Belgium's African Colonies

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Belgium's African Colonies

When Belgium became a nation in 1830, it had almost no tradition of long-distance trade or colonial activity. Even in the first decades of its existence, it showed little inclination toward overseas expansion. Although a few attempts were made by the first king, Leopold I (1790–1865), these were not successful. If this small European country nevertheless succeeded in ruling a vast colony in Central Africa, this was due only to the tenacity of its second king, Leopold II (1835–1909).


Leopold II, an ambitious and enterprising monarch, was fascinated by the Dutch colonial "model" in Java and wanted to enhance his country's grandeur by exploiting a vast colonial domain, destined to enrich the mother country. After several unsuccessful attempts in different parts of Asia and Africa, Leopold developed a keen interest in Central Africa. The king took several personal initiatives, without the formal backing of his country's government and even without the support of Belgium's leading economic players.

In 1876 Leopold convoked an International Geographic Conference in Brussels, where prominent geographers and explorers were invited. Under the cloak of humanitarian and scientific interests, he then created successive private organizations, the most important of which was the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC). These organizations, controlled by the king himself, had in fact a commercial purpose. When France, in the early 1880s, started to develop a political hold along the banks of the lower Congo, the AIC (which, in the meantime, had hired the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904) as its local manager) also began to conclude treaties whereby African chiefs recognized the association's sovereignty. Because the United Kingdom, France, and Portugal had conflicting interests in this region, Leopold's skillful personal diplomacy succeeded in playing the contradictory ambitions of these countries against each other.

In the margins of the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, the world's main powers recognized the AIC as the legal authority over a vast territory in the heart of Africa, a new "state" called the Congo Free State. The main contenders in this region, particularly France and the United Kingdom, hoped to reap the benefits of Leopold's "whim," which, in their opinion, would not last long.

Indeed, in the beginning, the Congo Free State seemed to be an unviable enterprise. The Free State's expenses outstripped its incomes. Setting up an administration and waging exhausting military campaigns in order to secure the Free State's grip on a territory more than eighty times as large as Belgium turned out to be very expensive. The Congo survived mainly through the king's personal funds. But from 1895 on, the Congo Free State, which Leopold ruled as an absolute monarch, was saved from bankruptcy by the growing demand for rubber.

The king imposed a harsh labor regime on the Congolese populations in order to extort ever-growing amounts of wild rubber. On the Congo Free State's own domains, as well as on the vast tracks of land that had been conceded to private companies, brutal and repressive practices took the lives of large numbers of Africans—though exact figures are impossible to establish. The Congo Free State, officially presented to the world as a humanitarian and civilizing enterprise destined to abolish slavery and introduce Christianity, became the target of an international protest campaign, led by the British activist Edmund Dene Morel (1873–1924) and his Congo Reform Association.

In the first years of the twentieth century, the Congo question became an important international issue, since the British government took this matter to heart, especially after an official enquiry commission, appointed by king Leopold, had confirmed the existence of excesses (1904). Belgium itself could not stay aloof, because of its growing involvement in the Congo Free State. An increasing number of volunteers had joined the public service and the military in the Congo; Belgian Catholic missions had been protected and promoted by the Free State's authorities; the Belgian Parliament had granted loans to the Congo; and important private groups had started investing in colonial enterprises, particularly in 1906. Consequently, the Belgian Parliament agreed in 1908 to accept the Congo as its own colony, in order to avoid international intervention or a takeover by a foreign power.


The so-called Colonial Charter of 1908 set out the main lines of the Belgian colonial system: a rigorous separation between the budgets of the colony and the mother country; a strict parliamentary control of executive power (in order to avoid the excesses of the former Leopoldian despotism); the appointment of a governor-general in Congo, whose powers were strictly limited by the metropolitan authorities; and a tight centralism in the colony itself, where provincial authorities were granted little autonomy.

