Leopold II:
King of Belgium, Mass Murderer

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2000

King Leopold II of Belgium created an image for himself as a fine fellow, a humanitarian, a solid citizen of the world. In fact he was a monster, terrorizing and pillaging a large section of Africa for a quarter-century. How did this crime happen? And how did humanity put a stop to it?

Born in Laeken Palace near Brussels on April 9, 1835, Leopold grew up sullen and obnoxious. His father, King Leopold I, was a chilly old coot; his mother, Queen Louise, thought her son repulsive because of his huge trowel-shaped nose. Leopold’s first cousin, Queen Victoria of England, noted the prince’s tendency to blurt out “disagreeable things.”

The boy’s sense of woe increased as he pondered his future. He was fated, it seemed, to be a minor actor on the world stage, far less grand than his lucky cousin in England. How to avoid this bleak destiny?

He began to dream of acquiring an overseas colony – a vast land that would relinquish its bounty without much of a fight, as India gave her riches to Britain. Imperial suzerainties, Leopold convinced himself, would mean greatness for himself and Belgium. This yearning came to rule his life.

Colonial expansion was in its heyday in the 19th century. Europeans gained control over “uncivilized” people at gunpoint. (Similarly, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and South Africans assailed native tribes.) People often rationalized their aggression by saying they wanted to “protect” and “Christianize” the locals, help the race “grow up,” but the core driving forces were racism, power lust, and a craving for raw materials to feed the factories and furnaces of the Industrial Revolution.

Leopold became king of Belgium in 1865 at age 30 with the death of his father. By this time, he had developed a surface charm, a smooth and convincing political patter.

His personal life continued to be odd and benighted. In 1853 he married an Austrian archduchess named Marie-Henriette; the union was arranged for diplomatic reasons. The newlyweds didn’t know how to have sex and/or were afraid to try. Queen Victoria learned of the difficulty when the young couple visited England several weeks after the marriage ceremony; Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, spoke quietly to the pair about the facts of life and their royal duty. The results were positive. Marie-Henriette gave birth to Louise in 1858, Leopold in 1859, Stephanie in 1864, and Clementine in 1872. Because King Leopold believed that only males should ascend to the throne, his son became the most important person in the world to him. Sadly, the boy died at age 9 in 1869 after falling into a pond and catching pneumonia.

Queen Marie-Henriette spent most of her time as far away from her husband as possible, but she couldn’t escape completely. By her middle 30s people commented about how miserable she looked. She hung on grimly until 1902.

Leopold kept a series of young mistresses. According to sworn testimony in a London courtroom in 1885, he paid a regular fee to a British procurer for a supply of virgins for his bed. Some of these girls were apparently as young as ten years old, kidnapped or purchased in Britain, perhaps in alleyways in London’s East End, a few miles from the courtroom. Leopold never appeared in London to respond to the testimony, and the trafficking case was swept under the rug, possibly because men of high position were involved. The fate of the girls is not known.

A new occupation emerged among Europeans in the late 1800s – the African explorer. Henry Stanley, the most ambitious of these, followed the Congo River in the 1870s from its headwaters to the Atlantic Ocean, a 1,500-mile trek that opened the region to Europe.

King Leopold read newspaper accounts of Stanley’s trip with a mounting sense of excitement – here, he decided, was his colony. “Get me the Congo!” came the directive from Leopold to the explorer, accompanied by a fat finder’s fee. From 1879 to 1884, Stanley signed contracts with hundreds of tribal chieftains, giving Leopold unchecked power over a territory of more than 800,000 square miles, as large as the U.S. east of the Mississippi. Leopold named his colony the Congo Free State. (The region would go through several names over the next century: the Belgian Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Zaire, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

Many of the tribal chiefs had “no idea what they were signing,” reports journalist and historian Adam Hochschild in his book “King Leopold’s Ghost” (1998): “Few had seen the written word before….The idea of a treaty of friendship between two clans or villages was familiar; the idea of signing over one’s land to someone on the other side of the ocean was inconceivable.”

Leopold backed up his contracts with the most lethal weaponry of the day. Meanwhile he hid details of his effort from the Belgian parliament. He assured his fellow citizens, and the world, that his interest in the Congo was benevolent, that he would tread lightly and encourage the spread of civilization. Many visitors to his palace came away believing he was at least benign, and perhaps could take his place among the world’s leading humanitarians.

