Belgian Congo: Wikis


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Congo belge (French)
Belgisch-Kongo (Dutch)
Belgian Congo
Belgian colony

Flag Coat of arms
Travail et Progrès
(Work and Progress)
The Belgian Congo
Capital Léopoldville or Leopoldstad (now Kinshasa)
Language(s) French (de facto official)[1]
Dutch (majority of whites)[2]
more than 200 indigenous languages
Political structure Colony
King of the Belgians
 - 1908–09 Leopold II
 - 1909–34 Albert I
 - 1934–51 Leopold III
 - 1951–60 Baudouin I
 - 1908–10 Baron Wahis
 - 1946–51 Eugène Jungers
 - 1958–60 Henri Cornelis
 - Established 15 November 1908
 - Independence 30 June 1960
 - Secessions¹ July–August 1960
 - 1960 2,344,858 km2 (905,355 sq mi)
 - 1960 est. 16,610,000 
     Density 7.1 /km2  (18.3 /sq mi)
Currency Congolese franc
¹ Secession of Katanga on 11 July and South Kasai on 8 August 1960

The Belgian Congo (French: Congo Belge, Dutch: About this sound Belgisch-Kongo ) was the formal title of present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between King Leopold II's formal relinquishment of his personal control over the state to Belgium on 15 November 1908, and Congolese independence on 30 June 1960.[3]


The Congo Free State, 1884–1908

Leopold II, King of the Belgians and de facto owner of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908.

Until the later part of the 19th century, the Europeans had not yet ventured into the Congo. The rainforest, swamps and malaria, and other diseases such as Sleeping sickness made it a difficult environment for European exploration and exploitation. In 1876 Leopold II, King of the Belgians organized the International African Association with the cooperation of the leading African explorers and the support of several European governments for the promotion of African exploration and colonization. After Henry Morton Stanley explored the region, a journey that ended in 1878, Leopold courted the explorer and hired him to help establish Leopold's interests in the region.[4] Léopold II had been keen to acquire a colony for Belgium even before he acceded to the throne in 1865. He was convinced that the acquisition of a colony would bestow international prestige on his relatively young and small home country and that it might provide a steady source of income. Belgium was not greatly interested in its monarch's dreams of empire-building. Ambitious and stubborn, Léopold II decided to pursue the matter on his own account.

European rivalry in Central Africa led to diplomatic tensions, in particular with regard to the largely unclaimed Congo river basin. In November 1884, Otto von Bismarck convened a 14-nation conference (the Berlin Conference) to find a peaceful resolution to the Congo crisis. After three months of negotiation on February 5, 1885, the Berlin Conference reached agreement. While it did not formally approve or disapprove the territorial claims of the European powers in Central Africa, it did agree on a set of rules to ensure a conflict-free partitioning of the region. Key among those were the recognition of the Congo basin as a free trade zone, and the general acceptance of the principle that any territorial claim needed to be backed up by evidence of actual and durable occupation of that territory. In reality, Leopold II emerged triumphant from the Berlin Conference.[5] In a series of bilateral diplomatic agreements France was given 666,000 km² (257,000 square miles) on the north bank of the Congo river (modern Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic), Portugal 909,000 km² (351,000 square miles) to the south (modern Angola), and Leopold's wholly owned, single-shareholder "philanthropic" organisation received the balance: 2,344,000 km² (905,000 square miles), to be constituted as the Congo Free State.

The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians through a dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908, when it was annexed by the government of Belgium. Initially, the occupation and exploration of the immense territory of the Congo Free State proved a heavy burden on the monarch's purse. Twice a state bankruptcy was avoided only by the Belgian state granting Leopold II emergency loans. However, in the 1890s the tide turned dramatically. Through the forced exploitation of rubber, copper and other minerals in the upper Lualaba River basin huge surpluses were generated. Leopold II used part of this new-found wealth for the embellishment of his native country: the Royal Galleries in Ostend, the Colonial Palace in Tervuren or the triumphal arch in Brussels were all funded from the profits generated by the Congo. However, it soon became clear that these profits were generated on the back of brutal mistreatment of the local people and plunder of the Congo's natural resources.

1894 Congo Free State stamp.

Thus, under Leopold II's administration, the Congo Free State became the site of one of the most infamous international scandals of the turn of the twentieth century. The report of the British Consul Roger Casement, published in early 1904, was an irrefutable indictement of the "rubber system": "..the drowsy, unsupervised machine of coercion which wore out the people and the land" [6]. In the absence of a census (the first was made in 1924), it is difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. According to Roger Casement's report, depopulation was caused mainly by four causes: "indiscriminate war", starvation, reduction of births and tropical diseases.

The European and U.S. press agencies exposed the conditions in the Congo Free State to the public in the early 1900s. In 1904, Leopold II was forced to allow an international parlementiary commission of enquiry entry to the Congo Free State. The report of the commission (1905) confirmed most of the charges formulated by Edmund Morel and Roger Casement, but also by Protestant and Catholic missionaries [7] By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic maneuvers led to the end of Leopold II's rule and to the annexation of the Congo as a colony of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo.

