Colonization of the Dark Continent

Africa was the only region unexplored by the Europeans. Often referred to as the Dark Continent, it was a land of mystery, riches, peril, and primitive tribesman. This did not deter Europeans from seeking to reap the bountiful goods this land had to offer. One such ruler, King Leopold of Belgium, became obsessed with claiming his stake in this new land. He sent out John Rowlands, better known through the world as Henry Morton Stanley the famous “Stanley and Livingstone” explorer, to map and help establish his dream. King Leopold’s quest for power and greed, along with Stanley’s desire for fame and exploration, the region of the Congo slowly granted ownership to Belgium. Individual agendas, political maneuvering, deception, and the Europeans thirst for riches became prominent factors that would establish a permanent European presence in the Dark Continent.

In the early fifteenth century, the Europeans were driven to trade, colonize, explore, and conquer the dark continent of Africa (Hochschild, 7). This land seemed exotic and new to Europeans; however, it was only viewed this way because the tribal societies of the regions were thought to be primitive. These non-Christian primitives of Africa, while having established their own system of tribe hierarchy, were not recognized to have any established form of government. The tribes themselves moved around from place to place and therefore had no permanent area or region to claim as their own. Many of the tribes had no concept of the idea of land ownership, as this was not common practice in their culture. This was apparent to Stanley when he was charged by King Leopold of Belgium to get the signatures of the tribal leaders and village chiefs, men who had no understanding of the word “treaty” (72). Many African’s had not even seen written word before, especially one written in a foreign language, regardless of this fact Stanley did as he was tasked. Once his dirty work for the greedy King Leopold was finished, Stanley returned back to Europe (74).

With Africa being one of the last unexplored regions of the globe for Europeans in the nineteenth century, what became known as a scramble for African colonization had ultimately begun. Globally, other areas had been colonized by European countries and now the time had come for shedding light within the continent. King Leopold was well on his way to setting in motion his plans for colonization and sent his envoy to the United States. Leopold’s envoy, General Henry Shelton Sanford, was the man with whom the explorer Stanley was recruited (76). Sanford had been in communication with the America’s about King Leopold’s plans for the Congo. The idea of Leopold was to get the Americans to recognize his claim to the Congo through the signed treaties, thereby establishing his presence in the region. This was a great diplomatic masquerade performance from Sanford, written by Leopold, all in the name of independence (77-79). By the end of the negotiations and deliberations from the Americas and many European representatives, it was King Leopold who held a vast majority of land within the African interior. Leopold had given everyone a misconception of an international free trading zone, one in favor of freedom, missionary work, and freedom of navigation to the coastlines (86).


A young not-yet-king Leopold had a desire to learn about the colonization of other regions due to a stay in the town of Seville. While there, the future king read about the profits of Spain and Britain, and how they established such income from their establishment of foreign colonies. Leopold became intrigued with the subject, particularly the writings of J.W.B. Money regarding the Dutch profits of Java through forced labor. He agreed with J.W.B. Money that forced labor was the only way to create a civilized people out of such primitives (36-38). This mentality carried into his treatment of the African people. Leopold claimed that he wanted to end the African-Arab slave trade (78). All the while his troops would enslave the people of the tribes to do the work of porting supplies and cargo across the treacherous terrain, and harvesting the valuable rubber that was plentiful in the area (131-133). Even though the tribes of Africa would capture opposing tribes, and in a sense enslave the other tribe, it was nowhere near the extremes of European racists’ enslavement of people. Even Stanley was guilty of this racist view, enslavement, and mistreatment of the African natives.