Leopold’s actual work in the Congo was enslaving the population and using its labor to cart off resources. He lined his pockets with the profits. He financed Belgian public works, bought real estate, built a fabulous villa in the south of France, and achieved what he regarded as greatness.

His regime forced Africans, at gunpoint, to work brutally hard at the tasks of empire: collecting ivory, tapping rubber, mining copper, building railroads, and carrying raw materials on their backs along narrow paths for miles. People who tried to avoid slavery were whipped, starved, and shot. Families were held hostage. People were raped and held as sex slaves. Crops were burned. Villages were leveled.

A Belgian officer named Rene de Permentier was not untypical in his conduct. Hochschild writes, “If he found a leaf in a courtyard that women prisoners had swept, he ordered a dozen of them beheaded. If he found a path in the forest not well-maintained, he ordered a child killed in the nearest village.” And, if he wanted an afternoon of target practice, he used live human beings.

Tens of thousands of natives were murdered in cold blood. Many thousands more were worked to death. Large numbers of people became refugees, stripped of lands and crops, fleeing in terror at the approach of Leopold’s men. Many died from famines caused by Leopold’s army. Millions of people succumbed to diseases brought by Belgians, or illnesses that they might have survived had they not been under the Belgian fist. It was, says writer Algis Valiunas, “wickedness triumphant….Leopold merits a place among the great modern enemies of civilization.”

Novelist Joseph Conrad was “so horrified by the greed and brutality among white men he saw in the Congo,” writes Hochschild, “that his view of human nature was permanently changed.” Until his Congo sojourn in 1890 Conrad had skipped rather blithely through life. In the wake of the trip he developed a brooding fascination with the darkness of the human soul – with what critic Adam Kirsch, reviewing a Conrad biography, calls “the cruelty and existential void lurking beneath the surface of advanced European civilization.” Conrad became a great literary chronicler of evil, giving an enduring name to what Leopold had wrought: “Heart of Darkness.”

Leopold knew what was happening in the Congo but was unconcerned. “To be a great person,” he announced, stepping into the role of moral philosopher, “is not necessarily the same thing as being a good person.” As the years passed he accelerated his efforts, working seven days a week at Laeken Palace, poring over stacks of paper with all the diligence that Eichmann would show at his desk in Berlin. Leopold’s greed “could not be contained,” writes historian Barbara Emerson.

Then came the disclosures.

Shortly after 1900 British newspapers began publishing stories about the Belgian regime based on the remarkable detective work of a solitary individual, an Englishman named E.D. Morel. These accounts were not the first such reports from the Congo, but they were the most sustained and effective, and in their wake an international protest movement formed, enlisting thousands, including Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Leopold tried to stamp out the fire of outrage by enlisting powerful new voices of support. He hired well-connected lobbyists to get him a good press, and granted lucrative Congo business licenses to the Rockefellers, the Guggenheims, and others. But the reform movement eventually achieved a measure of success. In 1908 the king was forced to sell his colony, transferring it from his personal control to the national government, ensuring somewhat more oversight by the parliament.

The level of human misery gradually decreased but the effects can still be felt. The Congo today is called “the worst place on earth” by journalist Lisa Ling, reporting for The Oprah Show, and “the worst place on earth to be a woman” by author Lisa Shannon, where rape and murder are common occurrences.

Neighboring Rwanda also suffered from the Belgians. The 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” suggests that some of the roots of the 1994 massacre of Tutsis (and Hutu moderates) by Hutu extremists can be found in Belgian depredations on the culture after World War I (which does not for a moment lessen the guilt of the Hutu butchers). As scholar Manus I. Midlarsky writes, “….It was under colonial rule that the distinctions between (the Tutsi and Hutu) were hardened into virtually hermetic racial categories.” (See here for additional background.)

King Leopold died in his bed at Laeken Palace on December 17, 1909, age 74, sanguine that the world would assess his course as proper.

He was also wary at the end, eager to continue his long public relations campaign. Before he died he ordered the burning of his Congo files, putting to the flame every scrap that could be collected. The fire lasted for eight days. He hoped to cover his tracks, but the high court of history has found him out.