The story of the second king of the Belgians, King Leopold II started in Brussels, on April 9th, 1835, the day of his birth. He was the second child of Leopold I and his second wife, Louise.
At the age of 18, Leopold tied the knot of marriage with Marie Henriette, the cousin of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. Their marriage blossomed and was blessed with three boys and a girl. Unfortunately, things turned sour between the couple after the death of their son, Prince Leopold, who caught pneumonia after falling into a pond. An attempt to birth a replacement only ended in producing their last daughter, Clementine. The couple soon separated and Leopold was left in the company of his numerous mistresses, most prominent of which was 16year old Caroline Lacroix. She bore him two sons and they soon got married in a secret wedding in 1909 a few months before Leopold’s death. After his death, the marriage was ruled illegitimate by the Belgian Parliament.
Following the death of Leopold I on the 10th of December, 1865, Leopold II ascended the Belgian throne 7 days later. The early years of his reign were marked by major political and social developments in Belgium. He built several monumental structures, and initiated laws that protected the rights of the Belgian working class. He also felt the need for Belgium to expand and amass colonies. He attempted to obtain the Philippines as a Belgian colony from the Spanish empire but lacked sufficient funds. He then set his scope on Africa.
In 1878, King Leopold II set up the IAS as a means of exploring the regions around the Congo River under the guise of a scientific and cultural research company. In 1884, he then sought to claim the region of the Congo now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a protectorate of the Belgian crown. His claim was authorized by the colonial nations in the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. He thus named the region ‘The Congo Free State’, with a colonial government dedicated to improving the lives of the natives of the region.
Well, it was more of the opposite that actually happened. During the existence of the State, with Leopold II as its somewhat Supreme leader, the natives suffered tremendously. Millions of Congolese died from starvation, brutality and diseases. At that time, ivory and rubber which were in high demand globally were in relative abundance in the region. Leopold II exploited the natural resources of the region and amassed much wealth from it. He also restricted foreign access to the region and extorted and brutalized the natives. He created a task force known as The Force Publique to enforce his laws.

Congolese Labourers tapping rubber. Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons.

Natives were required to submit a quota of rubber daily, but failure to do so would lead to mutilation of the offender’s hand. The Force Publique were also required to produce a human hand for every shot they fired, to prevent them from using their guns for hunting. This, however led to widespread mutilation. Widespread tropical disease outbreaks claimed the lives of thousands of natives. Those who opposed Leopold’s regime were tortured, incarcerated or executed. Most of the population also faced poverty and starvation. Over 15 million people died in the Congo during this time.

A father stares at the hand and foot of his five – year old daughter, severed as a punishment for getting little quantity of rubber. Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons.

In spite of all these, King Leopold II continued to amass wealth and carried on with his human rights violations and atrocities. His activities did not go unnoticed. Works from several authors around Europe such as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad gave the international media a glimpse of the devastating condition of the inhabitants of the ‘Rubber Regime’ as Leopold’s rule over the Congo was popularly referred to. The Queen of England had also sent a commission in 1903 to investigate reports of human rights violation in the Congo Free State. Writer, Arthur Doyle also criticized the Rubber Regime in his 1908 work, ‘Crime Of The Congo’. He contrasted it with the British rule in Nigeria, stating that like the British, the primary objective of the Congo Free State should be to uplift and develop the primitive natives of its colony and not amassing their wealth and exploiting them. After much pressure from several organizations, King Leopold II was forced to relinquish his control over the Free State of Congo to the Belgian Parliament. The region was then renamed ‘The Belgian Congo’ and placed under parliamentary control. King Leopold II went to great lengths to cover up his atrocities and even burned down the archives of the Congo protectorate stating that after taking away the colony from him, “they have no right to know what I did there”.
On December 17th, 1909 Leopold II passed away. His funeral procession was greeted by boos from crowds showing the Belgian people’s total disapproval for the atrocities he committed in the Congo. He was Belgium’s longest reigning monarch and ruled for 44 years. Although he developed and beautified his nation, he did this at the expense of another in a brutal way.

The funeral procession of King Leopold II. Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons.

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