Congo Free State

The Congo Free State, also known as the Independent State of the Congo (French: État indépendant du Congo), was a large state and absolute monarchy in Central Africa from 1885 to 1908. It was privately owned by and in a personal union with King Leopold II; it was not a part of, nor did it belong to, the Kingdom of Belgium, of which he was the constitutional monarch. Leopold was able to seize the region by convincing other European states at the Berlin Conference on Africa that he was involved in humanitarian and philanthropic work and would not tax trade.[1] Via the International Association of the Congo, he was able to lay claim to most of the Congo Basin. On 29 May 1885, after the closure of the Berlin Conference, the king announced that he planned to name his possessions "the Congo Free State", an appellation which was not yet used at the Berlin Conference and which officially replaced "International Association of the Congo" on 1 August 1885.[2][3][4] The Congo Free State operated as a separate nation from Belgium, in a personal union with its King. It was privately controlled by Leopold II, although he never personally visited the state.[5]

Congo Free State
État indépendant du Congo (French)
Onafhankelijke Congostaat (Dutch)
Motto: French: Travail et progrès
Dutch: Werk en voortgang
(Work and Progress)
Anthem: Vers l'avenir
StatusState in personal union with Belgium
CapitalVivi (1885–1886)
Boma (1886–1908)
05°51′17″S 13°03′24″E
Common languages
Catholicism (de facto)
GovernmentAbsolute monarchy
Leopold II of Belgium
 1885–1886 (first)
F. W. de Winton
 1900–1908 (last)
Théophile Wahis
Historical eraNew Imperialism
1 July 1885
15 November 1908
2,345,409 km2 (905,567 sq mi)
77,867 km2 (30,065 sq mi)
 Water (%)
 1907 estimate
3.8/km2 (9.8/sq mi)
CurrencyCongo Free State franc (1887–1908)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
International Association of the Congo
Luba Kingdom
Chokwe Kingdom
Yeke Kingdom
Belgian Congo
Today part ofDemocratic Republic of the Congo

The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908, when the Belgian Federal Parliament reluctantly annexed the state as a colony belonging to Belgium after international pressure.[6]

Leopold's reign in the Congo eventually earned infamy on account of the atrocities perpetrated on the locals. Leopold II's Free State extracted ivory, rubber, and minerals in the upper Congo basin for sale on the world market through a series of international concessionary companies, despite the occupation's claimed purpose in the region being to bring civilization to the local people and to develop the area. Under Leopold II's administration, the Congo Free State became one of the greatest international scandals of the early 20th century. The Casement Report of the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of officials who had been responsible for killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903.[7]

The loss of life and atrocities inspired literature such as Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness and raised an international outcry. Debate has been ongoing about the high death rate in this period.[8] The highest estimates state that the widespread use of forced labour, torture, and murder led directly and indirectly to the deaths of 50 percent of the population.[9] The lack of accurate records makes it difficult to quantify the number of deaths caused by the exploitation and the lack of immunity to new diseases introduced by contact with European colonists.[10] During the Congo Free State propaganda war, European and US reformers exposed atrocities in the Congo Free State to the public through the Congo Reform Association, founded by Casement and the journalist, author, and politician E. D. Morel. Also active in exposing the activities of the Congo Free State was the author Arthur Conan Doyle, whose book The Crime of the Congo was widely read in the early 1900s. By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic manoeuvres led to the end of Leopold II's absolutist rule; the Belgian Parliament annexed the Congo Free State as a colony of Belgium. It became known thereafter as the Belgian Congo. In addition, a number of major Belgian investment companies pushed the Belgian government to take over the Congo and develop the mining sector as it was virtually untapped.[11]

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