Leopold II

views updated Jun 11 2018


LEOPOLD II (1835–1909; ruled 1865–1909), king of Belgium and personal sovereign of the Congo Free State.

Leopold II, King of the Belgians—as his country's rulers have traditionally been known—was born in 1835. He took the throne in 1865, on the death of his father, who had been the young nation's first king. In most of western Europe, monarchs were then rapidly losing power to elected parliaments, and so Leopold did not leave a great mark on Belgium's internal politics. But he left an enormous impact overseas.

Shrewd, ruthless, ambitious, and openly frustrated with being king of such a small country, he was eager to acquire a colony. After studying how Spain and Holland had won great colonial wealth, he made a string of unsuccessful attempts to buy or lease colonies in various parts of the world. In the 1870s, as Europe rapidly began conquering almost all of Africa, he saw his chance. The Belgian government was not interested in colonies, but for the king that posed no problem.

Leopold hired the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and for five years, starting in 1879, Stanley served as the king's man in Africa. Essentially Stanley staked out the vast territory in the center of the continent today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and threatened or tricked hundreds of African chiefs into signing their land over to Leopold. Then, using these treaties as ammunition, the king managed to persuade first the United States, and then the major nations of Europe, to recognize this huge region as his own. In 1885 he christened his new possession the État Indèpendant du Congo, or, as it was known in English, the Congo Free State. One-thirteenth the land area of the African continent and more than seventy-six times the size of Belgium, it was the world's only colony owned by one man.

At the beginning of his colonial rule the main commodity Leopold was after was ivory—much valued in Europe for the way it could be carved into jewelry, statuettes, piano keys, and even false teeth. Joseph Conrad unforgettably portrayed the greed and cruelty of the race for Congo ivory in his great novella Heart of Darkness (1902). Conrad had been a steamboat officer on the Congo River in 1890.

Soon, however, the Congo was profoundly affected by something that happened in Europe: the invention of the inflatable bicycle tire. This, followed quickly by the invention of the automobile, created a huge worldwide rubber boom by the early 1890s. Wild rubber vines grew throughout the rain forest of Leopold's Congo, and to gather it he turned much of the territory's male population into forced labor.

The king maintained a private army of some nineteen thousand soldiers, black conscripts under white officers. For some twenty years, troops came into village after village, and held the women hostage in order to make the men go into the forest and gather a monthly quota of wild rubber. As rubber prices soared, men were forced to do this for weeks out of each month. The results were immense profits for the king and a human disaster for the Congolese. Huge numbers of male forced laborers were worked to death while women hostages starved. And with women in custody and men turned into forced laborers, there were few people left to plant and harvest food and to hunt and fish. In addition, tens of thousands died in unsuccessful rebellions. Hundreds of thousands fled the forced labor regime, but they had nowhere to go but remote rain forest areas where there was little food and shelter. Famine raged, the birthrate dropped, and disease killed millions who would otherwise have survived.

From all these causes, the best demographic estimates suggest that the population of the Congo was slashed by 50 percent, from roughly 20 million people in 1880 to roughly 10 million in 1920. Belgian colonial authorities at the time, including the official Commission for the Protection of the Natives, also estimated that the population had dropped by half. The forced labor regime began to moderate only in the early 1920s, when officials realized that, without changes, they would soon have no labor force left.

Leopold II earned, at minimum, an estimated $1.1 billion in early-twenty-first-century dollars from the Congo, most of it in rubber profits. This he spent on palaces and monuments in Belgium, on clothes for his teenaged mistress, and on his vast array of properties on the French Riviera. International protests forced him to turn the Congo over to Belgium in 1908, but he managed to extract additional payments from the Belgian government for doing so. He died, unpopular at home but with his fortune intact, the following year.

See alsoAfrica; Belgium; Colonies; Imperialism.


Ascherson, Neal. The King Incorporated: Leopold II in the Age of Trusts. London, 1963.

Emerson, Barbara. Leopold II of the Belgians: King of Colonialism. London, 1979.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston, 1998.

Adam Hochschild

Leopold II

views updated May 11 2018

Leopold II

Leopold II (1747-1792) was Holy Roman emperor from 1790 to 1792. He used his outstanding talents as a diplomat and administrator to strengthen the empire by pacifying the Netherlands and Hungary and making agreements with Prussia and Turkey.

Born in Vienna on May 5, 1747, Leopold was the third son of Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I. In 1765 he succeeded his father as grand duke of Tuscany, ruling as Leopold I but known by his full name, Peter Leopold. His 25-year rule made Florence a citadel of the Enlightenment.

Leopold's reforms, although no less radical than those of his brother Joseph II in Austria and just as distinguished by an institutionalized anticlericalism, met less opposition. Because Leopold discussed them beforehand with representatives of the local nobility and bourgeoisie, they went less against the grain.

