Atrocities in the Congo Free State

In the period from 1885 to 1908, many well-documented atrocities were perpetrated in the Congo Free State (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) which, at the time, was a colony under the personal rule of King Leopold II of the Belgians.  Individual workers who refused to participate in rubber collection could be killed and entire villages razed.

The severing of workers’ hands achieved particular international notoriety. These were sometimes cut off by Force Publique soldiers who were made to account for every shot they fired by bringing back the hands of their victims. As a consequence, the rubber quotas were in part paid off in chopped-off hands.

 There were even small wars where villages attacked neighbouring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.

The so-called Zappo-Zaps (from the Songye ethnic group) were the most feared. Reportedly cannibals, the Zappo-Zaps frequently abused their official positions to raid the countryside for slaves.[27]

All blacks saw this man as the devil of the Equator … From all the bodies killed in the field, you had to cut off the hands. He wanted to see the number of hands cut off by each soldier, who had to bring them in baskets … A village which refused to provide rubber would be completely swept clean. As a young man, I saw [Fiévez’s] soldier Molili, then guarding the village of Boyeka, take a net, put ten arrested natives in it, attach big stones to the net, and make it tumble into the river … Rubber causes these torments; that’s why we no longer want to hear its name spoken. Soldiers made young men kill or rape their own mothers and sisters.[33]

Victim of Congo atrocities, Congo, ca. 1890-1910Black and white lantern slide showing a male missionary from the Congo Balolo Mission holding the arm of a Congolese man.
Foot and hand of child dismembered by soldiers, brought to missionaries by dazed father

An investigation took place in the British Parliament, but missionaries felt that they could do nothing in the face of veiled threats by King Leopold II, on whose territory they were preaching. In 1895, Dr. Harry Guinness heard first-hand witness accounts of amputations and became involved in the cause to end the brutality on the plantations, involving himself in the Congo Reform Association in 1904. International intervention forced Leopold II to abdicate in the same year, and although reforms began under his successor, Albert, change in the rubber plantations would not take effect for some time.

Neither the Belgian monarchy nor the Belgian state has ever apologized for the atrocities.