Christian Atrocities

La nôtre [religion] est sans contredit la plus ridicule, la plus absurde,
et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecté le monde(Ours is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd
and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.)

Letters of Voltaire and Frederick the Great (New York: Brentano’s, 1927), translated by Richard Aldington, letter 156 from Voltaire to Frederick II of Prussia, 5 January 1767

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.

Civilisation In Congo by Edouard Manduau 1884
This was probably painted at Leopoldville, an AIC station in the Congo Free State.

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).

Congo Free State, Slaves c 1905

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.

Congo Free State Slaves c 1904
Failure to pay taxes often resulted in the offenders being 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.

A slave is whipped with a chicotte — a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide
Congo Free State c. 1905

The Force Publique also burned the houses of recalcitrant villagers.

Missionaries build a chapel in the Congo Free State c 1905
The bricks probably come from destroyed local villages

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.

Not all lost limbs were attributed to amputation in the Congo Free State
Yoka’s (standing) right hand was amputated. Mola (seated) lost both hands to gangrene after they were bound so tightly as to cut off the blood supply.
Equateur, Congo Free State, circa 1905

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.

Congo Free State. This child suffered double amputation

Congo Free State, Mutilated Children

Leopold II, The devoutly Catholic King of the Belgians

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

The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. … The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber… They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace… the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected1.

Congo Free State:. One of the countless child victims of the Rubber Terror, where mutilation was punishment for rebellion, or for failing to meet production quotas


Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of Boali, his five-year old daughter
Source: E. D Morel, King Leopold’s Rule in Africa, pp 144-5

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

I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people’s stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit
(John Harris, Baptist Missionary in Baringa.)

Congo Free State. As well as amputations, people suffered from untreated gunshots and other wounds

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.

King Leopold’s Soliloquy by the atheist Mark Twain
Notice the various Christian references on the cover
Twain satirises the king’s grand plans:
“Radiating from the pyramid, like the spokes of a wheel, there are to be forty grand avenues of approach, each thirty-five miles long, and each fenced on both sides by skulless skeletons standing a yard and a half apart and festooned together in line by short chains stretching from wrist to wrist and attached to tried and true old handcuffs stamped with my private trade-mark, a crucifix and butcher-knife crossed, with motto, “By this sign we prosper”; each osseous fence to consist of 200,000 skeletons on a side, which is 400,000 to each avenue. It is remarked with satisfaction that it aggregates three or four thousand miles (single-ranked) of skeletons — 15,000,000 all told — and would stretch across America from New York to San Francisco.

Twain also notes the king’s Christian faith. In the pamphlet King Leopold says he had come to Congo with piety oozing from every pore, that he had only wanted to convert the people to Christianity. He asserts that for a King to be criticized as he has been is blasphemy — surely, under the rule of God, any King who was not doing God’s will would not have been helped by God. He complains insufficient emphasis is being given to the fact that he sent missionaries to the villages to convert them to Christianity.

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.

Congo Free State c.1905

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.

Funeral of King Leopold II in 1909. He was a devout Catholic, so the Catholic Church was well represented at his funeral, rather better than at the funerals of any of his millions of victims.

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

 Further Reading

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.

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