In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium declared himself the dictator of DR Congo, then called the Congo Free State. Leopold was supported because his people bought into propaganda that he would Christianize and modernize the country, while his true intent was to force men, women, and children into labor for rubber and ivory. When the Congolese people failed to meet quotas set by the king, their hands would be cut off or they would be killed. The population declined due to these practices and the new European diseases. In 1908, the king sold the colony to Belgium. The Belgians couldn’t stop the deaths of 5-8 million Congolese people over the course of two years (1908-1910) because of Leopold’s army. By 1903, the rubber industry fell through, so they looked to the Katanga province for copper, diamonds, and oil. Again, labor was forced and taxes were high. Families were torn apart. During WWII, the demand for copper rose, creating markets for household goods like soaps and sugar. During this time, the economy and education improved, but the Belgians were still authoritarian and used local chiefs as figureheads. In 1960, the Congo gained independence.
Leopold employed white supremacist ideology when he claimed to be doing honorable imperialistic work in Central Africa. Of course, imperialism itself is born out of white supremacy. Even if Leopold truly had gone to the Congo with the altruistic intentions he claimed to have, like introducing civilization, building infrastructure, and bringing Christianity to soulless barbarians, these “good” intentions are still steeped in white supremacy. To observe a population and decide you are in the position to unsolicitedly reform them is to say that you are superior to them, and their way of life is wrong. Convincing world powers of the Congo’s inherent inferiority, and thus establishing his position as the Great Civilizer, was a necessary step in securing control over the CFS. To gain the support of the world’s major powers, Leopold said that his humanitarian efforts would “open up civilization” and “pierce the darkness in which entire populations are enveloped, [which] is a crusade worthy of its age of progress” (Dunne). It is not enough to say that what Leopold claimed to be doing was good but his real actions were bad; even the actions he pretended to be doing would have been arrogant, Eurocentric, and predicated upon white supremacy.
Furthermore, just because Leopold’s true interests were purely economic does not mean he was any less of a white supremacist. Leopold must have also employed white supremacist ideologies to even consider economically exploiting the Congo as a viable option in the first place. The notion of invading a foreign country and forcing its people into slave labor is completely incompatible with the belief that all humans are equal. Let’s not forget that in the early stages of Leopold’s occupation of the Congo, his men literally taught white supremacist myths to the Congolese as evidence of their inferiority. When Leopold drained the Congo of its natural resources for his own monetary gain, he was doubly dismissing the value of the black Congolese. Beyond being racially subjugated to work their own land for another man’s profit, black bodies, in the form of severed hands and feet, became objectified as tokens of soldier’s used bullet shells. Black bodies were even given the same exchange value as pieces of cloth, which were used by Belgians to buy Congolese from their chiefs (James). It is no coincidence that this occurred during the height of scientific racism, which supposedly had proven Africans were inherently barbaric, lazy, and biologically inferior to Europeans (Bate).
Leopold’s actions are derived from the notions of race and Social Darwinism born out of the Enlightenment. Paradoxically, groundbreaking establishments in biology such as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 would give rise to Social Darwinism to the detriment of ethnic minorities around the world. Social Darwinism acted as a cloak, allowing for science to justify the racial hegemony of those already in power and enforce the racialized subjugation of the Congolese. Supposedly proven by science, minorities belonged to a different species from those in power, stratifying the world to preserve a Eurocentric and white supremacist hegemony. Furthermore, any group considered to stand in opposition to or merely be different from the ruling majority was criticized. In this environment, certain strains of Enlightenment thinking would validate oppression against the Congolese merely because they were different from the European majority, and were thus seen as going against progressive thinking. This type of ideology would be necessary in order for majority groups in power, like King Leopold II, to rationalize cruelty towards groups like the Congolese. The creation of a racial hegemony that was supposedly proven with science would ultimately justify giving the Congolese natives an inferior status to white Belgians, thus making their exploitation and colonization acceptable.
Because the Enlightenment’s contribution to white supremacy is often overlooked, Industrialism is typically cited as the largest influence to Leopold’s actions in the Congo. European Industrialism certainly does factor into Leopold’s conquest of the Congo but to a lesser degree than the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment’s development of racism is the most important element of modernity in this case. This is because although Industrialism provided the conditions to commit these atrocities, these crimes could never have been allowed to happen without the Enlightenment’s encouragement of racial subjugation. In other words, Industrialism created the incentives for the worst of Leopold’s acts, but without the establishment of a racial hierarchy his dreams would have never seemed justifiable enough to act on in the first place. Furthermore, Industrialism was only in its early stages at the time of Leopold’s presence in Central Africa. When Leopold began his first steps to seize the Congo in 1876, Europe was still at pre-WWI levels of Industrialism. Belgian machinery and technology in the CFS did not match the level of those used later in the modern genocides of the twentieth century. For these reasons, the influence of Industrialism should be downplayed as a deciding factor of Leopold’s actions and instead attention should be given to the Enlightenment’s establishment and protection of a racial hegemony.