In reality, Belgium's political parties and public opinion showed little interest in Congolese matters. Consequently, colonial policy was determined by a small group of persons, in particular the minister of colonies, a handful of top civil servants in the Ministry of Colonies, some prominent Catholic ecclesiastics, and the leaders of the private companies that were investing increasing amounts of capital in the colony. A classic image depicts the Belgian Congo as being run by the "Trinity" of administration, capital, and the (Catholic) Church. These three protagonists had an enormous influence in the colony, and assisted each other in their respective ventures, even if their interests did not always coincide and, indeed, sometimes openly conflicted.

The Belgian administration of the Congo was run by a relatively modest corps of civil servants (in 1947 only about 44,000 whites, 3,200 of whom were public employees, were present in this vast country, inhabited by some 11 million Africans). The lowest level of administration consisted of the indigenous authorities, the more or less "authentic" traditional African chiefs, who were strictly controlled by Belgian officials. On the local level, in close contact with the African population, the missionaries played an important role in evangelization, in (primary) education, and in health services. Protestant missions were present in the Congo next to Catholic ones, but the latter enjoyed, during most of Belgian rule, a privileged position.

As in most colonies, the Congolese economy consisted of a heterogeneous mix of different sectors. The rural masses were primarily engaged in a neglected and stagnating indigenous agriculture, aimed at self-subsistence but facing growing difficulties feeding the increasing population, particularly from the 1950s. The colonial authorities also obliged these agriculturalists to produce export crops (e.g., cotton), which made them vulnerable to the ups and downs of world markets. A third economic sector consisted of large-scale plantations (e.g., palm oil production by the enterprise founded by the British businessman William Lever [1851–1925]), also oriented toward export.

The Congo was also characterized by the extraordinary development of huge mining industries (particularly in the province of Katanga, well known for its copper, and in the Kasai region, famous for its industrial diamonds). From the 1920s on, heavy investments in the exploitation of the colony's rich mineral resources transformed the Congo into a major actor in the world economy. During both world wars, the Belgian Congo played a great role as purveyor of raw materials for the Allies, while the Congolese troops also engaged in warfare against the German and Italian forces.

In order to wipe out the stain of Leopoldian ill treatment of the African population and gain international respectability, the Belgian authorities tried to turn the Congo into a "model colony." Although forced labor, repression, and a "color bar" (a form of racial segregation) persisted till the very end of their domination, the Belgians made serious efforts to promote indigenous wellbeing, particularly during the 1950s, by developing a network of health services and primary schools. From the late 1920s, some important mining companies had also developed a paternalistic policy aimed at stabilizing and controlling their labor force (Congo had one of the largest wage labor contingents in Africa). The final decade of the Belgian presence in the Congo was characterized by a notable improvement of the living standard of the growing black urban population.

However, one of the main failures of Belgian colonial policy was the choice not to develop an indigenous elite. Secondary and university education were seriously neglected. The Congolese petty bourgeoisie remained embryonic: local entrepreneurs or proprietors were almost nonexistent. Only a tiny fraction of the Congolese population, the so-called évolués, succeeded more or less in assimilating the European way of life, but their Belgian masters kept them at the bottom levels of the public service or private companies, without any short-term prospects of exercising responsible tasks.

Anticolonialism and nationalism found their way into the Congolese population comparatively late—indeed, not until the second half of the 1950s. Belgian authorities were caught practically unprepared by the sudden wave of black political activism, and subsequently engaged in a process of "precipitous decolonization." In just a few months' time (from early 1959 to the beginning of 1960), the political prospects for the colony evolved from a long-term loosening of the ties between Belgium and the Congo, to the immediate independence of the African country.

When Congo became a sovereign nation on June 30, 1960, this new state was utterly unprepared to handle the enormous problems that it had to face, and it slid into years of chaos, internal disruption (e.g., regional secessions, such as Katanga's), and civil war—only to emerge in 1965 under the Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997) dictatorship, which was to last more than thirty years and thoroughly pillaged the country's enormous riches.


