Belgium and the Congo

 

 

Overview of the Belgian Colonisation of the Congo Between 1908 and 1960

 Organisation of the Belgian Colonial Institutions:  Upon assuming official control of the colonial territory, Belgian authorities had to create a new institutional framework for the Congo.  The law commonly known as the ‘Colonial Charter ’, adopted by parliament in 1908, dictated the fundamental mechanism of the Belgian colonial empire. The aim was to put an end to the absolutism of the Leopoldian state. The Belgian legislative chambers would, in theory, become the supreme authorities for the management of the Congo, in particular through the approval of the budgets. Another decisiveelement of the charter was the rigorous financial separation of Belgium and the Congo. Belgian finances were not to be used for expenses relating to the colony. The minister of colonies , a full member of the government, was also granted legislative power to make decrees since parliament could not manage all the details of colonial policy. The minister was accountable for the management of the Congo and his draft decrees, before being officially enacted, had to be submitted to the colonial council. The council was a new, purely consultative organ. Parliament appointed six of its members and the king eight. The colonial charter specified that certain rights enjoyed by the Belgians at home, such as the freedom of association or the freedom of the press, did not apply to populations in the Congo, both black and white. Moreover, no representative form of government was introduced. The representative of Belgian central authority in the Congo was the governor-general , who had strictly limited power to make decisions.

 

 The territorial structure of power in the colony itself was organised in the form of subordinated entities whose number varied over the years: provinces, then districts and initially territories; led by governors, commissioners ( commissaires ) and local administrators ( administrateurs territoriaux ) respectively. At an even lower level, authority was exercised by ‘indigenous chieftainships’. Belgium opted for a form of indirect rule by which compliant indigenous chiefs became auxiliaries of the colonial power.  

 

 In general, colonial power was characterised by its centralised nature: Brussels decided all the important matters. In the Congo itself, the successive capitals, i rst Boma , then Léopoldville, clearly dominated the subordinate powers. It is important to note that, throughout the history of Belgian colonialism, tensions existed between the central power and the ‘GG’ (governor-general ) and, more generally, between metropolitan (i.e. Belgium) and colonial (i.e. the Congo) structures of government. Furthermore, centralisation within the Congo itself led to recurring discussions and several reorganisations of the subordinated powers that continuously demanded more autonomy.

 

 The Catholic Jules Renkin , first in a long series of ministers of the colonies, had the cumbersome task of addressing the numerous deficiencies in the Leopoldian administration. Not only did he have to put an end to the international difficulties, he also had to reform internal management. The Belgian authorities abolished the système domanial and re-introduced free enterprise and trade. The harsh Leopoldian work regime was suppressed – though forced labour did not actually disappear. Throughout the history of colonial Belgium, compulsory work remained in force, either for porterage and the development or maintenance of public utility work or for certain productive activities, for instance the growth of so-called educational crops introduced in order to stimulate commercial farming by the native population.

 

 

 The Congo under the Belgian Colonial Regime

Belgium is a small country, but the Belgian Congo was a huge territory. The difference in size between the metropolis (31,000 km 2 ) and the colony (2,350,000 km 2 ) was striking: The Congo was seventy-i ve times the size of Belgium. Only in the British Empire was there a larger disproportion: The total British colonial territories, including the Dominions, were 132 times bigger than Britain itself. The Dutch , French and Portuguese colonial empires were, respectively, fifty, seventeen and nine times bigger than the metropoles. The difference between the populations of Belgium (with 7.4 million inhabitants in 1910) and its colony (with c. 11 million before the First World War ) is less striking. In this case, the ratio of the colonial population to the metropolitan population is 144 per cent: a less spectacular figure than in the case of the British and the Dutch empires (865 per cent and 804 per cent respectively), but somewhat comparable to the French (120 per cent) and the Portuguese (94 percent) situations. In short, Belgium’s newly gained empire was far from negligible, and foreign observers, politicians and diplomats wondered if this colony was not ‘too big’ for small and inexperienced Belgium to handle.

