Timelines: Timeline of African Slavery in the Belgian Empire, 1885 – 1962

Shalom, everyone! The Kingdom of Belgium was a late participant in the colonization, enslavement, and trafficking of Africans. Nevertheless, the Belgian government was complicit in one of the worst cases of slavery and other human rights abuses ever recorded in history. The following is a timeline of African slavery in the former Belgian Empire from 1885 to 1962. Please note that this post is a work-in-progress. As more information becomes available, this timeline will be updated:

Year Historical Event
1830 Belgium gains independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.
1839 Belgian independence was universally recognized.
1840s – 1850s Belgium‘s King Leopold I supports proposals to acquire overseas territories but these proposals fail.
1876 King Leopold II organized the sham Brussels Geographic Conference under the guise of discussing map-making, prevention of the re-emergence of the slave trade, and philanthropy in Africa. The king forms a series of shell companies, each with one shareholder, Leopold himself, and forms the  International African Association with these shell companies.
1879 – 1884 King Leopold II recruited Henry Morton Stanley to explore the Congo for colonization. Stanley secures deceptive agreements and treaties with local chiefs.
1884 Belgium participated in the Scramble for Africa at the Berlin Conference where they claim the Congo.
1885 King Leopold II established the Congo Free State (modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo). The territory, about 2 million square kilometers in size, become the king’s personal property. Congo Free State was recognized as a neutral independent territory by European and American states.
1885 – 1908 The Congo Free State operated as a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II through his non-governmental organization, the International African Association. Under Leopold II‘s administration, the Congo Free State became a humanitarian disaster. It is estimated that roughly 13 million Africans were killed as a result of poor working conditions and the atrocities committed against them by Leopold II’s private army, the Force Publique, and private companies who exploited them as slave labor. The Force Publique (FP) was used to enforce the rubber quotas. Failure to meet quotas resulted in beatings, rape, mutilations, executions, or even villages being burned or massacred. This cruelty was meted out to men, women, and children. FP soldiers often took human limbs as trophies.
1885 Leopold II declares that all unused land in Congo Free State belonged to the state, paving the way for its exploitation.
1889 Leopold II issued a new decree which said that Africans in the Congo Free State could only sell their harvested products (mostly ivory and rubber) to the state.
1892 Leopold II granted concessions to a number of companies. Each company was given a large amount of land in the Congo Free State on which to collect rubber and ivory for sale in Europe. These companies were allowed to detain Africans who did not work hard enough, to police their vast areas as they saw fit and to take all the products of the forest for themselves. 
1892 Leopold II issued three decrees that reduced the native population to serfs. Collectively, these forced the natives to deliver all ivory and rubber, harvested or found, to state officers thus nearly completing Leopold‘s monopoly of the ivory and rubber trade. The rubber came from wild vines in the jungle. To extract the rubber, instead of tapping the vines, the Congolese workers would slash them and lather their bodies with the rubber latex. When the latex hardened, it would be scraped off the skin in a painful manner, as it took off the worker’s hair with it.
1892 – 1894 Belgian colonial troops wage war on Arab slave traders who sought to take slave labor away from the Congo Free State and protect Leopold II’s financial interests.
1895 Reports of human rights abuses in the Congo Free State began to be reported in European media. The situation in the Congo Free State gained the British Government’s attention after a British citizen, Charles Stokes, was intercepted in the Congo, arrested and executed for trying to sell weapons to Zanzibari Arab slave traders.
1903 The reports of atrocities in the Congo Free State began to be debated in British House of Commons. The British Government instructs Roger Casement, a British diplomat based at the British Consul at Boma in the Congo, to investigate the allegations of widespread human rights abuses in the Congo Free State.
1904 The Casement Report, a document written by Roger Casement, detailed the abuses in the Congo Free State. This report, which caused immense embarrassment to the Belgian monarchy and government, was instrumental in Leopold II finally relinquishing his private holdings in Africa.
1908 Belgium Parliament voted to annex Congo Free State as the colony of the Belgian Congo. The territory would no longer be the personal property of Leopold II. The governance of the Belgian Congo was outlined in the 1908 Colonial Charter. Executive power rested with the Belgian Minister of Colonial Affairs, assisted by a Colonial Council (Conseil Colonial). Both resided in Brussels. The Belgian parliament exercised legislative authority over the Belgian Congo.
1908 – 1960 Economic exploitation of the Congo was one of Belgium‘s top priorities. Railways were constructed to open up the mineral and agricultural areas. Though Article 3 of the new Colonial Charter of 18 October 1908 stated that: “Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or privates,” this was not enforced, and the Belgian government continued to impose forced labor on the natives by less obvious methods.
1916 Due to the outbreak of World War I with GermanyBelgian troops occupied Ruanda-Urundi, then part of German East Africa.
1919 The Treaty of Versailles divided the German colonial empire among the victorious Allied Nations. Ruanda-Urundi was allocated to Belgium.
1922 The League of Nations officially awarded the mandate over Ruanda-Urundi to Belgium on 20 July 1922.
1922 – 1962 The Belgians used the existing indigenous power structure to maintain control in Ruanda-Urundi. This consisted of a largely Tutsi ruling class controlling a mostly Hutu population. The Belgian administrators believed that the Tutsi were superior and deserved power. While before colonization the Hutu had played some role in governance, the Belgians further stratified the society on racial lines. Hutu anger at the Tutsi domination was largely focused on the Tutsi elite rather than the distant colonial power.

Belgium severely neglects the native population of Ruanda-Urundi, having left the task of educating the native population to Christian missionaries. By the time Ruanda-Urundi gained independence in 1962 fewer than 100 natives had been educated beyond secondary level. The policy was one of low-cost paternalism, as explained by Belgium‘s special representative to the Trusteeship Council: “The real work is to change the African in his essence, to transform his soul, [and] to do that one must love him and enjoy having daily contact with him. He must be cured of his thoughtlessness, he must accustom himself to living in society, he must overcome his inertia.”

1960 Belgian Congo granted independence as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
1962 Ruanda-Urundi granted independence as two separate states, Rwanda and Burundi. The independence movement in the Belgian Congo, and unrest in Ruanda influenced the Belgian government to relinquish its remaining colonial territories in Africa.



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