Thursday, September 17, 2009
Leopold II, "King of the Belgians" and his Congo
Leopold's humanitarian image was undermined by the unusually brutal methods used on natives in the Congo.
Leopold's imperial ambitions benefitted from a significant upturn in the demand for (natural) rubber at the turn of the last century. Rubber hoses, wire insulation and (especially) bicycle tires drove the demand-side of the economic equation. Unfortunately for natives of the Congo, Leopold soon saw competition on the horizon from domesticated rubber plantations in southeast Asia and South America. The competition drove Leopold's agents to more and more brutal means of extraction--means which included severed hands and feet.
Unique in the imperial world, the "Congo Free State" was the personal property of Leopold himself, not the government or the people. This style of ownership allowed Leopold and his operatives in Africa a remarkably free hand in the extraction of latex.