 

The inclusion of the Congo in the world economy did indeed pose a great challenge to the Belgians. After the plunder that had characterised the Congo Free State , it was now necessary to ‘develop’ the immense Congolese territory. The railways already constructed under the preceding regime had to be modernised and extended, as did the port and river infrastructures.  In these sectors, the Belgian state and the colonial authorities provided a significant boost at the beginning of the 1920s, a decade also marked by a significant and renewed flow of private Belgian capital into the Congo. Compared to other colonies, the Belgian colony was at the top of per capita capital investment. No other overseas territory (outside the British Dominions) had attracted such amounts of capital. By 1938, the Belgian Congo had received forty-eight dollars of foreign capital per inhabitant; in British India (including Burma and Ceylon), this sum amounted to eight dollars; in the Netherlands Indies, thirty-six dollars; in the French African colonies, twenty-five dollars; in the British African colonies, thirty-two dollars; in Portuguese Africa, eighteen dollars.  Belgian colonisation was very capital intensive – a fact of great importance for the colonial impact on the Belgian economy.

 

 It was first thought that the Congo would be an agricultural powerhouse. Around the time of the First World War , it became increasingly apparent that the Congo would be a major producer of mineral riches. Belgium took over the mining activity, only recently started in the Congo Free State , which grew significantly in the 1920s. The Congo became one of the main global producers of copper , cobalt , industrial diamond s, uranium and many other minerals such as gold and tin . Congo played a leading role in the global arena due to the mining industry – a situation that would have major repercussions for Belgium. Between 1921 and 1948, minerals, as a percentage of the total value of Congolese exports, fluctuated between i fty-two and seventy-two per cent.  Between 1938 and 1951, the Congo’s share in Africa’s total exports increased from 4.7 per cent to 7.4 per cent. 42 The agricultural sector (palm oil, cotton , coffee , etc.) was certainly significant, but ranked second to minerals in the colony’s exports. Agricultural produce came either from European plantations or from African farmers. From then on, these African farmers had to maintain sufficient production for export while simultaneously producing enough for their own needs – quite a difficult task.

 

 The Congolese countryside experienced great hardship. In addition, the Congolese people had to provide labour, recruited by force, for the big mining concerns that were often far from areas of high demographic density. Masses of workers, who were victim to a high death rate, were recruited far away from the mines, transported and ended up living as displaced populations in their own country. Labour shortages and the nagging fear of de-population initially led to a turnaround in production policy. From the 1920s onwards, major companies such as the Union minière du Haut-Katanga devised a ‘stabilisation’ policy.  They reinforced mechanisation and introduced social protection measures for their black workers.

 

  This paternalistic concern gradually became generalised in the colony. The colonial state endeavoured to establish basic education, health and medical networks . This work was left to the care of the religious missions (with Catholic missions favoured over Protestant ) that had been active in the Congo since the beginning of the colonial enterprise. However, the extent of this educational and medical effort remained modest until the Second World War . The economic crisis of the 1930s followed by the enormous boost in productive effort from 1940 to 1945 caused great social upheaval and labour unrest in Congo and in many other sub-Saharan colonies.  The harsh living conditions of the native populations only began to improve in the second half of the 1940s.

 

 The last fifteen years of Belgian domination in the Congo were characterised by a set of exceptional factors: the takeoff of mining and agricultural production boosted by high prices on world markets; a significant increase in both public and private investment; rapid development of Congolese processing industries; considerable improvement in community facilities and infrastructures; increases in the purchasing power of black workers; improvement in black living conditions, housing and consumption, at least in urban centres; the influx of populations towards these so-called extra-customary centres (to the point where the rural exodus and the rise in urban unemployment, at the end of the 1950s, began to worry colonial authorities); mass schooling of young people (in this area, the Congo held a leading position in black Africa); the extension of social and medical services to the countryside (to which the creation of the Fonds du Bien- Être indigène (Indigenous Welfare Fund) in 1947 largely contributed).

 

 Just before the sudden collapse of the colonial system, the Belgian authorities boasted of these undeniable achievements to justify the validity of their sovereignty in the Congo to the rest of the world. Still today, former Belgian colonials – precisely those who knew and built the Congo of the 1940s and 1950s – refer to these positive results in reaction to what they perceive as unjust attacks against colonialism. They quite rightly underline the striking contrast between the progress of ‘their’ Congo and the race to the depths of despair in the decades after 1960. But is it really justifiable to project these peak years onto previous decades when the track record reads differently? Shining the spotlight unilaterally on the social and economic advances from 1945 to 1960 puts the darkest facets of the colonial picture firmly in the shadows.

