The Congo Free State – A Latifundium of Terror

‘Leopold II…has knit adventurers, traders and missionaries of many races into one band of men, under the most illustrious of modern travellers (H.M. Stanley) to carry into the interior of Africa new ideas of law, order, humanity, and protection of the natives.’[1] The Daily Telegraph, 22nd of October 1884


Grossly Deceived by King Leopold: the great African explorer Henry Morton Stanley (Bula Matari) & the slave boy he freed and sent to England to be educated, later to accompany him on expeditions, Kalulu in 1872




Some of the worst atrocities committed during the European powers’ partition of Africa during the latter decades of the 19th Century were carried out in King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. There are estimates of ten million casualties as a direct consequence of his reign[2] and it has made a profound impact upon the Congo’s later development into what one might refer to as a failed state. However it was not incidental that this level of violence would be exerted within this particular colonial possession. The Congo Free State fulfilled several of the criteria needed for development into such an atrocious regime. The combination of a comparatively small state apparatus with little resources in terms of military and economic power, controlled by a ruthless leader attempting to rule and maximise profits made from extracting the resources of a vast territory led to the use of significant administrative coercion. The colonial leadership identified the use of terror as the most cost-efficient method of imposing rule and facilitating extraction, devising a systematic approach towards the territory’s population. This system of terror was structured in several layers. One of which was an incentive system indirectly rewarding the colonial administration for the use of excessive force, another was the recruitment and collaboration of different native peoples acting as soldiers for the colonial officials. As the administration’s wages were directly linked to the profits made from extracted resources, it created incentives for the use of ruthless measures, linking the market mechanism with violence.

The International African Association 1884

1885 Establishing The Congo Free State


Sir Francis de Winton

‘A little more than a quarter of a century ago, a great genius for evil, having achieved in rapid succession a series of diplomatic master strokes, stretched out to reach the sceptre which was to give him power over life and death over twenty million human beings.’[3] It is by these words Edmund Morel commences his History of the Congo Reform Movement characterising succinctly both the protagonist and by which methods he acquired control over an immense landmass in equatorial Africa. L’Etat Indépendant du Congo or the Congo Free State as it came to be known by English-speakers was officially notified to the world as established on 1st August 1885. A month earlier a decree issued by Belgian official de Winton stipulated that all ‘vacant lands’ within it were to be considered state property[4]. This vast tract of land comprised of some 2.3 million square kilometres, 77 times greater than Belgium, straddling most of the rainforest and bush territory surrounding the Congo River in Equatorial Africa.

King Leopold II of the Belgians

As a comparatively weak actor in terms of military and economic resources Leopold used a cunning diplomatic strategy in order to obtain his African colony. This was manifested through portraying himself as having philanthropic motivations by using his front-organisation the International African Association[5] whilst using the rivalries among the great powers to his advantage. By supporting Leopold the Germans, through Bismarck, sought to thwart French expansion and the effects of French protectionist trade policy, in addition to check British dominance in Africa. The British viewed the Belgian King’s project as doomed to failure and would in this regard not protest against the establishment of Leopold’s rule as he would act as a neutral actor and a guarantor of free trade in the short term by impeding the French. Sharing the British view of imminent failure, France was persuaded into recognition through Leopold’s promise of bequeathing the territory the French Empire upon his death. The diplomatic recognition of the United States was obtained through human agency and promises of following noble policies of fighting slavery and creating markets for American industry by imposing free trade[6].


