Tuesday, 29 September 2015
On the extent to which the experience of the Belgian Congo during the period 1860-1971 fits into orthodox theories of imperialism & decolonisation
The conquest of the area known as the ‘Belgian Congo’ took place between 1870-1890 while its decolonisation occurred rapidly between the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The former process began with King Léopold II of Belgium’s interest in the area as a potential colony, and decolonisation was completed by the renaming of the Congo as Zaïre under Mobutu Sésé Séko in 1971. A variety of factors brought about both events, including economics, nationalism and shifts in international relations. Both events have been the subject of historical study, and can be said to fit to varying degrees the accepted theories of imperialism and decolonisation.
Hobson’s metropolitan explanation, advanced in his 1902 work Imperialism, relies on four factors but is most remembered for its stress on economics. Two of the major factors he identifies are economic orthodoxy and social imperialism. The former claims that financial institutions, cartels and individuals were the primary beneficiaries of imperialism and it was therefore economically motivated. It accuses ‘financiers, capital investors and unscrupulous politicians’ of being self-serving within a context of severe maldistribution of wealth. Though his views have been criticised, it seems a highly suitable model in the case of the Belgian Congo. Many have identified economic factors as Léopold II’s primary motivation to take the area. Pakenham writes that ‘economics were the crux of the matter’ and cites that the king’s attention was drawn by Lieutenant Cameron’s descriptions of the Congo as a place of ‘unspeakable richness’ for ‘enterprising capitalists’. Hochschild records how Léopold’s interest in colonies sprang from a volume called Java: or How to Manage a Colony, written (appropriately) by J.W.B. Money. A similar account is found in Mackenzie, who writes ‘he was enthralled by the remarkable story of the British Brooke family, who had become the Rajahs of Sarawak on the far eastern island of Borneo’. Although his attempts to win or buy off a colony in East Asia were unsuccessful, by the 1870s Léopold was certainly casting around for somewhere to invest his fortune, and became captivated by reports of the exploits of Henry Stanley in the Congo region. In 1877 Léopold told an agent, ‘I do not want to risk…losing a fine chance to secure for ourselves a slice of this magnificent African cake.’ His interest was based on rumours that the Congo was an area of outstanding mineral resources including ivory and rubber – rumours which were ultimately vindicated. Although his initial attempts to tap into largely non-existent palm oil and ivory markets met with failure, such that expenditure exceeded income at a ratio of 10:1, by 1902 the king was making around £1.64million in rubber sales as the rubber boom at the end of the century took hold. There is strong evidence that Hobson’s economic theory fits the Belgian case.
Social imperialism referred to the ‘reformist’ tendencies of philanthropists who wished to edify the ‘lesser races’. Certainly the monarch took pains to portray himself in such a light. In 1876 he invited numerous luminaries and dignitaries to a lavish Geographical Conference in Brussels, where he proclaimed his aims in ‘noble rhetoric’ and established the International African Association. He managed to convince almost everybody of his altruistic motives, and his plans were described as the ‘greatest humanitarian work of our time’. It is now generally accepted that this was an act. Not only did Hobson find such motives implausible in practice but he was wholly critical of their hypocrisy, recording ‘The most gigantic modern experiment in private adventure is slowly yielding its full tale of horrors in the Congo Free State...’ Horrific tales of the human rights abuses in the area from 1890 onwards surfaced at the turn of the century. Therefore the Belgian actions in the Congo cannot be said to fit any kind of philanthropic intent.
Hobson’s ‘severe maldistribution of wealth’ formed the basis of Lenin’s critique of imperialism. Deeply influenced by those of Karl Marx and of his own Communist ideology, Lenin believed imperialism to be a crisis in the capitalist economic system and identified European nations, whose own markets were saturated, as turning to new areas such as the African continent. He saw colonists as capitalists attempting to control raw materials through exploitation of the workers. Freund states that the king ran the Free State ‘like a capitalist of the robber-baron era’, and this is certainly indicative of the semi-feudalist colonialism Lenin is criticising. The monarch’s individual interests in the Congo were certainly strong. He poured 12million francs of his fortune into the Congo from 1880-1895, ran the area as a state monopoly, and kept all the most profitable regions for himself (especially the domaine de la couronne) under a pretence of free trade.
