The Belgian Colonization of the Congo


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The Belgian Congo was the name given to the colony established in the Congo, Central Africa, between 1908 and 1960. Colonial rule began towards the end of the 19th century, with King Leopold II of Belgium seeking to establish independent rule over part of the Congo region. Having gathered support from other Western countries by 1885, after winning a large part of the Congo territory at the Berlin Conference held by Otto von Bismarck, Leopold, who had “rapidly developed an almost obsessive interest in overseas affairs” (Vanthemsche 2012 17) named the Congo Basin his own personal colony, or the Congo Free State. However, the ruthless mistreatment and economic exploitation of the indigenous Congolese and their land by the privately organized non-government organization called the “Association Internationale Africaine” (Vanthemsche 2012, 19) led to the establishment of the Belgian Congo in 1908, a colony created primarily to serve a system of economic exploitation, after King Leopold II’s mishandling of the colony came to light, leading to the end of his personal rule and the annexation of the Congo as a Belgian colony. Even though the inhumane conditions created by King Leopold II, such as the neglect of the indigenous Congolese in regards to medical treatment throughout the 1889-90 flu pandemic (Vanthemsche 2012, 25), and the ruthless exploitation and terrorization of natives by the “Force Publique” (Spaas 2013, 72-74) a private army established by King Leopold II, to entice them into labor exploitation, the economic agenda still reigned, as regions in the Congo were forced to become specialized to serve the needs of the Belgian state as well as many private Belgian businesses. The Belgian colonizers favored a system of direct rule by dividing the country into small administration all led by Belgians. This hierarchy normalized the concept of superiority of white people and led to racial segregation. Towards the end of World War II and after, the Belgians expanded their economic gain in the Congo by developing programs which served to extend its labor force, which, subsequently, led to the creation of a Europeanized African middle class, also called the évolués. (Spaas 2013 55)

Belgian Congo
By October 1908, King Leopold II had given up any hope of retaining personal control of any part of the Congo, and on October 18th, the Catholics and half of the Liberal faction within Belgian parliament made changes to the existing situation: “After the fierce struggle between Leopold and the government, Belgium annexed the Congo in 1908: This marked the beginning of the actual Belgian colonisation.” (Vanthemsche 2012, 27) This was largely due to the mistreatment and exploitation of natives, considering King Leopold II had “set up a particularly harsh system of exploitation” with the Congolese being “subjected to a merciless work regime, but also to acts of violence aimed at breaking any vague ideas of resistance.” (Vanthemsche 2012, 23) The annexation of the Congo resulted in some improvement to the treatment of the natives (which was a factor in motivating the votes for annexation within the Liberal party), as the arbitrary use of violence and exploitation was curbed, and the crime of red rubber (Turner 2007, 27) was abolished. However, the economic exploitation of the region remained the primary goal of the Belgian Congo, and as such there was much continuity with King Leopold II’s administration. However, the passing of control of the Congo to the Belgian government marked a transition in which public works, such as healthcare and basic education, became higher priorities and reasons for colonization.

Government, Involvement in Wars and the Évolués
The Belgian Congo was roughly 80 times larger than Belgium itself. Under the Colonial Charter, the Minister of Colonial Affairs and the Colonial Council held executive power, while the Belgian parliament held legislative power, all from Brussels. The Governor-General was the highest-ranking authority within the Congo, ruling in Boma until 1926, and in Léopoldville after 1926. Vice-Governor-generals ruled over the four (six, after administrative reforms in 1932 which also ‘demoted’ the ViceGovernor-Generals to provincial Governors) administrative provinces, which in turn were divided into districts (of which there were 24 total), which were furthermore divided into territories (managed by territorial administrators), which were finally divided into cheffereies (“chiefdoms”) ruled by chefs coutumiers (“traditional chiefs”) appointed by the Belgian administration. (Vanthemsche 2012, 27-28). The abovementioned councils “were seen to provide the link between the State and the population.” (Dembour 2008, 23) Dembour states further:

