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The Leopoldian Legacy

"Without the railroad," said Leopold II's agent, Henry Morton Stanley, "the Congo is not worth a penny." Without recourse to forced labor, however, the railroad could not be built; nor could the huge concessions made to private companies become profitable unless African labor was freely used to locate and transport rubber and ivory; nor could African resistance in the east be overcome without a massive recruitment of indigenous troops. The cruel logic of the revenue imperative left the Leopoldian system with no apparent option but to extract a maximum output of labor and natural resources from the land.

In order to meet the Conference of Berlin's legal requirement of "effective occupation," Leopold II proceeded to transform the Congo Free State into an effective instrument of colonial hegemony. Indigenous conscripts were promptly recruited into his nascent army, the Force Publique, manned by European officers. A corps of European administrators was hastily assembled, which by 1906 numbered 1,500 people; and a skeletal transportation grid was eventually assembled to provide the necessary links between the coast and the interior.

The cost of the enterprise proved far higher than had been anticipated, however, as the penetration of the vast hinterland could not be achieved except at the price of numerous military campaigns. Some of these campaigns resulted in the suppression or expulsion of the previously powerful Afro-Arab slave traders and ivory merchants. Only through the ruthless and massive suppression of opposition and exploitation of African labor could Leopold II hold and exploit his personal fiefdom.

At the heart of the system lay a perverse combination of rewards and penalties. Congo Free State agents and native auxiliaries (the so-called capitas) were given authority to use as much force as they deemed appropriate to meet delivery norms, and because their profits were proportional to the amount of rubber and ivory collected, the inevitable consequence was the institutionalization of force on a huge scale. Although native chiefs were expected to cooperate, the incessant and arbitrary demands made on their authority were self-defeating. Many chiefs turned against the colonial state; others were quickly disposed of and replaced by state-appointed "straw chiefs." Countless revolts ensued, which had an immediate effect on the scale and frequency of military expeditions.

As the cost of pacification soared, Leopold II declared a state monopoly on rubber and ivory. The free-trade principle that had once been the cornerstone of the Congo Free State thus became a legal fiction, apdy summed up in this pithy commentary of the time: "Article one: trade is entirely free; article two: there is nothing to buy or sell."

When Leopold II decided in 1889 that all unprocessed land was now state-owned, the locals lost hunting and arable lands, fishponds, religious areas and common land. Large parts of the territory were granted as concessions to big businesses, which amply filled the wallet of Leopold II. The population merely received a pittance. Whole village communities were forced to move in order to make way for the exploitation.

In a first stage, the Westerners took over existing ivory businesses from numerous distributors. Then, the cultivation of rubber trees and oil palms was intensified. Big concession companies such as Anglo-Belgian Indian Rubber Company (ABIR) and Anversoise worked closely together with the state authorities and the colonial army in order to ruthlessly constrain the local population to harvest rubber and oil.

The construction of the railway from Matadi to Kinshasa cost many lives among the indigenous population and the labour forces imported form Asia. Besides forced labour, diseases introduced from Europe also caused many victims among the population. There are no exact figures about the number of victims. However, it is largely assumed that it must have been a six-digit number.





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Page last modified: 27-05-2015 19:33:09 ZULU