 

 At the dawn of independence, the Congolese rural sector encountered serious difficulties. Food production was in crisis and food shortages became common. Paradoxically, the Congo, the great exporter of agricultural produce, was forced to import foodstuffs in increasing quantities just to feed its own population.

 

 Despite the relative material well-being that certain strata of the black population enjoyed, Congolese society was marked by heavy and threatening imbalances. Compared to other African countries, the Congo had a large urban and industrial proletariat, but it consisted quasi-exclusively of executants. The strata above were extremely underdeveloped. In addition, employees and civil servants, already relatively few in number, were restricted to inferior tasks. The famous ‘Africanisation of the executives’ that the Belgian coloniser launched into suddenly and belatedly just before his hasty departure was rather limited at the time of independence. The Congolese lower middle class, middle class and, a fortiori , business class were practically non-existent. The colonial authorities had always prevented access to property and autonomous economic activity. The colonial educational policy was designed to create a large literate base, from which a cultural ‘elite’ could be moulded in some distant future. This policy largely contributed to a dangerous distortion within Congolese society.  Who would lead this independent nation?

 

 It is true that the Congo of the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s seemed calm and relatively trouble-free. But was it? Such a conclusion ignores the social upheavals that shook the colony during the decades before the 1950s. Several revolts and strikes had to be repressed by the armed forces, most notably in the 1890s, in the 1930s (e.g. the Pende revolt of 1931) and immediately after the Second World War . The authorities also ignored or hushed up the latent and diffuse grievances within the black population. Before the initial years of colonisation, the discontent of the black population had no ‘modern’ expression, especially in the countryside. It was voiced collectively through syncretistic or traditional religious movements (e.g. the Kimbanguist religion, still vivid in the Congo; the Kitawala ; etc.) – a phenomenon that the authorities endeavoured to control and even quell. An undoubtedly different kind of discontent also affected urban circles. Only a minority of Congolese people benefitted from Western education and assimilated European values and lifestyles.

 

 These ‘evolved’, Westernised Congolese ( évolues ) were often frustrated by the lack of possibility for promotion and even more so by the daily expressions of racism inflicted upon them by some whites. Other whites, it should be said, showed respect, consideration and sincere friendship towards the native Congolese. While these ‘bright’ facets of the complex prism of colonial life should certainly not be forgotten, the darker facets must also be remembered. Although it was never subjected to a South African-style apartheid system (something the Belgian authorities explicitly rejected), the Belgian Congo did indeed have a colour bar that only began to break down shortly before independence.

 

 It is precisely at this point that popular discontent found a more traditional, political expression. Beginning in 1956, newly-created Congolese political associations expressed very cautious and moderated nationalist views. Over time, these organisations were gradually radicalised; initially leading, in 1959 and 1960, to demands for immediate and complete independence. These demands were formulated by a multitude of rival political factions that suddenly appeared – an aspect of one-upmanship that certainly cannot be denied.

 

 The local and metropolitan Belgian authorities were caught off guard. They were woefully unprepared for the possibility of Congolese independence . The atmosphere became even more tense due to a sudden burst of violence in January 1959, followed soon afterwards by other bloody incidents and a campaign of civil disobedience. After a few tentative steps, Brussels succumbed. At the beginning of 1960, after a conference with all the Congolese political forces, Belgium suddenly decided to put an end to its sovereignty in the Congo on 30 June 1960.

 

 And so, for a couple of years between 1958 and 1960, the Congo returned to the forefront of Belgian political life, a place it had not occupied since 1908. The following chapter is dedicated to the impact of the colony on Belgium domestic politics: a long (apparent) silence between two outbursts.

