The Story of Africa's Forgotten Genocide
One of the saddest stories of the excesses of European colonialism in Africa is Congo Free State.
It happened over a century ago, but European nations still play semantics with whether or not what happened here between 1885 and 1908 can be classified as genocide.
The Berlin conference of 1884-85 granted King Leopold II of Belgium personal control over Congo Free State - the territory we today refer to as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"Personal control" meant it was his personal property, so the State of Belgium had no shareholding. Leopold persuaded European leaders he planned to civilize the local population, end slavery, promote education, provide health care, and open up the vast jungle. However, his primary motivation was the vast fortune he planned to amass by extracting the enormous natural resources of the Congo Basin.
Leopold's reign over Congo Free State coincided with a worldwide surge in demand for rubber, and Congo Free State possessed vast quantities of natural rubber.
He divided Congo Free State into 90 districts administered by European District Officers. A District Officer's role was to enforce taxation, and Africans paid taxes by tapping rubber. Each District officer appointed loyal Africans as chiefs for each village in their district, and the chief's authority was enforced by armed village militias referred to as Force Publique.
District Officers set daily rubber targets for each village, and each chief distributed his village's targets among all his subjects aged ten years and above.
Force Publique was required to punish villagers who did not meet their daily targets. They chopped off both hands of victims and took them to the chief to account for the shortfall. It was either rubber or the hands. Often, they also killed all of the victim's family members.
But rubber targets were set so high that achieving them depended more on luck than on individual effort. There were times when everyone in a village could not meet their targets, but Force Publique was not socialized to listen to excuses. They would wipe out the whole village.
Eventually, villagers started raiding neighbouring villages to "harvest" hands they would give to Force Publique if they failed to meet targets. They felt that harvesting other people's hands was easier than meeting rubber targets.
This kind of killing-for-rubber murders claimed over 10 million lives over 23 years - making it one of the worst mass murders in history.
By 1899, King Leopold II had become the biggest supplier of rubber worldwide; and members of his family had become extremely wealthy - thanks to their activities in Congo Free State.
Eventually, reports of atrocities taking place in the Congo Free State reached European capitals. Under tremendous international pressure, Leopold II had to cede Congo Free a State to the Belgian state in 1908. After that, the territory became known as Belgian Congo.