Belgian colony, 1908–1960

Former residence of the Governor-general of the Belgian Congo in Boma (picture 2008).
Steam Boat arriving at Shinkakasa (Congo River), 1912.

Belgians residing in the Belgian Congo, 1900–1959[8]

Year Number of Belgians
1900 1,187
1910 1,928
1920 3,615
1930 17,676
1939 17,536
1950 39,006
1955 69,813
1959 88,913

On 18 October 1908, Belgian Parliament voted in favour of annexing the Congo as a Belgian colony. This was only after King Leopold II had finally given up any hope to maintain a substantial part of the Congo Free State as separate crown property. The government of the Belgian Congo was arranged by the 1908 Colonial Charter.[9] Executive power rested with the Belgian Minister of Colonial Affairs, assisted by a Colonial Council (Conseil Colonial). Both resided in Brussels. The Belgian Parliament exercised legislative authority over the Belgian Congo. The highest-ranking representative of the colonial administration in the Congo was the Governor-general. From 1886 until 1926, the Governor-general and his administration were posted in Boma, near the Congo river estuary. From 1926 the colonial capital moved to Léopoldville, some 300 km further upstream in the interior. Initially, the Belgian Congo was administratively divided into four provinces: Léopoldville (or: Congo-Kasaï), Equateur, Orientale and Katanga, each presided by a vice-Governor-general. An administrative reform in 1932 increased the number of provinces to six, while 'demoting' the vice-Governor-generals to provincial Governors.

The territorial service was the true backbone of the colonial administration.[10] Each province was divided into a number of districts (24 in all), and each district into territories (some 120 in all). A territory was managed by a territorial administrator, assisted by one or more assistants. The territories were further subdivided into numerous chiefdoms ("chefferies"), at the head of which the Belgian administration appointed 'traditional chiefs' ("chefs coutumier"). The territories administered by one territorial administrator and a handful of assistants were often larger than a few Belgian provinces taken together (the whole Belgian Congo was nearly 80 times larger than the whole of Belgium). Nevertheless, the territorial administrator was expected to inspect his territory and to file detailed annual reports with the provincial administration. In terms of jurisdiction, two systems co-existed: a system of European courts and one of native courts ("tribunaux indigènes"). These native courts were presided over by the traditional chiefs, but had only limited powers and remained under the firm control of the colonial administration. Public order in the colony was maintained by the "Force Publique", a locally recruited army under Belgian command. It was only in the 1950s that metropolitan troops—i.e. units of the regular Belgian army—were posted in the Belgian Congo (for instance in Kamina).

The colonial state—and in fact any authority exercised by whites in the Congo—was often referred to by the Congolese as "bula matari". Bula Matari, or "break rocks", was one of the names originally given to Stanley, because of the dynamite he used to crush rocks when paving his way through the lower-Congo region.[11] The term Bula Matari came to signify the irresistible and compelling force of the colonial state.

When the Belgian Government took over the Administration from King Leopold II in 1908, the situation in the Congo improved in certain respects. The brutal exploitation and arbitrary use of violence, in which some of the concessionary companies had excelled, were curbed. The tragedy of 'red rubber' was put to a stop. Article 3 of the new Colonial Charter of October 18, 1908 established that: "Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or privates". However, in reality, forced labour, in differing forms and degrees, would not disappear entirely until the very end of the colonial period.

The transition from the Congo Free State to the Belgian Congo was a break, but it was also marked by a large degree of continuity. The last Governor-general of the Congo Free State, baron Wahis, remained in office in the Belgian Congo, and the majority of Leopold II's administration with him.[12] Opening up the Congo and its natural and mineral riches for the Belgian economy remained the main motive for colonial expansion, but all the same other priorities, such as healthcare and basic education, slowly gained in importance.

The Belgian Congo was directly involved in the two world wars. During the First World War an initial stand-off between the Force Publique and the German colonial army in German East-Africa (Tanganyika) turned into open warfare with a joint Anglo-Belgian invasion of German colonial territory. The Force Publique gained a notable victory when it marched into Tabora in September 1916. After the war, Belgium was rewarded for the participation of the Force Publique in the East African campaign with a League of Nations mandate over the formerly German colony of Ruanda-Urundi. During the Second World War, the Belgian Congo was a crucial source of income for the Belgian government in exile in London. The Force Publique again participated in the Allied campaigns in Africa. The Congolese forces under the command of Belgian officers notably fought against the Italian colonial army in Ethiopia.[13]

Colonial economic policy

The economic development of the Congo was the colonizer's top priority. Under Belgian rule two distinct periods of massive investment in the Congo's economic infrastructure stand out: the 1920s and the 1950s.[14]

Propaganda leaflet of the Belgian Ministry of Colonies, early 1920s.