Between 1885 and 1908 King Leopold II presided over the murder of over 10 million Congolese residing in the Congo Free State. More people died in those years then did in the holocaust. He was one of the greatest mass murderers ever to live and yet few people in the west have ever heard his name.
Are you aware of the Congolese atrocities committed on behalf of King Leopold II of Belgium? It is believed that up to 10 million people were killed and mutilated (half of the population) whilst covering it up. He (King Leopold) and his people were monsters…they had childrens’ hands hacked off.
In general, Colonialism (such a euphemism) fucked up and exploited Africa, as well as a number of countries in Asia, Oceania and the Americas. A significant portion of the wealth of a lot of first-world countries today was built on the stripped resources and immense suffering of the people they conquered.
Almost everyone knows about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, countless films and books have been written on it but what about this King Leopold asswipe?
It is important to know about this!! This guy is one of the evilest, horrendous villains in world history. There are still statues of him in Belgium. (If any of you go to Belgian and see the statues, please spit on them or give them the finger at least)
A photomontage made in 1889 featuring the heads of state of several countries at that time.
From left to right: Yohannes IV (Emperor of Ethiopia), Tewfik Pasha (Khedive of Egypt), Abdülhamit II (Sultan of the Ottoman Empire), Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (Shah of Persia), Christian IX (King of Denmark), Dom Luís I (King of Portugal), Willem III (King of the Netherlands), Dom Pedro II (Emperor of Brazil), Milan I (King of Serbia), Leopold II (King of the Belgians), Aleksandr III (Emperor of Russia), Wilhelm I (German Emperor & King of Prussia), Franz Joseph I (Emperor of Austria & King of Hungary), Victoria (Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland & Empress of India), Jules Grévy (President of the French Republic), Leo XIII (Pope), Meiji (Emperor of Japan), Guangxu (Emperor of China), Umberto I (King of Italy), Don Alfonso XII (King of Spain), Oscar II (King of Sweden and Norway) and Chester A. Arthur (President of the United States).
“Ugh I didn’t like France. French people are racist”“Go to Italy! They’re so friendly and I hear they love black women”“Do Germans even have black people outside of the military?”
It’s something almost every black traveller fathoms before venturing abroad. How will my blackness be perceived in this predominantly non-black space? It’s a valid concern. At best, our otherness might put us on a flattering pedestal. At worst, we might get mistreated. Even traveling to remote areas of the U.S you will find people that stare at you and ask aggravating questions like “Can I touch your hair?”. I certainly wondered about how I’d fare as a black woman before moving to France.
But this post is really not just about me. Yes I am black. Yes I am in Europe. But that really doesn’t make me special. Because even though only a small percentage of African Americans travel to Europe yearly, there are tens of millions of black people that are already there: Afro-Europeans.
Black people don’t just live in Africa and the United States. Thanks (but like, no thanks) to colonialism, the African diaspora truly reaches some of the most unlikely corners of the earth. Most African Americans make the mistake of assuming that we are the only group of african descendants living as the underrepresented, mistreated, systematically oppressed minorities in predominantly white spaces. Tell that to the 55 million Afro-Brazilians. Or the millions of black descendants in the UK, Italy, and France.
But our egocentricism isn’t entirely our fault. I, too, had no idea exactly how many black and brown people lived in Europe until I came here. I assumed based on films, television, and images I had seen growing up that Europe is one homogenous white continent. Full of sameness with very little variation of color or culture (or at least not culture from an ethnic standpoint). It’s the invisible diversity of Europe. In the same way African-Americans lack representation in almost all facets of our society, Afro-Europeans lack it even more.
I had met a lot of people my first couple of months in France but I still felt something was missing. I yearned to connect with people that were like-minded. People in which I had an inevitable bond with. In short, I needed to make black friends. It sounds silly to some but anyone a part of a minority group in some way (race, sexuality, etc) understands this desire.
The problem was never the lack of black people, but how to organically make friends with them. Making friends as an adult is not an easy feat. When you’re a kid it’s so easy! All you have to do is say this:
But how do you tell a random person you think they’re kinda cool and we should hang out in the most platonic way possible without being creepy?
Several months later and I’ve met friends of friends, connected with random people through social media, and have even joined a Black Expats in Paris meet-up. By speaking with people I’ve gathered quite a few perspectives.