Organisational Aspects of the Congo Free State

The Congo Free State differentiated itself from typical colonies as it lacked a metropolis, the state was de facto King Leopold’s personal property, retaining the characteristics of a greatly magnified Roman latifundium. The King’s constitutional position in the Congo was described by a contemporary study as, ‘the titulary of sovereignty. All the rights and all the duties of government are summarised and incorporated in his person … The sovereign … is the direct fountainhead of the legislative and judicial power. He can, if he chooses, exercise these powers directly and personally… His will cannot meet with any judicial obstacle. He would say … with greater accuracy than Louis XIV, ‘The State, it is I’ … He is the absolute master of the whole of the internal and external sovereignty of the Independent State … The organisation of the army, the industrial and commercial regimes, are established freely by himself according to the idea, be it accurately or faulty, which he has of their utility and efficacy. He regulates with the same independence all the external relations of the State. In a word, Leopold II possesses personally, and exercises personally, save where he thinks it advisable to delegate to others, all the prerogatives that popular custom recognises to Sovereign States.’[7] By decree on the 30th October 1892 Leopold divided the Free State into distinct zones giving commercial rights to concession companies, whilst reserving the greatest sphere for the crown[8]. He maintained the right to tax all exports made by the private companies and kept all profits from the crown’s zone.

The first years of the Free State’s existence the colony made substantial financial deficits, of which Leopold would personally carry the burden of raising capital through the issuance of undersubscribed bonds[9]. Trade was primarily centred on the acquisitioning of ivory from natives, trading strings of beads and similar goods for the tusks of nomadic elephants. This was reflected in the colony’s administrative apparatus, composing merely of some fifty posts, most of which were manned by only one or two Europeans consisting of little more than a living quarters, a warehouse and a flagpole[10]. The first five to seven years of the State can in this regard be said to have been little worse in terms of atrocities committed against the indigenous population than that of other colonial ventures in Africa. Deaths in this initial period were largely caused by the porterage of elephant tusks or through the construction of such infrastructure as the roads and eventually the railroad bypassing the cataracts of the Congo River[11].


Red Rubber

‘Tell them (the rubber agents) that we cannot and therefore will not find rubber; we are willing to spend our strength at any work possible, but the rubber is finished. If we must either be massacred or bring rubber, well, let them kill us; then we suppose they will be satisfied.’[12]

In the Rubber Coils, Punch 1906

The violence of which the Congo Free State derived its notoriety can be attributed to the period of rubber extraction. The system that developed to facilitate the large-scale harvesting of the latex from this plant was the catalyst that changed the Free State’s political economy from a largely conventional colonial regime into a company government pursuing profit maximisation through extreme coercive means.

The Congo rubber genus Landolphia retains characteristics of fragility and is easily killed through excessive or incorrect tapping. It grows as a wild vine, climbing upwards in a twisting fashion around the trunks of large trees. It rather sparsely populates the rainforests of Equatorial Africa, being populous in certain confined areas and as few as one plant per hectare in others. This stands in stark contrast to the rubber plant species Hevea grown in Brazil, a hearty and productive genus suitable for large-scale latex production in plantation style agricultural units[13]. The difference between these plants might have led to early misconceptions among the Free State’s administration as to the productive capabilities of their particular domestic plants.

External economic and technological changes led to a significant increase in international demand for rubber. With the advent of a technique strengthening and enhancing the heat resilient properties of rubber through vulcanisation in 1839 and the invention of the pneumatic rubber tyre in 1887, the road was paved for augmented demand and hence increased prices for the product’s main component, latex. The combination of rising rubber prices, declining ivory profits, improvements in transportation infrastructure allowing the state to profit from high-bulk, low value commodities, the King’s precarious financial situation and willingness to allow coercive action against the indigenous population all led the way to an economy primarily based on rubber harvesting. Despite the rise in prices, rubber still retained features of having a low value-to-volume ratio, there was few skills involved in its harvesting, requiring little more than a knife and a collection vessel for the latex, thus qualifying most of the population to take part in the harvesting. Due to its low value-to-volume ratio large amounts of the commodity would be required to breach the fixed and variable cost levels imposed through transportation and colonial administrative costs. To achieve profit maximisation for the State, labour-input costs would be externalised to the indigenous population, put in another way, labour would be obtained through coercing the natives.

