Leopold II of Belgium

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Aug 26, 2022

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Léopold II, of his name Léopold Louis-Philippe Marie Victor de Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha, born on April 9, 1835 in the royal palace of Brussels (in Belgium) and died on December 17, 1909 in the castle of Laeken (in the same country), was the second king of the Belgians (from December 17, 1865 to December 17, 1909), prince of Belgium, duke of Saxony, prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, duke of Brabant (1840-1865), founder of the independent state of Congo (1885-1908). He succeeded his father, Leopold I, to the Belgian throne in 1865. Through his mother Louise d'Orléans, he was the grandson of Louis-Philippe I, King of the French. He was the brother of Charlotte, Empress Consort of Mexico.

Leopold II was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project taken on his own initiative as a personal union with Belgium. Thanks to the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley, he managed to have it recognized at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, while considering and administering it as his personal property. Leopold II ruled the country using the mercenaries of the Public Force. He extracted a fortune from the territory, first from ivory and then from rubber by forced labor of the indigenous population.

Leopold II's administration of the Congo Free State was characterized by atrocities and systematic brutality, including torture, murder and the amputation of the hands of men, women and children when rubber production quotas were not met. In 1890, George Washington Williams used the term "crimes against humanity" to describe the practices of the Leopold administration in the Congo.

This and other facts were established by direct testimony and an international commission of inquiry in 1904. Modern estimates of the decline of the Congolese population during his reign range from 1 to 15 million, with a consensus around 10 million. Some historians dispute these figures, citing the lack of reliable censuses, the enormous mortality caused by smallpox and sleeping sickness, and the fact that there were only 175 administrative or rubber-tapping officers.

In 1908, reports of abuses and pressure from the Congo Reform Association and other international groups prompted the Belgian government to take over administration of the Congo from Leopold in a new territory, the Belgian Congo.

Leopold II also went down in history as the "builder king". Concerned with urban development, he radically transformed cities such as Brussels or Ostend, while bringing a modern urbanistic touch to Antwerp and to the greenhouses of his domain of Laeken.

Sovereign of a neutral state, but surrounded by powerful neighbors, he also advocated the defensive military development of the country, whether by fortifying Antwerp, Liege or Namur or by imposing, on the eve of his death, a reform of the military service, in order to make it more equal.

Crown Prince of Belgium

Leopold, born at the Royal Palace in Brussels on April 9, 1835, was the second son of Leopold I, the first King of the Belgians, and Queen Louise of Orleans, daughter of the French King Louis-Philippe I. Leopold had an older brother who died in the cradle: Louis-Philippe (1833-1834), a younger brother: Philippe Count of Flanders (1837-1905) and a sister: Charlotte, future Empress Consort of Mexico, (1840-1927).

The birth of Leopold, four years after the proclamation of independence, ensured dynastic continuity in a nation that was still weakened internally by an Orange faction nostalgic for the previous regime and externally by France, which still coveted the French-speaking part of the new state. The lack of recognition of Belgian sovereignty by major European powers, such as Austria and Russia, also threatened its survival. To consolidate Belgium's existence, its king had to have a direct male heir.

The birth of his elder brother, named Louis-Philippe in homage to the King of the French, his maternal grandfather, had aroused as much enthusiasm as his death in the cradle caused despair. At his birth, the king's second son was named Leopold, like his father, affirming the continuity of the Belgian dynasty. The child was puny and sickly.

King Leopold I was cautious and, unlike the Belgian population, showed no joy. Describing his seven-month-old son, his father wrote: "He is very strange in his behavior and very intelligent. In 1837, a third son was born, named Philippe in homage to his maternal grandfather and the dukes of Burgundy who ruled the states that made up Belgium in the 15th century. In 1840, the king gave his two sons the titles of Duke of Brabant, for the elder, and Count of Flanders, for the younger. Leopold's mother tongue was French, but the heir also learned English and German. On the other hand, if the Dutch-speaking writer Hendrik Conscience was given to him as a tutor, this appointment remained honorary because Leopold never learned the Dutch language, nor Flemish.

King Leopold I, son-in-law of the French king, was also the uncle of Queen Victoria and her husband, but also their mentor. The French revolution of 1848, which spared Belgium, led to the abdication of the French king, Louis-Philippe. The latter took refuge in Great Britain where Victoria, first cousin of the young Prince Leopold, reigned and died two years later, in August 1850.

The fragile queen of the Belgians, Louise d'Orléans, upset by the death of her father, saw her health deteriorate further. She caught a cold during a funeral service in Brussels and died prematurely on October 11 of the same year in Ostend at the age of thirty-eight. Leopold was then fifteen years old and very affected by the death of his mother, who was personally taking care of the royal children, to whom several governors would succeed one another.

A month after Queen Louise's death, Queen Victoria advised the King: "You should keep your children as close to you as possible. I am sure it would be good and useful for you and for them. When he came of age, the Duke of Brabant became a member of the Belgian Senate by right and took an active part in important discussions, including those concerning the establishment of a shipping service between Antwerp and the Levant in 1855. That same year, he stayed with Emperor Napoleon III for three weeks in Paris during the Universal Exhibition.

