The Defenders of King Leopold II: Genocide in the Congo

Since the attack on Brussels there have been a number of people sending prayers up and hoping for peace, solidarity, and justice for the victims.  There are also some people that have been extremely heartless towards the plight of those people because of Brussels history towards minorities, specifically African Americans.  I get both sides and understand why some would disregard or dismiss the attacks on Paris and now Brussels.  History has made some pretty fucked up leaders that have massacred many innocent people, dismembered, and lynched them. For some that heartache stays with them and is never forgettable.  These victims were tied to us through our ancestry, culture, and pre and post-colonialism.    

As usually, I researched information on a particular man in history that committed genocide of Africans in the Congo in the early 1900s and it was a devastating look at what happens when bad leaders want precious resources and are prepared to maim, torture, and kill for RUBBER and IVORY from AFRICA. There were others outside of King Leopold II of Belguim that knew what was going on and still defended his very actions.  Unfortunately, they came from the United States too.  These transportation magnates, senators, ministers, and POPES turned a blind eye for greed.  African American/African History has been very hard to take in because I’m realizing just how far some people were and still are willing to go to disenfranchise people because of greed, privilege, and power.  My heart goes out to anyone in this world that gets attacked and innocent victims will never say, I Love You again to them.  This is one of those times in history when innocent victims of the Congo voices need to be heard….through my research and sources.  – AcademicHustler1975   

The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide does not require that there be an attempt to kill every single person in a given population. An endeavor to eliminate a portion of a people would qualify as genocide. Injury, physical or mental, and the creation of unbearable conditions, as well as killing, qualify as genocide. In the case of the Congo all these techniques were employed. – Robert Weisborg

“They [the Congolese] had endured such ill-treatment at the hands of the Government officials and soldiers that nothing had remained but to be killed for failure to bring in rubber or to die in their attempts to satisfy the demands.” —The Casement Report



Stereotypes from Missionaries and Teachers in the Congo: Father de Wilde informed his readers that “the black child is born with a tendency toward evil correlative to the original licentiousness of his race.” Rejecting the notion that cultural deficiencies were the sole explanation for African inferiority, he concluded: “I would range myself on the side of those who have the blacks descend from Ham, the outcast son, whom Noah disowned because of his arrogance.” – Father de Wilde

The “Scramble for AFRICA”

As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in Europe, people there realized that if they wanted to surpass neighboring countries economically, they would need access to more raw materials to fuel their factories and more people to purchase the products those factories made. In the 1870s, some Europeans even thought that war was likely. To prevent such a war, leaders of Europe met in 1885 and divided up the continent of Africa. Nearly every European country wanted a piece. Over the next sixty years, European countries “owned” areas of Africa. Europeans were largely responsible for drawing the borders of African countries that exist today. King Leopold’s interest in Central Africa spurred much of the competition for African land among Europeans. The establishment of the Congo Free State was a crucial part of the story of African imperialism and colonialism. The horrific events that took place there, and the responses to them, were also a crucial part of the development of the international community’s response to human rights problems.

In the midst of the rivalries among the Great Powers of Europe, King Leopold II of the tiny nation of Belgium played the most important role in the story of the Congo. This leader of a country overshadowed by its larger, more powerful neighbors wanted desperately to build up an overseas empire in order to secure his position in the world. He thought that a great opportunity existed in Central Africa, a region in which other European countries had not shown interest.

In September 1876, King Leopold hosted the largest gathering of explorers and geographers of the entire nineteenth century. In his opening speech he stated that the goal of the conference was to bring civilization to Africa.

From 1879 to 1884, Henry Stanley made his way across Central Africa signing treaties with local chiefs on behalf of King Leopold. Through a combination of trade, trickery, alcohol, intimidation, and violent force, Stanley emerged with over 450 treaties. Contrary to the original promises of the International Africa Association, these treaties granted Leopold exclusive trading rights and gave him, or his designated corporations, exclusive control over the land. Elsewhere in Central Africa, Brazza used more honorable methods to secure trade agreements for France. The rivalry between King Leopold and France marked the opening chapter in the “scramble for Africa.” Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and King Leopold all began to turn their attention to the vast areas that any European power had yet to claim.

