Leopold II, the king with two faces

Leopold II, the king with two faces

The history of the Congo is partly linked to that of King Leopold II, who made it his private colony, the Independent State of the Congo (EIC) from 1885 to 15 November 1908, when Belgium took over this immense territory. Leopold II reflects both the image of a building genius and of a colonial tyrant who turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by agents of his state agencies in the Congo. Pierre-Luc Plasman, UCLouvain historian, author of “Leopold II Potentat congolais”, dissects the reasons that led to the massacres.

There is no doubt about the horrors that took place in the Congo at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In 1904, an edifying report by the British consul in Boma (west), Roger Casement, mentioned the atrocities, mutilations and executions committed by the concession companies responsible for the harvesting of rubber. A few years earlier, the Franco-British journalist Edmund Morel had also tried to alert public opinion.

In the wake of these denunciations, a commission of inquiry was set up and condemned “the often forced overexploitation of indigenous labor (often victims of coercion)” A few months earlier, Léopold II, having learned what was going on in the concession companies, had nevertheless punched the table, says Pierre-Luc Plasman. “AT from the first scandals, which broke out in 1895, the king, who refused to be splashed with blood, took measures to reduce the violence and we noted a decrease in its intensity

Hostage-taking, fire, and severed hands

However, in 1902, the sovereign turned around. “What makes the king change his mind is the financial question“Says the historian. And to develop: “Léopold II has big urban ambitions for Belgium, but if the production of rubber falls, the dividends of companies in which the State has interests fall. ” The king therefore maintains the operating system and the logic of bonuses, which combined with other factors such as racism and isolation had led a whole series of European agents to a mechanism of violence in order to increase the harvest. rubber. “We talk about constraints, hostage taking, village fires, massacres of villagers“, Specifies Pierre-Luc Plasman.

The most striking and very localized fact is that of severed hands, which we owe to a high Belgian territorial official, Victor-Léon Fiévez, who set up this infamous system to control the use of ammunition” In 1902, Fiévez was suspended and the Antwerp company responsible for the massacres was blocked. But Leopold II, who had to borrow from big bankers like the Rothschilds to finance the state, still wants to make a profit on his investment. He will then involve the State in a contradictory policy, what Pierre-Luc Plasman called in his thesis “the paradox of governance“:” he wants a civilizing, civilized, model state, concerned about the well-being of the population, but on the other hand, he wants the revenues to remain the same, that they even increase “.

The country as an heir

So it doesn’t end the operating system. He simply transfers the prerogatives and police rights of the Antwerp woman to the neighboring society, ABIR … who will use the same violence.

If Leopold II finally decided to turn a blind eye to these atrocities, it was because he dreamed of making Belgium bigger, more beautiful, stronger and calmer, explains the historian. Without descendants, he considered the country as his heir. He had found a way to make it bigger through colonization by acquiring the Congo on a personal basis. He now wanted to make it more beautiful by endowing it with monuments and regional planning. “The king displayed an entrepreneurial bulimia. It’s primarily a business issue“, According to Pierre-Luc Plasman.

The historian points out that the king also has a very high regard for royal office, predominated by the excellence and the maintenance of the prestige of the crown. “Leopold II is a king who will build on the image of his father. He wanted to continue the work of Leopold I, continue the dynasty and maintain the still fragile independence of Belgium

Born 1835 and ascended the throne in 1865, Leopold II is the second king of the Belgians. He is also the Belgian sovereign with the longest reign: 44 years to the day. Controversial figure, it falls today from its pedestal, in a climate of reflection around colonialism.


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