Described as an exceptionally brutal army, the Force was conceived in 1885 by Belgian King Leopold II and their major purpose was to enforce the rubber quotas and other forms of forced labour on the people of congo.
The Force Publique was a military force in Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) that was established by Belgian king Leopold II in 1885, after he acquired the Congo Free State as his private property. The Force lasted from 1885 through the period of Belgian colonial rule (Belgian Congo – 1908 to 1960).
The officers of the Force Publique were entirely Europeans and serving under these European officers was an ethnically-mixed African servicemen.
The African servicemen were mostly recruited or conscripted from “warrior tribes” in Congo, Zanzibar and the West African Hausa kingdoms, while others had been kidnapped in raids on villages in their childhood and brought to Roman Catholic missions, where they received military training.
Under King Leopold II the Force Publique was described as an “exceptionally brutal army”. One major purpose of the Force was to enforce the rubber quotas and other forms of forced labour, protect Leopold’s economic interests, and suppress the frequent uprisings within the state.
“The Commissioner promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service”
Armed with modern weapons and a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide, the Force Publique routinely took and tortured hostages, slaughtered families of rebels, and flogged and raped Congolese people with a reign of terror and abuse. One refugee from these horrors described the process:
“We were always in the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved … When we failed and our rubber was short, the soldiers came to our towns and killed us. Many were shot, some had their ears cut off; others were tied up with ropes round their necks and taken away.”
They also burned down uncooperative villages, and above all, cut off the hands of Congolese natives, including children.
The human hands were collected as trophies on the orders of their white officers to show that bullets had not been wasted. Officers were concerned that their subordinates might waste their ammunition on hunting animals for sport, so they required soldiers to submit one hand for every bullet spent. These mutilations also served to further terrorize the Congolese into submission.
One junior officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The officer in command “ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisade … and to hang the women and the children in the form of a cross”.
After seeing a Congolese person killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote, “The soldier said ‘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.”
Eventually, growing scrutiny of Leopold’s regime led to a popular campaign movement, centred in the United Kingdom and the United States.
In 1908, under international pressure, the parliament of Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and took over its administration from King Leopold II on November 15, 1908, as the colony of the Belgian Congo.
Following the takeover of the Free State by the Belgian government in 1908, the new authorities reorganised the Force Publique and ended many of the systems responsible for the abuses. The Force Publique was later rechristened as the Congolese National Army or ANC in July 1960 after independence.
The size of the population decline during the period of Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo was so devastating that the country was depopulated. Measuring the scale of the catastrophe is difficult, but one demographic study estimated that the population was halved, from twenty million to ten million, between 1880 and 1920.
In 2020 King Philippe of Belgium expressed his regret to the Government of Congo for “acts of violence and cruelty” inflicted during the rule of the Congo Free State, though he did not explicitly mention Leopold’s role and some activists accused him of not making a full apology.