Leaders of the other European powers expected Leopold to play the role of the humanitarian administrator creating a just and stable government in the Congo and abolishing the Indian Ocean slave trade. The participants expected he would create the conditions in which missionaries and businessmen could do the work of “civilizing” Central Africa. Instead, Leopold began the process of extracting all possible wealth out of the area with no consideration for the people who lived there.


The Congo’s Background from 1885 to 1908:

The Congo was a political entity brought into being on African soil completely by the will of one man, and that man – who never visited his dominion – governed it from his residence in Europe in a completely autocratic way. The Congo Independent State (Etat indépendant du Congo), under the personal government of King Leopold, lasted from 1885 to 1908. In 1908, it was annexed by Belgium and became a Belgian colony, the ‘Belgian Congo.’

The late nineteenth century had witnessed the creation of white empires in black Africa. In the throes of the Industrial Revolution, Europe needed sources of raw materials. By dint of their superior military might the nations of Europe could obtain them by imposing their will on non-whites who were powerless to resist. Camouflaging their greed and ethnocentric arrogance with sanctimonious language about a civilizing mission to uplift the downtrodden, to enlighten the benighted and to Christianize the heathen, a handful of European countries forcibly partitioned the African continent. They carved out colonies, drawing borders that completely ignored tribal realities and proceeded to exploit those colonies for their own economic benefit.


King Leopold wanted the Congo!!!



Leopold’s personal enrichment came at an exorbitant price to the indigenous population. To harvest ivory and, more importantly, rubber, required conscription of the “natives.” In the process all manner of hideous acts were committed. Rubber quotas were assigned, and if the output was too low, villages would be burned and Africans shot. Others were flogged or mutilated—the chopping off of hands was by no means uncommon. Women were kidnapped and held as hostages. In a true reign of terror, vast stretches of land were de-populated by murder and by the flight of terrified natives. Massacres were not rare. As was the case with the Nazi-sponsored Holocaust, slave labor led to many deaths, as did deliberate starvation and disease. In addition, the Congolese birth rate dropped precipitously. Precise mortality statistics are difficult to come by, but historians estimate the death toll to have been six to eight million, perhaps even ten million.

Alice Harris and other British missionaries were complaining about the coercive labor practices that were being used by the mercenary employees of a Belgian monarch, Léopold II, who after the Berlin Conference of 1885 gained control of a massive region known as the Congo Free State (CFS). For many years British Protestant missionaries viewed themselves as visitors in the CFS who were allowed to work alongside their Catholic brothers and sisters as they spread the word of God in the Congo Basin. Before 1902 many missionaries refused to join some of the radical European critics of the CFS who argued that the Belgian king was ignoring the rapes, the murders, the cutting off of hands, the burning of villages, and the general depopulation that was allegedly taking place during the collection of what some called “red rubber.”  One of Harris’s contemporaries lamented the fact that British subjects seemed to be so engrossed with their “own Empire” that they were not paying attention to the evil that attended “commercial imperialism” that manifested itself in the “civilised savagery” of the CFS.

A desire on Leopold’s part to neutralize the political effectiveness of the Congo reformers in the United States – – and not , as it appeared on the surface, to entice American developmental capital into the Congo. – Jerome Sternstein



The Defenders and Benefactors of King Leopold’s Genocide Methods

When the photos of the atrocities came out, King Leopold decided to get powerful people on his side to defend his actions.  What he called a “few incidents” and that the missionaries exaggerated the claims of abuse, dismemberment, and murder by his military.  To combat his adversaries in the United States Leopold employed a well-financed array of diplomats and publicists with access to people in high places.


James Gustavus Whiteley, Consul General of the Congo Free State: He argued shamelessly that under Leopold’s tutelage the Congolese populace had prospered and steadily advanced in civilization and good government. He defended taxing the natives for it taught them to work. While Whitely conceded that there had been isolated instances where the Africans had been mistreated by minor officials, he reported that these wrongdoers had been severely punished.