After the First World War, priority was given to mining (copper and cobalt in Katanga, diamond in Kasai, gold in Ituri) as well as to the transport infrastructure (raillines Matadi-Léopoldville and Elisabethville-Port Francqui). In order to attract the necessary capital, the colonial state gave the private companies to a large extent a free hand. This allowed in particular the Belgian Société Générale to build up an economic empire in the colony. Huge profits were generated and for a large part siphoned off to Europe in the form of dividends [15]. The necessary work force was recruited in the interior of the vast colony with the active support of the territorial administration. In many cases this amounted to forced labour, as in many villages minimum quota of 'able-bodied workers' to be recruited were enforced. In this way, tens of tousands of workers were transferred from the interior to the sparsely populated copper belt in the South (Katanga), to work in the mines there. In agriculture too, the colonial state forced a drastic rationalisation of production. The so-called "vacant lands"—i.e. the land that was not directly used by the local tribes—fell to the state, who redistributed it to European companies, individual white landowners (colons) or the missions. This way an extensive plantation economy developed. Palm oil production in the Congo increased from 2,500 tons in 1914 to 9,000 tons in 1921, and cotton production increased from 23,000 tons in 1932 to 127,000 in 1939.[16] After the First World War the system of mandatory cultivation was introduced: Congolese peasants were forced to grow certain cash crops (cotton, coffee, groundnuts) destined for the European market. Territorial administrators and state agronomists had the task to supervise and if necessary sanction those peasants who evaded the hated mandatory cultivation.[17]

The mobilization of the African work force in the capitalist colonial economy played a crucial role in spreading the use of money in the Belgian Congo. The basic idea was that the development of the Congo had to be borne not by the Belgian taxpayers but by the Congolese themselves. The colonial state needed to be able to levy taxes in money on the Congolese, so it was important that they could earn money by selling their produce or their labour within the framework of the colonial economy.

Rwandese workers at the Kisanga-mine, Katanga, 1920s

The economic boom of the 1920s turned the Belgian Congo into one of the leading copper-ore producers worldwide. In 1926 alone, the Union Miniére du Haut Katanga exported more than 80,000 tons of copper ore, a large part of which was processed in Hoboken in Belgium.[18] In 1928, King Albert I visited the Congo to inaugurate the so-called 'voie national' that linked the Katanga mining region via rail (up to Port Francqui) and river transport (from Port Francqui to Léopoldville) to the Atlantic port of Matadi. During the great depression of the 1930s, the export-based Belgian Congo economy was severely hit by the world crisis, because of the drop of international demand of raw materials and agricultural products (for example, the price of peanuts fell from 1.25 francs to 25 cents). In some areas, as in the Katanga mining region, employment declined 70% and in the whole country the exploitation of forced labour was diminished while many forced labourers returned to their villages.

After the occupation of Belgium by the Germans in May 1940, the Congo declared itself loyal to the Belgian government in exile in London to continue the war on the Allied side. During the Second World War, production was stepped up drastically. After Malaysia had fallen to the Japanese, the Belgian Congo became a strategic supplier of rubber to the Allies. The Belgian Congo was also one of the major exporters of uranium to the United States during World War II (and the Cold War), particularly from the Shinkolobwe mine. The colony provided the uranium used in the fabrication of the atom bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.[13]

Railways (gray/black lines) and navigable waterways (purple lines) in the Belgian Congo, 1889-1960

After the Second World War, the colonial state took on a much more active role in the economic and social development of the Belgian Congo. An ambitious ten-year plan was launched in 1949. It put a lot of emphasis on house-building, energy supply and health care infrastructure. The ten-year plan ushered in a decade of strong economic growth, from which, for the first time, the Congolese began to benefit on a substantial scale. In 1953, the Congolese were granted the right to buy and sell private property in their own name. In the 1950s, a Congolese middle-class—modest at first, but steadily growing—sprang up in the main cities (Léopoldville, Elisabethville, Stanleyville, Luluabourg).

The "civilizing mission"

A key argument that was often invoked as a justification for colonialism in Africa was that of the so-called "civilizing mission" of the European nations.[19] This was no different with respect to the Belgian Congo. As elsewhere, this self-declared "civilizing mission" went hand in hand with the goal of economic exploitation and development. Conversion to Catholicism, basic western-style education and improved health care were objectives in their own right, but at the same time helped to integrate what was regarded a "primitive society" into the western capitalist model, in which workers who were disciplined and healthy, and who had learned to read and write could be efficiently (and cheaply) put to work.

The development of education and health care in the Belgian Congo was impressive. The educational system was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and, in some rare cases, Protestant churches, and the curricula reflected Christian and Western values. Even in 1948, 99.6% of educational facilities were controlled by Christian missions. Native schooling was mainly religious and vocational. Children received basic education such as learning how to read, write and some mathematics. The Belgian Congo was one of the few African colonies in which native languages (Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba and Swahili) were taught at primary school. Even so, language policies and colonial domination often went hand in hand, as evidenced by the preference given to Lingala—a semi-artificial language spread through its common use in the Force Publique—over more local (but also more ancient) native languages such as Lomongo and others.[20] In 1940 the schooling rates of children between 6 and 14 years old was 12%, reaching 37% in 1954, one of the highest rates in the whole of black Africa. Secondary and higher education for the native population were not developed until relatively late in the colonial period. Black children, in small numbers, began to be admitted to European secondary schools from 1950 onward. The first university in the Belgian Congo, the Catholic University of Lovanium, near Léopoldville, opened its doors to black and white students in 1954 [21]. In 1956 a state university was founded in Elisabethville.

White nurses of the Union Minière du Haut Katanga and their Congolese assistants, Elisabethville, 1918.

