Congo, Then and Now

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.


89 thoughts on “Congo, Then and Now

  1. I am Belgian, even more: I am historian. It is very appaling that this very dark and shameful chapter in Belgian history was NOT DISCUSSED AT ALL in the 4 year courser I took!
    We have posed questions about this to different professors. They clearly had no god understanding of the history as their story was always some confused mumbling, enough of those even minimized the situation, claiming the situation vastly approved after the transfer…

    If it ever gets translated, I strongly suggest people read “Congo” by the Belgian journalist/cultural historian David Van Reybrouck. He’ll clearly show the Belgians didn’t make things better.

    If your tweet/re-post gets success, I hope there will also be pressure to teach this history already in high school.

    • On a similar theme, I have set up a wordpress site on the subject of the Congo Free State and the movement for reform in the Congo. The purpose of the site is to disseminate the research I have done on the subject, as well as continue to raise awareness of what you have rightly described as a dark and shameful chapter of Belgian history which has received very little attention. I’m sure anyone interested in the subject will find it interesting. Please visit it at You can also follow us on Twitter @congoreform

      Any retweets and spreading the word would be very much appreciated!

    • David Van Reybrouck’s book Congo just came out in English and is available on and Amazon. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Your fucken ass hole my grandmother was there and helped out the people from Congo and she is Belgium.

  2. Nice little article… well I’m a photographer, and I was hoping to spend most of 2012 in the DRC. I too have been wanting to get out there, and it’s looking like I’ll have a couple of commissions there.

    No doubt you’ve seen it, but if not

    this slideshow interview is well worth watching. His book is incredible – he has really dedicated this past decade to revealing and understanding what is happening in that country.

  3. This is such an awful but very poignant picture – I had no idea about this.
    Africa such a beautiful and breathtaking country yet always filled with bloodshed and hardship and the people so poor ……

    • I hate to be so fical on such a poignant picture but I just have to point out that Africa isn’t a country, it’s a continent. The Congo, however, is indeed a harsh place. I cried when I saw this picture….

  4. The caption under the photo is absolute anti white slander. It suggests the white Europeans were responsible for what the caption claims are the severed hands of a 5 year old child.
    If they really are the hands of his child, they weren´t cut of for the reasons given, of that I´m certain. Whites didn´t treat the blacks in this manner, ever. That is just plain lies and anti white propaganda. How do I know? I was born and bred in the Congo, and this is the first time I´ve heard of such rubbish.
    You should be ashamed of yourselves for printing such lies without furnishing any proof whatsoever.
    It is much like the so called holocaust pictures you published in October of last year under the heading, Sonderkommando photo´s in Auschwitz. It has since been established these pictures are doctored shots of a train disaster which occurred in Dresden, Ohio in 1912.
    I can supply proof of this if anyone is interested.
    The composition of the photo´s on this site are clearly meant to cast a bad light on the white European race. Why?

    • I very strongly suggest you go and read the following books:

      – David Van Reybrouck, Congo een geschiedenis, De Bezige Bij, 2010
      (I am very surprised if you haven’t heard of this book as it won both the AKO Literatuurprijs and the Libris Geschiedenis Prijs, one being the highest literature price in the Low Countries and the other being the highest history price in the Netherlands).

      – D. Vangroenweghe, Rood Rubber: Leopold II en zijn Kongo, Van Halewyck, 1985.

      – Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, a story of greed, terror and heroism in Colonial Africa, Pan Books, 1998

      – A.M. Delathuy, E.D. Morel tegen Leopold II en de Kongostaat, EPO, 1985 (Delathuy is the pseudonym of Jules Marchal, districtcommissionar in Belgian Congo)

      – D. Northrup, Slavery and forced labour in the Eastern Congo, 1850-1910, from H. Médard & S. Doyle’s “Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa, Oxford Press, 2007, pages 111-123.

      – D. Renton, D. Seddon & L. Zeilig, The Congo: Plunder and Resistance, Zed Books, 2007

      – J. Stengers & J. Vansina, King Leopold’s Congo, 1886-1908, King Leopold’s Congo, in R. Oliver & G.N. Sanderson’s “The Cambridge History of Africa”, volume 6: from 1870 to 1905, Cambridge Press, pages 315-358.

      – V. Viaene, King Leopold’s imperialism and the origins of the Belgian colonial party, 1860-1905, from Journal of Modern History, number 80, pages 741-790.

      On a further note, the first book I gave you is from David Van Reybrouck who also lived in Congo… Of course he did not see “live” what happened in Leopold’s Congo as since 1908 it was given to Belgium. Unless you are at least 102 years old, you haven’t either. The transfer from Leopold to the Belgian state was very specificly because of the atrocities. The state, under international pressure, immediately started to halt these actions.

      All the authors are either historians or anthropologists (Vangroenweghe being the only anthropologist in this list) or had a high rank in Belgian Congo (Delathuy/Marchal).