E.D. Morel was not the first to notice ‘the severe maldistribution of wealth’ but brought it to public attention the most passionately. In the late 1890s, working as a clerk in Antwerp, he realised the discrepancy between the public and the actual trade figures of Léopold’s Congo Free State enterprise. He perceived that the value of rubber, ivory and other goods returning to Europe from the Congo was around five times greater than the goods heading in the other direction (around 80% of which were remote from trade purposes anyway). ‘How, then,’ he wrote, ‘was this rubber and ivory being acquired? Certainly not by commercial dealing. Nothing was going in to pay for what was coming out.’ This certainly fits Lenin’s theory of exploitation, as do the stories which came out of the Congo – Stanley and other colonial agents had tricked the Congolese into believing they had supernatural powers; Stanley’s name was cursed as a tyrant’s; prisoners were cruelly chained for slight offences; schools and hospitals were not provided as promised; Congolese women were used as Belgian concubines; villagers were regularly shot, sometimes as an incentive to forced labour, sometimes as sport; the entire economy was financed by slavery. For ivory bought from the Congolese at 8 francs/kilo, an agent would receive 6% of the far greater European market price, but for ivory bought at 10 francs/kilo, the cut with which they were rewarded was 10%. This was naturally a stimulus for the agents to force locals into selling at very low prices. Morel condemned this by saying ‘a more direct incentive to robbery and violence was never penned’, and the ivory-gathering method used was archetypal of the kind of system Lenin suggests.
Another significant imperialist theory was first proposed by A.J.P. Taylor. This places the Scramble for Africa within a wider international context, and cites the fin de siècle power struggle between Europeans as a driving motivation for competing in Africa. Under this theory, colonies were acquired as status symbols to convince the population of their superiority over others. Hochschild writes that the king was obsessed with the idea that his native Belgium consisted of petit pays, petits gens (‘small country, small people’), and that he wanted to change this as a matter of national pride. He also owned a locket inscribed with the words: Il faut à la Belgique une colonie (‘Belgium must have a colony’). His native country’s littleness spurred his desire to obtain a colony. Pakenham claims the monarch was ‘haunted’ by the idea, hemmed in as Belgium was by the superpowers of France and Germany. In the actual conquest of the Congo, too, aspects of Taylor’s theory are relevant: Léopold’s intermediary Stanley competed with the French agent de Brazza throughout the 1880s. France had acquired French Congo to the north in 1882, and Chamberlain believes this sped up Léopold’s desire to take his own land. The process of legitimising the Congo Free State involved much manipulation of, and bartering with, other European nations highly suggestive of the competition Taylor indicates. Léopold used General Sanford’s connections with President Arthur to secure American approval of his state, simultaneously wooing Bismarck of Germany. He assured the French that they would have ‘right of pre-emption’ if he ever wanted to sell the colony (since their chief fear was not so much a Belgian Congo, as the area falling into the hands of the British or Germans).
Although aspects of this theory resonate with the annexation of the Congo, the particulars diverge in some ways: it was not Belgium which demanded, conceived or administrated the Congo Free State (at least not until 1908, well after the initial Scramble), and the area was largely a personal fiefdom of Léopold’s. It was thus an idea stemming from the patriotism of one man rather than the project of a competitive nation. Of course whether the king acted on behalf of Belgium or himself can never be properly determined. But he adorned his private palace at Laeken with Congolese animals, plants and pygmies; he made a personal fortune out of the Congo Free State. Even in the jungle of the Congo itself the individualism of the project was reflected in terms like Léopoldville, Léopold Hill, the Léopold River, Léopold Lake II and a steamer called Roi des Belges (‘King of the Belgians’). Belgium saw little of its profits, and there was little or no sense of national triumph in possessing it. During the 1907-8 negotiations, as a shamed Léopold handed the colony over to the Belgian government, the two were opposite sides of a business deal. The government agreed to take on the colony’s debts and to pay 45.5million francs toward construction projects of the king’s; Léopold was also reimbursed with 50million francs taken from the Congo itself. The monarch had borrowed 25million francs from the state which he never repaid (since it formed part of the Congo’s debts, the government thus inherited debt that it owed to itself). It seems relatively certain that although Léopold was motivated to improve Belgium’s international worth, the acquisition of personal wealth was more important as a driving factor in his acquisition of the Congo – or certainly became more important as time went on.