Health care too was largely supported by the missions, although the colonial state took an increasing interest. Endemic diseases, such as sleeping sickness, were all but eliminated through large-scale and persistent campaigns.[22] The health care infrastructure expanded steadily throughout the colonial period, with a relatively high availability of hospital beds relative to the population and with dispensaries set up in the most remote regions.

King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth inspect the military camp of Leopoldville during their visit to the Belgian Congo, 1928.

There was a kind of "moderate apartheid", as there were curfews for natives and other such restrictions were commonplace. Though there were no specific laws (as in South Africa and the South of the United States at the time) barring blacks from entering the same establishments whites frequented, there was de facto segregation in most areas. For example, the city centres were reserved to white population only, while the blacks were organized in «cités indigènes» (ironically called 'le belge'). Hospitals, department stores and other facilities were often reserved for either whites or blacks. In the police, the blacks could not pass the rank of non-commissioned officer. The blacks in the cities could not leave their houses from 9 pm to 4 am. This type of segregation began to disappear gradually only in the 1950s.

The popular comic book Tintin in the Congo, first published in 1931, provides a good insight in the paternalistic-racist views about 'primitive' Africa that prevailed at the time in Europe.

Because of the close interconnection between economic development and the 'civilizing mission', and because in practice state officials, missionaries and the white executives of the private companies always lend each other a helping hand, the image has emerged that the Belgian Congo in reality was governed by the holy trinity of King-Church-Capital (or: the colonial state, the missions and the Société Générale).

The ideology underpinning colonial policy was summed up in a catch-phrase used by Governor-general Pierre Ryckmans (1934–46): "Dominer pour servir" ('dominate to serve').[23] The colonial government was keen to convey the image of a benevolent and conflict-free administration and of the Belgian Congo as a true model colony. In reality, no or very little attention was paid to the active emancipation of the Congolese. The coloniser alone knew what was good for the Congo. The local population was given no voice in the affairs of the state. It was only in the 1950s that this paternalistic attitude began to change. As from 1953, and even more so after the triumphant visit of King Baudouin to the colony in 1955, Governor-general Léon Pétillon (1952–58) actively favoured the creation of a "Belgian-Congolese community", in which blacks and whites were to be treated as equals.[24] In the 1950s, the most blatant discriminatory measures directed at the Congolese were hastily withdrawn (among these the possibility to inflict corporal punishment by means of the feared "chicotte"—a fine whip of hippopotamus hide). In 1957, the first municipal elections open to black voters took place in a handful of the largest cities—Léopoldville, Elisabethville and Jadotville.

Resistance and voices of dissent

Congolese resistance against colonialism was widespread and took many different forms.[25] Armed resistance occurred sporadically and localised until roughly the end of the Second World War (e.g. revolt of the Pende in 1931, mutiny in Luluabourg 1944). After the end of the Second World War until the late 1950s the so-called 'pax belgica' prevailed. Until the end of colonial rule in 1960, passive forms of resistance and expressions of an anti-colonial sub-culture were manifold (e.g. Kimbanguism, after the prophet Simon Kimbangu, who was imprisoned by the Belgians).

Cathedral of the Jesuit mission in Kisantu, built in the 1930s.

Apart from active and passive resistance among the Congolese, the colonial regime over time also elicited internal criticism and dissent. Already in the 1920s, certain members of the Colonial Council in Brussels (among them Octave Louwers) voiced criticism regarding the often brutal recruitment methods employed by the major companies in the mining districts. The stagnation of population growth in many districts—in spite of spectacular successes in the fight against endemic diseases such as sleeping sickness—was another cause for concern. Low birth rates in the countryside and the depopulation of certain areas were typically attributed to the disruption of traditional community life as a result of forced labour migration and mandatory cultivation.[26] Many missionaries who were in daily contact with Congolese villagers, took their plight at heart and sometimes intervened on their behalf with the colonial administration (for instance in land property questions).

The missions and certain territorial administrators also played an important role in the study and preservation of Congolese cultural and linguistic traditions and artefacts. One example among many is that of father Gustaaf Hulstaert (1900–1990) who in 1937 created the periodical 'Aequatoria' devoted to the linguistic, ethnographic and historical study of the Mongo-people of the central Congo basin.[27] The colonial state itself took an interest in the cultural and scientific study of the Congo, particularly after the Second World War through the creation of the Institut pour la Recherche Scientifique en Afrique Centrale (IRSAC, 1948).

Towards independence 1945-60

In the early 1950s political emancipation of the Congolese elites, let only of the masses, seemed like a far cry. Nonetheless, it was clear that the Congo could not forever remain immune from the rapid changes that after the Second World War profoundly affected colonialism all over the world. The independence of the British, French and Dutch colonies in Asia shortly after 1945 had little immediate impact in the Congo, but in the United Nations pressure on Belgium (as on other colonial powers) was stepped up. Belgium had ratified article 73 of the United Nations Charter, which advocated self-determination, and both superpowers put pressure on Belgium to reform its Congo policy. However, the Belgian government tried to resist as best it could what it labelled 'interference' with its colonial policy.