The change of regime in France weakened the position of the king of the Belgians, who was the son-in-law of the sovereign deposed by the Revolution of 1848. To face the fall of prestige of the Belgian monarchy, Leopold, duke of Brabant, who had just celebrated his eighteenth birthday in 1853, proved to be a precious help for his father, who took him to visit the German and Austrian courts. After visiting Gotha, Dresden and Berlin, father and son arrived in Vienna, where a few days later the engagement of Leopold to an archduchess from the secular and Catholic House of Austria was announced. Barely three months later, on August 22, 1853, in the presence of Mayor Charles de Brouckère, Leopold married Marie-Henriette of Habsburg-Lorraine, Archduchess of Austria and Princess Palatine of Hungary, civilly at the Royal Palace in Brussels and then religiously at the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula. Sixteen years old, fresh, lively, passionate about horseback riding to the point of caring for horses herself, this cousin of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria was the daughter of Joseph, Archduke of Austria (himself the son of Leopold II, Germanic Roman Emperor) and Dorothea of Wurtemberg. Some people ironize on this "marriage of a groom and a nun", the "nun" being the shy and withdrawn Leopold who confesses to have resigned himself to the choice of his father for him.

This marriage for diplomatic reasons was badly received in France by Napoleon III, who did not like the success of the Belgian royal family when he himself was refused by the reigning dynasties and was content to marry a Spanish aristocrat.

After the wedding ceremonies, the young couple toured the Belgian cities before embarking in October for a long stay in England, with Queen Victoria, who after observing them, wrote in November 1853 to King Leopold: "I think you do not realize at all that, for her age, she has an exceptional personality. On all subjects, I found her particularly intelligent and sane, very educated and cultured. All these gifts give her a clear superiority over Leo and unfortunately there is no community of tastes and ideas between them. He speaks very well about it, as well as about military matters." To this missive, the King of the Belgians replies that "if Leopold is not at his advantage at the moment, in other respects he has a lot of spirit and that he will win every month if he is well directed." The difference in personalities between the young couple becomes apparent during a stay at the Tuileries in 1855, as the Countess of Westmorland notes: "One would give him sixteen years. He is a tall asparagus with a narrow chest and without the shadow of a beard: he talks a lot, does not lack spirit, but if his body is too young, his spirit is not young at all: he speaks not like a man, but like an old man. Judge if he must be amusing for his young wife with whom he takes on the airs of a master."

For years, the health of the Duke of Brabant had given many reasons for concern: the slightest cold caused him serious bronchitis, while a tenacious sciatica often led him to limp. The doctors therefore advised a prolonged stay in a warm climate. Thus, before becoming king, from 1854 to 1865, Leopold travelled the world, visiting not only the Mediterranean countries, but also India and China, while thinking of economic opportunities for Belgium.

From Greece, he sent in 1860 to Brother-Orban, then Minister of Finance, a marble plaque of the Acropolis, on which he had engraved these words: "Belgium needs a colony". He also made three trips to Egypt: the first one during the winter of 1854-55 in the company of his wife as part of a nine-month trip to the Orient; another one in 1862-63, during which he visited the construction site of the Suez Canal) and a last trip in 1864. During his first trip to Egypt, Leopold was conquered by this country: "Our trip to Upper Egypt and our excursions in Nubia succeeded marvelously in terms of health, for Their Royal Highnesses have never been in better health. This stay in Egypt is extremely pleasant for the Duke of Brabant, and he is looking for a thousand ways to prolong it.

At the end of 1864, Leopold embarked in Marseille for Alexandria. He went once again to Suez to see the work on the completion of the canal and then continued his journey to Ceylon. He set foot on land in Colombo and visited the island, where everything interested and delighted him. He inaugurated the railroad from Colombo to Kandy and was fascinated by the economic development of the first real colony he visited. Back on the continent, Leopold made a complete tour of the Indian Empire (Madras, Calcutta, Benares, Agra, Dehli and Lahore). He continued his journey through Rangoon, Singapore, Sumatra and finally China, of which he had dreamed so much. When the Duke of Brabant returned to Brussels six months later, he found his father in poor health and well aged.

King of the Belgians

On December 10, 1865, Leopold I, the first king of the Belgians, died. His son, now Leopold II, took the constitutional oath on 17 December 1865. The new king was thirty years old. His reign would last forty-four years. During the ceremonies of his accession, his popularity was noticed by foreign observers. Lord George Clarendon, the British Foreign Secretary, did not hesitate to say: "I consider the admirable demonstration of these two great days not only as a new consecration of the work of 1830, but as the strongest guarantee for the maintenance of peace. It is, in this respect, a European event". In 1865, Leopold and Marie-Henriette, who had been married for twelve years, were the parents of three children, including a son, Leopold, who was then six years old.

According to the constitution, the king could have formed a new government on his accession to the throne. However, he decided to keep the liberal cabinet, headed since 1857 by Charles Rogier, in place. When he convened the cabinet for the first time on 20 December 1865, he was modest in not presiding over it: "I have kept myself apart and I know nothing. I want to be a very constitutional King, because I am convinced that Belgium owes its prosperity and security to the constitutional regime that it practices so well."

On January 22, 1869, the nine-year-old Crown Prince Leopold died of pneumonia. This death, beyond its private consequences, had a major impact on the royal succession. On a personal level, relations between the king and queen were poor, but after the death of their son, Leopold approached the queen hoping for a new heir. On July 30, 1872, the royal couple gave birth to a third daughter, Clementine, to the disappointment of the king, who saw the hope he had nurtured extinguished. From then on, the king's interest was to focus on the training of his nephew Prince Baudouin, son of his brother the Count of Flanders, born in 1869, four months after the death of his own son; but the young man died prematurely in 1891.

