Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

Congo, Then and Now

with 85 comments

A father stares at the hands of his five year-old daughter, which were severed as a punishment for having harvested too little caoutchouc/rubber

(This is an unnaturally long post for this blog, but even if you skim, please pay attention to last two paragraphs).

The largest private estate ever ‘owned’ by man in history was perhaps a chunk of Africa as big as Europe acquired by the Belgian King in 1885. Between 1885 and 1908, Leopold II of the Belgians was the de facto owner — not merely an administrator, trustee, company director, colonial overlord or even king, but an owner in his own personal capacity — of over a million square miles of central Africa, in the form of Congo Free State, with its capital at Leopoldville.

Belgium never had interest in joining the so-called Scramble for Africa, but seeing a boom in demand for rubber (which Congo had plenty), Leopold decided to do the job himself. In 1876, he founded the Association Internationale Africaine, a strictly humanitarian organization with the highest ideals (at least in theory) to ‘carry to the interior of Africa new ideas of law, order, humanity and protection of the natives’, according the Daily Telegraph in 1884. In reality, however, its mission was, as Leopold himself confided privately, to carve out a slice of the “magnifique gateau africain“.

From the very beginning, Congo had a certain mystique that appealed to outsiders. The popular magazines Le Congo Illustre, Voyages et Traveaux des Belges dans l’Etat Independent du Congo and Etat Independent du Congo provided the alluring pictures of sights and tribes. Absent from them, however, were shameful realities that Leopold’s greed had wrought: exploitation, mass-mutilations, state-sponsored slavery and murder, genocide.

This reality was uncovered, almost by accident, by Edward Dene Morel, a shipping clerk who noticed that outgoing cargoes to Congo were predominantly arms and ammunition. Morel slowly gathered information from hundreds of eyewitnesses to discover the shocking truth. In his tenacious quest, Morel was aided by a group of missionaries who managed to photograph some atrocities. The most famous photo was perhaps the one depicted above, taken by the Rev. John Harris and his wife Alice, who returned from Congo in August 1905 to tour Britain with their shocking photographs, giving lectures condemning Leopold’s rule.

The general public suddenly realized that this truly was Heart of Darkness evoked in the 1899 novel by Joseph Conrad. The Congo Issue was slowly becoming a media war; Leopold bribed newspapers to dismiss atrocities as ‘old wives’ tales’. When two distinguished travelers on a fact-finding mission went to Congo, they were shown so little that both came back with glowing tales. One of them, Viscount William Montmorres, published a gushing book about hardworking officials and cheerful natives. The other, the publisher Mary French Sheldon, fell in love with the captain of her steamboat, and later wrote in the Times, “I have witnessed more atrocities in London streets than…. in the Congo.” Frederick Starr, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago, was hired to selectively use photos, and write an apologist text, “The Truth about the Congo” in 1907.

However, Leopold finally lost the media war. In November, Congo was confiscated — or rather bought by millions of pounds — by the Belgium government from their king. The importance of news photographs in influencing public opinion was underlined in Mark Twain’s denunciation, “King Leopold’s Soliloquy“, where the aging king complains that the incorruptible Kodak camera was the only witness he had encountered in his long experience that he could not bribe. Fittingly, the book was illustrated with the Harrises’ photographs.

Even after Leopold and its independence the situation didn’t improve; we use coltan from (now Democratic Republic of) Congo in many things, including in the computer or phone you are currently using to read this article. For this lucrative reason, exploitation of Congo remains an undermentioned story in a world where Kodaks are incorruptible but journalists and photographers can be threatened or bribed away. A sobering note is that this is still happening more than a century after Morel founded the world’s first international human rights campaign and the world’s first NGO over Congo. In the last century, the only thing we have succeeded was in transferring Congo from a private property of Leopold into that of many corporations. Leopold would have been very pleased with the successes the latter are having in information blackout.

This is not a shameless plug but rather a heartfelt proposal: I know some photographers and political pundits read this blog, and I request you to explore more about Congo. For the rest of you, I want you to repost/re-tweet this article. I believe the situation there deserves more attention. I have always wanted to go to Congo myself and report it myself, but at last, time and resources do not allow that. This post, however, is the best I can do.

— this post incorporates some text from The Vertigo Years.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 10, 2011 at 9:05 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with ,

85 Responses

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  1. satyrikon

    October 24, 2012 at 9:59 pm

  2. Reblogged this on msamba.


    October 25, 2012 at 6:31 am

  3. Indeed, as you’re saying, coltan is used in the phone I’m using to read this article. At least, I can justify myself by claiming this phone has made my life better, and that mobile phones have by and large made everyone’s life better. Still, the Belgian genocide in Congo should not be overlooked as well as the all too probable current exploitation of that country.

    Piergiorgio Spinolo

    December 26, 2012 at 9:46 pm

  4. I believe a part of the article is incorrect. Wasn’t Belgian Congo donated under pressure to the Belgian State? For one symbolic Belgian Frank I though it was.


    March 25, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    • Tobias – you are right that Leopold turned the Congo over to Belgium in Nov 1908 (on St. Leopold’s Day), However, it was not for one symbolic franc but in fact millions of francs – so you could say he sold the Congo to Belgium. Read Neil Ascherson’s “The King Incorporated” to get a sense of how Leopold II was a master at turning every situation into one that would cause more cash to flow into his coffers.

      Dean Pavlakis

      January 28, 2014 at 3:28 pm

  5. The private estate he acquired is not as BIG as the entirety of Europe. Please recheck your facts to see if they’re accurate. Thanks. Besides that, great blog. It’s a necessity for us who are privy to this information to spread the awareness of this news. Thanks for writing this blog.


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  12. And it continues today…with all the natural resources. Visit any port and witness the deforestation of the country. Crude oil rings the harbors from spills. Fish, coconuts, bannanas,etc…. Every resource is being raped.

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    December 28, 2013 at 11:02 pm

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    January 28, 2014 at 6:03 am

  15. As a Congolese who wrote, by chance a slim history book about the evengalization of the Mai-Ndombe by the Scheutists Fathers, could say after all those postings?… It is not easy to tell and to come back to history. The reality of that most of our families, Congolese, Africans, do carry many untold stories about those dark periods. I was and I am still very impressed about the wonderful job done by the missionaries and most of them have even lost their lives in Congo. But, on the other side, some mistakes and atrocities were made. Now, how could we look on the future when and while now, again and again, the same atrocities seem to continue with our regimes in Africa?… We started and start really looking on the Western side: we do have our responsibilities; but, let’s be honest, Western (who know, who do have power, to exploit, who are doing business in Congo) could have a big responsibility….Unfortunately..

    Norbert MBU-MPUTU

    April 17, 2014 at 10:14 am

  16. WE lived in The DRC from 2008-09, and I can tell you that the attitudes of While Belgians continues even to this day. all of my husbands bosses were Belgian, and they were the most racist disgusting humans I have met to this very day. Living in the Congo was a daily reminder of the atrocities that were committed against the Congolese people, and a collection of daily evidence that it continues.

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