All the same, it was clear to the colonial authorities that something needed to be done to ameliorate the situation of the natives. Since the 1940s, the colonial government had experimented in a very modest way with granting a limited elite of so-called évolués more civil rights, holding out the eventual prospect of a limited amount of political influence. To this end 'deserving' Congolese could apply for a proof of 'civil merit', or, one step up, 'immatriculation' (registration), i.e. official evidence of their assimilation with European civilization. To acquire this status, the applicant had to fulfil strict conditions (monogamous matrimony, evidence of good behaviour, etc.) and submit to stringent controls (including house visits). This policy was a failure. By the mid-1950s, there were at best a few thousand Congolese who had successfully obtained the civil merit diploma or been granted 'immatriculation'. The supposed benefits attached to it—including equal legal status with the white population—proved often more theory than reality and led to open frustration with the évolués. When Governor-general Pétillon began to speak about granting the native people more civil rights, even suffrage, to create what he termed a 'Belgo-Congolese community', his ideas were met with indifference from Brussels and often with open hostility from parts of the Belgians in the Congo, who feared for their privileges.[28]

During his visit to the Belgian Congo, King Baudouin stops over at the military school of the Force Publique in Luluabourg, 1955.

It became increasingly evident that the Belgian government lacked a strategic long-term vision in relation to the Congo. This was partly due to the fact that 'colonial affairs' did not generate a lot of interest or political debate in Belgium, particularly not for as long as, outwardly at least, the colony seemed to be thriving and calm. The young Belgian King Baudouin, who had succeeded his father Leopold III under dramatic circumstances in 1951 (Leopold III had to abdicate because of his wartime role), on the other hand, took a lively interest in the Congo. On his first state visit to the Belgian Congo in 1955, he was welcomed enthusiastically by cheering crowds of whites and blacks alike (as captured in André Cauvin's documentary film Bwana Kitoko).[29] Foreign observers such as the international correspondent of the Manchester Guardian remarked that Belgian paternalism 'seemed to work', and compared Belgium's seemingly loyal and enthusiastic colonial subjects to the restless French and British colonies. On the occasion of his visit, king Baudouin openly endorsed Governor-general vision of a 'Belgo-Congolese community', but on the field things moved very slowly. At the same time, divisive ideological and linguistic issues that had marked politics in Belgium for many decades, but that had been successfully kept out of the colony's affairs, now began to make themselves felt in the Congo too. These included: the rise of unionism among workers, the call for public (state) schools to break the missions' monopoly on education, the call for equal treatment in the colony of the two national languages French and Dutch (while until then French had been promoted as the unique colonial language). Not only did the Governor-general fear that such divisive issues would undermine the authority of the colonial government in the eyes of the natives, they also tended to diverte attention from the more pressing need to emancipate the Congolese population.


Political organisation

As a result of the inability of the colonial government to introduce radical and credible changes, the Congolese elites began to take matters more and more in their own hands by organising themselves socially and soon also politically. In fact, it can be argued that the seeds of Congo's post-independence woes were sown in the emergence in the 1950s of two markedly different forms of nationalism among the Congolese elites. The nationalist movement — which the Belgian authorities, to some degree, turned a blind eye to — promoted territorial nationalism wherein the Belgian Congo would become one politically united state after independence. In opposition to this was the ethno-religious and regional nationalism that took hold in the Bakongo territories of the west coast, Kasaï, and Katanga. The first political organisations were of the latter type. ABAKO, founded in 1950 as the Association culturelle des Bakongo (lower-Congo region) and headed by Joseph Kasa-vubu, was initially a cultural association that soon turned political and from the mid-1950s became a vocal opponent of Belgian colonial rule. Additionally the organization continued to serve as the major ethno-religious organization for the Bakongo and became closely intertwined with the Kimbanguist Church which was extremely popular in the lower Congo.

In 1955, Belgian professor Antoine van Bilsen published a treatise called Thirty Year Plan for the Political Emancipation of Belgian Africa.[30] The timetable called for the gradual emancipation of the Congo over a thirty-year period — the time Van Bilsen expected it would take to create an educated elite who could replace the Belgians in positions of power. The Belgian government and many of the évolués were suspicious of the plan — the former because it meant eventually giving up the Congo, and the latter because Belgium would still be ruling Congo for another three decades. A group of Catholic évolués responded positively to the plan with a moderate manifesto in a Congolese journal called Conscience Africaine, with their only point of disagreement being the amount of native Congolese participation [31].

In 1957, by way of experiment, the colonial government organised in three urban centres (Léopoldville, Elisabethville and Jadotville) the first municipal elections in which the natives were allowed to stand for office and cast their vote. Events in 1957-58 led to a sudden acceleration in the demands for political emancipation. This was in part influenced by developments outside the Congo, notably the independence of Ghana in 1957 and President De Gaulle's August 1958 visit to Brazzaville, the capital of the French Congo on the other side of the Congo river opposite Léopoldville, in which he promised France's African colonies the free choice between a continued association with France or full independence. The World Exhibition organised in Brussels in 1958 (Expo 58) proved another eye-opener for many Congolese leaders, who were allowed to travel to Belgium for the first time [32]. In 1958, the demands for independence radicalised quickly and gained momentum. A key role was played by the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). First set up in 1956, the MNC established itself in October 1958 as a national political party that supported the idea of a unitary and centralised Congolese nation after independence. Its most influential leader was the charismatic Patrice Lumumba. In 1959, an internal split was precipitated by Albert Kalonji and other MNC leaders who favored a more moderate political stance (the splinter group was deemed Mouvement National Congolais-Kalonji. Despite the organizational divergence of the party, Lumumba's leftist faction (now the Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba) and the MNC collectively had established themselves as by far the most important and influential party in the Belgian Congo. Belgium vehemently opposed Lumumba's leftist views and had grave concerns about the status of their financial interests should Lumumba's MNC gain power.