Internationally, the beginning of the reign was confronted with the Austro-Prussian war. As the kingdom of Prussia shared a border with Belgium, the stakes were high. Prussia's victory put an end to the German Confederation, removed Austria from German affairs and ensured Prussian pre-eminence over the German states. Moreover, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg became a neutral state and Prussian troops had to abandon the fortress that was considered the most important on the German side facing Metz on the French side. Also the marriage, concluded in Berlin in 1867, of Philippe Count of Flanders, brother of Leopold II, strengthened the position of Belgium in Europe. The bride, Marie de Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was indeed a Prussian princess (Catholic) whose father, Prince Charles-Antoine, was very influential in Germany. Towards the end of 1868, the good relations between France and Belgium were threatened for a moment by the difficulties of the convention concerning the railroads between the two countries. In 1868, Charles Rogier was succeeded as head of government by Walthère Frère-Orban, also a liberal. Thwarting Napoleon III's expansionist plans through the East French Railway Company, Frère-Orban had a law passed in 1869 prohibiting the sale of railroad lines without government authorization. Defeated in the 1870 elections, Frère-Orban resigned and regained his seat in the Chamber. For eight years, he led the liberal opposition.

During the Franco-German war of 1870, Leopold II succeeded in safeguarding Belgium's neutrality. In 1871, the war ended and Germany became an empire, while crushed France fell prey to the bloody upheavals of the Commune. Belgium remained quiet, its situation as a neutral country having allowed business to develop. A good number of French exiles from the Empire, and later on, fugitives from the war and the Commune, brought new elements to the life of Brussels, favoring the development of intellectual activity. The heavy worry that caused Leopold II the ambitious inconstancy of Napoleon III disappeared, giving way to promising perspectives.

From the point of view of domestic policy, after the Catholic governments led successively by Jules d'Anethan (1870-1871) and Jules Malou (1871-1878), the reign of Leopold II was marked by the first school war between 1879 and 1884. This was a major political crisis in Belgium, with the liberals, who had returned to government under the leadership of Frère-Orban, advocating the secularization of society, and the Catholics, who put up strong resistance. The school question was resolved when the Catholics returned to power and formed a homogeneous government in 1884 under the leadership of Auguste Beernaert, who remained in power until 1894. Catholics led the next six governments until the end of the reign of Leopold II. In 1885 a third political party, the Belgian Workers' Party, emerged and sent members to parliament for the first time in 1894.

In a letter addressed in 1888 to his brother Philippe, count of Flanders, Leopold II intends that, under his reign, "the country must be strong, prosperous, consequently possessing outlets of its own, beautiful and calm. Barbara Emerson judges that the reign of King Leopold II "was for the Belgian economy, a period of great prosperity, but also a period of serious social conflicts; the working class was not dazzled by the prestigious international fairs displaying the wonders of Belgian industry and trade."

The Belgian newspaper Le Peuple, "the daily organ of socialist democracy", wrote on Friday, December 17, 1909, the day of the monarch's death, that Belgium would remember Leopold II as the king who decorated with his order a simple soldier who had intentionally "killed a worker" from Charleroi, "a good-hearted man, adored by his wife and children", because the latter had peacefully demonstrated against the "blood tax" in Verviers.

In terms of penal policy, Leopold II was totally opposed to the death penalty and systematically used his right of pardon to commute death sentences to imprisonment. No condemned person was executed during his reign and the tradition thus created was perpetuated by his successors - except during episodes of war -, until the legal abolition of the death penalty in 1996.

It was also under his reign that important social laws were passed: the optional nature of the worker's booklet (1883), payment of wages in money and on a fixed date (1887), the right to form trade unions, the age of admission of children to factories was set at twelve years old, night work was forbidden to children under sixteen years old and underground work was forbidden to women under twenty-one years old (1889), reparations were made for work accidents (1903), Sunday rest was allowed to take place on Sundays (1905), etc.

On November 15, 1902, an Italian anarchist, Gennaro Rubino, attempted to assassinate the king as he returned from a funeral service for the late Queen Marie-Henriette. Rubino only succeeded in slightly injuring John d'Oultremont, the court's grand marshal.

Leopold II tried to make Belgium less vulnerable to possible invasions by its neighbors (Germany and France), who had already been building important defensive works for several years (from 1875 to 1885). In 1887, due to the Bulgarian crisis and diplomatic tensions in the Balkans, Leopold II obtained from the government the construction of fortifications along the Meuse River, which were completed in 1891: in Liege (twelve forts against Germany) and in Namur (nine forts against France). In addition, the reinforcement of the Antwerp defense line continued. Much later, the king succeeded in imposing the reform of the military service, which he signed a few days before his death in 1909. Previously, the recruitment of the Belgian army was based on voluntary service and the drawing of lots with the possibility of being replaced in exchange for financial compensation. This system was abolished in 1909 and replaced by the compulsory service of one son per family.

It was also under his reign, in 1893, that the first revision of the Constitution since 1831 took place. Article 47, now 61, was amended to introduce universal male suffrage tempered by plural voting, eligibility for the Senate was reduced and elections were based on a proportional system, while Article 46, now 62, made voting compulsory. Nevertheless, despite repeated requests, the idea of a royal referendum - which would have allowed the King to consult the electorate directly - was not retained given the risks of a Caesarist drift.

In the early days of December 1909, Leopold suddenly fell ill in France. He was immediately brought back to Belgium and installed in the Pavillon des Palmiers in Laeken. He suffered violent abdominal pains and his doctor, Dr. Jules Thiriar, considered that surgery was necessary. On 12 December, his condition worsened. King Leopold II died of a sudden embolism at the castle of Laeken on 17 December 1909 at 2.37 am.

On December 22, he was buried in the royal crypt of the church of Notre-Dame de Laeken in Brussels during a funeral that, contrary to his formal wishes, had a national character.

Due to the death of his only son in 1869, and in accordance with Article 85 of the Constitution, which forbade his daughters from ascending the throne, he was succeeded on 23 December by his nephew Albert, son of the late Count of Flanders.

King builder

However, apart from the Arcades of the Cinquantenaire, the Palace of the Colonies and the Museum of Tervueren, he did not build large new buildings, as did his father Leopold I. He was more of an urbanist and topiary king, radically transforming cities such as Brussels and Ostend, building up an important domain in the Ardennes and constructing large parks for his own use or for the public.

