By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The Democratic Republic of Congo suffered under King Leopold II. The Belgian king’s greed in the “Scramble for Africa” devastated millions and still affects the country. Today, clergymen deliver sermons from boats on the Congo River to reach the people on shore.
Christianity is alive and well in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions of Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and other sects of Christianity worship across the nation. Now, pastors seeking to spread the Word of God have taken to riverboats on the world-famous Congo River, where they give sermons via onboard PA systems to villagers along the riverbank as the boats sail past or dock at harbors.
One of the most popular Christian sects in the Congo is the Kimbanguist church, named after its founder, Simon Kimbangu. Kimbangu, whose followers viewed him as an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, was imprisoned in 1921 after Belgian officials and leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches decided his preaching was disruptive and troublesome. They convicted him of disturbing the peace and undermining public security. He died in prison in 1951, yet his sect survives to this day with millions of followers.
Kimbangu’s story is a tragic reminder of the dark side of the Belgian presence in the Congo. In his video series The African Experience: From “Lucy” to Mandela, Dr. Kenneth Vickery, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Advising in the History Department at North Carolina State University, discusses how Belgium’s King Leopold II rose to power and terrorized the Congo.
Colonizers of Africa
In the late 19th century, European empires, including England and France, decided to colonize Africa, taking enormous swaths of land for themselves by any means necessary in what’s called the “Scramble for Africa.” In Belgium, Leopold II was bitten by the same bug.
“As early as 1877, before the Scramble really had taken off, he wrote to one associate: ‘I mean to miss no chance to get my share of this magnificent African cake,'” Dr. Vickery said. “His first vehicle in doing this was an association that he founded called the International African Association. He put the International African Association forward as essentially a philanthropic project.”
Leopold said the Association would combat the slave trade, advance science, and bring moral uplift. In other words, it was a similar agenda that other European empires of the time put forth to justify colonization. In reality, Leopold sought riches. He began trading in ivory but soon switched to wild rubber, which was timed perfectly with the emerging automobile industry and industrial age.
His colony, however, did not belong to Belgium. Leopold owned it personally.
Leopold, I Presume?
“His principal agent […] was born John Rowlands, out of wedlock in Wales, but eventually, after travels in America and in Africa, was known to the world as Henry Morton Stanley,” Dr. Vickery said. “Of course, he was the man who found Livingstone. Stanley had become frustrated in his efforts to get the British government to back his own efforts in launching the Scramble.
“The British obviously came on board at a certain point, but he offered his services to Leopold, and a very convenient partnership was born.”
After establishing some hasty and rather unfair treaties with local chiefs and Indigenous rulers in the Congo, Leopold—through Stanley—established the “Congo Free State” and set up shop to harvest wild rubber, which was later replaced by domestically produced rubber and then petroleum. At the time, wild rubber was harvested from very high up in the rubber trees that grew plentifully in the Congo rainforest.
“It’s difficult and dangerous work to collect wild rubber; in a lot of respects, the great obstacle here or the great object of the game was to create the labor force that would collect this wild rubber,” Dr. Vickery said. “In order to get men to ascend the rubber trees and deliver the rubber to the agents of the Congo Free State, essentially, the agents took hostages—predominantly women, and in some cases children, usually the wives or relatives of those [men]—and then insisted upon quotas for the delivery of rubber from the related males.”
An End to a Reign of Terror
Journalist whistleblowers eventually descended on Leopold’s colony and published books on the rubber trade, much to the horror of the Western world. Colonialism was accepted at the time, but Leopold’s excessive violence, broken promises, hostage taking, and other crimes horrified other nations. He turned the Congo over to the Belgian government in 1908.
“The depopulation from killings—from starvation, from exhaustion, from disease, from plummeting birth rates—was estimated by one scholar,” Dr. Vickery said. “He considered that the Congo’s population may have been cut in half between 1880 and 1920. That, in turn, based on later estimates, would mean a loss of population of something on the order of 10 million.”
Belgium ruled the Congo quietly for the next 50 years until the Democratic Republic of Congo gained its independence.