“[A]ll requirements imposed on the colonised population, […], were first to be the object of debate in the council of chiefdom.” (24)

During World War I, the Force Publique engaged in open warfare with the German colonial army of German East Africa. In 1916-1917, the Force Publique invaded and occupied German East Africa, with the western portion being ceded to Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles, and in 1924 Belgium also acquired modern Rwanda and Burundi. (Vanthemsche 2012, 114-7) The Force Publique also saw combat in Ethiopia during World War II and was instrumental in achieving the surrender of Italian forces in 1941, while the Belgian Congo itself served as a major source of income to the Belgian government in exile. (Vanthemsche 2012, 129-35) As described by Spaas in her 2013 book How Belgium colonized the Mind of the Congo, “[t]he Belgians refrained from giving true responsibility to the Congolese and kept a clear hierarchy between themselves and the indigenous population by creating the class of évolués”, the term literally meaning, “’evolved’ through education and accepted European values and patterns of behavior.” (55) This, naturally, also led to the establishment of a white, Belgian elite.

Economic Gain as the Belgian Colonizers’ Main Agenda
As the title of this section alludes, economic gain was the main agenda of the Belgian colonizers. The main export being the decreasingly profitable rubber, the colonizers began looking for other resources by the beginning of the First World War. Vanthemsche states that “[t]he Congo became one of the main global producers of copper, cobalt, industrial diamonds, uranium and many other minerals such as gold and tin.” (30) Aside the mining industry, the Belgian colony suffered under a system of forced cultivation of crops for export, which became another venture of great profit for the colonizers and created a food shortage for the colonized: “[…] farmers had to maintain sufficient production for export while simultaneously producing enough for their own needs – quite a difficult task.” (Vanthemsche 2012, 30) The Belgian colonizers took out massive loans from the Belgian government to expand their economic ventures, and during the 1920s, steamship lines and railroads were built to maintain the established system of export and to further Belgium’s economic gain. Urbanization was heavily supported: harbor infrastructure, airports as well as electricity, waterworks and telephone lines were priorities of the Belgian colonizers. The loans were divided into funding from the Belgian government itself as well as private sponsors, such as businesses interested in the highly profitable mining industry. This led to the Belgian colonizers engaging in a form of imperialism interested mostly in economic gain, which was shared by European private shareholders. Vanthemsche states that “[u]ntil the late 1950s, it was impossible to assess the overall significance of the colony in relation to Belgium’s economy” but concludes that the investments made in the Belgian Congo “created a wealth that undoubtedly exceeded the expectations of the founders.” Further, he states: “[T]hey also resulted in a fundamental reorientation of the Belgian economy in relation to rest of the world.” (199) It is undeniable, however, that it was the endeavor of economic gain which ultimately resulted in the depopulation and massacre endured by the native people of the Congo during Belgium’s colonization.

Second Agenda: ‘Civilizing’ the Congo As with other European colonial powers, the concept of a superior European culture was wide-spread, which was an argument easily compatible with the allure of economic gain. As Catholicism had become dominant by 1930, educational systems shifted their focus from traditional native teaching to Western-based values. Religious institutions, most of which were Catholic, also built medical facilities and research centers, which would focus on local diseases. However, throughout this time, social inequality remained a normalized phenomenon and the flaunting of a supposed Western superiority was commonplace. This is why the social inequality in the Belgian Congo was commonly referred to as an “implicit apartheid”, which included segregation as well as other racial restrictions placed upon the native Congolese. (Vanthemsche 2012, 64-8). The establishment of the class of évolués is clearly related to the phenomenon of ‘civilizing the Congo’.