His architectural tastes were generally oriented towards French classicism, even though Brussels was the capital of Art Nouveau at the time. The king used to visit the building sites himself to see the concrete progress of his projects.

Already as heir to the crown, Leopold urged the government and the municipal authorities to take care of the urban development. From the time of his accession, Leopold played a very active role in ambitious projects.

In 1890, he started the construction of a 25-meter yacht, the Brave Mollie (now the Motor Yacht Forever), based on the plans of the architect De Vries Lentsch. With this luxurious yacht, he travelled along the west coast of Africa and the Mediterranean.

In Brussels, after having encouraged the vast construction sites of the vaulting of the Senne, which will make the city more salubrious, he is at the origin of the transformation of the royal palace of Brussels, which he judges unworthy of a capital. He also worked on the enlargement of the royal domain of Laeken to which he added the royal greenhouses of Laeken, the Chinese Pavilion and the Japanese Tower.

If the project to build a new Palace of Justice was conceived under his father, it is under his reign that the first stone of the building was laid in 1866 and that the Palace was inaugurated in 1883. Nevertheless, as Barbara Emerson writes, Leopold II never concerned himself with its construction: "it seems that his son and successor (Leopold II) was never closely involved in the construction of the gigantic building" and also for Thierry Demey "the king who presides, on October 15, 1883, at the inauguration ceremonies of the Palace of Justice was not involved, either closely or remotely, in the genesis of its construction. But, like all the inhabitants of Brussels, he was present, half-maddened, half-fascinated, at its slow shaping. The Palace of Justice is the work of Belgium's founding generation and owes nothing to Leopold II.

This attribution of the construction of the Palace of Justice to the initiative of Leopold II is still repeated today, as in the newspaper Le Soir of Saturday, August 22, 2009 where one can read: "a colony, which allowed Leopold II to build the largest courthouse in the world, the church of St. Catherine, the church of St. Mary, Avenue Louise, Avenue de Tervueren ... All this with the money of the colonies and the fruit of our exploitation of the copper of Katanga", in a word the Palace of Justice, according to this newspaper, would have been built with the blood of the Congo... whereas the Palace of Justice begun in 1860 was inaugurated on October 15, 1883 after the death of its architect Joseph Poelaert and that the sovereignty on the Congo was attributed to king Leopold II by the Conference of Berlin only in 1885! Likewise, the church of Saint Catherine was begun in 1854 and finished in 1874, and the church of Saint Mary, the work of the architect Louis Van Overstraeten and not of Poelaert, was begun in 1845, half a century before Belgium had a colony!

We also owe to the king's initiative the construction of the triumphal arch of the park, also called Arcades du Cinquantenaire in 1905, the layout of the Avenue de Tervueren, the construction of the Royal Museum of Central Africa, the creation of public parks such as the Duden Park in Forest or the Josaphat Park in Schaerbeek.

His estate in the Ardennes includes 6,700 hectares of forest and farmland, a golf course, and the castles of Ciergnon, Fenffe, Villers-sur-Lesse and Ferage. In Ostend, a seaside town where he liked to stay in summer, the king enhanced the town and created new attractions. He had the church of Saints Peter and Paul built, the racecourse and the royal galleries on the dike, and he himself bought the land to create the "Marie-Henriette" and "Stéphanie" parks. In Antwerp, two emblematic architectural achievements took place during his reign: the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (1890) and the Antwerp Central Station (1905).

The sovereign also owns two large estates on the French Riviera: Villa Leopolda and Villa Les Cèdres and the botanical garden of the same name, where he engages in acclimatization activities of exotic palms.

On the occasion of his 65th birthday in 1900, King Leopold II expressed the wish to bequeath his large private estate to the Belgian state, on the condition that he would not alienate it, that he would preserve its natural beauties and that he would make some of the property available to the Belgian royal family and the nation. His objective was to offer his real estate to Belgium, avoiding their division among his three daughters, two of whom had married foreign princes.

In 1903, Belgium accepted the king's donation, on the condition that the heritage itself would generate the money necessary for its maintenance without financial assistance from the state. The Royal Donation is accountable to the Federal Minister of Finance.

Other ideas dear to the king were not realized until after his death - such as the Basilica of Koekelberg and the Mont des Arts - or were abandoned, such as the development of the area around the Porte de Namur where a Walhalla was to be built, surrounded by gardens lined with luxurious hotels.

Leopold II and the colonization of the Congo

Before acceding to the Belgian throne, Leopold II, then Duke of Brabant, was already interested in the idea of colonization, the merits of which he praised. After a trip that took him to Indonesia in 1865, he also became interested in an economic system related to colonization, set up by the Dutch: the "cultivation system" applied in the western part of Java, then extended from 1832 in other regions of the Dutch Indies by the governor general Johannes van den Bosch. This principle, known as "forced cultivation" (cultuurstelsel), was intended to maximize the profitability of the Dutch colony. The young king was in favor of this system, which "consisted not only in buying the product of the plantations at an arbitrarily fixed price, but also in setting up civil servants who obtained bonuses according to the production.

In 1876, at the end of the Brussels Geographical Conference, which brought together geographers, explorers, philanthropists and other personalities of different nationalities known for their interest in Africa, Leopold II created the International African Association as a philanthropic screen for his private project to exploit the riches of Central Africa (rubber and ivory).