In order to successfully achieve a large-scale labour mobilisation through coercion the State put in place a legal framework in 1892 exacting a monthly rubber tax[14] from the Africans, the amount of which would be left to local administrative agents’ discretion. The ideological foundation for labour exploitation was described in an official statement; ’The natives must be induced to throw off their natural indolence and improve their condition. A law therefore, which imposes upon them light and regular work is the only means of giving them the incentive to work; while it is an economic law, it is also a humanitarian law.’[15] Adhering to the widespread contemporary belief that Africans were naturally apathetic, the only remedy being labour, and should repay the colonial masters for giving them civilisation, a quid pro quo. However as coercion replaced comparatively legitimate trade as the main incentive for rubber harvesting, productivity among the natives slumped and justifications for applying greater force became a self-fulfilling prophecy[16].


Wielding the Chicotte

To maximise rubber volumes colonial officials were subject to an incentive system rewarding a continuous increase in rubber yields. This took the form of bonuses and promotion and “according to a directive issued by Free State administrators in 1892, the rate of bonuses to agents was to increase in direct proportion to a decrease in purchasing prices from natives.” [17] The singular measure of a rubber agent’s value in the eyes of the Free State would be the volume of rubber he managed to obtain for export[18]. Salaries were kept to a minimum by both the State and concessionary companies, this had the dual effect of recruiting ‘people who had been refused by other companies or who had been dismissed by them for bad behaviour’[19] and to give officials added incentive for behaviour that would maximise rubber extraction and thus make them eligible for bonuses.

The operational aspects of the Congo Free State facilitating the massive labour mobilisation involved the recruitment of natives into soldiering, by both voluntary and involuntary means. The military arm of the Free State took the form of a substantial army called the Force Publique formally established in 1888[20], led by European officers with the rank and file consisting of African soldiers, from both different parts of Africa and within the State’s boundaries. Drawn from missionary camps, freed slaves or exacted as tax from native communities, they were generally strangers to the area they would serve and without a sense of identification with local groups.[21] Being outside the native social structure and social ladder of advancement the soldiers had great incentives to perform the duties laid upon them by the State diligently and would often re-enlist after their seven year tour to become career soldiers. However, this was not always the case as desertions and mutinies were not uncommon, the military regime exacting discipline by the chicotte was harsh, wages low and malnourishment widespread.

Force Publique at Stanleyville

The soldiers would exploit their newfound position to the utmost, as one village in Busira accounts the custom of how soldiers would claim women; ‘A bullet would be sent to the home of the desired woman; if she or her husband refused the “invitation”, that same bullet was used to kill her.’[22] Over the 1890s the Force Publique officers and men would number approximately nineteen thousand and consume half the State budget[23]. To cover the vast expanse that was the Congo Free State, rules stipulated that the army would be divided into garrisons of no more than twenty five armed men per State post, circumventing this decree would be the use of auxiliaries. The auxiliary personnel were known to the Europeans as capitas, assuming the role of collaborating village chiefs and oversaw the local rubber extraction. These played a pivotal role in facilitating the large-scale coercion of African labour as described in one account by a concessionary company Societé Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut Congo post in Basoko. [24]

The coercive methods afflicted upon the natives for the collection of rubber was the culmination of the colonial institutions introduced and presided over by Leopold. These entailed various techniques available for the rubber agent as detailed in the field manual[25] distributed to all officials. Procedurally the State or concessionary company would establish a post manned by Europeans and Force Publique soldiers. They would proceed to survey the local surroundings and population determining how much each would contribute in terms of rubber and ivory. A method of enhancing yield was through the extension of post territory to cover additional villages or compelling women and children to collection duties.