  The Leopoldian origin of the Belgian presence in Africa also had an impact on the economic dimension of colonisation, in which the large financial groups and enterprises, often with close ties to government, played a strikingly dominant role. This extraordinary circumstance can help explain the economic significance of the Congo to Belgium. Certain sectors fared well in the colonial adventure and, more often than not, the Socieye Generale de Belgique was involved in one way or another. Colonisation also meant that Belgian foreign investment was focused on the Congo rather than on other countries. Belgian foreign trade also developed along these lines, with imports from the Congo (mainly of raw materials, and non-ferrous metals in particular) always much more important than exports (mainly of metal products) to the colony.

 

 It is worth noting that the Congo was never locked up behind protectionist walls; as far as trade regulation was concerned, the Congo always remained an ‘open’ colony. The privileged position of Belgian interests in its colonial domain was guaranteed by other mechanisms, for example monetary policy or other noncommercial regulations. The colony therefore had an important impact on Belgium’s global balance of payments, a situation quite similar to that of other colonial powers such as Great Britain and the Netherlands. The economic and social ties between Belgium and the Congo were undoubtedly close and important, but they did not cover the whole range of Belgian society. For example, while the large financial groups played a role of great significance in the Congo, very few small Belgian entrepreneurs found their way to the colony. The Congo mainly attracted a small, highly trained and carefully selected Belgian elite; there was no question of a mass exodus of minor Belgian entrepreneurs. These observations explain the ease with which Belgium severed its ties to the independent Congo. In the early twenty-first century, the Congo plays a very minor role in Belgian society. Conversely, in the 1990s, four decades after independence, the immediate Belgian presence in the Congo no longer amounted to much – but that certainly does not mean that Belgium did not leave a long-lasting imprint on the new African nation.

 

 This brings us to our final point. The very impact that colonialism had on Belgium also left a special mark on the colony in turn . The imperial link is never one-way, but always consists of mutual reverberations, an observation made right at the start of this book. Studying the colonial imprint on Belgium did not reveal a great deal about concrete situations in the Congolese terrain, but nevertheless exposed some constraining factors at work on the latter. As the great powers carefully watched (and coveted?) the Congo from the time of its birth, the Belgian authorities developed a defensive attitude. Their colony had to be protected, even isolated, from foreign influences. The Congo was to become a ‘model colony’, proving that the Belgians were capable of handling an empire all on their own. Their constant fear of losing control of the colony led to a policy that insulated the Congolese people from the outside world, prevented the formation of indigenous elites and consequently, left the colonised society wholly unprepared for independence. Modern civil society – political parties, cultural associations and social movements – was extremely weak when the inexperienced Congolese leaders took over the reins of their country. Belgian colonial policy, shaped by the early imprint of colonialism on the metropole, was certainly to blame for this. The overwhelming position of – another mark of the effects of colonialism on Belgium bouncing back on the Congolese situation – led to a disproportionate concentration of wealth; making the new nation conducive to predatory activity by the new Congolese elite. These elements significantly influenced the development of the Congo’s tragedies in the final decades of the twentieth century.

 

 

1) a:  To what extent does the personal ambition and psychology of King Leopold explain the initiation of Belgian Colonial policy as well as the ruthlessness and ultimately, cruelty of it?

1b) to what extent does 'ambtion' and 'psychology' help explain not just the actions of politicians but the activity and outcomes of politics itself?

1c) does this tend towards constructivist theory in IR?


2a) To what extent is the emergence of Belgian colonies not the reactive reponse to Leopold's 'bright idea' but rather, though initiated by him becomes a comples of pro and con forces that swirl and gather..and pull in the other uropean nterests?

2b) Again, is this another case of normal political processes - initiation followed by reaction followed by working towards resolution and acceptance by other relevant players who will attempt in the process to satisfy their own interests.

2c) Is the policy style here one of ineractive incrementalism? - adding  a bit here and bit there by negotiation towards the final agreements between players?



3a) Did Belgium manage to pull away from period 'Leopold to denial of the horrors of the Leopold version of Colonision'?  e.g. the Colonial Charter provided a more just colonial structure that brought them closer to other European colonialising states?

3b) Clarify for yourself the structure of colonial rule - devolved or centralised? Indirect or direct rule?

3c) By the 1930s had Belgium enabled development in the Congo that outstripped other colonial powers?

4) To what extent did Belgium adequately prepare the Congolese black african people for independence?