On November 17, 1879, Leopold II created the International Congo Association from the Committee for the Study of the Upper Congo created the previous year. Under Leopold's patronage, Henry Morton Stanley competed with French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to acquire rights to the region of Africa that would become the Belgian Congo. For the next five years, Stanley worked to open the Lower Congo to intensive exploitation, building a road from the lower river to Stanley Pool (now Pool Malebo), where the river became navigable. Leopold II also instructed Stanley to obtain "contracts" for the exploitation of their lands by the AIC. Thanks to these contracts, these territories would be proclaimed "free states" by the AIA, which would then have full sovereignty over the colonized territories. Stanley's action allowed a private person - Leopold II - to become the owner of 2.5 million square kilometers and the labour force of its inhabitants.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, representatives of 14 European countries and the United States recognized the sovereignty of the Independent State of the Congo (ISOC) to the AIC, chaired by Leopold. At the signing of the final act of the Berlin conference on February 25, 1885, Leopold II did not attend the session, but when his name was mentioned the audience rose to their feet and applauded warmly because, despite his absence, he had dominated the entire conference, even if he had to make some concessions to France and Portugal that were small in comparison to what he had obtained: a vast sovereign state occupying, with the Congo River estuary and its immense hinterland, a key region of Central Africa. However, he also owed his triumph to the help of Bismarck - eager not to assign an area as vast as the Congo to one of the great powers and to entrust it to neutral hands - without which he would probably not have succeeded. This conference takes note of the division of inter-tropical Africa by the European industrial powers, including Belgium. During this conference, the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of the slave trade were also pronounced.

In accordance with the Belgian constitution, the king had to ask for the authorization of the Chambers in order to be able to become the head of the state founded in Africa by the AIC. To this end, with the help of Lambermont, Banning and Beernaert, he wrote a note to the parliament asking for its approval. Immediately after receiving this note, a draft resolution written by Beernaert, then head of the Cabinet, was debated in the Chamber on 28 April 1885 and voted unanimously, except for one vote, that of the deputy Xavier Neujean, who considered this cumulation of sovereignties unworkable. Leopold II had to choose a title for himself: after having thought of "Emperor of the Congo", he opted for "King of the Congo". On the coin shown here, he designates himself as King of the Belgians and "King of the Independent State of the Congo.

In accordance with the prescriptions of the Berlin Conference, Leopold II, like the other signatory powers, undertook to fight against slavery in the territories forming the conventional Congo basin. In 1888, French Cardinal Lavigerie, founder of the missionary order of the White Fathers of Africa, launched a campaign against slavery. The Arabs retaliated by attacking the African missions to the point that some of them were abandoned. The cardinal decided to alert European public opinion to put an end to the slave trade. The prelate went to Brussels in August 1888 and delivered a sermon that led to the creation of the Belgian Anti-Slavery Society with 700 members and a capital of 300,000 francs. King Leopold II followed this anti-slavery movement by opening in Brussels, on November 18, 1889, the Anti-Slavery Conference which led, after deep divergences between the seventeen signatories, to the signature of the Brussels Convention on July 2, 1890. Leopold II had proposed a vast program involving the creation of fortified posts by the great powers within their territories in order to curb the incursions of slave traders. From there, mobile columns could be sent in pursuit of the caravans to intercept them. These bases were also to be safe havens where the natives could be taught to defend themselves. This plan involved the construction of roads and railroads penetrating from the coast into the interior and the control of river navigation on the rivers and large lakes. According to historian Barbara Emerson, "Of course, none of the great powers present seemed willing to commit themselves to such a vast program. Leopold II expected it. No doubt he had a sincere desire to abolish slavery. He asked that the Conference authorize the EIC to levy a tax on imports into the Congo, because it was obvious that financial means were needed to organize the fight against the slave trade. Finally, Leopold II was able to collect up to 10% ad valorem on all imported products. In conclusion, Leopold II had succeeded in obtaining a loan of 25 million francs granted by Belgium, as well as the rights of entry and exit of the Congo. He could hope that with the increase in trade, these duties would increase and constitute important sources of income for the Congo.

In 1890, Leopold II intended to take control of Katanga, coveted by Cecil Rhodes for Britain. The king had written to his cousin, Queen Victoria, and had also contacted the German government to counter Rhodes' designs. So far, he clearly did not have the material means to occupy the Katanga region. He had already sent several expeditions to other Congolese territories, but this time he was determined to occupy Katanga by proposing that Congolese companies finance, at least partially, the expeditions that would enable him to occupy this region. Four expeditions were carried out in Katanga, conceded in advance by Leopold II to the Belgian commercial companies that were counting above all on exploiting its mining resources. Gochet states: "Let us finish with the Delcommune expedition which was however the first one to date. It left Belgium in July 1890. It was led by Alexandre Delcommune, the veteran explorer of the Congo, who reached the sources of the Lwalaba. Famine decimated many of his men, but he managed to reach Tanganyika in time to support Captain Alphonse Jacques in the anti-slavery war against the Arabs before returning to Europe in April 1893. The second expedition began in December 1890, when Paul Le Marinel, commissioner of the Luluaba district since July 1889, left Lusambo - which he had made into a powerful military station of major strategic importance for the occupation of Katanga - at the head of an expedition composed of 400 men and reached Bunkeya, the kingdom of M'Siri, on 18 April 1891. Back in Europe, Paul Le Marinel left his deputy Legat as resident at M'Siri.

According to historian Barbara Emerson, "The first expedition of the Katanga Company was led by a Canadian-born Englishman, William Stairs, a professional adventurer who had already been part of a rescue mission to Emin Pacha. He had under his command the Irish doctor Moloney and his servant Robinson, a Frenchman, the Marquis de Bonchamps, and a Belgian, Captain Omer Bodson. During Stairs' expedition, the latter noted that the famine was total and that the English missionaries were terrorized by M'Siri, king of Bunkeya (in Katanga) of the Wanyamwezi tribe. On December 20, 1891, a Belgian officer, Omer Bodson, shot the Katangan ruler in the head, freeing the indigenous population from the despotism of their ruler.

