Hands Free : The Story of the Free State of Congo (1885 – 1908)

Welcome readers,

Thirty-Two Towns Were Destroyed While Mapping The Congo:

King Leopold II hired a British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, so he could get help with the establishment of the Congo Free State. Stanley was already acquainted with the region having explored it and mapped out most of the Congo River. In addition, he made contact with and had experiences with the Congolese. Stanley wasn’t evil and there was no malice in his intentions to explore the Congo. However, there was tension between his men and the Congolese. Their different cultures clashed and misunderstandings occurred since both groups couldn’t understand each other. Moreover, those misunderstandings led to fears of brutal violence. For instance, seven aggravated Congolese tribes convened and confronted Stanley about writing in his journal which they considered to be witchcraft, and when they demanded he stop or he and his men would be killed, Stanley responded with disregard and began shooting the Congolese. At the end of the expedition, he burned down 32 of their towns. His men retaliated more viciously. They would kidnap and rape African women and beat the men to death using whips for the smallest infractions. As a result, this marked the beginning of the Congo Free State. Leopold II hired and demanded that the area be turned into a workhouse, and they did that by enslaving the Congolese. Their cruelty set the tone for the future of Congo and the darkness would soon envelop the Congo with no way for resistance. 

The Entire Population Was Enslaved: Once King Leopold took control of the Congo, he started bleeding the country dry for profits. Stanley came upon and reported that there were temples of ivory, and rubber was available to be retrieved. Therefore, Leopold’s determination led to him turning two-thirds of the country into his private land. That private land needed workers and the Congolese were forced to work for him. At first, the slaves were given a penny per pound of rubber, but Leopold soon ceased any compensation, and instead, he called harvesting rubber, a tax that every Congolese who lived on the land was required to pay. Equally important, the Congolese were oblivious that their land was sold, and now were forced into labor so they could remain living on it. Slaves had a huge daily quota to fulfill. For one, the average Congolese slave had to work 20 days per month just to meet the rubber quota and all that was done was with no compensation. In their spare time, they were allowed to work to feed their families. 

Workers Who Didn’t Meet Their Quotas Were Dismembered And Killed: 

The most infamous act of savagery that was done under King Leopold II’s reign of power over the Congo was the dismemberment of the Congolese. For better context, what led to this needs to be explained. So, rubber profits began booming in the 1890s in the Congo and Leopold was heavily profiting from it. Leopold was selling more rubber than he could harvest. Leopold demanded that the rubber be harvested expeditiously and if quotas failed to be met, then punishment in ways of beatings and death was awaiting. In addition, African soldiers were enlisted to enforce rules, but this put the Belgians in a precarious situation and at risk. These soldiers would sometimes spare insubordinate slaves and waste ammunition on non-human targets. Consequently, the Belgians set up a law: Every time a worker was killed, the African soldiers were to chop off one of their hands and deliver it. The soldiers followed these orders because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t. Quotas were met by filling a basket with the severed hands, sometimes even collected from their mothers. An old man was once killed in front of a missionary by an African soldier and he explained why he did it, saying, “Don’t take this to heart so much,” “They kill us if we don’t bring the rubber. The commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service. I have brought in plenty of hands already, and I expect my time of service will soon be finished.”

Gathering Rubber Was Deadly – Fear of death only made the Congolese work that much harder, but that fear wasn’t the only motivating factor. For one, they were motivated to meet quotas by any means but gathering the rubber was a challenge because it was hanging high up in the trees. The drudgery was made easier with ones at a lower level but everything had to be collected for harvest so climbing higher and higher to get everything was mandatory. This was dangerous and many would slip and fall to their deaths. Additionally, the slaves who survived the daunting task would chop up the vines to squeeze out a little extra sap. It worked, but it removed its benefits and eliminated those vines as a resource. If the slaves were caught beatings and death were inevitable. One commissioner wrote a note after catching a worker chopping a vine saying “We must fight them until their absolute submission has been obtained,” he wrote, “or their complete extermination”. 

