March 26, 2017

Mythologies About Leopold’s Congo Free State

A popular claim floating around the internet is that King Leopold II, between the years 1885 and 1908 when he ruled the area of the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, killed 10 million people. This area was known as the “Congo Free State”, and in 1908 the Belgian government formally took over the area.

This is based on claims in a book by Adam Hochschild, who is a co-founder of the publication Mother Jones. He was also an activist “for civil rights” and was for “ending apartheid” in South Africa.

(Note that when I say “the Congo” I am referring to the area of the modern state known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as Zaire, whose capital is Kinshasa. I am not including the Republic of the Congo, the smaller country on the northwest border, whose capital is Brazzaville. The Congo Free State, the Belgian Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zaire are all the names of governments that ruled over the same area – when I say “the Congo” I am referring to this land area. Here is an image of this land area, colored in blue:

)

Hochschild makes two key claims in his book:

1. Roughly 10 million people were killed by agents of the state in Leopold’s Congo
2. Roughly half of the population of Leopold’s Congo were killed

Now the first thing to consider is – is this possible? Well I see three things that need to be established for these claims to be possible:

1. The population of the Congo
2. The extent of Leopold’s rule within the Congo
3. The number of Leopold’s Agents who engaged in killing

The Population of Leopold’s Congo

Now we do have general population estimates for the whole of Africa. The one I am using is from Geohive, which puts the population of Africa at 111 million in 1850 and 133 million in 1900. This gives us a population of 126.4 million in 1885 based on a linear trend, which means a population density of 10.83 per square mile. If this is mapped onto the area of the Congo, this would yield a population of the Congo of 9.8 million:

Mapping Africa to the Congo (1885)

Population of Africa 1885 126.4 million
Area of Africa 11.67 million mi2
Population Density of Africa 1885 10.83 / mi2
Area of the Congo 905,000 mi2
Pop. Est. of Congo in 1885 based on this 9,801,150

For the year 1900, we can infer the population of Black Africa by subtracting both the population and land mass of North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) from Africa and mapping the population density of the remaining population of all of Africa onto the Congo:

Mapping Black Africa to the Congo (1900)

Population of Black Africa 1900

110.7 million

Area of Black Africa

9.34 million mi2

Population Density of Black Africa 1900

11.85 / mi2

Pop. Est. of Congo in 1900 based on this

10,726,285

The overall estimate for the population of Black Africa is a holistic estimate; it includes countries that didn’t have population records by 1900.

If we limit our analysis to African countries that had population records in 1900, and map that population density onto the Congo, we get a lower number:

Mapping “Known Black Africa” to the Congo (1900)

Population of “Known Black Africa” 1900

66.386 million

Area of “Known Black Africa” 1900

7.033 million mi2

Population Density of “Known Black Africa” 1900

9.439 / mi2

Pop. Est. of Congo based on this

8.542 million

Patrick Manning, by collating previous estimates and looking at records of slave sales, made estimates of various regions of Africa. One of the regions he calculates a population estimate for a region he calls “Loango”:

This region appears to include not only the modern day Congo, but also the Republic of the Congo, part of Cameroon and all of Uganda.

Patrick Manning’s Estimates of “Loango” Population

Year

Estimate

1850

7.487 million

1950

10.555 million

1885*

8.561 million

* Calculated from the trend from 1850 to 1950

Given that this region is larger than the area claimed by the Congo Free State Manning’s estimate for the population within the Congo Free State would probably be around ~7 million.

The most interesting estimate I found came from a paper entitled “A Hundred Year (1890 – 1990) Database for Integrated Environmental Assessments” by Kelin Goldewijk and J.J. Battjes . It estimates how much land in an area used for agriculture based on changes in the ecosystem today. It is complicated and I don’t really understand it, but they have some back-estimates for the populations of various countries.

