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king leopold

Part 1: Le Roi-Souverain of the Congo Free State

Part 2: The Horror Begins: Forward to the Past in the D.R. Congo

Part 3: The Horror Crescendos 

Part 4: The Pen Proves Mightier than the Chicotte: 1st Battle

Part 5: The Pen Proves Mightier than the Chicotte -- Assaulting Leopold's Castle Walls

King Leopold II of Belgium, having been handed the entire Congo “Free” State on a European-crafted, ornate silver platter by the General Act of the African Conference in Berlin on February 26,1885, wasted little time in showing what the focus of his new stewardship of some 2,344,000 square kilometers of largely virgin (to most Europeans) African territory, with some 20,000,000 indigenous Africans (perhaps as many as 30,000,00) would be: extreme avarice, not philanthropy and the “civilizing mission”.

This scion of Europe's powerful Saxe-Coburg dynasty moved quickly to have a colonial administrative system set up and run from his newly designated capital of Boma on the northeastern bank of the Congo River as it approaches the Atlantic Ocean some 100 kilometers away, a site ominously established, in the 16th Century, as a European slavers’ outpost. Leopold also appointed that wandering British administrator-for-hire, Sir Francis de Winton, as the first Administor-General of the Congo, who himself began the process of creating what became 14 administrative districts sub-divided into zones, the zones into sectors, the sectors into posts, while every appointee, from district commissioners down to lowliest post officials, was to be European - so much for the alleged moral imperative to apprentice Africans into the art of modern governance and eventual self-governance. That would be quite counterproductive if one’s aim was to dehumanize or “objectify”, to use a Derrick Jensen term, the Congolese as inferior beasts of burden, the standard prerequisite for colonial exploitation of any group of indigenous people.

Even before the Congo Free State was formally inaugurated on August 1st, 1985, de Winton went about disenfranchising as many native inhabitants as possible from their traditional lands. The explorer Henry Morton Stanley, already employed by Leopold in this perhaps greatest of all land grabs in history, had been hard at work tricking hundreds of village chiefs out of their sovereign land rights with inveigled contracts all but unintelligible to them, but invaluable as legal ammunition for “underwriting” the Belgian Crown’s rapaciousness. But now de Winton introduced, on July 1st, 1985, the edict of “terres vacantes”or “vacant land”, declaring that any territory not currently inhabited or cultivated with garden plots would thus fall under the control of the state, a canard obviously to seize land at will, and, as a soon-to-be-realized corollary, make that land’s inhabitants toil for the state.

De Winton also divided the vast Congo basin into two economic zones, as explained in this Wikipedia excerpt: “the Free Trade Zone was open to entrepreneurs of any European nation, who were allowed to buy 10- and 15-year monopoly leases on anything of value: ivory from a particular district, or the rubber concession, for example. The other zone—almost two-thirds of the Congo—became the Domaine Privé: the exclusive private property of the State, in turn Leopold's.” (source)

Leopold had to create this free trade zone as a sop to the very European powers that had granted him absolute sovereignty over the Congo Free State on the condition, among other promises, that he would open up the Congo to free trade, but he never really honored this pledge much, in 1893 actually “redistricting” 259,000 kilometers of this zone into his very own private preserve called the Domaine de la Couronne (Domain of the Crown), where no uninvited travelers were allowed and all revenue went directly to the king. This personal domain was kept secret from the rest of the world for as long as possible.

Over the next few years after the vacant land edict, more decrees would prohibit the Congolese in the Domaine Privé from selling the fruits of their labor to anyone but the State, increasingly draconian production quotas in coveted trade items were set for them at ludicrous prices or barters, and food supplies were demanded of local villagers for each government post on a regular basis.All this laid the groundwork for the creation of a vast forced-labor system throughout the Congo once rubber became the main trade resource, different from slavery only that in slavery, the slaves were imprisoned within plantations, while in the Congo “Free” State, almost the entire territory was destined to become one giant plantation, save for the shrinking, uninhabited rainforests and jungles that you entered at your risk.

And if you were a Congolese who did not care to toil relentlessly for King Leopold’s wealth and glory while, to add injury to insult, being forced to grow food crops to sustain his army of enforcers against you, you quickly discovered that you were not considered human, but sub-human, that you had no rights, legal or natural, and that your life, and the lives of your loved ones, were scarcely worth the cost of one cartridge for a Belgian rifle. What King Leopold had laid the seeds for was not merely a forced-labor state, but as things would evolve, a state of terror.

The Chicotte, Prime Emblem of the Congo Free State

At first it was the lucrative ivory trade in Central Africa that Leopold pinned his hopes of colonial riches and glory on, grandiose dreams that demanded massive amounts of ivory, which, because the primitive Congolese railway system established by Stanley had yet to reach the interior, would have to be transported largely on foot to the seaports, requiring the employment of thousands of porters.