Joseph considered Leopold his only friend, confided in him, and frequently asked his opinion. Leopold always replied with the utmost courtesy and respect, although, as can be learned from his secret journal, he actively disliked his brother. Leopold thought Joseph had brought the monarchy to the brink of ruin by impetuous and unwise policies. In 1790 Joseph lay dying and summoned Leopold, his heir. Leopold, to avoid association in the popular mind with his unpopular brother, made excuses. Joseph died, deprived of this last consolation.

Having become emperor, Leopold put down the revolt in the Austrian Netherlands, came to terms with Hungarian rebels, and negotiated the Convention of Reichenbach (1790) with Prussia, preventing that state from profiting from Austria's troubles by acquiring part of its territories. In 1791 he ended the war with the Turks on favorable terms, reacquiring Belgrade and Walachia.

Leopold's attention was increasingly drawn to the perilous situation of his sister Marie Antoinette in France, and in February 1792 he signed the Treaty of Pillnitz with Prussia, which provided for possible common action by these two powers against France and so made war extremely likely.

Internally, while ostensibly retaining what was viable in Joseph's program, Leopold canceled or ignored most reforms to which there was vocal opposition, thus sacrificing the heart of the program. At the same time he secretly encouraged Hungarian liberals to agitate for reform. What might have resulted from his convoluted and contradictory policies remains an enigma, as he died suddenly in Vienna on March 1, 1792, before either his domestic or foreign policies had come to fruition. His son Francis II succeeded him as emperor.

Further Reading

Leopold is discussed in C. A. Macartney, The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918 (1968). □

Leopold II

views updated May 29 2018

Leopold II

Leopold II (1835-1909) was king of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909. He founded the Congo Free State.

Leopold was born in Brussels on April 9, 1835. He was the second child of the reigning Belgian monarch, Leopold I, and his second wife, Louise, the daughter of King Louis Philippe of France. His elder brother had died a few months after his birth in 1834, and thus Leopold was heir to the throne. When he was 9 years old, Leopold received the title of Duke of Brabant.

Leopold's public career began in 1855, when he became a member of the Belgian Senate. That same year Leopold began to urge Belgium's acquisition of colonies. In 1853 he married Marie Henriette, daughter of the Austrian archduke Joseph. Four children were born of this marriage; three were daughters, and the only son, Leopold, died when he was 9 years old.

In 1865 Leopold became king. His reign was marked by a number of major political developments. The Liberals governed Belgium from 1857 to 1880 and during their final year in power legislated the Frère-Orban Law of 1879. This law created free, secular, compulsory primary schools supported by the state and withdrew all state support from Roman Catholic primary schools. In 1880 the Catholic party obtained a parliamentary majority and 4 years later restored state support to Catholic schools. In 1885 various socialist and social democratic groups drew together and formed the Labor party. Increasing social unrest and the rise of the Labor party forced the adoption of universal male suffrage in 1893.

In 1876 Leopold organized, with the help of Henry Stanley, the International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of the Congo. The Congo Free State was established under Leopold II's personal rule at a European conference on African affairs held in Berlin in 1884-1885. Leopold then amassed a huge personal fortune by exploiting the Congo. His rule there, however, was subject to severe criticism, especially from British sources. Criticism from both Social Catholics and the Labor party at home forced Leopold to give the Congo to the Belgian nation. The Congo Free State was transformed into a Belgian colony under parliamentary control in 1908.

On Dec. 17, 1909, Leopold II died at Laeken, and the Belgian crown passed to Albert, the son of Leopold's brother, Philip, Count of Flanders.

Further Reading

The best introductions to the "Congo question" are Ruth Slade, King Leopold's Congo (1962), and Roger Anstey, King Leopold's Legacy (1966). A discussion of Leopold's role in the southern Sudan can be found in Robert O. Collins, King Leopold, England, and the Upper Nile, 1899-1909 (1968). □

Leopold II

views updated Jun 08 2018

Leopold II (1835–1909) King of Belgium (1865–1909). He initiated colonial expansion and sponsored the expedition (1879–84) of Henry Stanley to the Congo. In 1885, he established the Congo Free State, under his own personal rule. Following Roger Casement's reports of appalling exploitation, he was forced to cede the Congo to the Belgian state in 1908.

Leopold II

views updated Jun 11 2018

Leopold II (b Vienna, 1747; d Vienna, 1792). Emperor of Austria who reigned 1790–2. Grand Duke of Tuscany 1765–90, influencing mus. life there and in Vienna. Paid for perfs. of several innovatory operas by Traetta. On succeeding his brother Joseph II, he began a major reform of Viennese court opera, introducing singers from Florence.

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