Comparison of Goldewijk-Battjes Estimates to Contemporary Records for Congo and Ten Most Populous Known Black African Countries in 1900

Country

Wiki

Goldewijk-Battjes

Ratio

Nigeria

16m

4.266m

0.27

Sudan

4.8m

5.588m

1.16

Cameroon

3.5m

2.716m

0.78

Tanzania

3.5m

4.795m

1.37

Mali

2.8m

2.672m

0.95

Ghana

2.8m

1.77m

0.63

Madagascar

2.707m

2.245m

0.83

South Africa

5.1m

4.755m

0.93

Mozambique

2.6m

2.329m

0.90

Angola

2.4m

4.79m

2.00

Congo

4.103m

Now the G-B results are, on average, 98.2% as large as the results from wikipedia, and they are on median 91.5% as large as wikipedia. And so to harmonize G-B’s Congo result with the wikipedia result, we can divide the Congo number by the average ratio and the median ratio.

In addition, just to get an idea of the maximum discrepancy, we can see that G-B’s number for Nigeria is only 0.27 of the wiki number, and if the G-B Congo number was divided by this, this would give an estimated population of the Congo of 15.196 million in 1900. Now we don’t know if G-B is in error of if the government records are in error for Nigeria in 1900; I think that G-B is in error.

Analysis of G-B and potential estimates for the Congo

Average ratio of G.B. / Wiki Population Estimates

0.982

Median ratio of G.B. / Wiki Population Estimates

0.915

Raw G.B. Estimate of the Congo Population in 1900

4.103 million

Estimate divided by the Average Ratio

4.178 million

Estimate divided by the Median Ratio

4.484 million

Estimate divided by the Ratio for Nigeria

15.196 million

Whatever you think of the G-B numbers, it is important to note that they estimated an increase in the population of the Congo from 1890 to 1910. Now by their method of estimating past population, they may very well be massively undercounting the Congo, which I think they are. Maybe it has something to do with the jungle climate erasing evidence of past agriculture more than other climates do, I don’t know.

But they still showed growth in the Congo population for most of the period of the Congo Free State:

G-B Poplation Estimates for the Congo by Year

Year

G-B Population Estimate

1890

3.301 million

1895

3.680 million

1900

4.103 million

1905

4.575 million

1910

5.101 million

So even if G-B’s numbers systematically underestimate the population of the Congo, they show a trend of population growth, which is evidence that the Congo’s population was growing under Leopold’s rule.

And so if there was a massive genocide, it appears to have been lower than the natural population growth rate. The population growth rate of the Congo from 1950 to 2016 has been around 2.8%. This results in a doubling roughly every 27 years. G-B’s estimate for year on-year growth averages to 2.3%.

Now if the doubling rate from 1890 to 1950 wasn’t 27 years, but 30 years, then we would retrodict the population of the Congo to be 3 million in 1890.

In my opinion, the Congo probably had a lower population density relative to it’s neighbors in 1900 than it does today, due to the jungle being easier to control with technology. I.e. – in addition to industrial farming methods that flatter African countries get, the Congo would also get jungle removal.

And another reason to think this is that the Congo’s share of the population of Africa has increased from 1950 to 2016. And so the Congo’s population relative to the rest of Africa was probably lower in 1885 to 1900 than it is today.

If someone was given an assignment to estimate the population of the Congo Free State in 1900, and didn’t know about the “10 million” killed by Leopold and thus what the population had to have been for that to be possible, they wouldn’t come anywhere near 20 million. They would come to a mid-range estimate of 7 million, with the highest plausible being around 10.7 million, with an absolute maximum of 15.2 million, a low estimate of around 4 million, and an absolute minimum of 3.1 million.

Area of Control

The next problem with the “10 million” claim is that the Congo Free State did not control all of the Congo; here is a map showing effective control over the region prior to the war against Tippu Tip:

This map shows the de facto kingdoms controlling regions of the Congo, with the unfilled area inside the dotted lines being nominally under control of the Congo Free State, though not necessarily under functional control.