African Americans are both admired and envied in France. Believe it or not, we have the type of global visibility not afforded to others of the African Diaspora. African Americans are the examples of cool, the creators of pop culture. Our celebrities are their celebrities, our favorite TV shows are their favorites too. African Americans are vocal in periods of inequality and reactionary during times of social injustice. Mike Brown & Trayvon Martin are not only names uttered on American soil. “I Have a Dream” is familiar to all European ears, the “Black Lives Matter” cry has been heard around world and the Civil Rights Movement is a part of their curriculum just as much as ours. In short, the Black American experience has left a definite mark in world history.
For Black Europeans, however, their history tends to get shoved under the rug. I am not AT ALL an expert on this topic but here is a concise history of European colonization in Africa in my own words.
**Anndi’s Quick and Over-simplified History on the Conquest of Africa**
In the late 1800s, several European countries such as the UK, France, and Portugal had set up port cities in Africa for trading goods and resources. Everything was cool until this dude named King Leopold II of Belgium was like, “you know what would be awesome? My own territory in the Congo”. So homeboy sliced out a chunk of the Congo for his own PERSONAL benefit, not even in the name of Belgium. The other European powers (UK, France, Italy, Portugal, and Germany) started to freak out and thought, “Damn my ego is super big, how can I make it bigger?”. So they had a meeting in Germany, found a map of Africa, and literally cut the continent apart like slices of pizza. It’s worth mentioning that none of the African countries in question were invited to said pizza party. So NINETY PERCENT of the continent was colonized without permission, MILLIONS of Africans were forced into labor, resources were exploited, men were killed, women were raped, children were maimed, feuding ethnic groups were mixed…all under the guise that they were “saving uncivilized savages from eternal damnation”.
Flash forward several decades and the European Powers finally started to leave. Whether they left on their own accord or were driven out by revolutionary groups, the heinous effects of imperialism are evident for several African countries by way of corrupt governments, tireless civil wars, and psychological trauma.
**The End** ….Except not the end because these heinous effects still linger.
I’ve noticed a slight lack in community for Afro-French people. For African-Americans, there’s this idea of fictive kinship. I may not know you from Adam, but if we are the only two black people within a predominantly white space then we will acknowledge one another. But that’s only on a micro-level. On a macro-scale, we have become masters of creating spaces for ourselves. Hair salons & barbershops, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, BET Network, NAACP… we have a black national anthem!! All with the intent of uplifting and strengthening one another, for validating our place in a society not made for us.
But our sense of community derives from our shared experiences. Many of our ancestors were slaves. Many of our living relatives grew up in segregation. For France, and many other European countries, the experiences of black europeans, while similar, are not identical nor are they shared. At any rate, its hard to have a sense of community when you don’t even know how many people of African descent live in your country. Apparently, taking an ethnic census is constitutionally banned in France.
For Afro-french people, they’re not bound together by race as much as their family origins. If you’re a black woman from Guadeloupe, you might feel a bigger bond to people from the West Indies than to those from West Africa. Honestly, I envy greatly that Afro-Europeans know exactly where they come from and even have family that still live in those countries. I have never felt so shameful about not knowing my roots until moving here. Every time I meet an Afro-french person for the first time, the conversation goes as follows.
Them: So where are you from?
Me:I’m from the U.S!
Them:Yeah, I know. But like where are you really from?
Them:What’s your family origin I mean to say.
Me:Um…I don’t know? My ancestors were slaves so…
Me:…..Nice meeting you!
In general, there’s this idea that black people are never really from whatever predominantly white country they reside in. Afro-french people can be born and raised in Paris and never feel or be seen as “french”. Even when I meet White Europeans, they are generally skeptical about my origin story but for a different reason. Because I have a lighter skin tone than most Afro-french, many assume that I am “métisse” or mixed. During my trip to Italy, an italian man told me “You’re beautiful. I love mulatto women”. The assumption really bothers me because black and beautiful are not mutually exclusive concepts homeboy! But I do love their faces of disappointment when I tell them I am proudly, undeniably, 100% BLACK.
But let’s discuss some positives, for there are many. While Black French don’t organize against injustices in the same way we do, that doesn’t mean they aren’t having these important conversations. The Afro-fem movement seems to be really big here. I’ve seen countless articles, youtube videos, tweets, and have even been invited to conferences by Afro-feminists to discuss the interesting balance of race and gender.
I’ve met so many black french women who are smart and woke. Clever and funny. Women who want to be a voice for their community. Women who are artists, poets, and singers. Women who are beautiful inside and out. Women who are writers. Women who are fly. Women who are college educated. Women who want to uplift and strengthen their fellow sisters. Women who want to be a vessel for serious change in their society.