The coup d'état provoked by the Europeans was fully successful. Stairs fell ill with malaria in January 1892 (Stairs died on 30 June 1892). On May 18, 1891, Lucien Bia, a Belgian soldier from Liege, left Antwerp to succeed Stairs and lead the fourth Katanga expedition. Bia succeeded in his political mission, which consisted of concluding treaties with local chiefs and proclaiming the sovereignty of the independent state in as many territories as possible, before he too died in eight months. After Bia's death, officer Emile Francqui replaced him until his return to Brussels. This fourth expedition is known as Bia-Francqui. These expeditions allow, in three years, to explore most of Katanga and to confirm the presence of its mineral wealth.

The Belgian occupation was essentially pushed towards the southern valley of the Nile, where the Belgians took possession of the enclave of Lado, whose claims to sovereignty they succeeded in having recognized by Leopold II successively by the French and British governments in 1894. However, this recognition of sovereignty was only valid during the lifetime of the Belgian king.

Between 1890 and 1898, the king built, under extremely difficult conditions, a 400 km long railroad line between the port of Matadi and Stanley Pool, near the present city of Kinshasa, as the Congo River was not navigable on this stretch. This line would allow him to sell his products to the coast without going bankrupt: between 1876 and 1885, he had invested ten million Belgian francs in the operation, for an income of 75,000 Belgian francs in 1886, so that the fortune bequeathed to him by his father was almost exhausted.

In the early days of the colony, ivory was the main export product, but the invention of the rubber tire by John Dunlop in 1888 opened up a new market which the colony quickly developed. Rubber production, which was a few hundred metric tons in 1891, rose to six thousand tons in 1896, allowing a spectacular recovery of the king's personal finances. However, the king did not reinvest the profits by establishing plantations, but continued to force the local populations to harvest the latex extracted from the rubber trees in the jungle in its natural state. According to David Van Reybrouck, instead of creating a local currency to pay the workers, the administration imposed production quotas on each village, which they had to provide on pain of abuse. As early as 1887, however, Leopold II had coins minted in the name of the independent state of Congo (see illustration above).

To establish his hold on his colonial territory, Leopold II set up an army, the Force Publique, which became known for its cruelty, looting and "lack of discipline. This force became an instrument to terrorize the civilian population. One of its practices was to cut off hands as a result of insufficient rubber production. Resistance movements were also brutally crushed by this militia. The slave market and the ivory trade were contracted with local exploiters.

Historians such as Van Reybrouck and Hochschild recall that the amputation of hands originated in the obligation for Congolese soldiers to justify the use of their cartridges to the white hierarchy in order to prevent them from using their guns for hunting. These soldiers had therefore developed the habit of amputating the hands of their victims. In addition to these facts demonstrating the existence of significant violence in the Congo, testimonies report that amputations may have occurred on living persons.

It is estimated that during the 23 years of the independent Congo state, there was a population decline of between 2 and 10 million people. Historian Adam Hochschild attributes the dramatic decline in the population of the Independent State of Congo to a combination of factors: murder, starvation, exhaustion, disease and a plummeting birth rate.

However, these figures are contested by the historian Jean-Luc Vellut for whom "it is difficult to put forward any percentage because the only population figures that are available are those of restricted groups of Europeans. There is therefore no scientific basis". Similarly, the historian David Van Reybrouck rejects as "absurd" the use of the term "genocide", because it implies the conscious and planned annihilation of a population, whereas what we have here is the result of "a policy of unbridled exploitation and a pathological search for profit". This judgment is shared by Barbara Emerson, a British historian and biographer of the king, who considers Hochschild's accusations to be insufficiently founded. Étienne van de Walle, Aline Désesquelles and Jacques Houdaille are also reserved and consider that it is not possible to put a figure on the demographic effects of this policy, nor to clearly attribute responsibility for it.

Testimonies of the exploitation and mistreatment of the indigenous population - especially the cases of mutilation (the case of the cut-off hands with some photos) - started to filter through the press from 1900 onwards. The journalist and writer Edmund Dene Morel, who worked for a shipping company at the time, tried to alert the public to the fact that ships were leaving the port of Antwerp with arms and returning loaded with rubber. The exactions and executions were also denounced by the British diplomats Edward Bannister, William Pickersgill, the Swedish missionary E.V. Sjöblom and especially Roger Casement, British consul in Boma, who submitted a devastating report to his minister in 1904, producing scandalized reactions in the British Parliament. These testimonies provoke a movement of indignation in the world public opinion, fueled in particular by Conan Doyle, but also by Belgian socialists like Emile Vandervelde.

International pressure led to the establishment in 1904 of the Commission of Inquiry into the Abuses Committed in the Independent State of Congo. The commission was composed of Edmond Janssens, general lawyer at the Court of Cassation in Brussels and president of the commission, the Italian Giacomo Nisco, president of the Court of Appeal in Boma, and the Swiss jurist Edmond de Schumacher. All three investigating commissioners had a connection to Leopold II or the Independent State of Congo.

The commission went to Matadi, in the province of Bas-Congo, and then to Stanleyville (now Kisangani), in central Congo: "After four months of on-site investigations and the hearing of hundreds of witnesses, including five of the mutilated Congolese mentioned in the Casement report, the commission's report confirms the overexploitation, often forced, of indigenous labor (often victims of coercion) which resulted in the forced emptying of villages of their male population which, In normal times, the male population supplies the families with products of hunting, fishing and gathering, while the women are generally assigned, as in most Bantu communities, to small-scale traditional subsistence farming (yams, cassava where it is grown, pods of wild species). The fact that the European agents (more than a dozen nationalities) working for the EIC (and therefore for Leopold II) were left to their own devices, because they were insufficiently supervised and monitored, could only lead to abuses. The commission therefore falls "with short arms" on the concessionary companies, designated as the main culprits. The use of military expeditions is mentioned as being at the origin of the massacres, but according to the authors of the report, these military campaigns were intended to combat slavery, the eradication of which was one of the goals proclaimed by the Berlin conference for the attribution of the Congo to Leopold II. Some of the authors of the report believe that the mutilations were the result of "an indigenous warlike practice which was tolerated or not repressed by European officials.

