Congo Free State Atrocities: the Rubber Regime

African slave traders transport shackled captives in a dugout canoe to sell them downriver as slaves, Congo Free State, 1890. The original illustration was captioned 'A Slaver's Canoe'. It was made by E.W. Kemble for an article called 'The Slave-Trade in the Congo Basin', Century Magazine, #39 (April 1890): p. 833 . (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images).

When the Belgian King Leopold II acquired the Congo Free State during the Scramble for Africa in 1885, he claimed he was establishing the colony for humanitarian and scientific purposes, but in reality its sole aim was profit, as much as possible, as fast as possible. The results of this rule were very uneven. Regions that were hard to access or lacked profitable resources escaped much of the violence that was to follow, but for those areas directly under the rule of the Free State or the companies it leased land to, the results were devastating.

The Rubber Regime

 Initially, government and commercial agents focused on acquiring ivory, but inventions, like the car, dramatically increased the demand for rubber.  Unfortunately, for the Congo, it was one of the only places in the world to have a large supply of wild rubber, and the government and its affiliated trading companies quickly shifted their focus to extracting the suddenly lucrative commodity. Company agents were paid large concessions on top of their salaries for the profits they generated, creating personal incentives to force people to work more and harder for little to no pay.  The only way to do that was through the use of terror.


In order to enforce the near impossible rubber quotas imposed on villages, agents and officials called on the Free State’s army, the Force Publique. This army was composed of white officers and African soldiers. Some of these soldiers were recruits, while others were slaves or orphans brought up to serve the colonial army.

The army become known for its brutality, with the officers and soldiers being accused of  destroying villages, taking hostages, raping, torturing, and extorting the people. Men who did not fulfill their quota were killed or mutilated, but they also sometimes razed whole villages that failed to meet the quotas as a warning to others.

They also took women and children hostage until men fulfilled a quota; during which time the women were raped repeatedly. The iconic images to emerge from this terror, though, were the baskets full of smoked hands and the Congolese children who survived having a hand cut off.


Belgian officers were afraid that the rank and file of the Force Publique would waste bullets, so they demanded a human hand for each bullet their soldiers used as proof that the killings had been done.  Soldiers were also reportedly promised their freedom or given other incentives for killing the most people as proven by supplying the most hands.

Many people wonder why these soldiers were willing to do this to their ‘own’ people, but there was no sense of being ‘Congolese’. These men were generally from other parts of the Congo or other colonies entirely, and the orphans and slaves had often been brutalized themselves.  The Force Publique, no doubt, also attracted men who, for whatever reason, felt little compunction about wielding such violence, but this was true of the white officers as well. The vicious fighting and terror of the Congo Free State is better understood as another example of the incredible capacity of people for incomprehensible cruelty.


The horrors, though, are only one part of the story. Amidst all of this, some of the best of people was also seen, in the bravery and resilience of ordinary Congolese men and women who resisted in small and large ways, and the passionate efforts of several American and European missionaries and activists to bring about reform.