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The Belgian Congo (French: Congo Belge, Dutch: ) was the formal title of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congomarker (DRC) between King Leopold II's formal relinquishment of personal control over the state to Belgium on 15 November 1908, and the dawn of Congolese independence on 30 June 1960.

Background: 1884-1908

Until the later part of the 19th century, the Europeans had not yet ventured into the Congo. The rainforest, swamps and malaria, and other diseases such as Sleeping sickness made it a difficult environment for European exploration and exploitation. In 1876 Leopold II, King of the Belgians organized the International African Association with the cooperation of the leading African explorers and the support of several European governments for the promotion of African exploration and colonization. After Henry Morton Stanley explored the region, a journey that ended in 1878, Leopold courted the explorer and hired him to help establish significant Leopold's interests in the region. Hochschild 61-67

In November 1884, Otto von Bismarck convened a 14-nation conference (the Berlin Conference) to find a peaceful resolution to the Congo crisis. After three months of negotiation on February 5, 1885, Leopold emerged triumphant. Hochschild 84-87 France was given 666,000 km² (257,000 square miles) on the north bank (modern Congo-Brazzavillemarker and the Central African Republicmarker), Portugal 909,000 km² (351,000 square miles) to the south (modern Angolamarker), and Leopold's wholly owned, single-shareholder "philanthropic" organisation received the balance: 2,344,000 km² (905,000 square miles), to be constituted as the Congo Free Statemarker.

The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians through a dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman, exploiting the state for rubber, copper and other minerals in the upper Lualaba River basin. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congomarker and existed from 1885 to 1908, when it was annexed by the government of Belgiummarker. Immensely profitable, the Congo Free State eventually earned infamy due to the brutal mistreatment of the local peoples and plunder of natural resources.

Under Leopold II's administration, the Congo Free State became the site of one of the most infamous international scandals of the turn of the twentieth century. The report of the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials who had been responsible for killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903 (including one Belgianmarker national for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese natives). In the absence of a census (the first was made in 1924), it is difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. According to Roger Casement's report, depopulation was caused mainly by four causes: "indiscriminate war", starvation, reduction of births and tropical diseases.

The European and U.S. press agencies exposed the conditions in the Congo Free State to the public in 1900. By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic maneuvers led to the end of Leopold II's rule and to the annexation of the Congo as a colony of Belgiummarker, known as the Belgian Congo.


When the Belgian Government took over the Administration from King Leopold II in 1908, the situation in the Congo improved substantially. Article 3 of the new Colonial Charter of October 18, 1908 estabilished that: "Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or privates". Palm oil production in the Congo increased from 2,500 tons in 1914 to 9,000 tons in 1921, and cotton production increased from 23,000 tons in 1932 to 127,000 in 1939.

Steam Boat arriving at Shinkakasa (Congo River), 1912.

The educational system was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and, in some rare cases, Protestant churches, and the curricula reflected Christian and Western values. Even in 1948, 99.6% of educational facilities were controlled by Christian missions. Native schooling was mainly religious and vocational. Children received basic education such as learning how to read, write and some mathematics; however the Belgian Congo was one of the few African colonies in which native languages (Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba and Swahili) were taught at primary school. In 1940 the schooling rates of children between 6 and 14 years old was 12%, reaching 37% in 1954.

Regarding the post-1908 political administration, it fell under the total and direct control of the Belgian government; there were no local democratic institutions. The head of state remained the King of the Belgians (who no longer had any political influence). The Belgian government controlled the country, but day-to-day operations were carried out by the governor general (see Colonial heads of Congo), who was appointed as a colonial administrator by the government.

Propaganda leaflet of the Belgian Ministry of Colonies, early 1920s.

There was a kind of "moderate apartheid", as there were curfews for natives and other such restrictions were commonplace. Though there were no specific laws (as in South Africa and the South of the United States at the time) barring blacks from entering the same establishments whites frequented, there was de facto segregation in most areas. For example, the city centres were reserved to white population only, while the blacks were organized in «cités indigènes», and the same occurred in the department stores and other facilities. In the police, the blacks could not pass the rank of non-commissioned officer. The blacks could not leave their houses from 9 pm to 4 am.