The conclusions of this report are not shared by contemporary historians: the genesis of this structural violence was to be found in the strategies of the high spheres of the state, but the report was nevertheless crucial in the process of the Belgian takeover of the Congo. The reason was that this report ensured that "the Leopold state appears to the circles of the Belgian elite not as a model or civilizing state but as one of chicotte and massacres.

Following the work of the Janssens Commission and international pressure, the king - whose intention had always been to bequeath the Congo to Belgium - was forced to do so not in the form of a bequest after his death, but by an annexation voted in Parliament in 1908. According to an estimate by historian Jules Marchal in 1997, Leopold II personally earned the equivalent of 6 billion French francs from the exploitation of the colony.

From then on, the EIC took the name of Belgian Congo, but it was not until the end of the 1920s that its definitive borders were fixed, in particular by the Brussels agreements of 19 March 1927, supplemented by three protocols signed respectively in 1929, 1930 and 1934.

After 52 years of Belgian administration, the colony became independent on June 30, 1960 as the Democratic Republic of Congo. With Mobutu Sese Seko's accession to power in 1965, many symbols of Belgian colonization were eliminated as part of a policy of "return to authenticity": the capital Leopoldville was renamed Kinshasa in June 1966 and the statue of Leopold II was taken down and stored in what was to be a historical park.

Leopold II judged by his contemporaries

The Belgian lawyer and politician Alphonse Vandenpeereboom wrote in 1866: "Little by little the King reveals himself and takes shape, his intentions are excellent, I am convinced of it; he has talent, tact, judgement; he has seen a lot, he knows a lot of things, but he is, I think, a clever one; he is devious, cunning, I don't dare to say deceitful; he conceals his thoughts, pleads falsity in order to remove his intimate thoughts from his opponent.

According to William II, 1878: "King Leopold was undoubtedly a remarkable and imposing personality who was not easily forgotten he gave me the impression of being a frankly cynical and disdainful man."

Rodolphe, crown archduke of Austria-Hungary, son-in-law of Leopold II writes, in 1880, about his future father-in-law:

"I am on excellent terms with the king. We talk a lot together. He is one of the wisest, cleverest and most skilful men I have ever seen, and a remarkable orator. There is much to learn from him."

For Mark Twain, in 1905, he is "the king with 10 million dead on his conscience."

In 1907, Octave Mirbeau evoked the personality of the king in La 628-E8 :

"He has turned his throne into a kind of commercial counter, a business office, such as nowhere is better organized, where he deals in everything, where he sells everything, even scandal. In another time, this man would have been a real scourge of humanity, because his heart is absolutely inaccessible to any feeling of justice and goodness. Under a polite, kind, witty, elegantly skeptical, even familiar exterior, he hides a soul of total ferocity, which no pain can soften... "

The same author makes a damning indictment of rubber exploitation:

"In the Congo, it is the worst of human exploitation. They began by cutting down the trees, as in America and Asia, and then, as European merchants and industry increased their demands, and as more revenue was needed for the companies that make King Leopold's fortune, they ended up up uprooting the trees and vines. The villages could never provide enough of the precious material. The negroes are searched, and they are impatient to watch them work so sluggishly. Their backs are streaked with bloody tattoos. They are lazy, or else they hide their treasures. Expeditions are organized that go everywhere, raiding, raising tributes. They take hostages, women, among the youngest, children. Rubber is weighed in front of the assembled negroes. An officer consults a notebook. All it takes is a disagreement between two figures, for blood to spurt out and for a dozen heads to roll between the huts.

Arthur Conan Doyle, 1909: "Many of us in England regard the crime which has been committed on Congolese soil by King Leopold of Belgium and his followers as the greatest crime ever recorded in the annals of humanity. I personally am very much of that opinion."

In 1911, the Belgian geographer and critic Alphonse-Jules Wauters severely judged the management of Leopold II:

"From the day of the application of the secret decree of 1891 to the day after the disclosures of the commission of inquiry, that is to say for 13 years, it transformed some of the rubber districts into a veritable hell. It generated most of the crimes that were committed there, the number and gravity of which will never be known. What makes it particularly odious is that it operated under the guise of humanity; it is also that the enormous profits that its detestable practices procured, had, among other things, for the purpose of feeding the budget of the expenses of the Crown Foundation, a veritable debauch of works of all kinds, undertaken with a view to the development and the embellishment of the royal residences.

Throughout his reign, Leopold II claimed not to be concerned about his popularity, but as soon as he came to power in 1865, he "fully appreciated the primordial place of communication as an essential tool of royal action. His concern to stage the highlights of his long reign is constant." The king even considered buying newspapers that were sympathetic to his cause. Like his crowned European counterparts, the king reads the national and foreign press. The King of the Belgians could count on the unfailing support of L'Indépendance belge, L'Étoile belge and the Journal de Bruxelles. However, more independent newspapers, such as the ultramontane Le Bien Public or the socialist Le Peuple also expressed themselves during his reign and criticized the royal action. On the one hand, the royalist press embellished the royal visits to the provinces or reported in extenso on the speech given by the first president of the court of appeal of the new courthouse of Brussels inaugurated in October 1883, underlining the dynastic continuity and the "superior intelligence of the first two Belgian sovereigns." On the other hand, Le Peuple shows a constant hostility towards Leopold II, whose lucrative role of constitutional sovereign, paternalistic charity, or marital infidelities he criticizes.

