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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.