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Leopold II ( , ) (9 April 1835 – 17 December 1909) was King of the Belgians. Born in Brusselsmarker the second (but eldest surviving) son of Leopold I and Louise-Marie of Orléans, he succeeded his father to the throne in 1865 and remained king until his death. He was the brother of Empress Carlota of Mexico and first cousin to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. He is chiefly remembered as the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free Statemarker, a private project undertaken by the King. He used Henry Morton Stanley to help him lay claim to the Congo, which included the entire area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congomarker.

Leopold ran the Congo brutally, by proxy through a mercenary force, as his personal fiefdom. Though he extracted a personal fortune from the Congo, his regime became one of the most infamous international scandals of the turn of the 20th century. The famous 1904 report by the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials who had been responsible for cold-blooded mass killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903 (including one Belgianmarker national for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese people).


Leopold II married Marie Henriette Anne von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduchess of Austriamarker in Brusselsmarker on 22 August 1853.

Their children were:

Leopold II was also the father of two illegitimate sons, Lucien Philippe Marie Antoine (9 February 1906–1984) and Philippe Henri Marie François (16 October 1907 – 21 August 1914). Their mother was Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix, aka Caroline Lacroix, a prostitute with whom the King engaged in a religious ceremony on 12 December/14 December 1909, with no validity under Belgian law, at the Pavilion of Palms, Royal Palace of Lakenmarker, in Brusselsmarker, five days before his death. The Priest of Laeken Cooreman performed the ceremony These sons were adopted in 1910 by Lacroix's second husband, Antoine Durrieux. Lacroix is said to have been unofficially created Baroness de Vaughan in Belgium (a courtesy title), Lucien Duke of Tervuren, and Philippe Count of Ravenstein.

He was the 975th Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece in Austriamarker, the 748th Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1866 and the 69th and 321st Grand Cross of the Order of the Tower and Sword.

On 15 November 1902, Italianmarker anarchist Gennaro Rubino attempted to assassinate Leopold, who was riding in a royal cortege from a ceremony in memory of his recently-deceased wife, Marie Henriette. After Leopold's carriage passed, Rubino fired three shots at the King; the shots missed Leopold and Rubino was immediately arrested.

In Belgian domestic politics, Leopold emphasized military defense as the basis of neutrality, but he was unable to obtain a universal conscription law until on his death bed. He died in Laekenmarker on 17 December 1909, and was interred in the royal vault at the Church of Our Lady, Laeken Cemetery, Brusselsmarker.

He was succeeded as King of the Belgians by his nephew Albert, son of his brother Philippe.

Private colonialism

Leopold fervently believed that overseas colonies were the key to a country's greatness, and he worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium. Neither the Belgian peoplemarker nor the Belgian government were interested, however, and Leopold eventually began trying to acquire a colony in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen. The Belgian government lent him money for this venture.

A statue of Leopold in Mons, Belgium

After a number of unsuccessful schemes for colonies in Africa or Asia, in 1876 he organized a private holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association, which he called the International African Society.

In 1878, under the auspices of the holding company, he hired the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley to establish a colony in the Congo region. Much diplomatic maneuvering resulted in the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, at which representatives of fourteen European countries and the United Statesmarker recognized Leopold as sovereign of most of the area he and Stanley had laid claim to. On 5 February 1885, the result was the Congo Free Statemarker (later becoming, successively, the Belgian Congo, the Republic of the Congomarker, Zairemarker, and now the Democratic Republic of the Congomarker or DRC — not to be confused with Republic of the Congomarker formerly owned by France), an area 76 times larger than Belgium, which Leopold was free to rule as a personal domain through his private army, the Force Publique.

A result of Leopold's colonialism, not just children had their hands amputated when they didn't meet demands for the Belgians.
Forced labor was extorted from the natives. The abuses suffered were horrific not only in the rubber industry, including enslavement and mutilation of the native population. Missionary John Harris of Baringa, for example, was so shocked by what he had come across that he wrote to Leopold's chief agent in the Congo saying: "I have just returned from a journey inland to the village of Insongo Mboyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people's stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit."