Robinson and Gallagher’s view that many empires (especially the British) exerted influence by engaging in the practice of free ‘informal’ trade is not particularly relevant in the Belgium case – when it is viewed from Léopold’s point of view. Although Léopold claimed to have concessions for traders, allowing other nations to do business in the Congo Free State, he kept all the best areas and most of the other companies were owned by him wholly or partially. A legitimate case could be made that, from the point of view of the Belgian parliament and public, the Congo was a colony run entirely as an informal one, since administration was carried out entirely by their monarch and his officials. This was certainly the situation until 1908 when the colony was transferred over to parliament. However, the profits were wholly Léopold’s, which suggests the limitations of the ‘informal empire’ theory.
How far the Congo fits orthodox theories of decolonisation must also be examined. These can be principally divided into three, each citing one principal factor as the main cause: nationalism, economics, and international relations.
In his book Decolonisation, Raymond Betts identifies nationalism as the main decolonising force of the 20th century. To a large degree this theory appears to fit the Belgian model. Not only nationalist forces within the Belgian Congo but also those abroad had an impact. The ‘winds of change’ were sweeping through the continent from the early 1950s onwards, and no colony could remain isolated from the phenomenon. Lumumba’s visit to the All-African Conference in Accra left him determined to seek Congolese independence. French Equatorial Africa, which included the French Congo to the north of the Belgians, gained independence under de Gaulle in 1958. As the 1950s went on these outside developments seemed to affect the rate of nationalist growth in the Belgian Congo. Hopes of upward social mobility and increasing living standards after World War II, coupled with decades of harsh treatment, found their best expression in nationalism. Freund identifies this ‘civilising’ of Congolese society as a factor in the rise of an independence movement, describing the gap ‘between the harsh life of the peasantry and the possibilities that beckoned in the towns’.
The strongly populist political party ABAKO, helmed by Joseph Kasavubu, was formed in 1950 to represent the Bakongo people in the Léopoldville region and performed strongly in the 1957 elections. The National Congolese Movement (MNC) and CONAKAT were both founded in 1958. The former was led by Patrice Lumumba to liberate the entire colony, while the latter, led by Moïse Tshombe, restricted itself to the interests of the Lunda tribe in the mineral-rich Katanga region (which in 1960 had 12% of the population and 60% of the revenue). More than 100 individual nationalist parties were formed in the 18 months between January 1959 and June 1960. Lumumba, who addressed the Belgians in defiant speeches and allegedly asserted, ‘from today we are no longer your monkeys’, was a dynamic figure with much popular support.
The chaos in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s was vital in persuading the Europeans to withdraw. After an ABAKO meeting was banned in January 1959, those banned from the capital took their message to the outlying areas and anarchy erupted. The Léopoldville riots, consisting of attacks on property, substantial violence and 100 deaths, convinced the colonialist administration that it was best not to halt the nationalist progress. Only a fortnight after the riots, King Baudouin II announced that independence would be forthcoming; by mid-1959 ABAKO had supplanted the Belgian administration in Léopoldville; the liberal Colonial Minister in Brussels, van Hemelryck, promoted free elections in December 1959; at Brussels in 1960 a time-scale for independence was agreed. The Belgians retained control of the Force Publique, which led to a Congolese mutiny. The nationalists’ actions had a marked effect on Belgians in the Congo; the number of settlers dropped from 110 000 in 1959 to 20 000 in 1960. Nationalism had played its necessary role, although any kind of national unity seemed to be lost after independence.
