Today in labor history: Exposé on King Leopold II bribing Senate

On December 9, 1906, the New York American newspaper reported Belgian King Leopold II of Belgium bribed the U.S. Senate commission on the Congo to recommend support of his Congo Free State project .

The Congo Free State propaganda war was a worldwide media propaganda campaign (1884-1912) waged by both King Leopold II and the critics of the Congo Free State.

Leopold conceived the idea of a Congo Free State, with himself as the Sovereign ruler. He sent U.S. President Chester A. Arthur carefully edited copies of cloth-and-trinket treaties. He worked to convince the United States, with its growing economic and military power, to recognize the treaties and the Congo Free State. Leopold’s men told Southern Congressmen that the Congo Free State could be a new home for freed slaves.

The U.S. Congress decided that the treaties had legal standing and that the Congo was a sovereign state under the Belgian monarch.

The fanatical rush for colonies, rubber and other raw materials was part of the drive to industrialize Europe. These valuable resources helped usher in Europe’s motorized transportation and the proliferation of many other commodities. African raw materials were prime targets of these insatiable demands.

For example, during the time of the Belgian reign of terror, John Dunlop created the pneumatic tire, setting off a surge in bicycle sales and creating a huge demand for rubber latex and wild Congolese vine rubber.

No European colonial power in Africa, not the Dutch, the British, the French, the Belgians, the Germans, the Spanish nor the Italians has clean hands. But the genocidal champion of the scramble for Africa was, without a doubt, Leopold II, King of the Belgians. He convinced the major powers to agree to let him have his way with the Congo (his personal project) with the pretext that he was engaged in a civilizing mission, for the benefit of the Congolese people. In fact his plan was to bleed them dry, murdering them if they resisted.

All the other major countries agreed to support his “Congo Free State” project. Belgian administrators, soldiers and merchants set up a system of exploitation, concentrating on wild rubber harvesting, so horrible that its like was not seen on earth until Hitler invaded Poland.

The Congo Free State’s “Force Publique” tortured or murdered villagers who did not cooperate. Troops had to account for ammunition they expended; to do so they had to cut off the hands of people they shot, to prove that they had not been using the bullets for hunting animals instead of humans. Frequently, Leopold’s men cut off the hands of living people, including small children.

Leopold had promised to fight against slavery; in fact he enslaved the Congolese to amass vast fortunes that he spent in adorning Belgium with pretentious monumental architecture. This was all kept hush-hush until a few outsiders ferreted out the information as to what was going on.

In the U.S. the propaganda war was fought in the press, in pamphlets and books – including Mark Twain’s “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” – and by public speakers.

They concluded that half of the Congo’s population, or up to 10 million people, had been killed by Leopold’s regime, and of course putting a money figure on the looting of the Congo was as difficult then as it would be now. Eventually, Leopold was forced to surrender the Congo to the Belgian government, which improved matters only slightly, and left the colony in a very poor state when they finally departed in 1960.

In 2004, British filmmaker Peter Bate’s stirring documentary brought to the silver screen the unspeakable horrors of Belgian colonialism in the Congo in the film “Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death.” The film can be viewed on YouTube.

Emile Schepers and Martin Frazier contributed to this article.

Photo: Mutilated Congolese children, image from “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” Mark Twain’s denunciation, where the aging king complains that the incorruptible camera was the only witness he had encountered in his long experience that he could not bribe. The book was illustrated with photographs taken some time before 1905. Wikimedia Commons.



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