Workers Were Brutally Beaten – Different commissioners handled disciplinary actions differently. Some were satisfied with removing the workers’ hands, but other commissioners wanted to amplify their sadistic intentions. For example, the slaves were given number discs around their necks so their quotas could be tracked. If the slaves fell short of the target amount, they would receive 25 lashes with a whip. It sometimes went to 100 lashes if efficiency was poor. The whip used was made of hippopotamus hide that would break the skin quickly and excessive beatings led to death. Furthermore, when other Europeans started traveling to the Congo they were astounded and unimpressed with the environment. One European officer reported that he complained to Mr. Goffin, the secretary of the Railway Company in the Congo, who said that he had witnessed men being kicked, whipped, and chained by their necks. Mr. Goffin was business as usual and was cavalier in his response, shrugging his shoulders to be exact. 

Millions Died Of Disease – Disease was rampant in the Congo Free State. The Belgians didn’t care for the livelihood of their slaves and fed them poorly, only giving them enough to survive. Frequently, slaves were given rotten meat which made the men sick. As a result, work conditions became more horrid as the men were forced to work in areas infested with tsetse flies that spread diseases. Illness swept across the Congo and from there other parts of Africa. To make matters worse, the worst disease contracted was the “sleeping sickness”, a disease that was often fatal. It had a widespread impact throughout affecting the harvesters to the villagers. In some places, a third of the population was infected and perished. It’s estimated that the disease killed 500,000 people in the Congo.

Villages Were Burned To The Ground – Nothing was safe. When an entire village failed to meet its quota or refused to pay a rubber tax, they were reprimanded by soldiers. Specifically, an army of men marched into the town, commenced slaughtering people, and burned villages to the ground. Not to mention, some villages were destroyed for almost no reason at all. For instance, one village was decimated by soldiers. 50 men were killed and 28 were made prisoners. The women were chained neck to neck and dragged out of town. Even if they met the required quota, their recorded infractions one of them being that “the rubber brought by the villagers to the State was not of the best quality.

Women And Children Were Tortured The petrifying events that happened in the Congo Free State had a purpose, they were meant to scare the people into work. Fear was their weapon and used it to the fullest. The Belgians intended to enforce slavery, physically and psychologically were ways to motivate the Congolese, and since they were seen as subhuman, the Belgians were “free” to do whatever they wanted with their “property”. Women were often kidnapped from their villages that didn’t deliver enough rubber. They would be held ransom until the chief met the required quota. There was no limit to how nefarious the Belgians were to the Congolese. For example, after being sent to raid a town for not meeting its quota, one African soldier noted that his European commander had ordered him to make an example of the town. “He ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members,” the soldier said, “and to hang the women and children on the palisade in the form of a cross.

Overseers Cannibalized Their Workers 

If this historical time wasn’t morbid enough, cannibalism was used in some places to instill fear and keep the slaves in line. It’s difficult to determine how often this happened, but one man reported that when someone was declared as “shot” in his area, it also meant that the victim had been eaten. Regarding this, the word for this was the Zappos Zaps, they were a particularly vicious tribe whom the Belgians recruited as soldiers. Documents have reported, “Some of the victims were eaten by cannibals. [ . . . ] The bodies of all who were slain were mutilated, their heads having been cut off. From three bodies, the flesh has been carved and eaten.”

All This Was Done By A Humanitarian Organization 

 Initially, Leopold II didn’t enter the Congo as an invading army, he went there with philanthropic intentions. He founded a group that was originally called the International African Association. They were a humanitarian organization that promised to improve life in Africa and donations came from around the world. Begging for donation, Leopold gave a compelling speech, “To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress. All in all, it was a facade to cover up his diabolical intentions, the organization that people thought was funding to better the lives of African people was exploiting them and getting rich. In private, Leopold told an ambassador, “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake”. And with that, Leopold cut his slices which were backed by the donations of concerned citizens. 

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