According to the Belgian Embassy in London,

Finally, the cultivation of rubber was geographically restricted to the equatorial rainforest around the northern Congo basin and to a lesser extent to the Kasai region (totalling one fifth of Congo’s territory). The estimated 10 million deaths for the whole of Congo cannot be ascribed to the Belgians, simply because at the beginning of the colonisation, they were not even present or active in the whole of Congo.

This also calls into question the claim that agents of the Congo Free State managed to kill half of the population of the Congo, since it’s not known whether the Congo Free State even had access to half of the population.

Number of Men to do the Killing

Throughout it’s rule, the organization that was tasked with enforcing the rubber quotas, establishing Leopold’s rule and accused of mass murder was the Force Publique (FP). I could not find annual records of the size of the FP, but I did find numbers for specific years:

Year Number
1892 13,500
1908 17,400
1914 12,100

The numbers for the year 1892 are known because that was during the war with Tippu Tip, ruler of a slave kingdom in Zanzibar and claimant of the Eastern Congo, that was the reported strength of the FP.

We also know that the tour of duty in the FP was seven years, and Leopold ruled the Congo for 23 years. This means that Leopold presided over 3.286 tours of duty.

Now of course some men would re-enlist, and some would die before their tour finished, and since we don’t know which effect was bigger, the assumption that minimizes maximum error would just be to assume that on average each soldier served 7 years.

If we average the size of the FP in 1892 and 1908, we get 15,450 men in the FP at any one time. And with 3.286 tours of duty, this means that there were roughly 50,769 men in the FP during the entirely of Leopold’s rule.

This translates to roughly 197 men killed for each member of the FP in order to reach 10 million kills. This seems like an extremely dubious figure.

Falling back to a lower number

In light of the extreme implausibility of 10 million people being killed in Leopold’s Congo, one may be tempted to simply move the goalposts to a lower kill count, to say, 1 million.

I’m not here to say the FP didn’t kill anyone, but the reality is that there is no more direct evidence to base an estimate of 1 million than there is 10 million. The only difference is that “1 million killed” is not obviously impossible.

The fact that the political activist Hochschild spat out “10 million” reveals the unseriousness of his work. If you recognize that 10 million is obviously bogus, why would you depend on the authority of the guy who said “10 million were killed” to say 1 million were killed?

Because while killing one million was possible, the fact that the first charge against the Congo Free State of 10 million was impossible, shows that it was a scam from the start.

Lack of Documentation

On issue historians face when condemning Leopold II is a lack of documentation; even a BBC documentary blithely accused Leopold of destroying the relevant records. It’s not a charge that is easy to respond to; how does one prove that no records were destroyed?

But it shouldn’t matter, because from 1904 to 1908, in response to public outcry over the Congo, an independent council created by Italy, Switzerland and Belgium conducted an ongoing investigation and released periodical reports called The Official Bulletin of the Congo Free State (translation).

Of course this council did not report extreme genocide going at the behest of Leopold’s government. In fact, they reported that the abuses occurred almost exclusively when FP detachments were sent out WITHOUT a European commander, and that the presence of European commanders was what prevented atrocities and rape.

(It is interesting to read these bulletins and see just how matter-of-fact they are about it; it’s just assumed that blacks will rape unless kept in order by whites.)

And in terms of mutilation – chopping off hands and feet – there is zero documentation that that was Leopold’s policy, nor did the investigation find any evidence that it was Leopold’s policy. In fact, the investigation claimed that this was done by indigenous members of the FP, particularly when a European officer was absent.

In addition, chopping off limbs seems to be a ridiculous policy given that the biggest problem Leopold had was a labor shortage. It is also known that limb mutilation had occurred both before and after the Congo Free State – and without any reliable statistics, there’s no way to know if it even increased during the Congo Free State.

The argument of the investigation was that Leopold’s government was not pro-active in stopping these atrocities and may have facilitated them by arming members of certain tribes who had long-running hatreds against other tribes.

