Neha Patil (Editor)

Belgian Congo

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Political structure

Congolese franc

Date formed

2.345 million km²

Date dissolved

Belgian Congo Belgian Congo
French (official)Also Dutch,Lingala · KongoSwahili · Tshiluba

Christianity, Baluba religion, Bantu religion

Belgian congo

The Belgian Congo (French: Congo Belge, Dutch: Belgisch-Congo) was a Belgian colony in Central Africa between 1908 and 1960 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).


Belgian Congo Belgian Congo historical region Africa Britannicacom

Colonial rule in the Congo began in the late 19th century. King Leopold II of the Belgians persuaded the government to support colonial expansion around the then-largely unexplored Congo Basin. Their ambivalence resulted in Leopold's creating a colony on his own account. With support from a number of Western countries, Leopold achieved international recognition for a personal colony, the Congo Free State, in 1885. By the turn of the century, however, the violence used by Free state officials against indigenous Congolese and a ruthless system of economic exploitation led to intense diplomatic pressure on Belgium to take official control of the country, which it did by creating the Belgian Congo in 1908.

Belgian Congo Imperialism in the Congo Rubber amp the Belgian Free State

Belgian rule in the Congo was based on the "colonial trinity" (trinité coloniale) of state, missionary and private company interests. The privileging of Belgian commercial interests meant that large amounts of capital flowed into the Congo and that individual regions became specialised. On many occasions, the interests of the government and private enterprise became closely tied, and the state helped companies break strikes and remove other barriers raised by the indigenous population. The country was split into nesting, hierarchically organised administrative subdivisions, and run uniformly according to a set "native policy" (politique indigène). This was in contrast to the British and the French, who generally favoured the system of indirect rule whereby traditional leaders were retained in positions of authority under colonial oversight. The Congo had a high degree of racial segregation. The large numbers of white immigrants who moved to the Congo after the end of World War II came from across the social spectrum, but were always treated as superior to black people.

Belgian Congo Belgian Congo The Ultimate History Project

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Congo had extensive urbanisation, and the colonial administration began various development programmes aimed at making the territory into a "model colony". One of the results was the development of a new middle class of Europeanised African "évolués" in the cities. By the 1950s the Congo had a wage labour force twice as large as that in any other African colony.

Belgian Congo Imperialism in the Congo Rubber amp the Belgian Free State

In 1960, as the result of a widespread and increasingly radical pro-independence movement, the Congo achieved independence, becoming the Republic of Congo-Léopoldville under Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasa-Vubu. Poor relations between factions within the Congo, the continued involvement of Belgium in Congolese affairs, and intervention by major parties of the Cold War led to a five-year-long period of war and political instability, known as the Congo Crisis, from 1960 to 1965. This ended with the seizure of power by Joseph-Désiré Mobutu.

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Jungle yachts in the belgian congo 1940


Until the later part of the 19th century, few Europeans had ventured into the Congo basin. The rainforest, swamps and accompanying malaria and other tropical diseases, such as sleeping sickness, made it a difficult environment for European exploration and exploitation. In 1876, King Leopold II of the Belgians organized the International African Association with the cooperation of the leading African explorers and the support of several European governments for the promotion of African exploration and colonization. After Henry Morton Stanley had explored the region in a journey that ended in 1878, Leopold courted the explorer and hired him to help his interests in the region.

Leopold II had been keen to acquire a colony for Belgium even before he ascended to the throne in 1865. The Belgian civil government showed little interest in its monarch's dreams of empire-building. Ambitious and stubborn, Leopold decided to pursue the matter on his own account.

European rivalry in Central Africa led to diplomatic tensions, in particular with regard to the largely unclaimed Congo River basin. In November 1884 Otto von Bismarck convened a 14-nation conference (the Berlin Conference) to find a peaceful resolution to the Congo crisis. Though the Berlin Conference did not formally approve the territorial claims of the European powers in Central Africa, it did agree on a set of rules to ensure a conflict-free partitioning of the region. The rules recognised (inter alia) the Congo basin as a free-trade zone. But Leopold II emerged triumphant from the Berlin Conference and his single-shareholder "philanthropic" organization received a large share of territory (2,344,000 km2 (905,000 sq mi)) to be organized as the Congo Free State.

The Congo Free State operated as a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II through a non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908, when the government of Belgium annexed the area. Under Leopold II’s administration, the Congo Free State became a humanitarian disaster. The lack of accurate records makes it difficult to quantify the number of deaths caused by the ruthless exploitation and the lack of immunity to new diseases introduced by contact with European colonists. William Rubinstein wrote: "More basically, it appears almost certain that the population figures given by Hochschild are inaccurate. There is, of course, no way of ascertaining the population of the Congo before the twentieth century, and estimates like 20 million are purely guesses. Most of the interior of the Congo was literally unexplored if not inaccessible." Leopold's Force Publique, a private army that terrorized natives to work as forced labour for resource extraction, disrupted their societies and killed and abused natives indiscriminately.

Following the Casement Report, the British, European and American press exposed the conditions in the Congo Free State to the public in the early 1900s. In 1904, Leopold II was forced to allow an international parliamentary commission of inquiry entry to the Congo Free State. By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic maneuvers led to the end of Leopold II's personal rule and to the annexation of the Congo as a colony of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo.

