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The Belgian colonial empire consisted of three colonies possessed by Belgiummarker between 1901 and 1962: Zairemarker (now Democratic Republic of the Congomarker), Rwandamarker and Burundimarker. The empire was unlike those of the major European imperial powers in that roughly 98% of it was just one colony (about 76 times larger than Belgium)—the Belgian Congo—which had originated as the private property of the country's king, King Leopold II, rather than being gained through the political action of the Belgian state. There was a tendency within Belgium to refer to its overseas possessions as 'the colonies' rather than 'the empire'. In addition, unlike other countries of the period with far-flung colonies, like Britain or Germanymarker, colonial Belgium did not have a monarch styled 'Emperor'.

Congo Free State (1885–1908)

Belgium itself had only been independent since 1830, prior to that it was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. By the time independent Belgium might have been in a position to consider an overseas empire, major imperial powers such as the United Kingdommarker and France already had the most economically promising territories for colonisation within their spheres of influence. Leopold II tried to interest his government in establishing colonies but it lacked the resources to develop the candidate territories and turned down his plans.

Leopold II exploited the Congo for its natural rubber which was starting to become a valuable commodity. His regime in the Congo operated as a forced labour colony, with murder and mutilation as punishment for villagers who did not collect and supply the rubber quota they were given. It is estimated that millions of Congolese died during this time, although many of these could be attributed to the introduction of new diseases.

Although the Congo Free Statemarker was not officially a Belgian colony, Belgium was its chief beneficiary, in terms of its trade, the employment of its citizens, and the wealth which Leopold extracted was used for the construction of numerous fine public buildings in Brusselsmarker, Ostendmarker and Antwerpmarker. This led to him being remembered in Belgium today as the 'Builder-King'. Through the Royal Trust he sold most of his property to the nation, adding to his fortune.

Belgian Congo (1908–1960)

In 1908 in order to defuse an international outcry against the brutality of the Congo Free State, the Belgian government agreed to annex it as a colony, named the Belgian Congo. It also annexed Katangamarker, a territory under the Congo Free State flag which Leopold had gained in 1891 when he sent an expedition which killed its king, Msiri, cut off his head and hoisted it on a pole. Leopold had administered Katanga separately, but in 1910 the Belgian government merged it with the Belgian Congo. The Belgian Congo was one of the three colonies Belgium occupied.

The Belgian Congo became independent on 30 June 1960.

Tientsin concession zone

Along with several other European powers and the United States of Americamarker, as a result of the Boxer Rebellion, Belgium also gained a Concession (Chinese: zujie 租界 of a couple of square kilometres in Tientsinmarker or Tianjin; a Chinesemarker Treaty port). This was essentially a trading post rather than a colony, and reverted to China in 1930.

Ruanda-Urundi

During the East African Campaign of World War I, the north-west part of German East Africa, Ruanda-Urundi, was invaded by Belgian and Congolese troops in 1916 and was still occupied by them at the end of the war in 1918. As part of the Treaty of Versailles the major part of German East Africa was handed over to British control but Ruanda-Urundi, twice the size of Belgium but only about 2% of the size of the Congo, was confirmed as a Belgian protectorate by a League of Nations Mandate in 1924, later renewed as a United Nations Trust Territory. The territory was granted independence in 1962 as the separate countries of Rwandamarker and Burundimarker in 1962, bringing the Belgian colonial empire to an end.

Following the independence of both colonies, Belgium kept strong but eventful political and economic relationships with the three succeeding African republics, which still refer to the 'special relationship' whenever that seems to suit: Zairemarker (now Democratic Republic of the Congomarker), Rwandamarker and Burundimarker.

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