enormous wealth and fortune. The question investigated here is whether the European’s reactionary self-proclaimed superiority complex over those who are darker, provided the impetus for the massacre. The investigation will also show that colonization was simply the byproduct of the entrenched European racism, and that it is used today to justify the actions of not only Belgium in the Congo, but European nations throughout Africa on the basis of a theory of cultural Darwinism premised upon the idea of “might makes right” and the “ends justify the means”.

The European Presence in Africa

Since as early as the fifteenth century and continuing to the present day, European colonies have always viewed Africa as an economic object with a wealth of resources waiting to be extracted and exploited through colonization or by what ever means necessary. The recent history (500 years) of the world justifies the conclusion that Europeans have always sought to assert superiority over people of darker pigmented complexions (all of who just happen to be non-Europeans) by the free and unrestrained assertion of their will and authority, unfettered by any moral constraints on human conduct. As a substitute for any notion of a “humane” code of conduct, the European psychology operated a regime based upon the principles and practices used to control and domesticate lower forms of animal life. In the beginning, the slave trade was the main attraction of these European nations because they saw a law filled with cheap labor and always felt that Africa was uncivilized country begging for colonization. There was undeniable thirst for Africa, deeply rooted in racism. The European nations saw Africa as empty and undiscovered land simply because there were no Europeans present. Judging by the particularly heinous treatment of the Congolese people, it is far to posit that these Europeans believed there were no humans present, only varieties of wild animal life to be domesticated. The 1885 Berlin Conference is perhaps the most notorious example of this self-proclaimed superiority complex. It was at this conference that the European powers met to partition Africa and resolve any territorial conflicts. It was at this conference that the future of Africa was decided; yet no Africans were present to help decide it.

In The Partition of Africa, by Robert Collins, the author proposes a similar perspective to this European self-proclaimed superiority complex. Collins argues that the military and economic disparity that existed between the European and African nations precipitated the exploration of Africa and instilled a definite arrogance and confidence. The nineteen-century was marked by not just European territorial expansion, but European expansion with regards to technological innovation of the material world. Advancements were being made continuously in the technological and science fields that “upset the balance of power between Europe and Africa”(Collins 2) Collins asserts that these advancements gave the European powers a false sense of superiority over Africans, and thus was one contributing factor in the colonization of Africa. “The expansion of knowledge, the triumphs of science and technology, and the improvement in the standard of living of the many produced a cultural self-confidence in Europe that found popular and political expression in nationalism.”(Collins 2) Thus, Europeans felt that their financial and alleged “mental” superiority gave them an excuse for conquering a group of people. He then continues to show that the self-proclaimed superiority gave them a defining arrogance, which helped to propel them through their conquest of Africa and its people. It is of course fair to reverse the argument and claim that our ability to physically dominate and destroy and kill justifies the assertion that one is superior.

“Technological superiority was often confused with national superiority, and it certainly helped to created a rationale for conquering technologically primitive peoples and an Olympian confidence in the superiority of European rule over them. National self-confidence was characteristic of all the European powers...” (Collins 2-3)

This “national self-confidence” laid the foundation for many of the colonial problems that would later be encountered within Africa. Thus this confidence was a racist arrogance disguised as nationalism, which empowered these European nations with a feeling of entitlement to the land in Africa. “During the nineteenth-century European drive for possessions in Africa... people justified colonialism in various ways, claiming that it Christianized the heathen or civilized the savage races or brought everyone the miraculous benefits of free trade.”(Hochschild 38) This further reveals that the European imperialism in Africa was motivated the sense of superiority given that these European powers deemed its inhabitants to be inferior. Even some researchers have explored the idea that Europe’s occupation of Africa was rationalized by a arrogant thinking that these nations had a duty and an obligation to explore and colonize this continent. . “Africa was no longer viewed as a bottomless reservoir of slaves for the plantations of the New World. Africa was viewed as an untapped source of raw materials for European industries and the target of Europeans God-given mission to spread the gospel of civilization.”(Gandola 16)

In the grand scheme, the European presence in Africa did not help to improve the well being of the people nor did it help to improve the societies already in place, but instead slowed both the political and economic growth of the countries. In fact, there was never any pretext at improving the lot of the African nations. As a result, many African countries, such as the Congo, are still experiencing problems today which stem from the European occupation. The African countries were merely exploited by these foreign nations in order for them to amass an even greater wealth and fortune. “The partition of Africa did not create a set of uniform colonies each resembling the other in a constitutional stereotype. On the contrary, the establishment of colonial rule was varied and pragmatic.” (Birmingham)
The Reign of Leopold

