If you are king and die, the bier is escorted through the streets of the capital while a grieving people mourn their king. For Leopold II’s funeral in Brussels on 22 December 1909 it was different, when the people stood to show their displeasure when the bier passed. Why such an unpopular king? Yes, after him was the Congo in Africa, an example of abuse of power, megalomaniac madness and with 10 million lives on the conscience as well as many severed hands.
Congo Free State
In 1885, Leopold II received the area that is today the Congo as his private territory through a European conference in Berlin. At that time, large parts of Africa were affected by infectious diseases. This meant that the colonial states had problems getting white volunteers to go there to run the colonies. Therefore, an alternative management method was created. The system has been called the concession system. Private companies could manage certain areas. They would then have full access to all resources, including people. These private companies were also allowed to have private military forces.
This system gave us a form of colonialism which is the worst the world has experienced. Among these was Leopold II and his private Congo Free State.
Ivory and rubber
Leopold II made a fortune from ivory and somewhat later also the production of raw rubber. He was never in Africa himself, but his private army ensured that orders were followed. Raw rubber production became increasingly important and it was here that the great human tragedies took place.
The living conditions for the Africans must have been miserable. The vast majority were forced to work in the raw rubber plantations. If the work was not done quickly enough, the workers were punished, even executed. Men women and children had their hands cut off for not working fast enough.
Leopold II had to relinquish control
After strong international protests against what was going on in the Congo, the government of Belgium finally intervened and took control. The country then changed its name to Belgian Congo.
Colonies were nevertheless attractive for a long time and Belgium continued to be a colonial power in the Congo until the Congo became independent in 1960 and changed its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
After Leopold II died, Belgium felt the need to defend its colonialism at home in Belgium. More and more people expressed that colonialism was something Belgium should not be doing. A kind of glorification of the colonial era was attempted. During that period, several statues of King Leopold II were also erected in Belgium.
The unpopular King Leopold II
It wasn’t just the king’s actions in the Congo that caused people to boo when the bier carrying his body passed through the streets of Brussels. Also his relationship with women, the treatment of his wife, Queen Marie Henriette and the three daughters, were strongly disliked by the people. Relations with the queen were mildly chilly, perhaps because King Leopold II had several mistresses.
A crown prince was also born, but he died at a young age. The three surviving daughters were disinherited.
The most famous of the king’s mistresses was the former prostitute Caroline. The king met her when she was 16 and he was 65. They eventually began a relationship that lasted until King Leopold II died on 17 December 1909.
It turned out that she inherited large fortunes and had also been given a baroness title by the king. The former prostitute girl became a multi-millionaire and extremely unpopular among the people. Both the Belgian state and the three surviving daughters tried to get the fortune bequeathed to Caroline without success.