Congolese Female Hostages

Famine and disease would often be a result of the latter policy, as the societies would be deprived of their sources of food. For augmented control the agents could enlist capitas supervising the collection within the village society and thus also increase levels of violence. The excessive force exacted by the capitas were manifested through the severed hands, noses or ears they would have to exhibit to the officials for each spent cartridge, proving that they had not squandered the ammunition[26]. In case the men of the village fled, compliance would be enforced through hostage taking of the village chief, women or children. Making them susceptible to rape, starvation or disease and not released until a ransom of rubber or ivory was paid[27]. Also the methods of collection that had to be undertaken by the natives produced a significant death toll, as collectors would be required to travel farther as the local sources of rubber were depleted owing to the fragility of the Landolphia genus. This would make villagers susceptible to attacks from wild animals, starvation and disease or merely from the act of extracting the rubber itself from tall trees.


Concluding Remarks

‘In such a country and such a climate, put a rough-grained Belgian army officer, unaccustomed to the management of coloured races and untrained in civil government, give him absolute power over the native population, and orders to raise revenue to the utmost of his ability; above him place a military autocrat as governor, as sternly determined to be obeyed as if he were at the head of a regiment; and higher still, appoint a resolute Minister, desirous above all things of proving his royal master’s enterprise to be commercially sound, and the train is fully laid for exactions enforced by cruelty.’[28]

Congo Natives and Missionaries Displaying Severed Hands

In any analysis of history one should be aware of the historiography that has shaped our current understanding of past events, but in the particular case of the Congo Free State the evidence of its atrocious nature is overwhelming both in the scope and the breadth of sources. The contemporary analysis made by Mr William Clayton Pickersgill describes succinctly the nature of the violence inherent in the Congo Free State. It was a violence that derived from the policies of King Leopold II seeking profit maximisation through externalising labour costs within a legal and moral vacuum. As the rubber collection required little capital investments in the form of tools, few skills in the form of collection techniques and only modest physical fitness, it qualified a vast majority of the Congolese population to become potential labourers.

Mutilated Congolese Victims

With the breadth of the potential victims thus expanded the external incentives for administrative coercion was increased through rising rubber prices, a dire financial position held by the territorial owner, the non-existence of legal protection for the natives, the incentive structure for the colonial officials, the human agency of collaborating natives and the racial ideology that served to pervert the morality of the subjugating agents. The indigenous population inhabiting this particular part of the African continent were true victims of historical coincidence. The coincidence that a European ruler, displaying no cognitive ability for empathy, gaining against all odds the control over a vast territory, driven by a combination of greed and financial desperation to devise a system so brutal that its reverberations still are felt over a century later in the form of a failed state. It stands in stark contrast to the celebratory newspaper articles published immediately before the creation of the Congo Free State and a reminder of the potential effects in the form of extreme violence that might derive from investing in a single person absolute power.


[1] The Daily Telegraph, 22 October 1884 cited in Pakenham, T. (1992) The Scramble for Africa. London: Abacus.


[2] Ascherson, N. (1999) The King Incorporated. London: Granta Books. pp.9

[3] Morel, E.D. (1968) History of the Congo Reform Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] EIC Decree of 1st July 1885

[5] L’Association Internationale Africaine (AIA), Leopold would later merge the AIA with the International Congo Society to form the Congo Free State.

[6] Reeves, J. S. (1894) The International Beginnings of the Congo Free State. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. p. 32.

[7] F. Cattier, Droit et Administration de l’Etat Indépendant du Congo (Brussels, 1898) p.134

[8] “Decree of 30th October 1892,” in Lycops and Touchard, Recuil Usuel, I, 606.

[9] Ewans, M. (2002) European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 111-112.

[10] Ewans, M. (2002) European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 114.

[11] Ewans, M. (2002) European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 114.

[12] Village headman to a British missionary, 1905. Recorded by Reverend Harris, 17th January 1905, and used as evidence by the Congo Reform Association; cited in Harms, “The End of Red Rubber: A Reassessment,” p.85.

[13] Nelson, S. H. (1994) Colonialism in the Congo Basin 1880-1914. Ohio University Center for International Studies: Ohio. p. 84.

[14] Impôts en nature. Nelson, S. H. (1994) Colonialism in the Congo Basin 1880-1914. Ohio University Center for International Studies: Ohio. p. 89.