The first world war saw the occupation of Belgium by Imperial Germanymarker, followed by the exile of the Belgian government in Francemarker. In Africa, the Germans tried to invade Congo from their positions in the Ruanda-Urundi colony but the outnumbering Belgian forces in the area were able to repulse the attack and eventually reverse the situation, occupying the German territories. In 1922 Belgium obtained a League of Nations mandate over Ruanda-Urundi former German colony. In the interwar years, to secure the reconstruction of the colony and boost the export-oriented productions, the colonial administration largely used forced labour and encouraged immigration (44,000 workers were imported from Angolamarker and Northern Rhodesiamarker). In 1926 general conscription was authorized. During the great depression of the 1930s, the export-based Belgian Congo economy was severely hit by the world crisis, because of the drop of international demand of raw materials and agricultural products (for example, the price of arachids fell from 1.25 francs to 25 cents). In some areas, as in the Katanga mining region, employment declined 70% and in the whole country the exploitation of forced labour was diminished while many forced labourers came back to their villages.

When the Government of Belgium fled to Great Britain after the German occupation on May 1940, the British committed several detachments of the Congolese to the Allied cause from the Force Publique, the colonial military. Often these soldiers were impressed individuals captured by the colonial government and forced into service. The Congolese forces notably fought in Ethiopia under the command of Belgian officers. The Belgian Congo was one of the major exporters of uranium to the United States during World War II (and the Cold War), particularly from the Shinkolobwemarker mine. The colony provided the uranium used in the fabrication of the atom bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.


The postwar years

In 1952, Governor-General Léon Antoine Marie Pétillon wrote to the Secretary of Colonies, saying that if nothing was done to ameliorate the situation in the Congo, Belgium would lose its richest colony. He wanted to give the native people more civil rights, even suffrage. The Belgian government was against this proposal, saying that "it would only destabilise the region". In Belgium, some members of Parliament wanted to incorporate the Congo into the Belgian Kingdom. Native Congolese people would thus be Belgian citizens, and would therefore have full political rights. The same Léon Petillon was, however, vehemently opposed to transplanting Belgium's political issues to Congo on the grounds that it would "divide the colonial Belgians"; he preferred to leave education in the hands of Catholic schools, but was forced to accept the founding of state schools. Likewise, to "preserve unity" and being monolingual French-speaking, he opposed the application of Belgium's language laws to its colonies, which had been demanded by some Flemish politicians. This would have made Dutch de jure and de facto equal to French in the colonies, or would have split up the colonies in French- and Dutch-speaking parts. Congo's looming independence kept this issue from coming to fruition under his successor Henri Cornelis, the last Governor-General of the Belgian Congo.

In the 1950s the Belgians experimented with giving the natives, particularly the Évolués, a limited amount of political power. The évolués were the more Europeanized and thus, in the eyes of the colonial government, more civilized blacks.

However, Belgium was not very interested in its colony, as the government never had a strategic long-term vision in relation to the Congo. The Belgian King Baudouin I, on the other hand, took a lively interest in the Congo during and after his first visit to his country's largest colony in 1955. Baudouin had become king in 1951 after his father, Leopold III, was forced to abdicate due to a controversy over the way he dealt with Nazi Germany's occupation of Belgium. The new king was generally seen as stiff and socially awkward. The Belgian press reported that the King seemed to "blossom" during this visit to Congo, in their opinion due to the huge crowds of cheering people, both black and white. The contrast could not have been greater with his second visit in 1959, when he unilaterally, and thus according to some Belgian politicians at the time unconstitutionally, decided to fly to the Congo to try to delay the country's independence. Upon his arrival in Léopoldvillemarker/Kinshasa he was pelted with rocks by blacks who were angry with the imprisonment of Patrice Lumumba (who whould later play an important role in post-independence Congo before he was assassinated). Though his reception in other cities was considerably better, the shouts of "Vive le Roi!" were often followed by "indépendence immédiate!". Indeed, a number of blacks were under the mistaken impression that Baudouin had flown to the Congo to grant it its independence.

Even in the 1950s forced labour continued in the Congo, and life expectancy was less than forty years.