In the winter of 1958-59, while the Belgian government was debating a programme to gradually extend the political emancipation of the Congolese population, it was overtaken by events. On 4 January 1959, a prohibited political manifestation organised in Léopoldville by ABAKO got out of hand. At once, the colonial capital was in the grip of heavy rioting. It took the authorities several days to restore order and by the most conservative count several hundreds died. The eruption of violence sent a shockwave through the Congo and Belgium alike. On 13 January, king Baudouin solemnly declared in a radio address that Belgium would work towards the full independence of the Congo "without hesitation, but also without irresponsible rashness". Without committing to a specific date for independence, the government of prime minister Gaston Eyskens had a multi-year transition period in mind during which provincial elections would take place in December 1959, national elections in 1960 or 1961, after which administrative and political responsibilities would be gradually transferred to the Congolese, in a process presumably to be completed towards the mid-1960s. On the ground the reality looked quite different.[33] Increasingly, the colonial administration saw itself confronted with non-cooperation (e.g. refusal to pay taxes). In some regions anarchy threatened [34]. At the same time it was clear that an important portion of the Belgian population in the Congo opposed the idea of independence and felt betrayed by Brussels. In those circumstances, and faced with a radicalisation of Congolese demands, the chances of a gradual and carefully planned transition towards independence dwindled rapidly. In 1959, king Baudouin made another visit to the Belgian Congo. The contrast with his 1955 visit could not have been greater. Upon his arrival in Léopoldville/Kinshasa he was pelted with rocks by blacks who were angry with the imprisonment of Patrice Lumumba, convicted because of incitement against the colonial government. Though Baudouin's reception in other cities was considerably better, the shouts of "Vive le Roi!" were often followed by "indépendence immédiate!" The Belgian government wanted to avoid at all cost being drawn into a futile and potentially very bloody colonial war, as had happened to France in Vietnam and Algeria or to the Netherlands in Indonesia. For that reason, it was all the more inclined to give in to the demands for immediate independence voiced ever more vocally by the Congolese leaders. It was hoped that somehow, and in spite of the lack of preparations (including the lack of an educated elite: there were only a handful of Congolese holding a university degree at that time), miraculously, things might work out (what came to be known as "le pari congolais"—the Congolese bet).

In January 1960, Congolese political leaders were invited to Brussels to participate in a round-table conference to discuss independence. Patrice Lumumba was discharged from prison for the occasion. The conference agreed surprisingly quickly to grant the Congolese practically all of their demands: a general election to be held in May 1960 and full independence—"Dipenda"—on 30 June 1960. This was in no small measure thanks to the strong united front put up by the Congolese delegation. The political manoeuvering ahead of the elections resulted in the emergence of three political alliances: a coalition of the federalistic nationalists consisting of six separatist parties or organizations, two of which were ABAKO and the MNC - Kalonji, the centralist MNC-Lumumba, and finally that of the strong-man of Katanga, Moïse Tshombe, conscious of the economic vitality of its area and the business interests of the Mining Union (just like Kalonji with respect to the diamond exploitations in Kasaï). The parlementiary elections resulted in a divided political landscape, with both the regionalist factions—chief among them ABAKO—and the nationalist parties such as the MNC, doing well. As time until independence day was running out, a compromise arrangement was forced through, with Kasa-vubu becoming the first president of the Republic of the Congo and Lumumba its first head of government. As planned, scarcely five months earlier, the hand-over ceremony took place on 30 June 1960. The location was the new residence of the Governor-general of the Belgian Congo in Léopoldville (that had only been recently finished—in itself an indication of how unexpected independence came to the Congo). The ceremony was overshadowed by a significant incident: in his speech king Baudouin, rather inappropriately, praised the genius of his forefather king Léopold II, founder of the Congo Free State, and the blessings of Belgian colonial rule. Prime minister Lumumba retorted with a vehement indictment of colonial oppression.

