Democratic Republic of Congo - Profile part 1
Below is the first part of a profile of the Democratic Republic of Congo that will be developed over the coming months. Our thanks to George Jameson who researched and wrote the material below.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a country that is situated in Central Africa. It is the second largest country on the African continent after Algeria. The Congo is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa making it the world's 11th largest country and with a population of just over 71 million people makes it the 19th most populous nation on earth. Given its size the Congo borders many different nations which include the Central African Republic and South Sudan to the north, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to the east, Zambia and Angola to the south and The Republic of the Congo to its west. The country has a short 40km stretch of coastline which touches the Atlantic ocean at Muanda.
The Democratic Republic of Congo like many other African nations before the scramble for Africa was a much more tranquil place governed by traditional native African tribes.
By the 1880's the Scramble for Africa had intensified to the point where each individual European powers invaded, occupied and colonized African territory. This period saw Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the UK divide the continent up between them. Each of these colonial powers had differing ideas as to how their newly acquired lands should be managed.
Belgium, under the leadership of King Leopold II decided to run his new colonial territories in his own unique style. While publicly advocating humanitarianism and denouncing slavery, privately this was not the case and for almost 30 years the inhabitants of this Congo Free State as it would be soon called suffered the most unimaginable and gruelling hardships which are only matched in gruesomeness by WW1 and WW2.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is crossed by the equator which means that the seasons are reversed in the north and south. Both of these areas have two short wet seasons as well as two short dry seasons while the central part of the country enjoys a tropical hot and humid climate with temperatures in Kinshasa averaging between 18 and 32 degrees celsius. This tropical land boasts a huge range of fruits and vegetables, arable land and vast natural resources which include many highly valued minerals; Colbat, Copper, Rubber and industrial Diamonds. The amount of raw materials in the DR Congo that are untapped have been estimated to be worth in the region of US $24 trillion. However, many decades of political turmoil and civil wars have meant that this potential wealth has not been able to be exploited by the Congolese themselves. Some illegal mining has been taking place in areas of the DR Congo but the lucrative profits of these actions are not collected in tax by the government but are instead used to fund militias and their violent campaigns.
The predicament that the DR Congo finds itself in at the moment echoes of a different time in that the Congolese find raw materials mined on their lands being exported to foreign nations with locals seeing no positive gains for themselves. I must point out however that I am in no way comparing the current situation in the DR Congo with what took place just over a century ago at the hands of their Belgium masters.
Throughout the 1870's, King Leopold II of Belgium mused over the idea as to how the Dark Continent should be opened up. This saw a conference of humanitarians and travellers taking place in 1876 which resulted in the International African Association being established with King Leopold as its president. Its stated goal was to set up stations which would act as rest houses for travellers who have taken it upon themselves to explore this unknown land. In reality however, the facilitation of travellers was not the only consideration.
In 1878, after returning from his great trans-African exploration, the writer and explorer Henry Morton Stanley was met in Marseilles by representatives of King Leopold, which led to Stanley becoming an agent for the International African Association. His task was according to Arthur Conan Doyle " to open up the Congo for trade, and to make such terms with the natives as would enable stations to be built and depots established".
In 1879, Stanley set out on his journey with the best of intentions. "We shall require but mere contact," he wrote "to satisfy the natives that our intentions are pure and honourable, seeking their own good, materially and socially, more than our own interests. We go to spread what blessings arise from amiable and just intercourse with people who have been strangers to them". Stanley eventually returned to his employers with an estimated 450 treaties which transferred land from the locals to the International African Association. There is not much evidence of what was used in order to obtain the signatures of these 450 treaties but a similar transaction was recorded in 1883 by another Belgian officer in Palabala. The payment here consisted of; 1 coat of red cloth with gold facings, 1 red cap, 1 white tunic, 1 piece of white baft, 1 piece of red points, 1 box of liqueurs, 4 demijohns of rum, 128 bottles of gin, 20 red handkerchiefs, 40 singlets and 40 old cotton caps. Some historians have argued that local chiefs may not have even known that they were trading away their lands, some suggest they had only agreed to a station being built on their lands because the land was not theirs to barter away. The land was in fact held by a communal tenure by the whole tribe.
In 1885, the efforts that King Leopold had undertaken had finally paid off. A resolution had been passed in the Belgium parliament which formally acknowledged the creation of the Etat Independent du Congo (Congo Free State) with King Leopold as Roi-Souverain of the newly formed free state. A position that would give him absolute control over the affairs of their newly acquired land.
Suppressing the East African slave trade, promoting humanitarian policies, guaranteeing free trade within the colony, imposing no import duties for twenty years, and encouraging philanthropic and scientific enterprises – all were pledges made by the King to implement in the Free State. These pledges were never implemented in any way. In fact, over the following few years the King himself issued a number of decrees which violated these very conditions.
The first of these decrees saw that the state asserted proprietorship over all vacant lands in the newly formed territory. This meant that all land except for the native persons homes and small farming plots, all was now owned by the Belgium states. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle questions this particular philosophy of the Belgians with pinpoint precision "Consider for a moment what this meant! No land in such a country is actually occupied by natives save the actual site of their villages, and the scanty fields of grain or manioc which surround them. Everywhere beyond these tiny patches extend the plains and forests which have been the ancestral wandering-places of the natives, and which contain the rubber, the camwood, the copal, the ivory, and the skins which are the sole objects of their commerce. At a single stroke of a pen in Brussels everything was taken from them, not only the country, but the produce of the country. How could they trade when the State had taken from them everything which they had to offer?"
