After the Berlin Conference of 1884 the 905,000 square miles of the Belgian Congo [now the Democratic Republic of the Congo ] became the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium. His genocidal exploitation of the territory, particularly the rubber trade, caused many deaths and much suffering. Murder and mutilation were common.
Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death. The Force Publique were required to provide a hand of their victims as proof when they had shot and killed someone, as it was believed that they would otherwise use the munitions for hunting food. As a consequence, the rubber quotas were in part paid off in chopped-off hands. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighbouring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.
One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command ‘ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades … and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross.’ After seeing a Congolese person killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote: ‘The soldier said “Don’t take this to heart so much. They kill us if we don’t bring the rubber. The Commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service.”‘
The photo above shows a man named Nsala Wala with his daughter’s hand and foot. Alice Harris, working as a missionary in the Congo, took the photo in May 1904, after he had come into her mission at Baringa with a small package containing the severed body parts. Both his wife and child had been killed and mutilated.
The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. … The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber… They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace… the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.
The Congo was a playground for sadists. Rene de Permentier was an officer in the Force Publique in the 1890s. He had all the trees and bushes around his house cut down so he could shoot at passersby. He had women prisoners sweep a courtyard. If he then found a leaf in the courtyard he would have a dozen of them beheaded. If forest paths were not well maintained he would order a child killed in the nearest village.
In ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ Adam Hochschild estimates that over ten million Congolese died during the years that Leopold and the Belgian Government controlled the country. It is likely that more people died in this Belgian holocaust than died in Hitler’s, but no one was ever brought to book and the crime is largely unknown now. Thousands of Belgians served in the Congo and the crimes that took place there were hardly less known to the Belgian population than Hitler’s were to ordinary Germans.
None of the European colonial powers have an enviable record but Belgium’s was easily the worst. So much for the ‘Plucky Little Belgium’ that the British were urged to defend in World War One. There is currently a fuss about France’s recognition of the Turkey’s Armenian genocide. Belgium still refuses to acknowledge its own crimes.
In 1908, after an international outcry, Leopold was forced to hand over his territory to the Belgian Government. They controlled the Congo until independence in 1959. The number of murders diminished but mutilations and exploitation continued.
The Belgians left the country in such a state that after independence many millions more died in a series of wars and because of government incompetence. The murder of Lumumba and approximately 100,000 deaths was followed by the disastrous government of Mobutu. The First Congo War of 1996-98 was followed by the Second Congo War [1998-2003]. This is considered the deadliest war in modern African history. The war killed 5.4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation, making it the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. Again, largely unknown in the West.