Amazingly, even after knowing this, some white readers will still do whatever they can to blame Leopold as the chief culprit for whatever happened, because it makes them feel like good people or something.

Denying Black Agency

There are two more important facts to consider. The first is that there were roughly 200 Europeans in the Congo Free State administration at any one time, versus around 13,000  black FP troops at any one time. And so the mutilating, raping and killing that was done had to have been done overwhelmingly by the black FP troops.

Secondly, there were no orders or policy to mutilate, rape or kill without cause any of the Congolese. And while there may have been some white people who engaged in these acts, it was almost certainly lower on a per-capita basis, but even if all 200 of the whites were vicious killers and sadists who traveled to the Congo because they knew they could get away with it there, there’s only so much 200 men could have done.

Now at the time, the Belgians blamed Leopold II for what the black FP troops were doing because they viewed blacks as “half-devil and half-child”; and whites were responsible for their action in the same way a dog owner is responsible for a dog’s action.

“Sure, the blacks did the killing, but they’re YOUR responsibility. Blacks do what blacks do.”

Modern day white “liberals” would of course be aghast at such thinking. But it creates a problem for intellectual consistency, they’re condemning Leopold for a standard that treats blacks as pets for whom the owner is to be in charge of and responsible for.

Now in reality none of these people have thought this through; most of the people pushing the “Leopold’s Congo genocide” line probably don’t even know there were only 200 whites there at any one time, and aren’t aware that blaming whitey for whatever happened (which itself is a matter of debate) depends on treating blacks like pets.

Other Considerations

Between 1892 and 1894, the Congo Free State was at war with Tippu Tip, and had begun advancing westward, using an incident at a fort in which Tips forces attacked and defeated an FP garrison due to a dispute over a slave girl.

And so if a dishonest or ignorant newspaper editor got some pictures or description of a battle in that war, he would have plenty of gory pictures and gruesome details, and he could then say, “this is Leopold’s Congo” to dishonestly seed the idea that this was normal Congo Free State policy for all Congolese.

In addition, if say some men in the FP chopped off the hands of 20 people, well, 20 images can fill up an entire page, and would make it look like mutilation is happening all the time; and he could then say, “this is Leopold’s Congo”.

You could then show the horrible hospitals, dirty and lacking supplies, without the context that this was actually an improvement over the “folk medicine” of the Congolese. But just images of the horrible hospital conditions, and then say “this is Leopold’s Congo”.

What is the Alternative Hypothesis?

Leopold’s Congo did not have any form of population statistics. And so there is no record of how many people died in the Congo; this makes it easy for people to pull numbers out of there. Moreover, it is the Congo, it is a place where people die all the time for horrible reasons and live in conditions that Europeans even at that time would consider torture. 200 Belgian administrators are not going to change that.

In addition, some journalists can come in and take photos of people with their hands cut off, and then say “look, this is going on in King Leopold’s Congo” and the reader is then to make assumptions.

The rubber quota was just a form of taxation. In fact, throughout history, labor rendered to the state was the most common way in which people paid taxes, since most people didn’t have currency. And that is how most of the Congolese paid their taxes, and Leopold’s policy was that no man’s tax should be over 40 hours per month.

In terms of cutting off limbs, that was a practice that predates and postdates Leopold’s Congo. In addition, several of the photos of Africans with limbs chopped off have Europeans posing with them; do you imagine that they would pose with them if they had done it themselves? Do you think they would want to take photos because they were proud of doing that themselves?

And activists, looking for a flashy number, say “10 million” and quickly cobble together imagery, anecdotes and personal accounts, without doing the first level of research and ask “is this possible” or try to figure out if indicators of past population showed a decline or increase in population over the period.

A similar thing happened in Britain during the industrial revolution as politicians learned of the frightful conditions of factories, ignorant of the fact that it was an improvement of the even more frightful conditions of peasant life.

At least that is one alternative hypothesis.

