Few chapters in colonial history are as harrowing and tragic as the exploitation of the Congo Free State under the rule of King Leopold II of Belgium from 1885 to 1908. While the atrocities, described as one of the most appalling slaughters brought about by human agency, committed during Leopold’s reign are well-documented, the complicity of Catholic missionaries in enabling and perpetuating these crimes remains a disturbing and often overlooked aspect of this dark period.
King Leopold II of Belgium’s rule over the Congo during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is marked by a dark chapter in history known as the Congo Free State. Leopold’s exploitation of the region for personal gain resulted in egregious human rights abuses and a staggering loss of life.
Under the guise of humanitarian efforts and philanthropy, Leopold claimed the Congo as his personal property at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. However, his true intentions were far from benevolent. The rubber and ivory-rich Congo became a source of immense wealth for the Belgian monarch, and to maximize profits, he implemented a brutal system of forced labor.
The local Congolese population was subjected to horrific conditions, with men, women, and children forced to collect rubber and ivory under the threat of violence and death. Leopold’s regime employed ruthless tactics to ensure productivity, including mutilations, killings, and the infamous use of the chicotte – a whip made of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, which drove the Congolese people to the brink of extinction.
To ensure that the quotas were met, the Belgian authorities used violent means to force people to work. They burned villages, murdered or imprisoned people who resisted, and mutilated those who failed to meet their quotas. The most famous example of this was the “cut hands” policy, in which the hands of those who failed to meet their quotas were amputated. This policy, which was implemented by the Belgian Force Publique, a military organization that was responsible for enforcing Leopold II’s policies, resulted in the amputation of tens of thousands of hands.
Those who failed to meet the draconian rubber quotas imposed by Leopold’s agents faced unspeakable punishments. Men, women, and children were mutilated, tortured, and murdered in cold blood, their bodies left to rot as a grim warning to others who dared defy the king’s edicts.
Central to Leopold’s campaign of exploitation were the Catholic missionaries who operated within the Congo Free State. While motivated by religious zeal and a desire to spread the Gospel, many missionaries became willing accomplices in Leopold’s brutal regime, turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Congolese people.
Catholic missionaries, who were tasked with imparting Christian virtues and values to the indigenous population, instead became willing agents of oppression and exploitation. By turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Congolese people and actively participating in Leopold’s campaign of terror.
Following King Leopold II’s instructions, they aimed to evangelize to the natives, ensuring their perpetual submission to the white colonialists. This was achieved by teaching them to read but not to reason, interpreting the gospel in a manner that protected Leopold’s interests. They also instructed them to recite daily, “Happy are those who are weeping because the kingdom of God is for them,” discouraging any potential revolt against the constraints imposed upon them.
One of the most chilling manifestations of this unholy alliance was the establishment of “child colonies” by Leopold’s administration. Orphaned Congolese children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to schools run by Catholic missionaries. These schools served as indoctrination centers where Congolese children were taught to embrace European culture and values while being groomed for a life of servitude and exploitation. Within these schools, they would learn to work or become soldiers; these child colonies were the only state-funded schools for Africans in Leopold’s Congo.
The conditions within these child colonies were nothing short of barbaric. More than half of the children sent to these schools perished from disease, malnutrition, and the brutalities inflicted upon them during their forced marches into captivity. According to Adam Hochschild in his book “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” in one horrific incident, 108 boys were herded like cattle to a mission school. Only 62 of them survived the ordeal, and eight of those survivors succumbed to their injuries within a week of their arrival.
The mother superior of one Catholic colony for girls wrote to a high Congo state official in 1895, “Several of the little girls were so sickly on their arrival that … our good sisters couldn’t save them, but all had the happiness of receiving Holy Baptism; they are now little angels in Heaven who are praying for our great king.”
The extent of the atrocities Leopold was committing in the Congo Free State became widely known due to exposure campaigns led by activists like George Washington Williams, E.D. Morel, and the Stokes Affair. This led to increased scrutiny and pressure on Belgium to relinquish control of the Congo Free State.
In 1908, under mounting international pressure and scrutiny, Belgium formally annexed the Congo, bringing an end to Leopold’s personal exploitation. The Belgian government took over administration, but the scars of Leopold’s crimes lingered. Eventually, in 1960, after decades of struggle and sacrifice, the Congo finally gained its long-awaited independence from Belgian colonial rule.
The exact death toll resulting from Leopold’s rule is disputed, but historians’ estimates suggest a minimum death toll of 5 million, with some positing 10 million as the maximum. The majority of these deaths resulted from violence, disease, and forced labor.
As Hochschild notes, while not meeting the criteria of genocide in its strict definition, the atrocities committed in the Congo represent one of the most appalling massacres instigated by human actions.
After learning about the roles catholic missionaries played in Leopold’s congo free state, read about ‘The Rubber Genocide: How the Quest for Wealth by Belgian King Leopold II Led to Mass Murder in Congo‘