Present-Day Effects of the Belgian Colonization
During the 1940s, colonial authorities began to grant some of the elite within the Congolese population, the évolués, who first had to display evidence of their assimilation with European culture, moderate civil liberties, such as theoretical equal legal protection. However, indifference in Brussels and hostility from Belgian colonists stymied any serious effort to grant the native population more liberty. However, increasing pressure from within the United Nations during the 1950s eventually saw moves toward Congolese political independence, with the first municipal elections in which Congolese people were allowed to vote and run for office occurring in 1957. As the population began to organize itself socially and politically, two different forms of nationalism emerged as the major political movements. On one hand were the supporters of territorial nationalism who wished to see the Belgian Congo become a politically unified state, while on the other were supporters of ethno-religious and regional nationalism who wished to see the territory divided into smaller autonomous regions. In 1958, demands for independence quickly radicalized and gained momentum, with leftist Patrice Lumumba gaining popularity, despite vehement opposition from Belgium. In 1959, a prohibited political demonstration sparked a riot, which led King Baudouin to declare that Belgium would work toward full independence of the Congo. With resistance to colonial rule mounting, the Congo was granted full independence on 30 June 1960. A week after independence, there was a rebellion within the Force Publique against the largely Belgian officers, and throughout the country Europeans were increasingly the target of violence, leading to the evacuation of more than 80,000 Belgians by the Belgian military and the United Nations (Vanthemsche 2012 202-3). Dreams of a unified Congo were quickly shattered as the rebellion leaders split, with Lumumba being captured and executed (with Belgian aid) by separatists from Katanga. A series of rebellions and separatist movements destabilized the region until 1964-65, shortly after which army colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu seized power in a coup d’état. Mobutu enjoyed wide support in the West due to his strong anti-communist stance, and in 1966 he began a campaign of Congolese ‘authenticity’ (which included removal of colonial names for localities within the country). In the 1970s, Mobutu further radicalized the government, installing a one party-system and becoming a dictator is effect, while also renaming the country Zaïre. However, in the 1980s Mobutu lost his wide support base in the West with the collapse of the Soviet Union and was chased from power by a rebel force lead by Laurent-Désiré Kabila in 1997, leading to the renaming of the country as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila was succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila, who was confirmed president in 2006 in the first nationwide free elections since 1960 (Vanthemsche 2012, 204-7) Vanthemsche summarizes the demise of the Congolese in the post-independence Congo as follows: “Chaos, misery, exploitation of the masses: These notions summarise quite well the terrible fate of the Congo’s population since its independence. The vast majority of the Congolese experienced no improvement in their quality of life after independence; quite the contrary in fact. The infrastructures for education, health and the economy in which the Belgians had taken such pride were destroyed much more quickly that they had been constructed. The question therefore arises whether there was a causal relationship between the decolonization of the Congo and the country’s sudden demise. Does this sad observation a posteriori in any way justify the colonization or prove that decolonization was a mistake, as some argue?” (201-2)
Of course, Vanthemsche does not answer his own question with “yes”, but rather goes on to point the finger at the colonizers who, according to him, likely created the conditions which are now apparent by means of “rejection of the formation of a native elite and the protection of the Congo against foreign influences.”

The Democratic Republic of the Congo remains heavily influenced by its colonial history. Political strife and instability along with military conflict continue to plague the region as the country struggles to find its identity as a modern nation state amid sectarian violence rooted in the power vacuum left by the Belgian colonial government. The economy is still largely dependent on mining as, it was in the colonial past, and still maintains close economic ties with Belgium. The organizational structure of the education and judiciary systems remains the same, and the government maintains a strong centralizing and bureaucratic tendency. Even assertions or attempts of a ‘rediscovery’ of a distinct Congolese identity and culture can be seen as a reaction to the Congo’s colonial history, serving as an example of the way the colonial experience suffuses and influences everyday life.


  • Dembour, Marie-Bénédicte. Recalling the Belgian Congo: Conversations and Introspection. New York: Berghahn Books, 2008.
  • Freund, Bill. The Making of Contemporary Africa: The Development of African Society since 1800. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984
  • Spaas, Lieve. How Belgium Colonized the Mind of the Congo: Seeking the Memory of an African People. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.
  • Turner, Thomas. The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth & Reality. London: Zed Books, 2007.
  • Vanthemsche, Guy. Belgium and the Congo 1885-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

About AnekaB

Literature, Philosophy, Culture
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