The Congo possessed an uncharacteristic wealth that made it the desire of many European countries. It had an abundance of natural resources such as cooper, gold, diamonds, rubber, cobalt, among others that made it the desire of many trading corporations and companies. “Once European powers took possession of the Congo, its people were almost perennially hungry, and its mineral wealth enriched only politicians and foreign corporations.”(Edgerton, xii) At the Berlin Conference in 1885, King Leopold was granted to the exclusive right to privately exploit the Congo. Once in the Congo, Leopold devised an economic system in which the Congo was sectioned into different areas leased to different European corporations that paid Leopold 50 percent of the extracted wealth. “In setting up this structure, Leopold was like the manager of a venture capital syndicate today. He had essentially found a way to attract other people’s capital to his investment schemes while he retained half the proceeds.” (Hochschild 117)

Leopold entered the Congo under the cloak and façade of a humanitarian by making hollow promises detailing his intentions to improve the quality of life in the Congo. Leopold promised to build schools, homes, and to liberate the Congolese people from Arab slave traders. But under the rule of Leopold, very little was done to improve the well being of the citizens, and instead a regime was instituted that operated solely through force of might. People were tortured and forced to sign treaties that according to Leopold “…must grant us everything”(Hochschild 71), which includes the rights to all land and resources therein. Thus for a 20 year period, Leopold was able to operate with impunity, and in the process 10 million people were murdered. During his reign, women and children were brutally raped and murdered and treated like animals. “They were fed-and slept-in the royal stables.”(Hochschild 176) They were even hunted like animals for fun and for sport. Limb amputation was a joy of many Belgium soldiers; hands, heads, and other body were severed for not only proof of kill, but for the cannibalistic needs of these Belgium soldier. Even the homes of some Belgium officers were lined with the skulls of the Congolese people for decoration. “For each cartridge issued to their soldiers they demanded proof that the bullet had been used to kill someone, ‘not wasted’…” (Hochschild 165) Many more died from starvation and exhaustion resulting from the inhumane living conditions present in the Congo.

The Outcry

During the two decades of Leopold’s reign in the Congo, thousands of outsiders visited the Congo, but only a few spoke publicly about the atrocities witnessed. One figure of particular importance in the campaign against Leopold was George Washington Williams, a journalist and historian, known prominently as “the first heretic”, because he was the first outspoken critic of Leopold’s regime, and the first to attempt bring the problems to the world stage. Williams first visited the Congo in the early years of Leopold’s regime, and saw that the Congo was far from the utopian society that Leopold had once spoke about, and instead was a society void of the rich culture and spirit that it once possessed. Williams wrote letters to the President of the United published articles in many newspapers in a futile attempt to bring attention to the carnage. Little accord or credence was given to his accusations given that he was not European (Williams was African-American), and as a result, change would not come for more than 15 years with the emergence of E.D. Morel.

Morel began the Congo Reform Association and began a campaign to end Leopold’s power over the Congo. Articles were published in newspapers and magazines throughout European nations in an attempt to bring the horrendous situation in the Congo to world attention “Morel was also editing a special monthly supplement to the newspaper, devoted solely to exposing injustice in the Congo.”(Hochschild 187) In response to these accusations, Leopold led a Commission of Inquiry into the Congo massacres to salvage his reputation, but even they were too horrified to lie for Leopold. The combination of these efforts led other European nations to pressure the Belgium government to assume control from Leopold. The government, however, did not posses the legal authority to divest Leopold of his fiefdom, and thus was forced to purchase the Congo from Leopold. In addition, Leopold also received annual payments “as a mark of gratitude for his great sacrifices made for the Congo”(Hochschild 259). Even future history textbooks in Africa praised Leopold as “…Soviet schoolbooks praised Lenin.” (Hochschild 299)

“The Congo offers a striking example of the politics of forgetting. Leopold and the Belgian colonial officials who followed him went to extraordinary lengths to try to erase potentially incriminating evidence from the historical record.” (Hochschild 294)

Both Belgium and Leopold feared the exposure of the atrocities committed in the Congo. “The Congo offers a striking example of the politics of forgetting. Leopold and the Belgian colonial officials who followed him went to extraordinary lengths to try to erase potentially incriminating evidence from the historical record” (Hochschild 294) Shortly before the impending takeover, Leopold ordered for statewide burring of historical records, because he believed that people should “have no right to know what I did there.” (Hochschild 294) But in the following years, Belgium’s image changed from conqueror to victim given the violence and abuse they would soon encounter from Germany in World War I. “And so the full history of Leopold’s rule in the Congo and of the movement that opposed it dropped out of Europe’s memory, perhaps even more swiftly and completely than did the other mass killings that tool place in the colonization of Africa.” (Hochschild 296)