5) Was the political struggle towards Independence for the Congo a struggle of 'Liberation' between two distinct parties: Belgium v the Congolese people...

5b) OR...Was it a complex set of manoevres for post-Independence dominance by the emergence of black leaders and their parties in the late 1950s?

5c) Is this a political truth about the fragmentation of political society when faced with radical change? (Brexit?)

 

 

 

Leopold II - 1835-1909

 

 

How do we explain his drive for colonies?

 

Did he translate his ideas of  Kingship into his rule over 'the colonies?

 

Or did it come down to somewhat ill-gotten gains from a people who could not resist? Or more complex?

 

Political and social motives were inextricably linked with the material benefits that could be gained from overseas activity.  The strengthening of the nation, the symbolic and diplomatic affirmation of its grandeur, the reconciliation of contending social groups, the stimulation of national energies; all these elements were present in his expansionist ideas. But all were undeniably linked with and resulted from Leopold ’s basic motive: wealth. (Vantemsche)

 

and pursuit of personal wealth...

 

 

But do it slowly so create pressure groups since Belgian society/givt was not that impressed by the idea

 

 

1876, was Leopold ’s call for an International Geographic Conference to be held in Brussels .

 

Leopold secured Stanley's services who returned to the Congo to set up stations on behalf of the Comité d’Études du Haut- Congo (Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo), a new organisation backed by the Belgian sovereign. By 1879, Stanley and his team had penetrated the region surrounding the Congo River, reaching present-day Kisangani . They set up posts, first under the aegis of the Committee, which was rapidly dissolved, then under that of the Association internationale du Congo

 

 

But underlying this was the trade that could be generated not political ambition but to gain recognition with African chiefs needed political forms of sovereignty of colonial state a la France etc.

 

In 1884, the British and the Portuguese made an agreement in which Britain acknowledged Portugal’s sovereignty rights over all the territory surrounding the mouth of the Congo River . This meant the end of access to Africa via the Atlantic and hence an end to Leopold ’s dreams.

 

So he promised free trade for now and the future to the British

 

and he gave France pre-emptive rights over the Congo should Belgium relinquish their foreign adventure. And \Germany was happy with these arrangements

 

and this basically played off the major powers in the region against each other in rel to Leopold's ambitions.

 

 

Berlin Conference settled the matter.

 

"the so-called Conventional Congo Basin was and would remain an area of free trade and free navigation. No right of entry could be levied there; everybody would be able to trade freely and on equal footing. This decision played a key role in Belgian colonial history and was at the centre of the controversial activities of the Congo Free State created at the beginning of 1885, with Leopold as absolute ruler..."

 

 

But the methods by which the ends were pursued

 

Pretence of ending slavery: Leopold ’s anti-slavery campaigns were simply a means of establishing trade and political domination in the heart of Africa

 

 

...but

 

children were often seized by the missionaries and brought up apart from their parents, given a primary education, and trained for the Force Publique, which was King Leopold’s army. The Force Publique was obliged to fight the Arab-dominated slave trade, which interfered with King Leopold’s use of the population for a local system of forced labor. And it was also used to subdue the Congolese people in conjunction with the shareholders and overseers that Leopold had appointed.

 

The costs of doing this funded by Leopold's personal wealth were starting to run out and so began the Belgian state take over of the project as they agreed to fund it.

But to make money but cause objections that it effectively called time on free trade was the 'domain system'

 

Land unused by the local population would become part of the wealth of the Belgian 'Congo Free state' and be used, or traded

 

and with this system to maximise its profits the brutality really go under way with forced labour and terrible punishments for under-production etc.

 

Adam Hochschild estimates that between 5 and 10 million died during Leopold’s tenure. Another author notes that the population was depleted from 30 to 8 million. This meant that two out of every three Congolese died, amounting to one of the worst genocides due to colonization. By 1903, there was some effort to revise the system. The tax on the natives was fixed at forty hours of labour per worker each year. But the mandate was simply nullified by the shareholders and overseers whose only interest in the Congo was profit. Their abuse continued unabated until England mounted a campaign to oblige King Leopold to alter the system. He succumbed to foreign pressure in the year 1909, when he ceded the Congo Free State to the government of Belgium

 

Thus Belgium becomes  a colonial power.