      I have restricted myself to books that were either recently published or that are simply such standard works that any university has them. For references, such books are present in the Katholic University of Leuven as I have checked this myself. If for some reason you do not find these books I can talk to professor Viaene (the one who wrote one of the works I mentioned above) as I know him personally.

      • Attacking someone on his ability to write a foreign language instead of discussing the content of his post is a sign of how weak you are standing in the discussion.

    • Face it De Kok, the white race have been responsible for as much bloodshed and plunder in Africa as Mugabe, Idi Amin and many other despotic rulers have been, if not even more. You may have been born in the Congo but I doubt you were alive AND PRESENT to witness the circumstances of this photo. Being from the Congo doesn’t qualify you to overide what the poster has stated.

    • Mr de Kok, the vast majority of the pictures that were taken of the atrocities in the Belgium Congo were taken by my Great Grandmother Alice Seeley Harris and I can assure you they are not doctored, they are very real and there are plenty more.

      • hi rebecca feels good to find out u r doing what ur g grandmother was doing a good deed and she was a very bold and strong person for her efforts. would appriciate some more insight on her life as there is not much on her in the net . also please do mail me any info u have on her thx and keep up the good work

    • In a very technical sense, de Kok is right – the caption of the photo is not correct. The girl did not have her hand and foot severed as a punishment for bringing in too little rubber. In fact, she was killed, along with her mother and brother, by the armed militia of the ABIR rubber company in a raid to convince men (not children) to be more cooperative in their rubber-collecting. The militia included cannibals, and Nsala said she had been eaten – with this all that was remaining. However, in a broader sense de Kok is wrong, as so many have pointed out. The ABIR was a completely white-owned and white-run company which deliberately used African troops to enforce its will by any means necessary.

    • If the sondercommando photos are really from a train disaster, then why would the bodies be stripped naked as in those photos? Shame on you.

    • Fact is before Leopold, Congolese were overwhelming cannibals and humans were butchered wholesale.
      Arabs came in and bought the surplus “meat” to ship north or oversea as slaves.

      If the nazi negationism of de Kok is bullshit so is your Kremlin communist agit prop.

      Chinese Gordon Pacha died in Karthoum to save millions of Africans from Muslim slave trading
      and Leolpold put a stop to Congolese cannibalism…try to tell the truth once in a while.

      And conquering Islam is invading Europe right now and they want to enslave all Europeans like the Barbary pirates did for 500 years and cannibalism is resurging in the Congo.

    • Alfred the fact that you were born in the Congo, the fact that you did not know of these atrocities does not mean they did not happen. What about the other mutilations??? Even some Europeans had to intervene!!

    • I’m almost positive you are a white supremacist hiding behind a screen name. The photograph is well-documented as is the history behind it. Read “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild among others. “Anti-white propaganda”?! “Whites didn´t treat the blacks in this manner, ever.” Wtf are you smoking dude? Well you are also a holocaust denier and a believer in this aryan race supremacy nonsense. Leave history to the adults. Your place is at stormfront.

  5. To Bollekewol
    I hope you saw that my reply was to de Kok.
    The subject of his post is NOT for discussion.It might have been for discussion 60 or 70 years ago.
    Now, as you said, there is proof.

    • Thanks for the clear-up, I indeed thought your post was aimed at me. 🙂

      As you rightfully point out, in the ’50’s there was indeed an atmosphere going on about how great the Belgians were treating the Congo. Unsurprisingly, this atmosphere was created by the Belgians themselves. That attitude went right up to the point where in 1960 at the declaration of independence Lumumba held a speech in the presence of king Baldwin in which he kicked some serious butt about how people were mistreated in Belgian Congo.

      • In fact I don’t know almost anything about Africa, but there are always those little facts that one picks up while reading about other things, and in the long run these add up to a coherent story.

        The little facts come from all over, of course, mostly quite unexpected. One of them recently was an explanation of those strange frontiers that exist in Africa between the countries: frontiers that are straight lines…

