DRC: Congo Free State: 1878 - 1908
Updated June 2005
European expansion into the interior of the Congo dates only from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Portuguese on the coast were unable to penetrate far beyond their coastal enclaves. On the heels of explorers Livingstone and Stanley, Rhodes' British South African company pushed northwards, while French expansion in Africa pressed southwards. The Germans, late arrivers to Africa, pressed into the interior from the east.
The Belgians were reluctant colonials and would not have become involved in Africa were it not for the ambitions of their monarch, King Leopold II. He, impressed by the economic potential described by Stanley in his reports, engaged Stanley in 1878 to act as his agent in the Congo region (Library of Congress 1993a, Answers.com 2005).
Realising that he could not carry public support for his colonial ambitions, Leopold developed his penetration into the interior as a personal fiefdom, the Congo Free State (proclaimed after the Berlin Conference in 1885). Stanley, in the meanwhile, busied himself with signing treaties with local chiefs and setting up nodes of penetration on behalf of Leopold (Country Watch 1998). The Congo Free State was publicised in Europe and the USA as "liberating Africans from the tyranny of Arab slavers, and establishing colonial Africa's only free trade area" (Institute for Security Studies 2005).
The costs of infrastructure creation and the military forces necessary to repress the apparently endless and (apparently) inexhaustible revolts of the indigenous peoples were far greater than had been foreseen. These were financed in part from loans from the Belgian state and in part through ruthless exploitation of the native populations. Forced labour and compulsory peasant production of raw materials such as rubber was the chief instruments of these extractions (Library of Congress 1993).
By the end of the nineteenth century Leopold's control over the territory had been consolidated, key infrastructure laid in place and the extraction of raw materials and profits highly developed. The whole system was held together by suppression and exploitation so brutal in its expression that when the details became known in Europe a major scandal erupted. In response the Belgian government annexed the territory in 1908 (Library of Congress 1993b).
By then the damage was done. Whole social structures had been shattered, whole populations killed or displaced, ancient relations and trade routes destroyed and virtually the entire population traumatised and brutalised. Gregory Mthembu-Salter (2002, 235) reports that as many as a third of the population died directly or indirectly as a result of Leopold's activities in the Congo, observing that this prompts "an increasing number of academics to term this the first genocide of the modern era".
ANSWERS.COM 2005 "Democratic Republic of the Congo", [www] http://www.answers.com/main/ntquery;jsessionid=16o66sa9kiwtz?tname=congo- country-zaire&curtab=2222_1&hl=congo&hl=country&hl=zaire&sbid=lc02a [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).
COUNTRY WATCH 1998 "Country Information for the Congo (DRC)", [www] http://www.countrywatch.com/country_profile.aspx?vcountry=40 [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).
INSTITUTE FOR SECURITY STUDIES 2005 "Democratic Republic of Congo: History and Politics", [www] http://www.iss.co.za/AF/profiles/DRCongo/Politics.html (offline10 Mar 2010).
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1993a "The Colonial State" IN Country Studies, [www] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+zr0020) [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1993b "The Leopoldian Legacy" IN Country Studies, [www] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+zr0021) [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).
MTHEMBU-SALTER, G 2002 "Recent History", IN Murison, K (ed), Africa South of the Sahara 2002, Europa Publications.