Another decree issued by the King would see to it that merchants could only engage in commercial activities with local tribes through bartering. One can only guess that given the example I gave earlier as to how the Belgians actually bartered with local tribes.
By the 1890's the Belgium state had become a commercial entity in the Congo Free State trading within its own domain which was a blatant violation of the Treaty of Berlin. During this time the ivory and rubber trade had steadily moved towards becoming a monoply. King Leopold had imposed import and export duties on all resources traded by non-Belgian traders in the Congo Free State.
The end of the 19th century saw the invention of the inflatable rubber bicycle wheel by J.B Dunlop as well as increased global demand for rubber as a result of the emerging automobile market. These factors had a significant effect on the way in which the rubber trade would impact on the rubber rich lands of the Congo Free State. In order to meet the global demand for rubber the King would have to issue further decrees which saw the natives of the Free State being reduced to serfs. Which in turn lead to these natives being forced to hand over all ivory and rubber to the state authorities.
According to Yale Universities Genocide Studies programme on the Belgian Congo; "An additional decree in 1892 divided the terres vacantes into a domainal system, which privatized extraction rights over rubber for the State in certain private domains, allowing Leopold to grant lucrative concessions to private companies. In other areas, private companies could continue to trade but were highly restricted and taxed. The domainal system destroyed the traditional economy of the Congo basin and enforced a labour tax on Leopold's Congolese subjects requiring local chiefs to supply men to collect rubber and other resources. It essentially obliged natives to supply these products without payment"
Having secured the land and its produce now what was needed was a source of labour. This was set into motion in 1888 with the enactment of a piece of legislation that was described as being for the "special protection of the blacks" according to the Belgian Official Journal. This was not the case however as it saw the native people being bound to their masters for seven year terms which looked like to many independent observers as slavery. These workers were bartered by their chiefs in exchange for presents when a district commissioner was ordered to recruit a certain number of workers. If a chief did not comply with the demands presented to him this would result usually in his tribes villages being burnt to the ground and then double the amount of men initially required. The chiefs usually had no choice but to comply or risk untold pain and suffering for his whole tribe. In order to prevent any escapes these workers were placed in irons.
The natives were under the command of some two thousand agents who were spread all over the Free State. These agents were poorly paid but were able to avail of bonuses if they could increase the amount of rubber collected. These agents were given control over a number of "savages" including cannibals. These were armed with weapons. Known as 'Capitas' they were placed in each village and given the role of ensuring that the level of rubber collected would remain high. They did so with great brutality.
The occurrence of this behaviour came to be considered the norm. Tales of excessive brutal force and indiscriminate killings are widespread. This can be best summed up by the account given by an American Missionary, Mr Murphy who was quoted in the Times Nov 18, 1895 where he said;
"The rubber question is accountable for most of the horrors perpetrated in the Congo. It has reduced the people to a state of utter despair. Each town in the district is forced to bring a certain quantity to the headquarters of the Commissary every Sunday. It is collected by force; the soldiers drive the people into the bush, if they will not go they are shot down, their left hands being cut off and taken as trophies to the Commissary. The soldiers do not care whom they shoot down, and they most often shoot poor helpless women and harmless children. These hands -- the hands of men, women and children -- are placed in rows before the Commissary, who counts them to see the soldiers have not wasted the cartridges. The Commissary is paid a commission of about a penny per pound upon all the rubber he gets; it is, therefore, to his interest to get as much as he can."
A former colonial Administration E. J. Glave reported: "Everywhere I hear the same news of the Congo Free State – rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form."
International opinion on the situation in the Congo Free State was muted at best for the majority of King Leopold's reign. The first major incident which brought light to this wretched mess involved The British Government in 1904, with the publication of the report of Consul Roger Casement. The publication of the report was hoped to be the first step towards intervention. The Congo Reform Association was established as a result of the publication of the Casement report. It's members included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which was one of the 20th centuries first human rights movements.
Due to the increasing international pressure, in 1908 the Belgian parliament annexed the Congo Free State as Belgian Congo which saw King Leopold's power over the Congo Free State go to the Belgian parliament . Before power was transferred to parliament, King Leopold destroyed all evidence of his activities in the Congo which included the archives of the Finance and Interior departments. The Belgian parliament also refused to hold any formal commission of enquiry into the human rights abuses during the history of the Free State.
During the Congo Free States lifetime, the country had seen an estimated 10 million people lose their lives by way of murder, starvation, exhaustion and exposure and disease.
During the Kings 23 year reign of the Congo, he accumulated vast amounts of wealth. Some of this wealth was invested in vanity projects which still can be seen today. The Royal glasshouses in the grounds of the Palace at Laken, the Japanese Tower, the Chinese Pavilion and the Antwerpen-Central railway station, as well as a country estate on the French Riviera. All of these buildings today are reminders of a terribly brutal period of history in which Belgium subjected the Congolese to untold pain and suffering for their own financial benefit.
The second instalment of this Profile will be uploaded in May 2012