We have already seen a number of Christian attrocities, not only in considering the Crusades and other wars including wars fought on God’s behalf, but in considering forced conversions, Christian vandalism, persecution and slavery . Christians also have a poor record in facilitating the worst forms of colonialism. Here we look at just one example, probably the most extreme: The Congo Free State.
The Congo Free State (later the Belgian Congo)
In the nineteenth century, colonialism was widely seen as an opportunity for missionary activity. Colonists and missionaries established symbiotic relationships to further both of their interests. Of the Europeans who scrambled for control of Africa at the end of the 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold II left arguably the most notable legacy.
While the Great Powers competed for territory elsewhere, the king of Belgium carved his own private colony out of 100km2 of Central African rainforest. The state existed from 1885 to 1908 and included the area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo. The king’s stated motivation was to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries and Western capitalists, and to protect the “natives” from Arab slavers. (He did not mention that he would be establishing his own system of slavery).
The king’s new private colony became a massive labour camp, where he made a fortune for himself from the harvest of its wild rubber, and was responsible for the death of millions – estimates vary from 5 million to 13 million people. Anyone who failed to bring enough rubber for agents was killed. Those who failed to pay their taxes were condemned to slavery.
The system was maintained by the Force Publique. Officers were white, all Christian, overwhelmingly Catholic. Other ranks were black, many from distant peoples of the upper Congo. Others had been kidnapped during the raids on villages in their childhood and brought to Roman Catholic missions, where they received military training in conditions close to slavery.
Armed with modern weapons and the chicotte — a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide—the Force Publique routinely took and tortured hostages, flogged, and raped Congolese people.
The Force Publique also burned the houses of recalcitrant villagers.
Officers were keen not to waste costly ammunition, so soldiers were required to prove that each bullet had been used properly. This equated to proving that each bullet had been used to kill a human being. In practice, chopping off a right hand was regarded as sufficient proof. The idea of using a token body part to prove death was well established. Jews in the bible cut off and counted the foreskins of their enemies. Europeans rat catchers claimed financial rewards for each rat tail they produced). This system was open to further abuse, and soldiers realised that they could practice their favourite sport – shooting monkeys – and as long as they brought back a human right hand for each used bullet, their officers would be perfectly happy.
In some instances a soldier could shorten his service term by bringing more hands than the other soldiers, which led to widespread mutilations and dismemberment. Multiple mutilation was practised, people having both hands chopped off or an arm and a foot chopped off. Even children were mutilated – the size of the limb did not matter.
None of the Catholic officers seems to have noticed anything wrong in all this. Neither did any of the Catholic missionaries favoured by the king’s administration. As Peter Forbath noted
It would have been an easy matter to publicly expose the excesses, but no-one seems to have thought it necessary. Belgian Catholics stayed silent for years. One Baptist missionary seems to have realised that the system was less than perfect, and wrote to King Leopold’s chief agent in the Congo
When rumours of the reality started to leak out, the British commissioned Roger Casement to investigate, The rumours turned out to be true. A campaign was started to stop the abuse. As always with such campaigns it was led by atheists, freethinkers, liberals and Quakers, with support from African Americans some reforming evangelicals. The Congo Reform Association sought to reveal the full truth behind Leopold’s “secret society of murderers”. It was led by diplomat Roger Casement and ED Morel, with support from a number of eminent writers including Anatole France, Arthur Conan Doyle (The Crime of the Congo) and Mark Twain (King Leopold’s Soliloquy). Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was inspired by a voyage to the Congo Free State. The chocolate magnate William Cadbury, a Quaker, was one of the main financial backers. The campaign became the first modern mass human rights movement.
Eyewitness reports from Protestant, Presbyterian, evangelical and nonconformist missionaries were collected and published. Protestant, Presbyterian, evangelical and nonconformists all had an interest in discrediting the Catholic Church, and their reports were dismissed as attempts to smear Catholic priests. Photographs of the atrocities were easy to explain away.
In 1908, following a public outcry, the colony was removed from the King’s control and taken over by the Belgian government. The Congo Free State was reinvented as the Belgian Congo. Leopold said when he was forced to hand over the Congo Free State: “I will give them my Congo but they have no right to know what I have done there,” and proceeded to burn the archives.
The Congo’s soldiers never moved far away from the role allocated to them by King Leopold – a force to harry, rape and kill the population. The chopping off of limbs has also been preserved from colonial times. The population of the Democratic Republic of Congo has never truly recovered, and mass mutilations were inflicted on innocent citizens once again in the 1990’s
King Leopold’s Rule in Africa. Morel, E. D. (Edmund Dene), 1873-1924 (London, W. Heinemann, 1904). .Read it online
Arthur Conan Doyle (The Crime of the Congo) Read it online
Mark Twain (King Leopold’s Soliloquy). Read it online
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998
Henry Richard Fox Bourne, Civilisation in Congoland: A Story of International Wrong-doing. London: P. S. King & Sonm, 1903
1. Forbath, Peter . The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration and Exploitation of the World’s Most Dramatic Rivers. (Harper & Row, 1977) p. 374. ISBN 0-06-122490-1.