Queen Marie-Henriette gives King Leopold II four children:

From 1895, Queen Marie-Henriette lived in Spa, where she died on September 19, 1902. The sovereigns were thus practically separated. In 1899, Leopold II met Blanche Delacroix, born in Bucharest on May 13, 1883. The king, then in his sixties, fell in love with the teenager, who was later named Baroness of Vaughan. The latter maintained a parallel affair with her lifelong lover, Antoine Durrieux. From the relationship between the baroness of Vaughan and the king were born two sons - the paternity of King Leopold II is not established - before their secret marriage on December 14, 1909, contracted only a few days before the death of Leopold II: Lucien Philippe Marie Antoine (1906-1984), without descendants, and Philippe Henri Marie François (1907-1914).

The Baroness de Vaughan remarried in 1910 to her lover Antoine Durrieux, who recognized and adopted the natural children of his wife. This marriage is dissolved by divorce in 1913. The baroness de Vaughan died on February 12, 1948 in Cambo-les-Bains, in the south of France.

Full title

Grand Master of :

Founder of :

Decorated with:

Honorary military ranks and commands abroad

The statue of Leopold II can be found in the public space of several Belgian cities, but also in France and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In France, there is also a statue of the sovereign:

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an exact replica of the equestrian statue of Leopold II in the suburbs of Kinshasa (which has stood since 1926 on the Place du Trône, south-east of the Royal Palace in Brussels) and which was inaugurated on 1 July 1928 by King Albert I during his first visit as King of the Belgians to the colony in front of the Palace of the Nation, now the building of the Presidency of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The monument was removed in 1967 on the orders of Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko, at the height of his policy of returning to African authenticity. In February 2005, under President Joseph Kabila, the statue reappeared on Boulevard du 30-Juin in the city center following a decision by Culture Minister Christophe Muzungu, who stated at the time that the statue "is part of our heritage. I have decided to rehabilitate it, as I will do for others. But the statue was taken down again after 24 hours. The statue now stands next to those of his successor, Albert I, and the founder of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), British explorer Henry Stanley, in the presidential park of Mont-Ngaliema, a park overlooking the Congo River, rehabilitated in 2010 with the help of the United Nations Mission in Congo (Monusco), and open to the public under military guard.

Removal of busts and statues

Several of these statues have been vandalized since the beginning of the 21st century, with a resurgence since the beginning of June 2020, notably during the anti-racist movement that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in the United States in 2020. Petitions asking for their removal from the public space or their maintenance are multiplying in the name of the fight against institutional racism. The debate resurfaces regularly, but is reactivated in the context of various demonstrations around the world, meeting an echo in Belgium, notably through the Black Lives Matter movement. Pascal Smet, Brussels Secretary of State for regional planning and responsible for heritage, recommends that the Brussels government set up a working group, including members of the Congolese diaspora and historians, to decide what should be done with the references in the capital to King Leopold II. If the Brussels government agrees, the removal of the five busts and statues located on the territory of the Brussels-Capital Region requires an urban planning permit. Petitions are also circulating to remove the busts erected at the library of the University of Leuven (granted on June 10, 2020) and at the University of Mons (removed on June 9, 2020).

Several petitions are also circulating to keep the statues in the public space; they have already been signed by tens of thousands of people. The city of Arlon has decided to keep its statue of Leopold II after receiving a petition in this sense.

This wave is not limited to King Leopold II, but concerns many other historical figures in Belgium and elsewhere. Among others, statues of General Storms, who collaborated with King Leopold II in the colonization of the Congo and who committed "a series of exactions" including summary executions and mass rapes, and of Julius Caesar in Belgium, de Gaulle and Gambetta in France, were also vandalized.


  1. Leopold II of Belgium
  2. Léopold II (roi des Belges)
  3. Arrêté royal du 16 décembre 1840.
  4. Le règne de Léopold II est le plus long que la Belgique ait connu.
  5. Lettre du roi à son frère Philippe comte de Flandre, 26 janvier 1888, Archives du Palais Royal, Papiers du comte de Flandre.
  6. Lieu-dit de la commune de Mesnil-L'Église en province de Namur.
  7. Conférence de Berlin - Chapitre II, article 9 : « Conformément aux principes du droit des gens, tels qu'ils sont reconnus par les Puissances signataires, la traite des esclaves étant interdite, et les opérations qui, sur terre ou sur mer, fournissent des esclaves à la traite devant être également considérées comme interdites, les Puissances qui exercent ou qui exerceront des droits de souveraineté, ou une influence dans les territoires formant le bassin conventionnel du Congo, déclarent que ces territoires ne pourront servir ni de marché ni de voie de transit pour la traite des esclaves, de quelque race que ce soit. Chacune de ces Puissances s'y engage à employer tous les moyens en son pouvoir pour mettre fin à ce commerce et pour punir ceux qui s'en occupent. »[29].
  8. ^ Hochschild, A. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 1999. pp. 111–112
  9. Vgl. Archivierte Kopie (Memento vom 23. August 2013 im Internet Archive)
  10. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998; Neuausgabe 2006), ISBN 0-330-49233-0. Eine deutsche Übersetzung erschien im Jahr 2000.
  11. a b Hochschild, Adam (2006). King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. ISBN 978-1-74329-160-3.
  12. Russell, Bertrand: Freedom and organization. London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1952 (ed. or. 1934)
  13. Hochschild, Adam (2006). King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. pp. 225–33. ISBN 978-1-74329-160-3
  14. Van Reybrouck, 2014, p. 63.
  15. Reybrouck, David van (2013). Congo. The Epic History of a People, p. 95.

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