Facebook Comments
  • SWPL Nationalist

    Maybe I misread something here, but if we assume the 10 million figure is true, and the Congo Free State was ruled by Leopold for 23 years, that’s roughly ~430k deaths per year, or something like 5% population loss per year, and considering blacks breed like rabbits, it doesn’t seem unlikely at all (at least to me) that they’d still experience population growth under those conditions. And if you use the lower bound estimate of ~1 million killed, it seems even more likely to be true.

    Still, I think the 2nd half of this essay is probably the most important, because no matter how many Congolese really were killed, the fact remains that they were killed almost exclusively by other Africans, which sorta brings the ‘oppressive racist regime of whitey’ narrative into question, which when coupled with the complete lack of documentation, makes the narrative dubious at best.

    Just my thoughts

    • Ryan Faulk

      1 million is not a “lower bound estimate”. There is no “lower bound estimate”, because there are no serious estimates on the number killed, period.

      • SWPL Nationalist

        No, I just meant the lower number you provided in your analysis. I haven’t read anything into this outside of what people told me about the book when they had to read it for their 10th grade world history class back in high school, so I don’t wanna attempt to address any of the “history” surrounding this event.

    • IllogicalPositivist

      There are a few problems with this counterargument. Firstly, a population growth of >5% per year is very large. Nigeria has averaged about 2.6% over the last few decades and Nigeria is often singled out for its particularly large population growth. Also the question of “what population growth should we expect?” is really asking about where the Malthusian equilibrium is and how quickly that equilibrium is restored. If we assume that prior to Europeans arriving the Congolese population was in equilibrium (=zero population growth), an exogenous increase in the death rate (in the form of killings by Europeans) should shift the equilibrium down. So we should see the population decline. The only way I see around this is if the European occupiers were increasing the food supply for the natives, and that offset deaths from killings.

    • Thomas

      You forget though that this is before modern medicine and food production for Africa. Africa didn’t have the post-1950 aid they do today that enable the enormous population growth. The truth in this is in the original statements of population, Africa as a whole, this enormously rich continent had just over 100 million people in it. Even if they were breeding like bunnies they would still be dying like flies from disease, starvation, tribal war etc.

  • Reading makes my head hurt make a video

  • JasonVoothees

    It’s incredible how much historical narratives often rely on hearsay. Thanks for looking into this Ryan.

    If you’re going to make a video on this I think this could be a good example of the Congo genocide narrative: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfvPFt-v_vw (assuming you haven’t already seen it).

  • Blake Heathen

    Just an outstanding article. You and Sean are doing wonderful work with this site.

  • Thomas Jones

    Nice article, I have always believed the 10 million number to be a complete exaggeration.

    “In fact, they reported that the abuses occurred almost exclusively when FP detachments were sent out WITHOUT a European commander, and the presence of European commanders was what prevented atrocities and rape.”

    Not surprised given the propensity for rape, torture, murder, cannibalism, etc. of contemporary Congolese forces (gov and rebel).

    Interesting to note also that the period of colonial rule after Leopold III gave the free state over to the Belgian government is always ignored. This period saw massive economic growth and rising living standards for the average Congolese

  • 1DeadVan Again

    Gee, do you mean to say that jew concocted genocide narrative-projections aren’t true? Go figure!

  • Dutchman

    The Leopold book was required reading in a 19th century European history course I attended back in my college years. Even back then, prior to my true red-pilling, I read several passages thinking “yeah right, that’s bullshit.” I recall one account where some American dindu claims to have come upon corpses in the wake of a FP massacre. One corpse was allegedly being consumed by a python. I’m fairly sure that snakes won’t eat rotting carrion, but maybe I’m wrong.

  • waffleironmarch

    In speaking of this, there’s a bunch of hysterical propaganda involving severed hands of Congolese children under Leopold’s regime making the rounds lately:
    http://www.afropunk.com/profiles/blogs/rare-historical-photo-father-stares-at-the-severed-hand-and-foot