by John Mitchell
Class of 1997
Leopold II (1835-1909) The King of Belgium
1865-1909. The scramble for Africa began in the mid-1870's with the purpose to colonize
the "Dark Continent". Much of the exploration and European interests were in the
southern, northern, and eastern part of the continent. It was still called the "Dark
Continent" because of the large basin of rain forests surrounding the Congo River in
the equatorial part of western Africa. This area was virtually unexplored because
traveling up the river by boat was impossible due to the massive systems of rapids that
were only 100 miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean.
Sir Henry Stanley's travels through Eastern Africa to find Dr. David Livingstone made
him famous throughout Europe. In 1876 Leopold II employed Stanley to acquire as much land
in the Congo Basin as he possibly could. The area that Stanley was able to get consisted
of nearly 905,000 square miles. This is almost three and a half times larger than present
day Texas. This land was not intended to become a Belgian colony, but a private state,
owned exclusively by Leopold. That same year, Leopold created the International African
Association, an organization that strove for colonization and exploration of Africa.
Stanley was able to make treaties with the natives living in the Congo that gave
Leopold the ownership of the land. A conference in Berlin was set up in 1885 for European
and American representatives to discuss dividing up Africa evenly. With the treaties that
Stanley had obtained, Leopold was able to claim the Congo legitimately. He named himself
sovereign of the Congo Free State/Independent State of the Congo. Between 1879 and 1884,
Leopold continued to finance Stanley's to exploration of the region. Because of resources
such as rubber, ivory, copper, diamonds, and gold in the Congo, Leopold tried to develop
the area enough to be able to export these goods. Major roads built to import supplies and
export the resources. Leopold did anything to gain wealth out of these areas including the
use of forced labor.
Much of Europe frowned upon these atrocities, which led to the end of Leopold's rule of
the basin. His financial backing eroded to the point that Leopold required loans from the
Belgian government. In 1908 Belgium took the lands for itself as the Belgian Congo. Many
of the hardships of the natives were reduced and living conditions were improved. The
Congo became independent in 1960. In 1970, the name was changed to the Republic of Zaire
by General Mobutu the President.