Indeed, ‘unity’ is not a word synonymous with the nationalist movement in Belgium, and this was the crucial limiting factor. The sheer number of political parties emphasises the scope of the split. Parties were organised around individuals and ethnic lines rather than unity (even Lumumba’s pan-African MNC was split between Lumumba and the rebel Kalonji). The MNC was the only party to hold an outright majority – in Stanleyville. During the transition period of 1960-64 nationalism fractured. Tshombe and CONAKAT declared Katangan secession in July 1960, expelling all non-CONAKAT Congolese; this was followed by Kasai in August. After Lumumba’s assassination in 1961 there were four rival capitals. The situation became an international crisis and national unity dissipated, which is indicative of nationalism’s limitations as a decolonising force.
Another decolonisation theory focuses on economics. The principal aspect of this theory is that decline in the economic fortune of the metropole led to the inevitable relinquishing of colonies which were a drain on their finances. There is little evidence to support this theory in the Belgian case. In fact, after World War II, the economy of the Belgian Congo boomed due to the newly discovered uses for uranium in the nuclear age. The Congo contained 80% of the world’s uranium in 1945. As Shipway notes, the diamonds of Kasai and the copper tin of Katanga were the objects of lucrative mining industries which were both stably managed, and the nation was rapidly industrialising. Standards of living rose significantly in the 1940s and 1950s; an extensive welfare programme was funded through private investment; the colonial health services were ‘the best in the whole tropical world’. In 1955 a Belgian journalist, described the Belgian Congo as ‘the most prosperous and tranquil of colonies’; though he had a natural bias, it is reinforced by the historian Chamberlain, who wrote that although ‘its tranquillity was illusory...its prosperity was real, due to its great mineral resources’. This is not the portrait of a colony which was dragging Belgium slowly into bankruptcy. Additionally, after 1960 most major Belgian investors remained in the Congo to defend their assets – which suggests that in this particular case, nationalism had forced an unwilling colonial administration out of an enterprise which was still earning good income.
There is one other factor which influenced Belgian decolonisation, and that is the issue of international relations as proposed by Ferro, Holland and Waites – the shift to a new world order after 1945, complete with Cold War, the EEC, NATO, and the UN. The possession of colonies no longer held either the strategic importance or the mystique it once did, and as such many politicians were either reluctant to maintain a hold over fading colonies or eager to invest their money and alliances in international banks and organisations.
This shift in international relations appears to have been recognised by the Belgians themselves; Freund writes that reform, if not outright decolonisation was being considered even by the early 1950s. As early as 1946 the governor of the Congo, Ryckmans, declared ‘the days of colonialism are past’. The Congolese were first permitted to go to Belgian universities in 1952; the Belgians opened a university in Léopoldville in 1957; and the Belgian-Congolese Community proposed a thirty-year plan in 1955, allowing for the ‘emancipation’ of the Congo Free State in its centenary year of 1985. ‘Emancipation’ was not properly defined (van Bilsen suggested rule by the Congolese elite.) But these proposals suggest that even before nationalism’s most explosive manifestations the colonialists were considering power transferral – and since, as has been illustrated, this was not for economic reasons, it is far more likely it was a response to a new world order.
Global concerns, specifically American and British, about the rise of communism were decisive in determining who gained power after decolonisation. The issue became international in July 1960, when Lumumba appealed for UN intervention. Although tentative at first, UN involvement increased after Lumumba, dissatisfied with their aid, invited Soviet support for the MNC. The influence of international forces on Congolese independence increased over the following years: fearful of a Cold War battle in the region, the US endorsed Mobutu’s coup and CIA forces aided him to power. It has even been speculated that Eisenhower ordered Lumumba’s assassination, although this has never been proved. UN military operations continued throughout 1961; Soviet and Chinese aid continued until 1963. Mobutu gained his legitimacy from Western intervention against Soviet-backed forces and for their own chosen faction, and it was instrumental in aiding him to seize power in 1965. He consolidated his rule by 1967 and renamed the country Zaïre in 1971.
The shift in international relations was felt strongly in the area: the conflict changed over a short period of time from being a colonialist matter to a global concern. As Waites and others have suggested, the two elements are perhaps coterminous: as Belgium lost its grip on the Congo, so international involvement became more likely, and as other major players began to have more influence, Belgium felt it was more worthwhile to invest elsewhere (i.e. the EEC). Although it does not seem to have actively caused decolonisation as such – the major international intervention came about after the independence of 1960 – the political background of a new world order was a key factor in persuading the Belgians to relinquish their colony.
