Congolese Genocide: The Overlooked History of the Colonized Congo

The Congolese genocide is one of the biggest mass murders in modern history, counting eight to ten million murder victims and millions of others severely injured.

Jun 8, 2022By Marietta Korfiati, BA History & Archaeology, MA in-progress
king leopold with amputated victim
A male missionary from the Congo Balolo Mission holding the arm of an amputated Congolese man, 1890 – 1910, via University of Southern California Libraries

 

Many documentaries, movies, books, TV series, and articles present with great frequency certain human atrocities such as the Holocaust, making them globally well-known. The European Holocaust was without hesitation one of the most harrowing crimes in modern history, and the reason why people are so aware of it is more than clear. However, there is still very little popular interest in genocides against non-European and non-American people. Countries that suffered such crimes have no power or money like the Western ones to be heard through the audiovisual media. The Congolese Genocide is one of the most overlooked crimes against African people by a European country. Although researchers and history enthusiasts have begun to address this subject, many facts remain hidden.

 

Before the Congolese Genocide: The Kongo Kingdom

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Portrait of Don Antonio Emanuel Marchio de Wnth, Ambassador to the King of the Congo, 1608, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Before the Belgium colonization and the Congolese genocide in the 19th century, Congo was a large area with the second-biggest rainforest in the world. Its inhabitants had lived there for hundreds of years as they migrated from Nigeria in the 7th to 8th century CE. Most built their households around the forest. The governance was centralized, and the country became known as the Kongo Kingdom. Most of the inhabitants were fishers, traders, and farmers. Poets and artists were highly regarded as well as the chiefs. The early Kongo Kingdom expanded territorially through alliances, marriages, and partnerships.

 

Portuguese explorers arrived in the Kongo Kingdom in 1482. Portugal and the Kongo Kingdom allied, and many Congolese royal families converted to Christianity. After their alliance with the Portuguese, the Congolese waged wars against other African tribes. They captured many fellow compatriots and traded them to their new allies as enslaved people. However, many Congolese were against this conversion, and civil conflicts arose. Even though the winners of these conflicts were the Christianized chiefs, the Kongo Kingdom maintained its traditions and religions along with the newly-arrived Christian values.

 

The paradox of this alliance is that the Portuguese, along with the British, Dutch, and French, enslaved many free-born Congolese people with or without the permission of the Kingdom’s chiefdom. Through European eyes, the Congolese were inferior, like other African countries. The leaders used this threat as a means of subjugating their subordinates.

 

The Belgian Colony: The Congo Free State

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Men of the Force Publique, 1899, via the British Library, London

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In the 19th century, Leopold II, the constitutional monarch of Belgium, tried to persuade the governance to colonize certain areas of Africa. However, his attempts didn’t succeed. In the 1880s, he decided to use the International African Association, a humanitarian organization created by him, so that he could carry out his plans. King Leopold’s intentions were anything but humanitarian. Congo back then was a country full of special resources that could offer him both big revenue and low cost. Under the pretext of humanitarian purposes, he managed to legally own the Kongo Kingdom.

 

execution slaves wakuti congolese genocide
Execution of slaves by the Wakuti near Equator station, 1885, via The Congo and the founding of its free state: a story of work and exploration (1885), via Archive.org

 

The new name given to the colonized Kongo Kingdom was Congo Free State. Leopold could not economically support his new property with Belgian public funds, so he kept it with the funds of his new land. The Congolese would pay Leopold, his backers, and the Belgian state for being their slaves. Buildings in Belgium, such as the Royal Museum of Central Africa, were thus built with the unpaid labor of the Congolese people.

 

But the worst was yet to come. The Congo Free State was not only a great source of human labor. It was one of the bloodiest European colonies in Africa, if not the bloodiest.

 

Trade, Slavery, & Discrimination in the Congo Free State

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View of Leopoldville Station and Port on the Congo River, 1884, via The Congo and the founding of its free state: a story of work and exploration (1885), via Archive.org

 

When Leopold colonized Congo, it was a country full of potential and rich sources. However, most of the sources such as copper, gold, and diamonds would take time and money to generate good revenue for the colonizers. Leopold therefore decided that the main Congolese products would be rubber and ivory. These products, though very profitable, were proved to be too difficult for the local inhabitants to collect. The only way to get them to work hard without a personal profit was through force. King Leopold hired an army made up of European and Congolese soldiers, the Force Publique, to impose his sovereignty upon the local inhabitants.

 

sectional steamer leaving vivi beach
The Sectional Steamer Le Stanley leaving Vivi Beach, Congo, 1885, via The Congo and the founding of its free state; a story of work and exploration, via Archive.org

 

King Leopold was praised in Europe for his actions against the slave trade in Congo led by the Arabs, the new constructions in Congo, and the “civilization of the savages” through religion. In reality, he abolished the slave trade in his new property to use the local people as his own personal slaves. The initiation into Christianity was a tactic to enslave them more easily. Additionally, the construction of new buildings only benefited the interests of the conquerors: most of the facilities, such as the hospitals, for example, could only be used by white people. Meanwhile, the Congolese were obligated to pay taxes in kind to their new European king, most of the time at the expense of their nutrition, health, and survival.