The Aftermath of Leopold

After King Leopold relinquished his position in the Congo, the Belgium parliament assumed legal control of the country, but the trading corporations and companies of Belgium and other European countries continued to dominate the course of events in the Congo. “The one major goal not achieved, he (Morel) acknowledged, was African ownership of land.” (Hochschild 273) The Congo’s wealth of natural resources had always been the main attraction of Belgium, and with Leopold removed, the corporations were given more control and influence over the economy in the Congo. The United Mines of Upper Katanga (UMHK) was founded shortly after Leopold’s reign ended and for the next fifty years, this corporation exercised the greatest influence and control over the economy and the resources with the Congo. It “controlled about 70 percent of the economy of the Belgian Congo...and controlled the exploitation of cobalt, copper, tin uranium and zinc in mines which were among the richest in the world.”( Hochschild 31) During this time period, the Congo was one the world’s largest copper-producing countries and the “cobalt extraction in Katanga represented 75 percent of the entire world production.” (Hochschild 31)

In June of 1960, the Congo was granted independence, which threatened the future of European economic control of this profitable source of revenue. The United Nations granted independence to the Congo because of pressure from the worldwide anti-colonial movement that touched Africa in the 1950s. But shortly after the Congo’s independence, Belgium immediately sent troops to the country in order to protect Katanga, the city in the Congo that possessed a wealth of resources and was the primary export site for these corporations. With this military presence, the corporations continued their production in the city, and surprisingly, production even increased in the year of independence. This military presence remained in the Congo for years, thus showing the Congolese people were never truly granted “independence”. This post-independence presence in the Congo helps to strengthen the argument that the European self-proclaimed superiority complex over those who are darker provided the impetus for their actions in Africa. These European nations regarded independence as an insignificant barrier in their continued occupation and economic exploitation of the land. The entitlement complex of Belgium is further revealed here because Belgium believed that they possessed personal ownership of the land in the Congo, and that the citizens of the Congo did not warrant independence. Belgium regarded the citizens of the Congo as an inferior people who lacked civilization; they believed that the occupation was justified. As a Belgium official is quoted as writing, “A sector of humanity has inherited no civilization, no energy, no ideas, no interests to defend…The black race has noting behind it. It is a people without writing, without history, without philosophy, without any consistency.” (Hochschild 32) This comment is indicative of the entire nature and character of the Belgium and further exposes the contempt that they possessed towards African people.

The Emergence of Lumumba

The emergence of an independent Congo on June 30, 1960 marked the beginning of a new era of colonialism by the Western powers. On this day, Patrice Lumumba became Prime Minister of the Congo, and in six months he would be assassinated. He was an extraordinary politician, motivator, and visionary, and one of the most influential figures throughout Africa during his term. He is now enshrined as an historical figure against the fight of injustice because of his outspokenness against the colonization of Africa by European powers. He came to power at a time in which the anti-colonial movement was most intense worldwide; this propelled his general regard as a worldwide leader of this movement. The period “…from 1960 to 1965, was the West’s ultimate attempt to destroy the continent’s authentic independent development.” (Kanza xxv)

Before serving as Prime Minister, Lumumba was the president of the National Congolese Movement, a party formally constituted in 1958. He was an ambitious man and envisioned a promising future for the Congo; a future void of European involvement and one in which the Congolese people had absolute power. He was already a prominent figure in the political scene within the Congo, having amassed a following through his writings and speeches advocating sovereignty and the fight against European injustice. Lumumba would eventually become prime minister through democratic elections, but his government only lasted for a very difficult period of two months during which time Belgium launched many attempts to reoccupy and subvert the independence movement.

Patrice Lumumba represented a formidable opponent against the colonization forces in Africa. By advocating sovereignty and de-colonization in Africa, he represented everything that the Western powers feared. He was a man capable of affecting change throughout not only the Congo, but across Africa by promoting a self-sustained economy that was entirely independent from the European nations.. He opposed the forces of colonialism throughout Africa. The riches of the Congo and the presence of Lumumba’s movement could not be allowed to coexists in the view of the United States and European political and business interests. Lumumba eventually became the victim of a coup funded primarily by the United States and Belgium, under the protection of the United Nations. Although the United States and Belgium were the primary opponents of Lumumba, they were acting on behalf of European countries throughout the world because Lumumba personified the anti-colonial movement that everyone feared. “It is a staggering example of what the Western ruling classes are capable of when their vital interests are threatened. Assassination then becomes a useful measure, a possible solution.” (Kanza xxv)

