Belgium Colonialism

The Legacy of Belgium's 19th and 20th Century African Colonies

A Congolese army soldier lays on the ground at the front line, November 12, 2008 in the outskirts of the town of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Uriel Sinai / Stringer/ Getty Images News/ Getty Images

Belgium is a small country in northwest Europe that joined Europe's race for colonies in the late 19th century. Many European countries wanted to colonize distant parts of the world in order to exploit the resources and "civilize" the inhabitants of these less-developed countries.

Belgium gained independence in 1830. Then, King Leopold II came to power in 1865 and believed that colonies would greatly enhance Belgium's wealth and prestige. Leopold's cruel, greedy activities in the current Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi continue to affect the welfare of these countries today.

Exploration of and Claims to the Congo River Basin

European adventurers experienced great difficulty in exploring and colonizing the Congo River Basin, due to the region's tropical climate, disease, and the resistance of the natives. In the 1870s, Leopold II created an organization called the International African Association.

This sham was supposedly a scientific and philanthropic organization which would greatly improve the lives of native Africans by converting them to Christianity, ending the trade of enslaved people, and introducing European health and educational systems.

King Leopold sent the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to the region. Stanley successfully made treaties with native tribes, set up military posts, and forced most Muslim traders of enslaved people out of the region. He acquired millions of square kilometers of central African land for Belgium.

However, most of Belgium's government leaders and citizens did not want to spend the exorbitant amount of money that would be needed to maintain distant colonies. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, other European countries did not want the Congo River region.

King Leopold II insisted that he would maintain this region as a free-trade zone, and he was given personal control of the region, which was nearly eighty times larger than Belgium. He named the region the "Congo Free State."

The Congo Free State, 1885-1908

Leopold promised that he would develop his private property to improve the lives of the native Africans. He quickly disregarded all of his Berlin Conference guidelines and began to economically exploit the region's land and inhabitants.

Due to industrialization, objects such as tires were now required in mass in Europe; thus, the African natives were forced to produce ivory and rubber. Leopold's army mutilated or killed any African who didn't produce enough of these coveted, profitable resources.

The Europeans burned African villages, farmland, and rainforest, and kept women as hostages until rubber and mineral quotas were met. Due to this brutality and European diseases, the native population dwindled by approximately ten million people. Leopold II took the enormous profits and built lavish buildings in Belgium.

Belgian Congo, 1908-1960

Leopold II tried mightily to conceal this abuse from the international public. However, many countries and individuals had learned of these atrocities by the early 20th century. Joseph Conrad set his popular novel Heart of Darkness in the Congo Free State and described European abuses.

The Belgian government forced Leopold to surrender his personal country in 1908. The Belgian government renamed the region the "Belgian Congo." The Belgian government and Catholic missions tried to aid the inhabitants by improving health and education and building an infrastructure, but the Belgians still exploited the region's gold, copper, and diamonds.

Independence for the Democratic Republic of the Congo

By the 1950s, many African countries embraced anti-colonialism, nationalism, equality, and opportunity under the Pan-Africanism movement. The Congolese, who by then had some rights such as owning property and voting in elections, began to demand independence.

Belgium wanted to grant independence over a thirty-year span, but under pressure from the United Nations, and in order to avoid a long, deadly war, Belgium decided to grant independence to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on June 30, 1960. Since then, DRC has experienced corruption, inflation, and several regime changes. The mineral-rich province of Katanga was voluntarily separated from DRC from 1960-1963. DRC was known as Zaire from 1971-1997.

Two civil wars in DRC have turned into the world's deadliest conflict since World War II. Millions have died from war, famine, or disease. Millions are now refugees. Today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the third largest country by area in Africa and has approximately 70 million citizens. Its capital is Kinshasa, formerly named Leopoldville.


The current countries of Rwanda and Burundi were once colonized by the Germans, who named the region Ruanda-Urundi. After Germany's defeat in World War I, however, Ruanda-Urundi was made a protectorate of Belgium. Belgium also exploited the land and people of Ruanda-Urundi, the Belgian Congo's neighbor to the east. Inhabitants were forced to pay taxes and grow cash crops such as coffee.

They were given very little education. However, by the 1960s, Ruanda-Urundi also began to demand independence, and Belgium ended its colonial empire when Rwanda and Burundi were granted independence in 1962.

Legacy of Colonialism in Rwanda-Burundi

The most important legacy of colonialism in Rwanda and Burundi involved the Belgians' obsession with racial, ethnic classification. The Belgians believed that the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda was racially superior to the Hutu ethnic group because the Tutsis had more "European" features. After many years of segregation, the tension erupted into the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 850,000 people died.

Past and Future of Belgian Colonialism

The economies, political systems, and social welfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi have been enormously affected by the greedy ambitions of King Leopold II of Belgium. All three countries have experienced exploitation, violence, and poverty, but their rich sources of minerals may one day bring permanent peaceful prosperity to the interior of Africa.

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Richard, Katherine Schulz. "Belgium Colonialism." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, Richard, Katherine Schulz. (2021, July 30). Belgium Colonialism. Retrieved from Richard, Katherine Schulz. "Belgium Colonialism." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).