Rise of nationalism

The seeds of Congo's post-independence woes were sown in the emergence in the 1950s of two markedly different forms of nationalism. The nationalist movement — which the Belgian authorities, to some degree, turned a blind eye to — promoted territorial nationalism wherein the Belgian Congo would become one politically united state after independence. In opposition to this was the ethno-religious and regional nationalism that took hold in the Bakongo territories of the west coast, Kasaï, and Katangamarker.

In the early 1950s, these emerging nationalist movements put Belgium under increasing pressure to transform the Belgian Congo into a self-governing state. Belgium had ratified article 73 of the United Nations Charter, which advocated self-determination, and both superpowers put pressure on Belgium to reform their Congo policy. The Belgian government's response was largely dismissive. However, Belgian professor Antoine van Bilsen, in 1955, published a treatise called Thirty Year Plan for the Political Emancipation of Belgian Africa. The timetable called for gradual emancipation of the Congo over a thirty-year period — the time Van Bilsen expected it would take to create an educated elite who could replace the Belgians in positions of power. The Belgian government and many of the évolués were suspicious of the plan — the former because it meant eventually giving up the Congo, and the latter because Belgium would still be ruling Congo for another three decades. A group of Catholic évolués responded positively to the plan with a manifesto in a Congolese journal called Conscience Africaine, with their only point of disagreement being the amount of native Congolese participation. King Baudouin's spectacularly successful visit later that same year caused many in the Belgian government and press to dismiss the very idea of independence as it appeared that the black Congolese were very loyal to Belgium and its monarchy. Foreign observers such as the international correspondent of the Manchester Guardian remarked that Belgian paternalism 'seemed to work', and compared Belgium's seemingly loyal and enthusiastic colonial subjects to the restless French and British colonies. However, they failed to take into account that many blacks thought Baudouin had come to stop the colonial whites from mistreating the natives. While he did consistently emphasize better treatment of blacks, there were few major shifts in policy after his visit - the king's political power was constitutionally limited to almost none anyway. The situation deteriorated quickly after 1955.


ABAKO or Alliance des Bakongo was a cultural and political organization, headed by Joseph Kasavabu, which emerged in the late 1950s as vocal opponent of Belgian colonial rule in what today is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Additionally the organization served as the major ethno-religious organization for the Bakongo and became closely intertwined the Kimbanguist Church which was extremely popular in the lower Congo.

The Mouvement National Congolais

Parallel to this was genesis of the Mouvement National Congolais (which was technically formed in 1956). The MNC was led by charismatic future prime minister Patrice Lumumba and supported the idea of complete unity for the Congo territory upon its independence. The party spread quickly after its formation to at least 4 provinces (there were six at the time). In 1959, an internal split was precipitated by Albert Kalonji and other MNC leaders who favored a more moderate political stance (the splinter group was deemed Mouvement National Congolais-Kalonji. Despite the organizational divergence of the party, Lumumba's leftist faction (now the Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba) and the MNC collectively had established themselves as by far the most important and influential party in the Belgian Congo. Belgium vehemently opposed Lumumba's leftist views and had grave concerns about the status of their financial interests should Lumumba's MNC gain power. However, the MNC gained a plurality in the Congo's first independent elections and forced Belgium to acknowledge Lumumba as Prime Minister.

1959 and 1960: accelerating towards independence

Following the Léopoldville riots in March 1959 and Kasavubu's incarceration, 1959 initially saw the legalization of all Congolese political parties, followed by general elections throughout the Congo. The electoral activity resulted in all kinds of maneuvers by Congolese parties from which three political alliances emerged: a coalition of the federalistic nationalists of which consisted of six separatist parties or organizations, two of which were ABAKO and the MNC - Kalonji, the MNC-Lumumba, and finally that of the strong-man of Katanga, Moïse Tshombe, conscious of the economic vitality of its area and the business interests of the Mining Union (just like Kalonji with respect to the diamond exploitations in Kasaï). In 1960, the Round Table of Brussels was convened and occurred between 20 January and 20 February. Congolese representatives and Belgians set the stage for nationwide elections later in the year. The legislative and provincial elections took place in May, which marked new cleavages and alliances (the high vote-count for ABAKO) from which a compromise resulted: Joseph Kasavubu was elected President by the Parliament, Lumumba being a Prime Minister.


See also


External links

  • Belgian Congo article in Enclyclopedia Britannica 1922 extension


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