Baron Moncheur, Belgian Minister: He lobbied Senators and Congressmen to prevent American governmental interference in his sovereign’s Congo affairs. Moncheur’s influence in the nation’s capital was enhanced by the fact that his wife, a popular and charming Washington hostess, was an American who happened to be the daughter of General Powell Clayton, the erstwhile United States ambassador to Mexico and a Republican party luminary.


Nelson W. ALdrich, Senior Senator from Rhode Island: He was unofficially called the “Boss of the Senate” and the “General Manager of the United States.” Belgian bribes were given to Representatives and Senators and King Leopold developed a relationship with him to benefit from the oppression of the Congolese.  The “syndicate” companies, the American Congo Company and the Societe Internationale Forestiere involved Aldrich, Thomas Fortune Ryan, Daniel and Solomon Guggheim, and Bernard Baruch.


Thomas Fortune Ryan, Tobacco, Insurance, and Transportation Magnate, Catholic Layman and Benefactor of the Vatican: Leopold granted Ryan a concession of two and a half million acres in the Congo. His business associates in that enterprise included the Guggenheims, John D. Rockefeller and a son of Nelson Aldrich. Ryan wrote to Cardinal Gibbons that the US would benefit by an expansion of business with the Congo. After meeting personally with the king in Brussels he told Gibbons that the monarch appreciated the kindly feeling the cardinal had extended to him.


and finally…..


James Cardinal Gibbons, American Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church: Was called the “greatest figure the church had produced” and the “dean of the American Hierarchy.” He wielded his political clout, diplomatic skill, and charm on behalf of Leopold and his Congo cause.  Cardinal Gibbons, penned a letter which was read to the International Peace Congress in 1904. It was a ringing ratification of Leopold’s policies. A discussion of the Congo at the Boston congress was for Gibbons, calculated to “arouse enmity and strife.” He deprecated the “unfair, one-sided debate” and quoted with approval an Italian diplomat who had praised the king for persevering in the development and civilization of the Congo state. The cardinal said that high minded ideals actuated the royal founder of the African state and referred to the “splendid referred to the “splendid results achieved through his humane policy.”

  • Gibbons saw no merit whatsoever in accusations of violation of agreements or misrule.
  • For his efforts, the cardinal was lauded by the king whose views were transmitted by Baron Moncheur.
  • Gibbons replied that it was a duty which he “performed with lively satisfaction, as it was done in behalf of a sovereign who has done so much in the cause of Christianity and civilization, and who is the ruler of a nation conspicuous not only for Catholic faith but also for the noble qualities which exalt a nation.”
  • For his spirited defense of Leopold, Gibbons won encomiums from Colonel Kowalsky.
  • Gibbons, the face of Catholicism in the United States, also earned plaudits from the Vatican for his stand in Boston. Through his secretary of state, Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, Pope Pius X gave his complete approval to Gibbons’ behavior. The Holy Father wanted to convince all of his colleagues in the American episcopate to aid the labors of the Belgian monarch in Central Africa.
  • The same message was sent by Cardinal Gotti of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, who informed Gibbons that the Holy Father himself was very pleased by his enthusiasm in refuting the foes of the Congo regime. Writing in Latin, Gotti also conveyed the Pope’s appreciation and his hope that Gibbons would persuade the American bishops to be steadfast in refuting the false accusations of the Protestant missionaries.
  • Gibbons summarized his efforts to challenge the anti-Leopold forces in the United States. He anticipated a debate on the subject in Congress and offered to put at the disposition of the king’s representatives his considerable clout with several members of the Senate.
  • Even as the evidence against Leopold mounted, Gibbons remained faithful to the royal cause, scoffing at the king’s detractors. He insisted that he was au courant with developments in the Congo thanks to “our missionaries who are on the spot.”
  • Gibbons insisted that he was personally motivated only by a “sense of justice and fair play.”