  6. I think there are several points which should be taken into consideration. The books and articles Bollekewol is listing are very informative and useful, indeed, but do not forget, that Vangroenweghe and Delathuy (Jules Marchal) are not historians, and the latter is quite biased against the colonial administration and Hochschild was instructed by the latter when writing his book. Zeilig is not an expert of the period at all (he is even not historian), neither Seddon (expert in Nepal, not in the Congo of the XIXth century), Reddon is an expert on Nazi and Marxist issues, so this latter trio has no real experience on the filed, but they have seemingly a leftist engagement. Stengers was the historian of the Belgian royal dinasty (rather conservative), and Vansina was left Belgium, so he had also some offendedness against Belgium. So when blaming all but the whites/Europeans do not forget, that all those horrors could not have been happening without the cooperation of a lot of African people. The very few Europeans (a few hundreds) present in the turn of the XIXth-XXth century Congo would not have been able to commit these act alone against polulations of ten/hundred thousands without the help of local accomplices. It is like the slave trade in which a lot of Africans were also very keen actors – otherwise it would never happened in such a large scale. There is also one thing: if the king was running his property as a company, then he would not let to weaken the company by massive killing/mutilating of the manpower… It was rather the pressure of the king on his European employees to produce good results that drove his men to use such a violent manners to obtain good statistic and thus touching bonuses. Even if the king was aware of these problems (and probably he was), he did not encourage this methods to produce good figures, although he did not refrain from the use of violence against natives because it was generally accepted at that time as part of the patrnalistic racism widely spread in the Western societies mind of the turn of the century. But the use of violence was not accepted for mass killings, only for “coercitive actions” in order to force the local populations to behave the way their masters wanted… Only a few people raised their voice like E.D. Morel with Roger Casement or the foreign missionaries earlier, but the general state of mind was in favour of the “victorious Western nations” governing all the world”.

    • So Cortes was not to blame; the Aztecs must have done something… And the Americans are never to blame for the dozen autocracies they forced on Latin America -it’s only that a bunch of ambitious generals tricked them into installing military governments; they never trained them, the School of the Americas never existed. A very dangerous/immoral way of ‘thinking’, I must say.

  7. The job is done, the rubber and ivory are gone!
    And 100 years later, they still party on, with the money hidden in numerous dark constructions.

    Nobody cares for the 10million deads, or their orphans……
    Nobody dares to ask for the truth ….for you cannot uncover a throne.

    Will they get away with it? Will human history be raped with the biggest crime ever?
    Will they die, rich with their Congolese money, in eternal shame, or will they be honest and brave, and return it back where it came from?

    We, Belgians, we just wonder.

  8. here in congo we might consider the identity of the devil :he is a belgium citizen and his ofspring still carry his mark could a spears trower people oppose the gun handling barbarians? we received you with plates of food but you left us handles and rwduced to slavery mind. who is the heart of darkeness? you be the judge as we dont have the mean to oppose you.

    • Bullshit, you hired out mercenaries from Castro’s Cuban terrorists and they imported millions of kalashnikovs to distribute to cannibal tribesmen to conduct massive genocides all over africa…the colonists brought civilization, YOU killed them all and YOU baboons are returning to the jungle!

  9. Belgium left us with nothing but desolation not even a simple tool of communication as their languages was used to pass coded evil messages. their king was as evil as satan point is today it difficult for a congolese to be seen in a good light everywhere.we cant live with the stigmata of your acts forever, we need reparation! as it is with nazi victims. each belgian citizen today have a peace of congolese suffering in his blood,pocket or bank account and house.besides it in belgium tgat we are the least welcome.

    • De Kok is a fellow nazi that have the same racist attitude as YOU have, you bunch of Idi “Adolf Hitler” Amine,
      Amine was a cannibal and a genocidal murderer. ALL African countries are run by cannibal dictators that make a sport of exterminating their enslaved subjects.

  10. I have to say this is one of the most affecting photos I have every seen. The sense of horror is equal to any Greek tragedy. In its own quiet and contemplative way it is as shocking as some of the strongest holocaust photos. It is impossible not to identify with the father.

  11. As a young African who aspires to be a journalist & photographer, this article has truly affected me
    the photograph caught my eye and your telling of the truth is poignant
    I will post this on my blog (with due credit) and make my young peers aware of an issue I know they are heedless to

    may the souls of the massacred rest in peace

    thank you for the inspiration

  12. Bei meinem Besuch voriger Woche im Afrikamuseum/Tervuren fand ich ein Photo ausgestellt: Abgehackte Hände.
    Kongogreuel: Abgehackte Hände,  -
    Es ist eine Schande, daß die Denkmäler von Leopold II noch einen Ehrenplatz haben.

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  14. Thank you for writing this beautiful peace about the Congo. I’m going to share this article as well as you picture on our blog on DR Congo which will content all credit to your Blog for this.

    As u mentioned exploitation of minerals such as Coltan and Neo Colonialism agendas have been very successful in carrying on the hidden atrocities in the DRC. As we Speak the war in the Kivu as intensified again this year. Whilst the media call it a mutiny and state that the country is at “Peace” over 5.8 million already died according to the UN report in 2010. It the deadliest conflict since WW2 where rape is used as a weapon of war and child slavery as a mean of production for multinational such as Glencore and many others.

  15. In 1831 (independence) most Belgians wanted a republic …..a “German” king (Leopold I) was imposed upon them by the British and the Germans ….. The king’s son Leopold II bought the Congo with explicit permission by Brits , Germans….so dont blame what happened in the Congo between 1885 and 1908 on the Belgian people (most could not even vote…) …..

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

    • 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.

  18. 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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  22. 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.

  23. 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..

  24. 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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