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The Congo Free State – a colony of gross excess.

The British Parliament passed resolutions denouncing Leopold and the CFS. Britain itself however, could not be said to have been free from sin when it came to its own colonial affairs in Africa. If Belgium acquired the Congo as a result of Leopold's personal greed then it could be said that Britain acquired Rhodesia as a result of the greed of Cecil Rhodes. The colonization of Rhodesia was a personal initiative on the part of Rhodes whose motives were not unlike Leopold's in that he sent the settler columns north, not to extend western civilization, but in pursuit of gold. The European powers justified their colonial endeavours by claiming that they were bringing civilization to Africa for the benefit of its people in the form of trade and investment. Even if the other powers, unlike Leopold, had intended to live up to this promise, in reality, they all failed. They came to realize that any prospect of their newly acquired colonies providing new markets for their products required large-scale investment. Being unwilling to make that investment, they adopted a more pragmatic approach to colonial economic policy. Britain, France, Germany and Portugal all resorted to the use of Concession companies which, just as in

the CFS, were a means by which the state could extract revenue from its colony without any input. The state abrogated its responsibilities to the colonized people. The company became the de facto State while the people, not citizens and often not even employees, became a resource to be exploited along with the ivory the rubber and the gold. In the Cameroun, Germany ceded about fifty per cent of the territory to two companies while in French Equatorial Africa thirty-eight companies shared one third of its area. &ldquoFrench administration was much too thin on the ground to keep a very effective watch on what the companies actually did. There followed much the same sort of scandal as was occurring in the Congo Free State.”3 Most of the excesses in the African colonies can be linked to the short supply of labour. Just as in the CFS taxation and coercion were used to generate forced labour. In 1899 the Portuguese openly legislated for forced labour to be requisitioned by State and private individuals and in Mozambique the State was involved in the export of labour to the South African gold mines. &ldquoChibalo labourers worked under gruelling conditions. They were entitled to neither food nor lodging, were subjected to repeated physical abuses, and received little or no remuneration”4. In the British Central African Protectorate (Nyasaland) plantation companies were allowed to extract labour in lieu of rent. The thangata system as it was known was brutally enforced. One Protectorate administrator described the method in a letter to his mother: &ldquoOne chief has to bring me 200 men to work for nothing…but he's got to do it, or I'll burn all his villages and crops down.”5

Villages and crops were burned down and atrocities took place throughout Africa. Leopold II was not the only European who looked on Africans as lesser beings. It was not only in the Congo that white men believed they had a God given right to extract the wealth of the land in the belief that they could utilize it to better effect because they were superior. The system of exploitation that operated in the CFS was repeated in the other African colonies. The concession companies pioneered by Leopold II were adopted by the others; the practice of forced labour was widespread and nowhere was there a concerted attempt to foster trade in a real sense or to develop a proper money economy. If the CFS was exceptional, it was in terms of the degrees of cruelty, brutality and depravity to which the system was allowed to degenerate. The system, however, existed elsewhere and so did the cruelty and brutality. To suggest that it was entirely exceptional would be to ignore evidence that points to parallel, if lesser, excesses in other colonies. The Congo Free State might best be regarded, therefore, as a colony of gross excess rather than extreme exception.


1 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, (London, 1994), p.23.

2 Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, (London, 1999), p. 235.

3 J.D. Fage, A history of Africa, 3rd.ed, (London & New York, 1995), p.404.

4 A. Isaacman and B. Isaacman, Mozambique, From Colonialism to Revolution, (Boulder, 1983), p.34.

5 Leroy Vail, 'The political economy of East-Central Africa', in David Birmingham, Phyllis M.Martin (eds.), History of Central Africa, Volume Two, (Harlow, 1983), p.219.


Birmingham, David, and Martin, Phyllis M. (eds.), History of Central Africa, Volume Two, (Harlow, 1983)

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, (London, 1994)

Fage, J.D. A history of Africa, 3rd.ed., (London & New York, 1995)

Friedman, Kajsa Ekholm, Catastrophe and Creation, The transformation of an African culture, (Chur, Switzerland, 1991)

Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold's Ghost, (London, 1999)

Isaacman, Allen and Isaacman, Barbera, Mozambique, From Colonialism to Revolution, (Boulder, Colerado,1983),

Wikipedia Entry for the Congo Free State

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