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The Congo Free State Genocide

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The Congo Free State Genocide

In World War II, the allied forces were willing to sacrifice millions of their soldiers in order to stop the evils of a dictator committing genocide on innocent civilians. Following the defeat of the axis powers, judges from the allied forces presided the Nuremberg trials, the very first trial for crimes against humanity. Seeing the necessity of sentencing the war criminals, American judge Robert H. Jackson stated, “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it will not survive their being repeated”. While Jackson is completely correct, his statement is completely hypocritical as genocide is only a continuation of history in civilization. Just half a decade before the Holocaust, King Leopold II committed a horrific genocide on the people of the Congo Free State. Leopold’s actions and crimes were so horrific, that the consequences are still being felt today in the modern day Congo. Despite attempts by the Belgian government to ignore their crimes, it is important not to ignore their actions in the Congo.

As technology advanced, the Europeans became able to reach and explore parts of the world that have never been touched by Western Civilization. Following the invention of tonic water, missionaries and explorers gained the ability to explore and map Africa’s interior. In the article, “The Scramble for Africa”, St. John's College University of Cambridge describes how explorers discovered an abundance of natural resources, launching the Scramble for Africa. At the time, the Europeans referred to Africa as “the dark continent” because of Africa’s lack of industrialization, foreshadowing the oppression and ideology of Social Darwinism (1). St. John's College University of Cambridge goes on to state, “These attitudes allowed European colonists to ignore the established African tribes and kingdoms with their rich histories and cultures” (2). In the BBC encyclopaedia article, “Historic Figures: Henry Stanley”, it states that by the time Leopold II tried to secure a colony, most of Africa had already been colonized. Fortunately , in 1876, Henry Stanley embarked on a mission to explore the Congo river, and discovered a jackpot of natural resources. Stanley and King Leopold II would work together to open the Congo to commerce by building roads with forced labor. However, competition with the French limited the expansion of King Leopold II’s power in the Congo (1). In Henry Stanley’s article, “Belgium’s Heart of Darkness”, he states that the colonial competition in Africa caused thirteen European countries and the United States to meet at the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885 to establish rules and laws about the colonization of Africa. There, Leopold II was finally able to secure the Congo basin through diplomatic talks. However, the Belgian state refused to finance Leopold’s imperial ambitions, forcing Leopold to finance and use personal diplomacy to control the land in the Congo basin. Leopold then sent Henry Stanley to return to the Congo basin and claim the land. In 1885, the Congo Free State was established under King Leopold II’s control (1).

Despite King Leopold II’s promise of bringing civilization to the Congo Free State, the only thing he brought was death and destruction. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo, he described how King Leopold II used the Congo Free State for economic gain. Doyle states, “The essence of this system was that the people who had been dispossessed (ironically called ‘citizens’) were forced to gather, for the profit of the State, those very products which had been taken from them” (17). In the article, King Leopold’s “Legacy of DR Congo Violence”, Mark Dummett wrote how when Belgian officials entered villages, they would round up all villagers. Women and children were tied up while the men were sent into the jungle to collect rubber and other natural resources (2). As H. Stanley wrote, The Belgian Officers were required to bring in a certain amount of rubber, so they would set quotas of rubber for each village. If the men of each village failed to reach that quota, then the Belgian officers would rape and kill the villagers, and burn down the village. To ensure that bullets weren’t being wasted when killing the Congolese, Belgian officials would cut off the hands of the people they killed, most commonly the hands of children (3). In Mac McKinney’s “Leopold and the Congo Free State”, he would compare killing methods of the Belgians to the 15th century conquistadors of Spain in America. The bloodshed and horror story would continue on for more than a decade uninterrupted (2).

“The Congo Free State Genocide: Circa 1895 To 1912” by B.A. Robinson explains how the torture and bloodshed would begin to slow down at the end of the 19th century. Edmund Dene Morel, a clerk at a shipping office in Liverpool, would begin to expose the nightmare in the Congo. While working in the shipping office, Morel noticed how Belgium would import mass amounts of rubber while exporting mass amounts of ammunition. Morel would quit his job as a clerk to become an investigative journalist and publisher. Morel called upon the British government to investigate King Leopold II’s violations of the Berlin Agreement, but Leopold would lie and claim sleeping sickness was to blame for the deaths. Robinson would even claim, “Nevertheless, rumors circulated and Léopold ran an enormous publicity campaign to discredit them, even creating a bogus Commission for the Protection of the Natives to root out the “few isolated instances” of abuse (4-5). Adam Hochschild supports these claims King Leopold’s Ghost where he claimed, “Leopold and the Belgian colonial officers who followed him went to extraordinary lengths to try and erase potentially incriminating evidence” (294). Leopold would continue to suppress the claims against him, and McKinney in “Leopold and the Congo Free State” stated that Leopold even lied to German prince Otto Von Bismarck by using geopolitical rivalries with France to keep him from being investigated by the Berlin Conference (4). The main way that the Congo Free State genocide got exposed to the public was through the release of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness in 1899. Conrad’s novel exposed the difference between the “civilized” Belgians and the “savage” Congolese



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