Standing foursquare behind Gibbons during the long bitter dispute over the Congo was the Vatican itself. Gibbons had spent considerable time in Rome and Pope Pius X was cognizant of the Baltimorean’s brilliant qualities, particularly his sacerdotal zeal. From the very beginning of the Congo enterprise, Leopold had curried favor with the Vatican. – Robert Weisborg

Pope Pius X: In the critical years when the reform movement moved into high gear, Pius X, who occupied the throne of St. Peter, proved to be a highly reliable ally of the king’s. Pius X (1903–14) is one of only three popes who have been canonized in the last nine centuries. He was declared a saint in 1954 by his namesake Pius XII. An implacable foe of sundry dangerous liberal notions, Pius X conducted a “reign of intellectual terror against suspected Modernists in the Church.

  • Had the Pope sent his own investigators, his incredulity would surely have evaporated. Instead he chose to ignore the reports of rivers of blood and mountains of bodies.
  • Leopold’s supporters must have hoped that the sentiments of the leader of the Catholic White Fathers would prevail.
  • In light of the commission’s findings, American Protestant missionaries had telegraphed the Pope to ask for his help in opposing the Congo administration, but, in April 1906, d’Erp was told by the Vatican under-secretary of state, Monsignor della Chiesa, that the Holy Father had decided not to respond to the Protestants.
  • The cardinal secretary of state had already informed the nuncio in Brussels, who found the Protestant initiative absurd, that there would be no change in papal policy. Fearful of an alteration in the position of the United States, Leopold wanted the Pope to re-iterate to the American Roman Catholic clergy his order that they also make common cause with the Belgians.
  • Despite the Vatican’s unwavering approval of Leopold’s brutal regime, its days were numbered. To no avail, the king decreed that his Congo prerogatives were the result of his monetary expenditures and his toil, and they were indivisible. Except for those that emanated from him, the Belgian government had no rights there.
  • Pius X endorsed King Leopold and ignored the unspeakable crimes committed against black Congolese of which the Belgian monarch was the author, so that Catholics not Protestants would evangelize the local populace. Claiming souls for the mother church, not humanitarianism, was the greatest good and the guiding diplomatic principle. It is clear that the papacy’s Congo policy constituted a monumental moral failure, which still redounds to the shame of the Vatican.


Leopold himself appointed a commission of inquiry which he fully expected to whitewash his regime. Instead, the commissioners, three eminent attorneys, a Swiss, an Italian and a Belgian respectively, submitted a scathing report, which was made public in November 1905. – Robert Weisborg


Fitful negotiations to transfer the Congo to the Belgian state were conducted, but were not completed until 1908. Recalcitrant and rapacious to the end, Leopold finally relinquished his empire. He received a generous settlement from the Belgian government for the termination of his misrule. Shortly after marrying Caroline, his long-time mistress almost 50 years his junior, with whom he had two children, the king died in December 1909 at the age of 74. Not surprisingly, he never acknowledged any royal wrongdoing in the Congo.

Nor has the Vatican ever come to terms with its errors in bolstering Leopold’s bloody regime. Church officials seemed more uncomfortable with his irregular sex life than his homicidal stewardship in Africa. Pius X found the tango craze and other expressions of modern decadence more appalling than the victimization of the Congolese to which he refused to give any credence.




Watson Institute for International Studies, Colonialism in the Congo: Conquest, Conflict, and Commerce, The Choices Program, Brown University, November 2005
Harris, Alice Seeley, The Atrocity Rhetoric of the Congo Reform Movements, and the Demise of King Léopold’s Congo Free State, Marouf Hasian , Atlantic Journal of Communication, Vol. 23, Iss. 3, 2015


Sternstein, J. L.. (1969). King Leopold II, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, and the Strange Beginnings of American Economic Penetration of the Congo.African Historical Studies, 2(2), 189–204.


Weisbord, Robert G. (2003) The King, the Cardinal and the Pope: Leopold II’s genocide in the Congo and the Vatican, Journal of Genocide Research, 5:1, 35-45, DOI: 10.1080/14623520305651


Yates, B. A.. (1980). White Views of Black Minds: Schooling in King Leopold’s Congo. History of Education Quarterly, 20(1), 27–50.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s