So don’t sleep on Afro-Europeans. They have a very real place in our world.
I would be remiss not to mention the Strolling Series by Cecile Emeke, which was in truth my personal introduction to Afro-European voices. Cecile Emeke is a British woman who brilliantly decided to film black individuals across the African diaspora. The result? Unraveling the generalized blanket of our black experiences into singular, personal threads of testimony. Emeke has filmed in the Netherlands, Italy, Jamaica, and many other countries and its widespread appeal has garnered a huge Youtube following. Of course, you’ll hear the familiar stories of micro-agressions, respectability politics, and self-love affirmation. But you’ll also hear views on mental health, sexual orientation & expression, capitalism, veganism, colonial reparations, and a plethora of other subjects not often heard from black standpoints.
So what does it mean to be Black in Europe? I have the same answer for someone who would ask what its like to be black in the U.S. There is no simple answer. The culture, the attitudes, the ideas, the joys, the struggles of black people are not monolithic. They are varied. They are nuanced. They may intersect but they don’t coalesce.
I write this to say there is more to the black experience than what you have experienced personally. I think its important not only to have conversations on blackness within the US but in a global context as well. And lets remind ourselves that as Black Americans, our global visibility gives us a certain level of privilege. The next time you say #BlackLivesMatter, mentally expand that demand outside of North America. When you think of the black community, challenge yourself to think beyond your own borders.
And if you’re able, travel abroad. Talk to people. Have these discussions. Your eyes and minds will open wider than you know.
King Leopold II of Belgium at a young age. This boy would grow up to destroy the Congo – he ruled it for profit as his own personal property, and his policies led to the deaths of perhaps ten million people.
When King Leopold II of Belgium held his first conference on the Congo in 1876, he claimed that his purpose was to conduct a civilizing mission that would Christianize the Congolese and free them from a world of darkness. 1 Instead, he introduced a greater darkness than any that the Congolese could have ever imagined, with the establishment of the ironically-named Congo Free State in 1877. The Congolese, who had already lost thirteen and a quarter million people to the Portuguese slave-traders, found their ranks even further depleted by the system of forced labor that was adopted by King Leopold’s administrators. 2 Through a tax and quota system, the Belgian administration set impossible standards for the extraction of rubber, palm, and ivory and the many Congolese who necessarily failed to meet them were either killed outright or were subjected to gruesome tortures.Within this terrible system, the Congolese were also turned against each other. In many cases, children were taken at an early age and impressed into King Leopold’s army, which was called the Force Publique. They were set above the common Congolese and given arms with which to kill their fellow men, with the added gruesome requirement that every expended bullet had to be accounted for with the severed hand of a victim delivered to their masters. Through such practices, and also the spread of diseases such as smallpox (which the Europeans brought with them), early death was rampant.
Tragic Congo : From Decolonization to Dictatorship by Jeanne M.Haskin
thoughts I have while I'm pretending to listen to uninteresting people speak
not every Black person on Earth is an African American
Brazil has more people of African descent than any other country aside from Nigeria
ideas about race vary from country to country. in South Africa, it is completely acceptable to call a Coloured person, ‘Coloured’
the boundaries of counties is Africa were formed after the end of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade
chocolate is not native to Belgium
during the colonial era in Africa, if you wanted to call Benin from Nigeria (two bordering countries) you would have to call England and have their operators transfer you to operators in France who would then transfer you to your contact in Benin thus stimulating European economy
England outlawed the slave trade (and—later–slavery itself) before Portugal. so, the Portuguese would travel as far away as Mozambique (on the east coast of Africa) to get slaves. if these Portuguese ships were then intercepted in the Atlantic ocean (en route to Brazil) by the British navy, the enslaved people would be taken by the British and brought back ‘home’ to Sierra Leone
when slavery ended in the United States, there were southern whites who said, ‘fuck this shit, I’m moving to Brazil’ and they did
rice production—not cotton—was initially integral in the slave economy of the southern United States. this required expertise on the part of the Africans who had experience growing the crop with which Europeans had essentially no familiarity
an enslaved Black man from Réunion discovered how to hand pollinate vanilla thus expanding the geography where this now ubiquitous plant could be cultivated. before then it was only grown in Mexico where it was polinated by a specific species of bee
the Congo (DRC/Zaire), which was once under control of King Leopold II, is 90 times the size of Belgium
scientists estimate that—after initial migrations out of Africa—about 5000 humans remained on the continent, cut off from the rest of the world by the formation of the Sahara and the Kalahari. it is from those 5000 people that all modern Africans in the continent and diaspora have descended