 

and...

Belgian authorities had to create a new institutional framework for the Congo.  The law commonly known as the ‘Colonial Charter ’, adopted by parliament in 1908

 

 

Aspects of this:

 

separation of Belgian and Congo finance

 

Minister for Colonies had delegated powers over Congo but accountable to Colonial Council

 

Controls over Congo - no free press etc.

 

a Governor-General

 

Got rid of the dominal system

 

Huge investment

 

 

The territorial structure of power in the colony itself was organised in the form of subordinated entities whose number varied over the years: provinces, then districts and territories; led by governors, commissioners ( commissaires ) and local administrators (administrateurs territoriaux ) respectively. At an even lower level, authority was exercised by ‘indigenous chieftainships’. Belgium opted for a form of indirect rule by which compliant indigenous chiefs became auxiliaries of the colonial power. 

 

 

The railways already constructed were modernised and extended, as were the port and river infrastructures.  In 1920s, there was a significant and renewed flow of private Belgian capital into the Congo. Compared to other colonies, the Belgian colony was at the top of per capita capital investment. By 1938, the Belgian Congo had received forty-eight dollars of foreign capital per inhabitant; in British India (including Burma and Ceylon), this sum amounted to eight dollars

 

Mining brought wealth.

 

Between 1938 and 1951, the Congo’s share in Africa’s total exports increased from 4.7 per cent to 7.4 per cent

 

Major companies such as the Union minière du Haut-Katanga devised a ‘stabilisation’ policy.  They reinforced mechanisation and introduced social protection measures for their black workers.

 

 

This paternalistic concern gradually became generalised in the colony. The colonial state endeavoured to establish basic education, health and medical networks

 

 

 

 

The point was that Belgium was very embarrassed by the horrors that Leopold had perpetrated and wanted to rid themselves of the shame...so they devised at least on paper a reasonable system of colonial rule

 

But for all these advances...

 

Congolese managers and civil servants, already relatively few in number, were restricted to inferior tasks. The ‘Africanisation of the executives’ that the Belgian coloniser launched into suddenly and belatedly just before his hasty departure was rather limited at the time of independence.

 

The Congolese lower middle class, middle class and, a fortiori , business class were practically non-existent. The colonial authorities had always prevented access to property and autonomous economic activity. The colonial educational policy was designed to create a large literate base, from which a cultural ‘elite’ could be moulded in some distant future. This policy largely contributed to a dangerous distortion within Congolese society.  Who would lead this independent nation?

 

So Belgium for all its welfare advances for the Congolese has undermined the possibility of leadership - politically and economically.

 

Those who did receive secondary education were known as évolués or “evolved ones.” After 1948, they formed the basis of the black bourgeoisie and were afforded special privileges and services. Although their rights were not consistent with those of the colonizers, even secondary education would prompt them to move in the directions that were most feared: they began organizing in groups to demand equal wages for equal work and, ultimately, Congolese independence

 

Beginning in 1956, newly-created Congolese political associations expressed very cautious and moderated nationalist views. Over time, these organisations were gradually radicalised; initially leading, in 1959 and 1960, to demands for immediate and complete independence.

 

The coming to prominence of

 

Kasavubu

 

Lumumba

 

Tshombe

 

 

Vanthemsche suggests that this all rather sudden activity for independence and the gradually rising violence of competition between the several political factions caught the Belgians 'off-guard' and rapidly precipitated them into granting independence.

 

"a sudden burst of violence in January 1959, followed soon afterwards by other bloody incidents and a campaign of civil disobedience. After a few tentative steps, Brussels succumbed. At the beginning of 1960, after a conference with all the Congolese political forces, Belgium suddenly decided to put an end to its sovereignty in the Congo on 30 June 1960."

 

But how does this fit with Haskin's discussion?

 

 

My questions I posed to you in my email:

 

 

Was the political struggle towards Independence for the Congo a struggle of 'Liberation' between two distinct parties: Belgium v the Congolese people...

 OR...Was it a complex set of manoevers for post-Independence dominance by the emergence of black leaders and their parties in the late 1950s?