Belgium is not the first European country we think of when we hear the words “blood-soaked tyranny.” Historically, the little country has always been more famous for beer than epic crimes against humanity.
But there was a time, at the peak of European imperialism in Africa, when Belgium’s King Leopold II ran a personal empire so vast and cruel, it rivaled – and even exceeded – the crimes of even the worst 20th century dictators.
This empire was known as the Congo Free State, and Leopold II stood as its undisputed slave master. For almost 30 years, rather than being a regular colony of a European government the way South Africa or the Spanish Sahara were, Congo was administered as the private property of this one man for his personal enrichment.
This world’s largest plantation was 76 times the size of Belgium, possessed rich mineral and agricultural resources, and had lost perhaps half of its population by the time the first census counted only 10 million people living there in 1924.
His Majesty King Leopold II
Nothing about Leopold II’s youth suggested a future mass murderer. Born the heir to Belgium’s throne in 1835, he spent his days doing all of the things a European prince would be expected to do before ascending to the throne of a minor state: learning to ride and shoot, taking part in state ceremonies, getting appointed to the army, marrying an Austrian princess, and so on.
Leopold II took the throne in 1865, and he ruled with the kind of soft touch Belgians expected from their king in the wake of the multiple revolutions and reforms that had democratized the country over the preceding few decades. Indeed, the young king really only ever put pressure on the senate in his (constant) attempts to get Belgium involved in building an overseas empire like all the bigger countries had.
This became an obsession for Leopold II. He was convinced, like most statesmen of his time, that a nation’s greatness was directly proportional to the amount of lucre it could suck out of equatorial colonies, and he wanted Belgium to have as much as possible before other countries came along and tried to take it.
First, in 1866, he tried to get the Philippines from Queen Isabella II of Spain. However, his negotiations collapsed when Isabella was overthrown in 1868. That’s when he started talking about Africa.