Scarcely one week after the handover of sovereignty a rebellion broke out within the Force Publique against its officers, who were still predominantly Belgian. This was the signal for disturbances all over the Congo, mainly instigated by dissatisfied soldiers and radicalised youngsters. In many areas violence specifically targeted European victims. Within weeks, the largest part of the 80,000+ Belgians who were still working and living in the Congo were evacuated in all haste and often under traumatic circumstances by the Belgian army and later by the United Nations intervention force.[35]

Belgium-Congo after 1960

The rebellion that had started in Thyssville (Mbanza-Ngungu) in the Bas-Congo in July 1960 quickly spread to the rest of the Congo.[36] In September 1960, President Kasa-Vubu declared prime minister Lumumba deposed from his functions and vice versa. The stalemate was ended with the arrest of Lumumba. In January 1961, he was flown to the rich mining province of Katanga, which by that time had declared a secession from Léopoldville under the leadership of Moïse Tshombe (with active Belgian support). Patrice Lumumba was brutally murdered (in 2002 Belgium officially apologised for its role in the elimination of Lumumba; the CIA too has been suspected of complicity).[37]. A series of rebellions and separatist movements seemed to shatter the dream of a unitary Congolese state at its birth. Although independent, Belgian paratroopers intervened in the Congo on various occasions to protect and evacuate fellow citizens. The United Nations maintained a large peace-keeping operation in the Congo from late 1960 onward. The situation stabilised only in 1964–65, with the re-integration of the Katanga province and the end of the so-called Simba-rebellion in Stanleyville (province Orientale). Shortly after that army colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu ended the political impasse by seizing power himself.

Mobutu enjoyed the support of the West, and in particular of the United States, because of his strong anti-communist stance. Initially his rule favoured consolidation and economic development (e.g. by building the Inga-dam that had been planned in the 1950s). In order to distance himself from the previous colonial regime, he launched a campaign of Congolese 'authenticity'. As a result the colonial place names were abandoned in 1966: Léopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville Lubumbashi, Stanleyville Kisangani. During this period, the Congo maintained close economic and political ties with Belgium, although these were occasionally overshadowed by the financial issues that had remained unresolved after independence (the so-called 'contentieux'), for instance the transfer of shares in the big mining companies that had been held directly by the colonial state.[38] In 1970, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of independence, King Baudouin paid an official state visit to the Congo.

Mobutu's regime radicalised during the 1970s. The 'Mouvement populaire de la Révolution' (MPR), of which Mobutu was the président-fondateur, firmly established one-party rule. Political repression increased considerably. Mobutu now renamed the Congo into the republic of Zaïre. The so-called 'zaïrisation' of economic life in the mid-1970s led to an exodus of foreign workers and an unmitigated economic disaster. In the 1980s the Mobutu regime became a byword for mismanagement and corruption.[39] Relations with the former colonial power Belgium went through a series of ups and downs, reflecting a steady decline in the underlying economic, financial and political interests. After the end of the Cold War, Mobutu lost support in the West. As a result, in 1990, he decided to end the one-party system and dramatically announced a return to democracy, but subsequently dragged his feet and played out his opponents against one another to gain time. A bloody intervention of the Zaïrian army against students on the Lubumbashi University Campus in May 1990 precipitated a break in diplomatic relations between Belgium and Zaïre. Pointedly, Mobutu was not invited to attend the funeral of King Baudouin in 1993, which he considered a grave personal affront. Finally, in 1997 Mobutu was chased from power by a rebel force headed by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who declared himself president and renamed Zaïre into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Assassinated in 2001, Laurent-Désiré Kabila was succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila, who in 2006 was confirmed as president through the first nation-wide free elections in the Congo since 1960. In March 2010, the Belgian government announced it had accepted president Kabila's invitation for king Albert II to visit the Congo and attend the festivities marking the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence from Belgium.

Certain practices and traditions from the colonial period have survived into the independent Congolese state, such as a strong centralising and bureaucratic tendency, or the organisational structure of the education system and the judiciary. The influence of the Congo on Belgium has manifested itself mainly in economic terms: through the activities of the Union Minière (now Umicore), the development of a nonferrous metal industry, and the development of the Antwerp harbour and diamond industry. To this day, Brussels Airlines (successor of the former Sabena) has maintained a strong presence in the DRC. It is estimated that there currently (2010) remain some 3 to 4,000 Belgians resident in the DRC, while the Congolese community in Belgium is at least 16,000 strong. The 'Matonge' quarter in Brussels (Porte de Namur) is the traditional meeting point of the Congolese community in Belgium [40] .

The Belgian Congo in literature and art

The Belgian Congo features prominently or as a backdrop in some great works of Western literature. Among those are:

"Colonie belge" - usually depicting a black prisoner being flogged by a black guardian under the watchful eye of a white official - is a recurring theme in Congolese paintings by artists like Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu, C. Mutomobo and others [41].