Estimates of the death toll range from two to fifteen million. Determining precisely how many people died is next to impossible as accurate records were not kept. Louis and Stengers state that population figures at the start of Leopold's control are only "wild guesses", while E.D. Morel's attempt and others at coming to a figure for population losses were "but figments of the imagination".

Adam Hochschild devotes a chapter of his book to the problem of estimating the death toll. He cites several recent lines of investigation, by anthropologist Jan Vansina and others, examining local sources, from police records, religious records, oral traditions, genealogies, personal diaries, and "many others", which generally agree with the assessment of the 1919 Belgian government commission: roughly half the population perished during the Free State period. Since the first official census by the Belgian authorities in 1924 put the population at about 10 million, that implies a rough estimate of 10 million dead.

Smallpox and sleeping sickness decimated the population. By 1896 the sleeping sickness had killed up to 5,000 Africans in the village of Lukolela on the Congo Rivermarker. The mortality figures were gained through the efforts of Roger Casement, who found only 600 survivors of the disease in Lukolela in 1903.

Reports of outrageous exploitation and widespread human rights abuses led to international outcry in the early 1900s. The campaign to examine Leopold's regime, led by British diplomat Roger Casement and former shipping clerk E. D. Morel under the auspices of the Congo Reform Association, became the first mass human rights movement. Supporters included American writer Mark Twain, who wrote a stinging political satire entitled King Leopold's Soliloquy, in which the King supposedly argues that bringing Christianity to the country outweighs a little starvation. Rubber gatherers were tortured, maimed and slaughtered until the turn of the century, when the Western world forced Brusselsmarker to call a halt. It should be noted that, as Hochschild describes in King Leopold's Ghost, France, Germany and Portugal were adopted the Congo methods in those parts of their colonies where natural rubber occurred.

Finally, in 1908, the Belgian parliamentmarker compelled the King to cede the Congo Free State to Belgium. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary once described his fellow ruler as a "thoroughly bad man."

Leopold II is still a controversial figure in the Democratic Republic of Congomarker; in 2005 his statue was taken down just hours after it was re-erected in the capital, Kinshasamarker. The Congolese culture minister, Christoph Muzungu, decided to reinstate the statue, arguing people should see the positive aspects of the king as well as the negative. But just hours after the six-metre (20 ft) statue was erected in the middle of a roundabout near Kinshasa's central station, it was taken down again, without explanation.

Leopold and the Belgians

Though extremely disliked by his subjects at the end of his reign — his funeral cortege was booed — Leopold II is remembered today by many Belgians as the "Builder King" (Koning-Bouwer in Dutch, le Roi-Bâtisseur in French) because he commissioned a great number of buildings and urban projects, mainly in Brusselsmarker, Ostendmarker and Antwerpmarker.

These buildings include the Royal Glasshouses in the grounds of the Palace at Lakenmarker, the Japanese Tower, the Chinese Pavilion, the Musée du Congo (now called the Royal Museum for Central Africamarker), and their surrounding park in Tervurenmarker, the Cinquantenairemarker in Brussels, and the Antwerp railway station hall. He also built an important country estate in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferratmarker on the French Rivieramarker, including the Villa des Cèdres, which is now a botanical garden. These were all built using the profits from the Congo. In 1900, he created the Royal Trust, by which means he donated most of his property to the Belgian nation.

After the King transferred his private colony to Belgium, there was, as Adam Hochschild puts it in King Leopold's Ghost, a "Great Forgetting". Hochschild records that, on his visit to the colonial Royal Museum for Central Africa in the 1990s, there was no mention of the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State, despite the museum's large collection of colonial objects. Another example of this "Great Forgetting" may be found on the boardwalk of Blankenbergemarker, a popular coastal resort, where a monument shows a colonialist bringing "civilization" to the black child at his feet. However an activist group cut off the hands of a statue of Leopold II in Ostend to protest the Congo atrocities.

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