Belgian Colonial Rule

Matthew G. Stanard

in African Studies

ISBN: 9780199846733
Published online June 2013 | | DOI:
Belgian Colonial Rule

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Central Africa’s long history witnessed growing connections to the world beyond as a result of the Atlantic slave trade and then increasing activity by East African Swahili traders and Europeans in the 1800s. Strictly speaking, the official period of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo did not begin until 1908, lasting until 1960, when the Congo achieved its independence. But Belgian involvement began earlier. In 1885, the United States and European states—including Belgium—recognized King Leopold II of Belgium as the sovereign of a huge state roughly contiguous with the Congo River basin called the État Indépendant du Congo, or the EIC. (Leopold II’s colony is generally called the Congo Free State in English. One sees the French term État Libre du Congo and the Flemish terms Onafhankelijke Staat Congo and Onafhankelijke Kongostaat much less frequently.) Although Leopold’s rule (1885–1908) was in many ways an international endeavor, it became increasingly Belgian over time, as the white colonial population became majority Belgian. African populations in many areas of the EIC suffered atrocities at the hands of European and African colonial agents because of Leopold II’s approach of extracting natural resources by force. Missionary and other documentation of this suffering prompted a humanitarian campaign, foreign criticism, and finally Belgian reproaches. In an unfolding of events that was anything but inevitable, Leopold ceded his colony to Belgium in 1908, after which Belgium ruled it as a colony known as the Congo belge (Belgian Congo) until 1960. As with all of Africa during the colonial era, the Belgian Congo was a European creation, and its borders and very existence did not reflect African interests or ethnic, linguistic, economic or other groupings. Belgians never completely ruled all of their huge colony, but they intensified their administration, enacted reforms, and introduced medical advances, Christianity, the French language, and much else. After World War I, Belgium gained Ruanda-Urundi, which the Belgians governed not as the League of Nations mandate it was but rather as just another part of their colonial empire. In 1960, Congolese realized their independence, creating the Democratic Republic of the Congo (renamed Zaire 1971–1997). The dividing of what follows into the Congo Free State period, the Belgian Congo period, and the postcolonial period is somewhat arbitrary; even though 1908 and 1960 were key milestones, the situation changed primarily in a juridical fashion in those years, and in important ways there was more continuity than change.

Article.  15184 words. 

Subjects: African History ; African Languages ; African Music ; African Philosophy ; African Studies

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