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Maintaing the Congo: Corruption by King Leopold and Henry Stanley

Updated on October 29, 2021

The Conquest of the Congo

Deception, lies, and pure ruthlessness are all barbaric ways that leaders can get what they want. This was the case for King Leopold of Belgium whom, in the late nineteenth century, gained a firm grasp over the Congo River valley. He managed to deceive major world powers about what his true quest for the area was, he lied to powerful leaders and to his own people, and he employed barbaric tactics to drain the area of its natural resources, especially ivory and rubber.

Being the king of a small country did not suit Leopold. He was ever determined to gain more land, which would equal more power to soothe his big ego. Since conquering neighboring countries was almost out of the question, King Leopold saw his opportunity to expand through the establishment of colonies in the unexplored African wilderness. He employed the help of adventurist Henry Morgan Stanley to assist in establishing a colony in the Congo River valley. It was crucial that King Leopold secured Henry Stanley for this assignment, since he was one of the most, if not the most, experienced explorer of the African continent.

Henry Stanley’s job was to explore the exact region that Belgium would colonize, and to establish treaties with the local leaders that would allow Belgium to do whatever they wanted. He also was assigned to build trading posts and to begin a railroad that would run through the Congo River valley. However, Stanley did not use a humane approach. He treated his own European workers like slaves, and treated the natives worse than slaves. Through these tactics, Stanley was able to gain all of the needed treaties that would help convince other world powers to recognize the Congo as a Belgium colony.

The first country to be tricked by King Leopold was no other than the United States of America. King Leopold promised the United States that the main purpose for establishing a colony there was to help end slavery and to spread Christianity throughout Africa. This was appealing to the president, but what really caught his eye was what King Leopold promised him next; free trade. This was the reason why America was the first major power to recognize the Congo as a Belgium colony, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The next target on Belgium’s list was France. France was convinced the Belgium would go bankrupt while trying to establish the Congo. Since Belgium knew this, they offered France the right to first refusal, which basically said France could by the Congo if Belgium ran out of money. This was a very intelligent and well thought out tactic by Belgium, because it helped convince Britain in the long run to also recognize the Congo.

Britain did not want to recognize the Congo as a Belgium colony. What would have been worse than Belgium having the colony, however, would have been for France to own it. Belgium knew that Britain felt this way, so they seized the opportunity and expanded the Congo’s boundaries as far as possible. They said that if they did not get everything they wanted, that they would sell the Congo to France. Britain was then forced to oblige to Belgium’s demands, because as stated before, it was better that Belgium have control over the area than France have complete control.

After Belgium gained recognition by the major world powers of the world that the Congo was now their colony, they began to deplete the resources from the area as fast as possible. With King Leopold appointing Henry Stanley in charge of the operations in the Congo, working conditions became gruesome. The treatment of the native people was worse than ever before.

Not only did Henry Stanley force the native men to work, he also demanded that the women and children participate also. If the men refuse to work, one of several things might have happened. First, it was very likely that they would have been severely beaten, maybe even killed. Next, they would have beaten the man’s wife, chained her up until he worked, raped her, or even killed her as well. Another punishment that could have resulted from someone refusing to work was that their kids could be kidnapped from them and beaten and killed. It is hard to fathom the thought process of the Belgium’s, but easy to see why the natives put up with the mistreatment.

The whole purpose of this barbaric treatment against the natives were for three main things; a large army, ivory, and rubber. The reasons for having a large army are obvious. They wanted to be able to defend their land, and also expand the territory. The Belgium’s took careful measures to ration weapons and supplies to their own army, so that there was little chance for a mutiny.

Ivory was also another big reason for the unjust treatment of the natives. Ivory can come from tusks or teeth. It was very fashionable in Europe to have ivory jewelry. The extensive hunting of animals for their tusks dwindled the population to the point where it was hard to find such animals. This meant that the men had to go farther and farther distances just to get the ivory.

The last thing that King Leopold was gaining form the Congo area was rubber. The natives were forced to collect the rubber, and were given large quotas to fill. The result of not filling one’s quota was brutal. The punishment was anywhere from cutting a person’s limb off, to seeing their wife of children thrown into the wilderness, never to be seen again (pg. 164).

The price to pay for wealth and power does not seem reasonable to the common person. To have greed overtake one’s mind to the point where they are willing to destroy entire civilizations, and undermine other world powers is unfathomable, yet we see it time and time again throughout history, and multiple times just in the Belgium’s conquest of the Congo. The collection of rubber and ivory cost many men their lives, and this story opens the readers eyes to the fact that similar situations could be going on in other parts of the world at this instance.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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