During World War I, Belgian colonial troops participated in the military campaigns against the Germans in East Africa. They occupied a large part of this German colony. After the end of the war, the Belgian government tried to exchange these territories against the left bank of the Congo River mouth, which was in Portuguese hands. This plan failed to materialize, and finally, on May 30, 1919, according to the Orts-Milner Agreement (named after its Belgian and British negotiators), Belgium's spoils of war only consisted of two small territories in the Great Lakes region bordering the immense Belgian Congo, namely Rwanda and Burundi (their ancient names being Ruanda and Urundi).

As was the case with the other former German colonies, the League of Nations entrusted both of these territories to the victorious power as "mandates." Belgium administered these mandates through a system of indirect rule. The pre-colonial social and political authorities, consisting of a Tutsi king (mwami) and a tiny aristocracy (predominantly of Tutsi origin), ruling over a vast majority of mainly Hutu agriculturalists, were kept in place—even if the Belgians reshaped the traditional structures by constantly intervening in them. Until almost the end of the mandate period, the Belgian administrators, with the help of the Catholic Church and its schools, did their best to turn the Tutsi elite into docile auxiliaries of their own rule. Only in the final phase of their presence in Rwanda and Burundi at the end of the 1950s did the Belgians change their attitude toward the Hutu majority. They favored the takeover of political power by the latter, a policy that succeeded in Rwanda but failed in Burundi.

When both countries became independent on July 1, 1962, Rwanda was governed by a Hutu president, Burundi by a Tutsi king. Belgian native policy, which had rigidified the ethnic boundaries between Tutsi and Hutu and consequently had exacerbated the ethnic identity of these groups, was largely responsible for the intensification of ethnic rivalry between these groups after the end of foreign rule. This antagonism, coupled with the high population density in these overwhelmingly agricultural countries, was to form a volatile environment in the following decades, causing several interethnic massacres, of which the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was the most terrifying example.


In 1876 Belgium's King Leopold II convened the Brussels Geographical Conference, which led to the formation of the African International Association. Though its goals were purportedly humanitarian and scientific, Leopold used the association to fund expeditions and establish posts along the Congo River.

With the promise of open trade, Leopold convinced world powers to recognize what eventually became the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC) as the legal authority over a vast territory in the heart of Africa. In April of 1885 Belgium's parliament made Leopold the sovereign ruler of this new "state," called the Congo Free State, incorporating all lands not directly occupied by Africans. European traders came to the new country, which was not a colony in the normal sense, but essentially the personal possession of King Leopold, to obtain beeswax, coffee, fruits, ivory, minerals, palm oil, and especially rubber.

While some Africans initially welcomed European rule, others opposed it from the start. Natives eventually faced dire conditions, characterized by displacement, forced labor, and taxation. The rubber trade, which was of critical economic importance to sustaining Leopold's enterprise, was marked by especially inhumane conditions.

Uprisings, revolts, assassinations, and other acts of resistance were common during King Leopold's rule. According to one estimate, casualties were as high as 66 percent of the local population. Such conditions led to opposition from other European powers, and the Congo Free State ceased to exist in 1908 when it was annexed by Belgium.

see also Mandate System.


Anstey, Roger. King Leopold's Legacy. The Congo under Belgian Rule 1908–1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

"Archives Africaines" of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brussels (Archives of the former Belgian Ministry of Colonies). In French. Available at:

Maurel, Auguste. Le Congo: De la colonisation Belge à l'indépendance, 2nd ed. Paris: Harmattan, 1992.

N'Daywel è Nziem, Isidore. Histoire générale du Congo: De l'héritage ancien à la République Démocratique, 2nd ed. Brussels: De Boeck & Larcier, 1998.

Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. The Congo From Leopold to Kabila. A People's History. London: Zed Books, 2002.

Stengers, Jean. Congo, mythes et réalités: 100 ans d'histoire. Paris: Duculot, 1989.

Vellut, Jean-Luc, Florence Loriaux, and Françoise Morimont, eds. Bibliographie historique du Zaïre à l'époque coloniale (1880–1960): Travaux publiés en 1960–1996. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Centre d'histoire de l'Afrique de l'université catholique de Louvain, 1996.