15 Things You Didn’t Know About King Leopold II

15 Things You Didn’t Know About King Leopold II

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When people hear the word “dictator,” many think of Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong-Un or Idi Amin. One of history’s most ruthless dictators, King Leopold II, deserves to be on that list. He gets very little attention. He ruled the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908 when it was a colony of Belgium. It wasn’t until 1960 the Congolese gained independence. From being a deadbeat dad to ordering mutilations of Africans, here are 15 things you didn’t know about King Leopold II of Belgium.

Source: Wikipedia.org, Britannica.com, Ultimatehistoryproject.com

congo villagers
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1. He tricked the Congolese people into signing over their land

Having little to no idea what they were about to do, many of the tribal leaders in the Congo naively signed permission for Leopold to have full control of their lands. The documents were four pages long and full of words they didn’t understand since it was not in their native language. If there was a moral to this story, it’s don’t sign anything without reading or fully understanding the documents.

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2. He was an unfaithful husband

Leopold was a terrible husband to Archduchess Marie-Henriette of Austria. Throughout their marriage, the king had many mistresses, including a 16-year-old French prostitute (his favorite). He spent a small fortune to adorn her with the finest jewelery, wardrobe, plus a title and estate. Unfortunately, it was more than he ever did for his wife or any of his children.

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3. He was a rotten brother

Leopold’s sister, the Empress Carlota married Archduke Maximillian I of Mexico and moved to her new adopted country. When there was a political uprising, Maximillian was executed and his widow returned to Belgium, heartbroken. Her brother gave her no attention and had little respect for her.

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4. He attempted to seize control of the Philippines.

In 1866, before conquering the Congo, Leopold had his eye on the Philippines. But because he was without funds, his attempt to buy off the country was moot. 

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5. He became incredibly wealthy by exploiting Congo’s natural resources.

Robbing the Congolese of their own resources, he made a living selling and trading ivory and rubber.

congo free state
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6. He forced natives to work for him

Anyone who resisted him was subjected to a brutal beating. 

rubber collecting
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7. Mutilation became a common practice as punishment

If the Congolese failed to meet their quotas or deliver good results from their hard labor, it could cost them an arm or a leg (literally).

congo free state
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8. It’s estimated that up to 15 million Congolese died under his rule

Although there is no accurate count since the colonizers were not known for keeping records, it’s estimated that Leopold’s representatives killed as many as 15 million Congolese.

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9. Collecting rubber was physically painful and draining

Because harvesting rubber required collecting it from sap inside trees, forced laborers had to slash the trees, letting the wet rubber trickle onto most of their bodies. Once the rubber hardened, it was excruciatingly painful to pry off the skin.

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10. Many of the soldiers were kidnapped from their villages as children

Leopold’s regime would compensate anyone who provided able-bodied boys, leading many desperate locals to kidnap children and sell them to become soldiers. Once caught, the children were forced to undergo intense military training before graduating to become child soldiers.

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11. He allowed his army free reign villagers

This included raping, flogging and burning down homes. Some even went as far as to collect “souvenirs” such as body parts (mostly from children).

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12. He ordered the slaughter of any village that protested against his rule

Putting a bullet to their heads wasn’t enough. Their heads had to be cut off and put on spikes for display as a warning to others.

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13. So many limbs were removed that soldiers started to use them as currency

Because they weren’t demented enough, Leopold’s soldiers started their own currency system collecting and trading severed hands or feet. Because of this makeshift money-making system, some soldiers got greedy and started chopping off villager’s hands, simply to collect money.

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14. He stiffed his children

When Leopold kicked the bucket, he left behind a huge fortune to his French prostitute instead of his own children. The children later tried to reclaim the wealth, saying it was rightfully theirs to inherit.

heart of darkness
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15.  He was the inspiration for “Heart of Darkness”

If you’re familiar with the book, “Heart of Darkness,” you will know this story is no Mother Goose tale and is far from a compliment. When writer Joseph Conrad ventured across the Congo under the Leopold’s reign, he was shocked by it’s brutal condition. Oh the horror, the horror.