The assassination of Lumumba reinforces the claim that the European self-proclaimed superiority complex provided the impetus for many of their actions within Africa. They feared Lumumba not simply because he was a man that represented the anti-colonial movement, but because he was an African man that had become too powerful and had the potential to gain the loyalty and attention of his people and focus their goals on true independence and real control of their own resources. “The Congo crisis is due to just one man, Patrice Lumumba” (Hochschild 49) He had the potential to change the entire social structure of Africa and possessed the ability to affect change throughout the world by promoting democracy and equality.

“Lumumba…advocated a complete decolonisation that would benefit the population as a whole. He had, therefore, to be stopped.”(Kanza xvii) Belgium rationalized their intervention in the Congo by asserting that they were protecting Africa from Soviet influence. Lumumba was labeled a communist and compared to Castro in effort garner world support against Lumumba and his efforts. “Leaflets were scattered in the cites of Leopoldville warning: ‘Congolese, Lumumba will sell your women to Russia’, or ‘For Lumumba thousands of diamonds, for our women millions of tears’” (Hochschild 18) Eighty years earlier under Leopold, Belgium, used the same tactics in rationalizing their colonization and invasion of the Congo. Claiming that they were liberating the Congolese from slave traders and helping to improve the life of the citizens in substance, but only in outward appearance

The Outlook

For the next thirty years following the death of Lumumba, the Congo was the victim of a centralized government with the majority of the power concentrated in one man, General Mobutu, who was an instrumental Congolese collaborator with the Western interests in promoting the coup leading to the assassination of Lumumba

“He created a rigidly centralized administration reminiscent of Belgian rule, topped by a single authority figure that Mobutu claimed to be in the African political tradition. Governing by decree, his words literally were law. His power was absolute, anchored in a constitution of his own inspiration that made him head of the legislative, executive, and judiciary.“(Kaplan 59)

This was not the type of free democratic society that Lumumba had envisioned, but instead one that still allowed many European nations to exercise the authority and influence that Lumumba vehemently opposed. “The United States gave him well over a billion dollars in civilian and military aid during the three decades of his rule; European powers- especially France-contributed more.” (Hochschild 303) Mobutu did little to improve the quality of life of his citizens, and instead exploited his own citizens for his material and economic gain. Even after independence, the Congo was still the economic colony of Europe that existed under the control of Belgium. The European and American corporations and investments were still intact with Mobutu in control. The Congo was now operating as a puppet government in which the United States used Mobutu to affect both economic and political decisions in an effort to stabilize its investments and operations in the country. It estimated that at the end of his reign, he was of the world’s wealthiest men; “his personal peak was estimated at $4 billion.” (Hochschild 303) And very little of his fortune went to the people of the Congo. Even still today, there are many internal economic and political problems, stemming from the Belgian occupation. The government still lacks political and economic stability, although it is believed that within the next year, the Congo will finally hold democratic elections.

As we look to the future, we see a European world that has evolved from the colonial mindsets of its ancestors, and adopted a more enlightened venir to is public outlook on the world. No longer is the self-proclaimed superiority complex a motivating factor in their actions and behavior with other nations. The Lome convention is a primary indicator of this evolution of thought adopted by these powers. This was a series of meetings between the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, along with the European Union; it helped to resolve any conflicts that existed between nations. It is an international trade and aid agreement, which aims to promote the economic and social development of these ACP nations. The agreement further promotes both regional and social cooperation, which is a drastic change from the colonial era of years past. But as these European nations are changing, it is possible that the United States is currently evolving into the colonial power that Europe once was.


Birmingham, David. The Decolonization of Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press,1995.

Collins, Robert. The Partition of Africa. New York: J. Wiley, 1969.

Depelchin, Jacques. From the Congo Free State to Zaire: How Belgium Provatized the Economy. Senegal: Codesria, 1992.

Doyle, Arthur C. The Crime of the Congo. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1909.

Duignan, Peter, and L.H. Gann. The Rulers of Belgian Africa. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979

Edgerton, Robert B. The Troubled Heart of Africa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

Emerson, Barbara.Leopold II of the Belgians. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Kanza, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of Patrice Lumumba. Schenkham Publishing Company, Inc., 1979.

Kaplan, Urving Zaire. First Printing:1979.

Packham, Eric S. The U.N. Intervention in the Congo After Independence.

Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 1998.

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