Leopold’s administration of the Congo Free State was characterized by atrocities and systematic brutality, including forced labour, torture, murder, kidnapping, and the amputation of the hands of men, women, and children when the quota of rubber was not met. In 1890 and in one of the first uses of the term, George Washington Williams described the practices of Leopold’s administration of the Congo Free State as “crimes against humanity”. These and other facts were established during Leopold’s rule by eyewitness testimony, by on-site inspection from an international commission of inquiry, by the investigative journalism and activism of E. D. Morel, and by the 1904 Casement Report.
Leopold amassed a huge personal fortune by exploiting the natural resources of the Congo. At first, ivory was exported, but this did not yield the expected levels of revenue. When the global demand for rubber exploded, attention shifted to the labor-intensive collection of sap from rubber plants. Abandoning the promises of the Berlin Conference in the late 1890s, the Free State government restricted foreign access and extorted forced labor from the natives. Abuses, especially in the rubber industry, included forced labour of the native population, beatings, widespread killings, and frequent mutilation when production quotas were not met. Missionary John Harris of Baringa was so shocked by what he had encountered 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 one million to fifteen million, since accurate records were not kept. Historians Louis and Stengers in 1968 stated that population figures at the start of Leopold’s control are only “wild guesses”, and that attempts by E. D. Morel and others to determine a figure for the loss of population were “but figments of the imagination”.
Adam Hochschild devotes a chapter of his book King Leopold’s Ghost to the problem of estimating the death toll. He cites several recent lines of investigation, by anthropologist Jan Vansina and others, that examine local sources (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. Hochschild points out that since the first official census by the Belgian authorities in 1924 put the population at about 10 million, these various approaches suggest a rough estimate of a population decline by 10 million.: 225–233
Smallpox epidemics and sleeping sickness also devastated the disrupted population. By 1896, African trypanosomiasis had killed up to 5,000 Africans in the village of Lukolela on the Congo River. The mortality statistics were collected through the efforts of British consul Roger Casement, who found, for example, only 600 survivors of the disease in Lukolela in 1903.
International opposition and criticism at home from the Catholic Party, Progressive Liberals and the Labour Party caused the Belgian Parliament to compel the king to cede the Congo Free State to Belgium in 1908. The deal that led to the handover cost Belgium the considerable sum of 215.5 million Francs. This was used to discharge the debt of the Congo Free State and to pay out its bond holders as well as 45.5 million for Leopold’s pet building projects in Belgium and a personal payment of 50 million to him.: 259 The Congo Free State was transformed into a Belgian colony under parliamentary control known as the Belgian Congo. Leopold went to great lengths to conceal potential evidence of wrongdoing during his time as ruler of his private colony. The entire archive of the Congo Free State was burned and he told his aide that even though the Congo had been taken from him, “they have no right to know what I did there”.: 294 The Congo was given independence in 1960.Leopold II of Belgium – Wikipedia