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The Role of Violence in King Leopold’s Ghost

In 1865, king Leopold II ascended the throne of Belgium – a small country, surrounded by the influential European empires. Therefore, throughout his reign, the king was obsessed with gaining a colony. Indeed, the European countries entered the new era of intensified industrial expansion, with personal profit and immediate enrichment becoming the priorities and major driving forces of the then society. Meanwhile, the African continent had abundant natural resources with no organized military defense and state system. In the late 19th century, the Belgians came uninvited and immediately applied brutal force. Thus, violence was a primary means of the formal colonization of the Congo Free State.

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The colonization of Congo had a deliberate focus on the ruthless plunder of its natural resources, such as ivory, rubber, metallic ore, and many others. In this context, forced labor was the cornerstone of Congo exploitation. For example, in his book Africa in Global History (2018), Robert Harms observes that rubber production “brought unprecedented suffering and destruction to the inhabitants of the two Congos” (403).

The mining exploitation in Congo was equally devastating since workers were subject to extremely malignant conditions. For instance, “in 1913-1914, more than one in five mineworkers died of pneumonia, dysentery, or other diseases” (Harms, 449). The goals of gaining profit were achieved by physical force and intimidation, through kidnapping wives and children, raping women and looting the villages. Indeed, “workers were recruited by force; and their chiefs sent them to work with threats of prison sentences” (Harms, 451). Hence, the excruciation of the population became a method of enslavement.

It is necessary to observe that the documentary King Leopold’s Ghost demonstrates several forms of violence in the process of Congo colonization. The first form is physical violence. The European discovery, enslavement, and exploitation of Congo were regularly associated with physical abuse. For instance, the concession system of rubber production in Congo obtained the definition of Red Rubber “because of the violence and bloodshed associated with rubber collection” (Harms, 405).

The documentary displays the inhuman methods of rubber production when the indigenous population had to put the liquid vine sap on their bodies to make it solidified. Consequently, the process of peeling this substance from one’s body caused excruciating pain. Furthermore, when the natives failed to meet the rubber quota requirements, they were “flogged with a rhinoceros-hide whip called a chicotte” (Harms, 404). Hence, the chicotte became a symbol of Leopold’s atrocities. The documentary further provides another scandalizing fact that the chicotte was utilized in Congo for punishment as late as in 1959. Hence, the physical violence, inflicted by colonization, has long-term effects.

The opening credits of the documentary King Leopold’s Ghost vocalize the names of indigenous chiefs and ordinary people, as well as the method of their assassination during the colonization years. Further, the camera focuses on another abhorrent detail, as a severed hand is eerily floating in the water. In such a manner, the director aspires to emphasize the inhuman cruelty and innumerable victims of colonization. In fact, “violence and fighting were endemic” to the process of Congo exploitation (Harms, 404). Indeed, during the 40 years of the Congo Free State, about half of the native population was lost, and countless innocent people were mutilated.

The documentary vividly describes the abhorrent practice of hacking off the right hands as a punishment for disobedience or failure to meet the rubber quota. Equally appalling are the tendencies to smoke the severed hands and use them for accounting purposes, as well as to cut the hands of innocent people to conceal the solders’ waste of bullets for hunting. Indeed, the extent of human cruelty is profoundly disturbing. These precedents of unnatural physical violence have exerted a direct influence on the modern history of Congo. One such example is the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961, with his body dissected and dissolved in the sulfuric acid.

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Political violence is another appalling form of abuse, launched by King Leopold II. An outrageous example of this form of violence was Leopold’s intricate and cunning web of lies concerning the colonization process in Congo. First of all, he gained possession of the Congo territories by deceit. Hence, the land was purchased by an anonymous state from chiefs who had no understanding of their actions. Further, King Leopold II managed to disguise his conquest of Congo as a philanthropic and benevolent mission, aimed at overcoming the slave trade. Later on, he shamelessly denied all acts of violence and abuse.

For instance, the practice of hacking off hands stood for a necessary surgical procedure due to cancer in the native population. In such a manner, he manipulated public opinion and committed atrocities throughout the years. Moreover, King Leopold II ordered to burn virtually all evidence from Congo archives. Eventually, he claimed to be a significant benefactor of Congo, and the country’s independence was presented as his merit.

Other representatives of the West subsequently adopted a very similar strategy of political violence and manipulation. As a result, Congo continued to be a controlled marionette and a source of continuous exploitation long after the Belgian colonialism. For instance, 80% of the uranium in atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from Congo. The examples of political violence in Congo also include the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the military dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, supported by the UN and the U.S. Thus, Mobutu’s presidency ensured the anti-communist regime during the Cold War. This dictatorship worked in favor of the Western Bloc, whereas the Congolese people received nothing but a new name for their country (Zaire).

At the same time, it is necessary to observe that the exploitation of Congo resources was by no means efficient or rational. That is to say, environmental violence, inflicted by the colonization, is of particular relevance as well. In fact, “the rubber concession system was not sustainable” (Harms, 405). The native population never had a chance to enjoy their abundant natural resources, since the colonists immediately took everything valuable away from the country.

Meanwhile, “King Leopold I parceled out huge tracts of land to chartered concession companies, which were given monopolies over all the resources” (Harms, 404). Consequently, “with such high quotas, the wild rubber resources of the rainforest were rapidly depleted” (Harms, 405). In their obsessive pursuit of a profit, the colonists pumped Congo dry. When Congo was declared officially independent, the Belgians deliberately cemented the uranium mines and flooded them. Hence, the native population was deprived of their resources even after having escaped from Leopold’s rule.

Furthermore, the environmental abuse of the colonization process had a detrimental effect on the public health situation in the country. For instance, colonization triggered the sleeping sickness epidemics. In fact, “the massive population displacements unleashed by the colonial conquest and by forced rubber collection had contributed to the initial spread of the disease” (Harms, 470). Moreover, numerous areas of modern Congo are nowadays radioactive due to improper and careless exploitation of the resources. As a result, many people develop cancer, and children are born with malformations.

Undoubtedly, the impact of violence during colonization is ubiquitous in today’s Congo. Indeed, the experience of physical abuse is still haunting Congo as a notorious legacy of Leopold II. One can observe the militarization of the Congolese society and weaponization of its youngest representatives. As a result, modern Congo keeps suffering from mass unrest and constant armed conflicts. Besides, the aggressive and abusive management of its territories persists, since the map of modern Congo, as well as its system of transport, has remained unchanged since king Leopold’s oppressive rule. One can observe the environmental violence of Congo even today. For instance, Congo’s enormous deposits of metallic ore (73% of the world’s reserves) have become an object of unbridled abuse nowadays.

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Thus, unnatural violence has gained a foothold in the Congo territories for many years. Not coincidentally, the documentary ends with the same list of names of indigenous people, as well as the method of their assassination. In such a manner, the film acquires a symbolical framework structure: the director emphasizes that the violence in today’s Congo has a long-term and persistent legacy. Nowadays, we still observe the shocking legacy of King Leopold II, who never even set foot on the Congolese land. It is, therefore, the task for the 21st-century world to finally break this vicious circle of exploitation and violence.


Harms, Robert. Africa in Global History. New York: Norton & Co., 2018.

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