[15] The Congo : A Report of the Mission of Enquiry Appointed by the Free State Government 1905

[16] Nelson, S. H. (1994) Colonialism in the Congo Basin 1880-1914. Ohio University Center for International Studies: Ohio. p. 92.

[17] Nelson, S. H. (1994) Colonialism in the Congo Basin 1880-1914. Ohio University Center for International Studies: Ohio. p. 92.

[18] Ewans, M. (2002) European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 161.

[19] According to George Grenfell, a Congo missionary and explorer cited in Ewans, M. (2002) European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 161.

[20] Hochschild, A. (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Macmillan: London. p.123

[21] Nelson, S. H. (1994) Colonialism in the Congo Basin 1880-1914. Ohio University Center for International Studies: Ohio. p. 106.

[22] De Ryck Collection, 26.15, no. 7. Cited in Nelson, S. H. (1994) Colonialism in the Congo Basin 1880-1914. Ohio University Center for International Studies: Ohio. p. 107.

[23] Hochschild, A. (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Macmillan: London. p.123

[24]‘Each post had established in the principal villages capita-chiefs: men selected generally on account of their superior intelligence and audacity. These capitas assumed great power among the natives, and had under their command scores of assistants recruited from the scum of the native population. They were supposed to see that the natives collected rubber, and they ensured this generally by means of blows, and occasionally by a bullet…. The manager of the (European post) entrusted to the capita-chief a quantity of merchandise, sufficient to pay the natives for their rubber at a rate not exceeding threepence per pound; but the capitas usually appropriated the goods to their own use, and took the rubber without any payment whatever. Some of them had, as the result of the peculations, become the possessors of dozens of wives and many slaves. They literally “ate up” the country by forcing the natives to bring them goats and fowls and other provisions… Some of the capitas had hundreds of armed followers, who went about in bands devastating the villages, ravishing the women and shooting down the men on the slightest provocation.’

Burrows, Curse of Central Africa, 167-168. Cited in Nelson, S. H. (1994) Colonialism in the Congo Basin 1880-1914. Ohio University Center for International Studies: Ohio. p. 108.

[25] Manuel du Voyageur et du Résident au Congo

[26] Ewans, M. (2002) European Atrocity, African Catastrophe: Leopold II, the Congo Free State and its Aftermath. London: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 164.

[27]‘This officer’s method was to arrive in canoes at a village, the inhabitants invariably bolted on their arrival; the soldiers were then landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chickens, grain etc., out of the houses; after this they attacked the natives until able to seize their women; these women were kept as hostages until the Chief of the district brought in the required number of kilogrammes of rubber. The rubber having been brought, the women were sold back to their owners for a couple of goats apiece, and so he continued from village to village until the requisite amount of rubber had been collected.’ A British vice consul reported in 1899,  cited in: Hochschild, A. (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Macmillan: London. p.161

[28] British Consul General to the Congo Free State Mr. William Clayton Pickersgill, Foreign Office 10/731 1st June 1897 cited by Anstey, King Leopold’s Legacy, p.9. and Nelson, S. H. (1994) Colonialism in the Congo Basin 1880-1914. Ohio University Center for International Studies: Ohio. p. 80.

(Norwegian Congo Agents, Missionaries and Mercenaries:


About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
This entry was posted in Economic History, Imperial History, Violence and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Congo Free State – A Latifundium of Terror

  1. Pingback: What Price for Peace in DR Congo? Stability and Destabilisation Under Mobutu | History's Shadow

  2. Hello, just wanted to mention, I loved this blog post.
    It was helpful. Keep on posting!|

  3. miro says:

    Please, read, sign, and circulate the following petition. Let’s commemorative the blood of the millions of innocent victims of the Congo Free State in the eve of its 130 anniversary .

  4. miro says:

    Great and very informative article. Thanks for a job well done. Solid scholarship much appreciated.

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