See also


  1. ^ (French) République démocratique du Congo, Laval University, Canada
  2. ^ (Dutch) Vlamingen en Afrikanen — Vlamingen in Centraal Afrika, Faculteit Sociale Wetenschappen, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
  3. ^ Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja (2002). The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People's History. Zed Books. ISBN 1842770535. 
  4. ^ Hochschild 61–67.
  5. ^ Hochschild 84–87.
  6. ^ Ascherson, Neal (1963), The King Incorporated, Leopold the Second and the Congo, London: Granta Books (ed. 1999), p. 250.
  7. ^ Stengers, Jean, "Le rôle de la commission d'enquête de 1904-1905 au Congo", In Congo: Mythes et réalités, Bruxelles: Editions Racine, 2005, pp. 159-179.
  8. ^ Vanthemsche, Guy (2007), La Belgique et le Congo, Brussels: Editions Complexe, pp. 353–4.
  9. ^ Senelle, R. and E. Clément (2009), Léopold II et la Charte Coloniale, Brussels: Editions Mols.
  10. ^ A good overview in: Dembour, Marie-Bénédicte (2000), Recalling the Belgian Congo, Conversations and Introspection, New York: Berghahn Books, pp. 17–44.
  11. ^ Likaka, Osumaka (2009), Naming Colonialism, History and Collective Memory in the Congo, 1870–1960, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 56.
  12. ^ Stengers, Jean (2005), Congo: Mythes et réalités, Brussels: Editions Racine.
  13. ^ a b McCrummen, Stephanie (4 August 2009). "Nearly Forgotten Forces of WWII". The Washington Post. Washington Post Foreign Service. 
  14. ^ Vanthemsche, Guy (2007), La Belgique et le Congo, Brussels: Editions Complexe.
  15. ^ Buelens,Frans (2007), Congo 1885-1960, Een financiëel-economische geschiedenis, Berchem: EPO.
  16. ^ Boahen, A. Adu (1990). Africa Under Colonial Domination, 1880–1935. p. 171. 
  17. ^ Likaka, Osumaka (1997), Rural Society and Cotton in Colonial Zaire, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  18. ^ Brion, René and Jean-Louis Moreau (2006), De la Mine à Mars: la genèse d'Umicore, Tielt: Lannoo.
  19. ^ Young, Crawford (1994), The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 122–24 and 156–58.
  20. ^ On this subject see for instance: Fabian, Johannes (1986), Language and Colonial Power, The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo 1880–1938, Berkeley: University of California Press.
  21. ^ Mantels, Ruben (2007), Geleerd in de tropen, Leuven, Congo en de wetenschap, 1885-1960, Leuven: Universitaire Pers, pp. 201-236.
  22. ^ A critical assessment of the colonial obsession with sleeping sickness in: Lyons, Maryinez (1992), The Colonial Disease, A social history of sleeping sickness in northern Zaire, 1900–1940, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  23. ^ Vanderlinden, Jacques (1994), Pierre Ryckmans 1891-1959, Coloniser dans l'honneur, Brussels: De Boeck.
  24. ^ Pétillon, L. A. M. (1967), Témoignage et réflexions, Brussels: Renaissance du Livre.
  25. ^ Likaka, Osumaka (2009), Naming Colonialism, History and Collective Memory in the Congo, 1870–1960, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  26. ^ see for instance a lecture by Nancy Rose Hunt (2002), Rewriting the Soul in Colonial Congo: Flemish Missionaries and Infertility, Antwerp University:
  27. ^ See:
  28. ^ Ndaywel è Nziem, Isidore (1998), Histoire générale du Congo, Paris-Brussels: De Boeck & Larcier, pp. 456–63.
  29. ^ Erik Raspoet (2005). Bwana Kitoko en de koning van de Bakuba. Meulenhoff/Manteau. ISBN 9085420202. 
  30. ^ Gerard-Libois, Jules (1989), "Vers l'Indépendance: une accélération imprévue", In Congo-Zaïre, Brussels: GRIP, pp. 43-56.
  31. ^ Kalulambi Pongo, Martin (2009), "Le manifeste 'Conscience africaine: genèse, influences et réactions", In Tousignant, Nathalie (ed.), Le manifeste Conscience africaine, 1956, Brussels: Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis, pp. 59-81.
  32. ^ Aziza Etambala, Zana ((2008), De teloorgang van een modelkolonie, Belgisch Congo 1958-1960, Leuven: Acco, pp. 105-110.
  33. ^ Young, Crawford (1965), Politics in the Congo, Decolonization and independence, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 140–161.
  34. ^ Ryckmans, Geneviève (1995), André Ryckmans, un territorial du Congo belge, Paris: L'Harmattan, pp. 215-224.
  35. ^ Verlinden, Peter (2002), Weg uit Congo, Het drama van de kolonialen, Leuven: Davidsfonds
  36. ^ For an overview of developments in the Congo after 1960 see: O'Ballance, Edgar (2000), The Congo-Zaire Experience, 1960–98, Houndmills: MacMillan Press.
  37. ^ An illuminating first-hand account of the CIA's activities in the Congo in 1960–61 in: Devlin, Larry (2008), Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone, Cambridge: PublicAffairs
  38. ^ Willame, Jean-Claude (1989), "Vingt-cinq ans de rélations belgo-zaïroises", In Congo-Zaïre, Brussels: GRIP, pp. 145-58.
  39. ^ Wrong, Michela (2001), Living on the brink of disaster in Mobutu's Congo, In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz, New York: HarperCollins, pp. 195–200.
  40. ^ Swyngedouw, Eva and Erik Swyngedouw (2009), "The Congolese Diaspora in Brussels and hybrid identity formation", In Urban Research & Practice, vol 2, 1, pp. 68-90.
  41. ^ Fabian, Johannes (1996), Remembering the Present, Painting and Popular History in Zaïre, Narrative and Paintings by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, Berkeley: University of California Press.


External links

  • Belgian Congo article in Encyclopædia Britannica 1922 extension

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