While acting as porters for Stanley many of the natives were beaten, chained, and referred to as slaves. Stanley’s harsh judgments on the very men that aided him on his exploration, showed that despite the promise to end slavery and establish human rights did not pertain to the primitives of Africa (50, 68). Despite the mistreatment of natives, explorers were viewed as celebrities; modern-day movie stars which would go on exotic explorations to dangerous lands to seek riches and establish their name in the world. Their tails and exploits could be read in the elaborate stories that graced the pages of their journals and books (26-27).  Through the funding of a tyrant King, Stanley was able to rise to fame in Europe. Each base that Stanley helped establish in the name of the King was run by a cruel taskmaster that would become power-hungry. Far away from the eyes of the civil society of Europe, these men would enslave the locals and force them to collect goods for trade in the European countries (138-139). To appease the public about the happenings in the Congo, an exhibit was built for the world’s fair of 1897 portraying an African Congo village, complete with imported artifacts and even natives themselves. King Leopold himself visited the exhibit to see his dream realized and even had a meeting with one of the chiefs. Here he displayed his lack of acknowledgment that the Africans were equal human beings by setting up signs comparable to “Don’t feed the animals” signs to rectify a problem of blacks becoming sick due to treats that were given to them by the public (175-176).

Russell E. Train Africana Collection, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

It was not until a young man by the name of Edmund Dene Morel, appointed as a liaison between Belgium and a company known as Elder Dempster, became suspicious during meetings he had with top Congo officials. He uncovered records that showed a steady supply of armaments, falsification of rubber profits, and uneven trade for goods (177-181). Most people in the United States and Europe knew very little about the Leopold exploitation. Elder Dempster tried to keep Morel quiet, for if he shed light on the happenings of the Congo, King Leopold might break the contract with Elder Dempster. Morel refused to keep quiet and quit the company to begin a campaign to expose the injustice of the Congo (185-189). Through pictures of mutilated bodies, burned villages, and written eye-witness accounts in magazines and newspapers, Morel along with others brought to light the horrific happenings in central Africa (225).

The death of millions during King Leopold’s campaign in the Congo, now under scrutiny by all of Europe and the Americas, were met with various excuses and justifications. Mass murders, starvation, disease, and low birth rate all contributed to a decrease in the population. Leopold’s regime blamed many deaths on “sleeping sickness” or smallpox, which had been a problem in Africa for centuries (226-232). Still, Morel pushed on and the criticism of Leopold escalated. King Leopold fought back, claiming British Africa performed in the same manner as Belgium. The king used his wealth and political sway to influence lobbyist in an attempt to cover his trail (244).

Human rights in question, Leopold established the Commission of Inquiry to go to the Congo and provide proof of his “fair” treatment of the people. This was a mistake that would be the undoing of the web of corruption woven by Leopold. The men Leopold sent to the Congo returned with witnesses that testified of the racism and violation of rights that Leopold was aware of (253-255). With pressure mounting against Leopold, only one option was left, for the territory that Leopold controlled to be handed over to the Belgian government. Despite the bad image he was receiving globally, Leopold saw an opportunity to sell the Congo to the Belgian government. Originally he had planned to hand over rights upon his death (257).  Once the negotiations were done, Leopold had once again used his maneuvering to make a powerful gain with the sale of the Congo. In agreement for the rights to the Congo, Leopold was debt free and filthy rich (259). So the once Congo Free State became known as the Belgian Congo.

Even after the death of Leopold, the demand for rubber caused many natives to still be enslaved. With the decline of wild rubber, the need to establish a more civilized means of production was implemented by the Belgian government. Through Morel and the work of reformers to keep the Congo in the spotlight, the atrocities in the now Belgian Congo slowly subsided but did not disappear. New systems of forced labor were implemented that would be passed off as more humane (277-278).

The drive of two men working together to explore and colonize the Congo through greed, power plays, manipulation, deception, riches, and fame in due course led to the European colonization of the Congo. Many innocent people died in the name of trade, profit, and exploration. Ultimately it was because of the inhumane and violent treatment of a simple people who set the stages for a King to fall, an explorer to rise, and people to experience the atrocities of human nature. Despite all this, if not for their actions, the Congo would still remain a remote, unmapped, unknown region of the world.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. Print.