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European Control, King Leopold’s State
Force Publique, Leopoldville, territorial acquisition, extensive regions, Congolese people
Upon his return to Europe, Stanley petitioned the British government to colonize the region, but he was refused. However, King Leopold II of Belgium engaged Stanley to return to the Congo to set up trading stations and establish relations with the native chiefs. This territorial acquisition was pursued under the guise of an ostensibly philanthropic organization, created and controlled by Leopold, with the stated purpose of promoting the exploration and “civilization” of Central Africa in order to end the slave trade. Stanley founded a number of posts, including Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), and secured for Leopold the rights to extensive regions bordering the Congo River.
Conflicting territorial claims advanced by various nations, notably Portugal and France, around the mouth of the Congo led in 1884 to the Berlin West Africa Conference. The conference, which was attended by representatives of all European powers with colonial interests in Africa, outlawed the slave trade and established rules for the division of the continent of Africa among them. Leopold’s personal sovereignty over the region, now called the Congo Free State, was recognized in 1885.
Leopold quickly occupied his territory with Belgian soldiers and traders and commissioned the construction of railways around unnavigable sections of the Congo River. According to agreements reached at the Berlin conference, the Congo Free State was to be open to the trade of all nations. After Leopold laid claim to all the ivory and rubber trees in the Congo in the early 1890s, however, there was little else for any nation to trade. Rubber proved to be the most lucrative product in the Congo. Starting in the early 1890s, Congolese people were systematically forced to collect rubber as the only means of paying new taxes levied on them. Ironically, in the same period that this system of virtual slavery was imposed by the colonists, the Belgian colonial army, the Force Publique, destroyed the Zanzibari slave trade in the eastern Congo. The violent suppression of the slave trade and the new system of forced labor caused severe hardships in the region. As colonial rule was asserted, minor local uprisings were quelled, including three mutinies by Congolese members of the Force Publique.
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