In conclusion, no single accepted theory, either of imperialism or decolonisation, can wholly fit the model of the Belgian Congo. The financial motivation behind the Congo Free State certainly fits Hobson’s and Lenin’s imperialist theories most aptly but elements of international competition throughout the 1870s and 80s, which would fit Taylor’s theory of international relations, cannot be ignored. Although Léopold went into the Congo for the ivory and rubber it contained, international forces – competition and interaction with other nations – could have led to a very different outcome if they had not been in his favour, thus suggesting the Congolese model fits a synthesis of the Hobson-Lenin explanation and Taylor’s theory. It could also be argued that, from a Belgian point of view, Robinson and Gallagher’s ‘informal empire’ is the most apt theory, since it addresses how the nation did not have to engage in formal administration of a colony.
Similarly, although nationalism played a very predominant role in bringing about sudden independence in 1960, the distinction between independence and decolonisation must be kept clear. Decolonisation is not just political, but cultural and economic. The importance of the ABAKO riots of 1959 in evicting the colonialists must be seen in the international context, as part of a post-World War II progress towards self-determination and decolonisation. Thus Betts’ theory that nationalism brings about decolonisation fits the Congolese model in the short-term, but only given the importance of the theory of international relations.
1. Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost (2nd edition), Pan Macmillan, 2005.
2. Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa 1867-1912, Abacus, 1991.
3. Morel, E.D., Red Rubber (revised edition), 1920. Retrieved online.
4. Chamberlain, M.E., The Scramble for Africa (2nd edition), Longman, 1999.
5. Freund, Bill, The Making of Contemporary Africa, Indiana University Press, 1984.
6. Shipway, Martin, Decolonization and its Impact, Blackwell, 2008.
7. Ascherson, Neil, The King Incorporated, Allen & Unwin, 1963.
8. Chamberlain, M.E., Decolonization: The Fall of the European Empires, Basil Blackwell, 1985.
9. Stanley, Tim, Belgium’s Heart of Darkness, History Today Vol 62 Issue 10, 2012.
10. Mackenzie, J.M., The Partition of Africa, Methuen, 1983.
11. Betts, Raymond F., Decolonization, Routledge, 1998.
12. Hopkins, A.G., Blundering and Plundering: The Scramble for Africa Relived, Journal of African History 34, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
13. Thorn, Gary, End of Empires: European Decolonisation 1919-80, Hodder Education, 2000.
14. McDonough, Frank, The British Empire 1815-1914, Hodder Education, 1994.
15. Davidson, Basil, Africa in Modern History: The Search for a New Society, Allen Lane, 1978.
 Quoted in McDonough, Frank, The British Empire 1825-1914, Hodder Education,
Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912, Abacus, 1991.
Quoted in Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912, Abacus, 1991.
Mackenzie, JM, The Partition of Africa, Methuen, 1983.
From Leopold’s letter to Solvyns, quoted in Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost (2nd edition), Pan Macmillan, 2005.
Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost (2nd edition), Pan Macmillan, 2005.
Viscount de Lesseps, quoted in Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912, Abacus, 1991.
Hobson, J.A, Imperialism: A Study, 1902. Part II – Chapter IV. Retrieved online.
Freund, Bill, The Making of Contemporary Africa, Indiana University Process, 1984.
From E.D. Morel’s History of the Congo Reform Movement, quoted in Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost (2nd edition), Pan Macmillan, 2005.
Morel, E.D. Red Rubber (revised edition), 1920. Retrieved online.
Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa 1876-1912, Abacus, 1991.
Freund, Bill, The Making of Contemporary Africa, Indiana University Process, 1984.
 Young, Crawford, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1994.
 Quoted in Gifford & Louis (eds), The Transfer of Power in Africa: Decolonisation 1940-1960, Yale University Press, 1982.
 Chamberlain, M.E., Decolonization: The Fall of the European Empires, Basil Blackwell, 1985.
 Quoted in Shipway, Martin, Decolonization and Its Impact, Blackwell, 2008.