 

The demand for rubber and ivory from the western market was so large that even the one million people in this big country could not cope with it. Rubber plants were grown in the forests, far away from homes. The local peasantry was forced to go there every day to collect the milk from the trees. Additionally, ivory could only be collected from elephant hunting, something even more difficult. Soon, it became too difficult for the Congolese to collect enough of the resources in the quantities their new king desired. The Force Republique quickly began to use terrorism to increase production.

 

Atrocities That Led to the Congolese Genocide

hands lingomo bolengo congolese genocide
Picture captured by Alice Seely Harris in Baringa depicting Bompenju, Lofiko—brothers of Nsala—, a third person, John Harris, and Edgar Stannard with the hands of Lingomo and Bolengo, which have allegedly been killed by sentries of the ABIR, 1904, via King Leopold’s rule in Africa by Edmund Morel, via Archive.org

 

Needless to say, the Congolese villages were unable to produce the excessive amounts of ivory and rubber they were pressured for. When the production was even slightly lower than required, the men of Force Publique would commit a series of heinous crimes against the locals. The saddest part of this was that most of the men who committed the atrocities were Africans themselves who sought the favor of their white superiors who represented the imperialist European bourgeoise.

 

They were kidnapped as children, raised to be the king’s soldiers or underpaid Africans. The men of Force Publique traditionally cut the lower limbs, the hands, the feet, or even the heads of the “disobedient” under the orders of their European officers. The mutilated parts of the victims’ bodies sometimes would be eaten. Flogging the villagers and burning whole villages was also a prevalent terrorist tactic. Many Congolese died from overwork and untreated diseases like smallpox and sleeping sickness.

 

Sexual violence against women was a daily thing. Congolese women were completely unprotected, especially when they could not pay the state taxes. White men and sentries kidnapped young girls and women, whomever they liked. Rape, sexual torture, and forced sexual slavery were the most silenced crimes of the Congolese genocide. Most of the searches and books about the colonization of Congo inform the modern audience about the mutilation atrocities but not the gendered ones. Modern Congo is the country with one of the biggest numbers of rapes and sexual torture tactics, having their roots in the colonization era. And still, the women’s experiences during this era remain largely silenced.

 

men chained congo free state
Nine male prisoners in the Congo standing against a wall joined by chains around their necks by Geil William Edgar, 1905, via Wellcome Collection, London

 

The Catholic Church also held a share in the economy of Congo. However, many missionaries returned to their homes horrified by the atrocities made by King Leopold and the rich Europeans. Some of them recorded what they saw and heard. They took photos of the victims; they took their testimonies and wrote about the horrors they witnessed. George Washington Williams was a black American historian who interviewed many Africans, victims of the white supremacy in Congo, and tried to change their lives using his voice and privileged position. Many other anti-slavery campaigners published their own experiences and sources about the Congolese genocide. However, governments only paid attention to the Congo’s case after the 23-year reign of King Leopold.

 

The Aftermath of the Congolese Genocide

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The vandalized statues of King Leopold, 2020, Video report by ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy, via ITV News

 

After the international outrage for the atrocities and the 10,000,000 mass murders of Congolese people under the reign of King Leopold II, Belgium decided to rule Congo Congo was a Belgian colony from 1908 to 1960. European and American imperialists continued exploiting the Congolese people who were still living under terrible living conditions. Deaths from untreated diseases were still common, and humanitarian aid was not helping enough.

 

In the late 1950s, the Congo National Movement took down the Belgian forces, and Congo became an independent country. To this day, violence remains a daily phenomenon. After many decades of mass murders, terror, exploitation, and seizure of their land’s resources, the Congolese are still victims of international European colonization. The impact of King Leopold’s reign and Belgian rule is still too huge to be forgotten, even though the history of Congo remains overlooked.

 

In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in the US and the subsequent international outcry about the continuous discrimination against Black people, Belgium remembered the history of the Congolese genocide. Many websites, newspapers, and TV stations made tributes about it in parallel with the Black Lives Matter movement. In Belgium, citizens vandalized and took down statues of King Leopold II and his officers in response to the fact that such bloodthirsty men are glorified even today. King Leopold was indeed a big part of Belgian history. However, when the state makes statues that seem to glorify him, instead of making statues in the memory of his victims, that means that there is still a selective memory about a nation’s historical narrative.



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By Marietta KorfiatiBA History & Archaeology, MA in-progressMarietta earned her BA in History & Archaeology at the University of Crete. She is presently continuing her education with a master's program in History at the University of Uppsala. She is a passionate historian and author who loves reading books and watching historical documentaries, movies, and TV series. In her free time, she is an artist who loves drawing and creating vintage jewelry.