Employment actually is a misnomer, because the new colonial administration merely began conscripting porters by the thousands to carry slaughtered elephants’ heavy ivory tusks out of the jungles and savannahs over vast, often dangerous terrains and past ferocious river rapids to the ports, while these luckless thousands were very often literally worked or beaten to death by their overseers, black or white, in efforts to spur them on through the efficacy of that traditional instrument of pain infliction throughout the region, the chicotte, which both the Belgians and the French in the neighboring French Congo quickly found a great affinity for wielding. To quote from author Adam Hochschild in his great book, King Leopold's Ghost:

the chicotte

“The chicotte was a vicous whip made out of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus [or rhinoceros - Mac] hide, cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip. It was applied to bare buttocks, and left permanent scars. Twenty strokes of it sent victims into unconsciousness; and a 100 or more strokes were often fatal. The chicotte was freely used by both Leopold's men and the French.” (source)

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The Creation of the Force Publique

King Leopold, who ironically never actually set foot in the Congo, becoming, perhaps, the ultimate callous absentee-landlord, underscored this stereotype even further by quickly creating a landlord’s police force to enforce his edicts and assaults on the rights of his Congolese “tenants”, ordering his Secretary of the Interior in 1885 to draw up plans for an all-purpose militia and sending, in early 1886, Belgian Army Carabinier Captain Léon Roger to actually establish what came to be known as the Force Publique or FP.

Needless to say, only Belgian and other white European officers and mercenaries need apply to fill the ranks of the officer corps and NCOs, while the lower enlisted ranks were filled with a diverse mix of African tribesmen largely recruited or conscripted from the Upper Congo, Zanzibar and West Africa, quickly shorn of their tribal identities and attired in blue uniforms with red sashes and fezs, a colonial-fashionable look.



The Force Publique was both army and police, its principle mission quickly becoming that of Mafioso-type enforcers brutalizing the native populace into subservience while meting out draconian punishments against the rebellious, including burning down villages and slaughtering the inhabitants outright, always under the leadership of a Belgian or other white officer. Occasionally the FP, however, would engage in combat with other competitors in the Congo, including Arab ivory and slave traders who were encroaching on the Eastern half of Leopold’s fledgling domain. More on this later.

The most significant fact about the Force Publique worth relating to contemporary Africa is that not only was the FP the prime tool of colonial dominance over the tribes and peoples of the Congo in the Nineteenth Century, but it was the progenitor of today’s modern army of the DR Congo, the FADRC. The Force Publique, created as an instrument of massive repression and subjugation, also indoctrinated African troops into barbarity, criminality and utter contempt for human rights against their own race. The ethical level of the Force Publique was somewhere between grotesque and satanic, and it was not reformed and reorganized at all until the state of Belgium was forced to take control of the Congo Free State from Leopold in 1908 and some of its worst abuses stopped.

However it remained the main institution of brutal, alienated domination over the black populace for the Belgian government just as it had been for Leopold, only less horrifically. The same two-tiered, racially motivated hierarchy was retained, white Belgian officers on the top, black soldiers and recruits on the bottom until the very end of the Belgian Congo era, as well as its dual roles of police force and army. When the Congo’s independence from Belgium was declared on June 30, 1960 and it became known as the Republic of the Congo, there were only a handful of black officer cadets in training only, this huge discrepancy leading quickly to rebellion in the ranks against the still white Belgian officer corps as chaos began to sweep the country.

Belgium then had to intervene militarily (and illegally) to reestablish any semblance of order in the next few months, while the FP was soon renamed the ANC or Congolese National Army and its officer corps finally Africanized, but out of this ongoing chaos and instability rose a former sergeant-major of the Force Publique, Joseph Mobutu, who maneuvered his way into becoming a key advisor to the new prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, who quickly appointed him the Chief of Staff of the ANC.

But the newly independent Republic soon collapsed into bitter internecine power struggles, secessionist movements and armed conflict against the backdrop of Cold War rivalries between the West and the Soviet Union. Mobutu, sensing opportunity, turned on Lumumba, and when the latter was murdered, Mobutu seized de facto power, having allied himself with the West after Lumumba had taken on Russian patronage. Soon Mobutu would consolidate his power and declare himself the head of a one-party state eventually called Zaire, his caustic iron rule lasting for decades.

Thus, historically, the former Force Publique, retooled as the ANC, was put at the beck and call of yet another brazen, kleptocratic dictator, Mobutu, who would use this martial institution, once again, as an instrument of repression, exploitation and corruption. With such sordid traditions, history and values, it is little surprise that to this day the Congolese Army, now called the FADRC to reflect the Congo's latest official title, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is still beset with major problems of crime and brutality, while even as I write there are ongoing charges and allegations of rape, pillage and murder being madeagainst it.

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Next time, Part Three: The Horror Crescendos

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