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    Congo, Democratic Republic of the The Leopoldian Legacy
    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies


    Waterfalls, such as this one on the Kasai River, hampered early European exploration of the interior.

    "Without the railroad," said Léopold II's agent, Henry Morton Stanley, "the Congo is not worth a penny." Without recourse to forced labor, however, the railroad could not be built; nor could the huge concessions made to private companies become profitable unless African labor was freely used to locate and transport rubber and ivory; nor could African resistance in the east be overcome without a massive recruitment of indigenous troops. The cruel logic of the revenue imperative left the Leopoldian system with no apparent option but to extract a maximum output of labor and natural resources from the land (see From Colonial Times to Independence , ch. 3).

    At the heart of the system lay a perverse combination of rewards and penalties. Congo Free State agents and native auxiliaries (the so-called capitas) were given authority to use as much force as they deemed appropriate to meet delivery norms, and because their profits were proportional to the amount of rubber and ivory collected, the inevitable consequence was the institutionalization of force on a huge scale. Although native chiefs were expected to cooperate, the incessant and arbitrary demands made on their authority were self-defeating. Many chiefs turned against the colonial state; others were quickly disposed of and replaced by state-appointed "straw chiefs." Countless revolts ensued, which had an immediate effect on the scale and frequency of military expeditions. As the cost of pacification soared, Léopold II declared a state monopoly on rubber and ivory. The free-trade principle that had once been the cornerstone of the Congo Free State thus became a legal fiction, aptly summed up in this pithy commentary of the time: "Article one: trade is entirely free; article two: there is nothing to buy or sell."

    Protestant missionaries were the first to alert international public opinion to the extent of cruelties visited upon the African population, and with the creation of the Congo Reform Association in 1904, the public outcry against the Congo Free State reached major proportions. Not until 1908, however, did the Belgian parliament vote in favor of annexation as the most sensible solution to the flood of criticisms generated by the reform movement. The Colonial Charter provided for the government of what was thereafter known as the Belgian Congo. This charter permitted the king to retain a great deal of authority and influence over affairs in the colony through power of appointment and legislative authority, but his power was constitutional rather than personal and, therefore, limited. The main purpose of the charter was to prevent the establishment of a royal autocracy in the colony similar to the one that had existed in the Congo Free State.

    For almost the entire period of the Congo Free State (1885- 1908), the peoples of present-day Zaire were subjected to a staggering sequence of wars, repression, and regimentation. The impact of this colonial experience was so devastating, and its aftereffects so disruptive, because the initial shock of European intrusion was followed almost immediately by a ruthless exploitation of human and natural resources. In terms of its psychological impact, the bula matari state left a legacy of latent hostility on which subsequent generations of nationalists were able to capitalize; on the other hand, the sheer brutality of its methods generated a sense of fear and hopelessness, which, initially at least, discouraged the rise of organized nationalist activity.

    Data as of December 1993

    NOTE: The information regarding Congo, Democratic Republic of the on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Congo, Democratic Republic of the The Leopoldian Legacy information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Congo, Democratic Republic of the The Leopoldian Legacy should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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    Revised 04-Jul-02
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