Belgian rule

On 18 October 1908, the Belgian Parliament voted in favour of annexing the Congo as a Belgian colony. This was after King Leopold II had given up any hope to maintain a substantial part of the Congo Free State as separate crown property. The government of the Belgian Congo was arranged by the 1908 Colonial Charter. Executive power rested with the Belgian Minister of Colonial Affairs, assisted by a Colonial Council (Conseil Colonial). Both resided in Brussels. The Belgian parliament exercised legislative authority over the Belgian Congo.

The highest-ranking representative of the colonial administration in the Congo was the Governor-General. From 1886 until 1926, the Governor-general and his administration were posted in Boma, near the Congo River estuary. From 1926, the colonial capital moved to Léopoldville, some 300 km further upstream in the interior. Initially, the Belgian Congo was administratively divided into four provinces: Léopoldville (or: Congo-Kasaï), Equateur, Orientale and Katanga, each presided over by a vice-Governor-general. An administrative reform in 1932 increased the number of provinces to six, while “demoting” the Vice-governors-general to provincial Governors.

The territorial service was the true backbone of the colonial administration. The colony was divided into four provinces (six after the administrative reforms of 1933). Each province was in turn divided into a few districts (24 districts for the whole Congo) and each district into a handful of territories (some 130-150 territories in all; some territories were merged or split over Time). A territory was managed by a territorial administrator, assisted by one or more assistants. The territories were further subdivided into numerous "chiefdoms" (chefferies), at the head of which the Belgian administration appointed "traditional chiefs" (chefs coutumiers). The territories administered by one territorial administrator and a handful of assistants were often larger than a few Belgian provinces taken together (the whole Belgian Congo was nearly 80 times larger than the whole of Belgium). The territorial administrator was expected to inspect his territory and to file detailed annual reports with the provincial administration. In terms of jurisdiction, two systems co-existed: a system of European courts and one of indigenous courts (tribunaux indigènes). These indigenous courts were presided over by the traditional chiefs, but had only limited powers and remained under the firm control of the colonial administration. In 1936 it was recorded that there were 728 administrators controlling the Congo from Belgium. Belgians living in the Congo had no say in the government and the Congolese did not either. No political activity was permitted in the Congo whatsoever. Public order in the colony was maintained by the Force Publique, a locally recruited army under Belgian command. It was only in the 1950s that metropolitan troops—i.e., units of the regular Belgian army—were posted in the Belgian Congo (for instance in Kamina).

The colonial state—and any authority exercised by whites in the Congo—was often referred to by the Congolese as bula matari ("break rocks"), one of the names originally given to Stanley. He had used dynamite to crush rocks when paving his way through the lower-Congo region. The term bula matari came to signify the irresistible and compelling force of the colonial state.

When the Belgian government took over the administration in 1908, the situation in the Congo improved in certain respects. The brutal exploitation and arbitrary use of violence, in which some of the concessionary companies had excelled, were curbed. The crime of "red rubber" was put to a stop. Article 3 of the new Colonial Charter of 18 October 1908 established that: "Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or privates".

The transition from the Congo Free State to the Belgian Congo was a break, but it was also marked by a considerable continuity. The last Governor-general of the Congo Free State, Baron Wahis, remained in office in the Belgian Congo, and the majority of Leopold II’s administration with him. Opening up the Congo and its natural and mineral riches for the Belgian economy remained the main motive for colonial expansion, but other priorities, such as healthcare and basic education, slowly gained in importance.

The Belgian Congo was directly involved in the two world wars. During World War One, an initial stand-off between the Force Publique and the German colonial army in German East-Africa (Tanganyika) turned into open warfare with a joint Anglo-Belgian invasion of German colonial territory in 1916 and 1917 during the East African Campaign. By 1916 the Belgian commander of the Force Publique, Lieutenant-General Charles Tombeur, had assembled an army of 15,000 men supported by local bearers - Reybrouck indicated that during the war no less than 260,000 native bearers were used - and advanced on to Kigali. Kigali was taken by May 6, 1916, and the army went on to take Tabora on September 19 after heavy fighting. In 1917, after Mahenge had been conquered, the army of the Belgian Congo, by now 25,000 men, controlled one-third of German East Africa. After the war, Belgium was rewarded for the participation of the Force Publique in the East African campaign with a League of Nations mandate over the former German colony of Ruanda-Urundi (1924-1945). During World War II the Belgian Congo served as a crucial source of income for the Belgian government in exile in London after the occupation by the Nazis. After the occupation of Belgium by the Germans in May 1940, the Congo declared itself loyal to the Belgian government in exile in London. The Belgian Congo supported the war on the Allied side in the Battle of Britain with 28 pilots in the RAF (squadron 349) and in the Royal South African Air Force (350 Squadron) and in Africa. The Force Publique again participated in the Allied campaigns in Africa. Belgian Congolese forces (with Belgian officers) notably fought against the Italian colonial army in Ethiopia, and were victorious in Asosa, Bortaï and Saïo under Major-general Auguste-Eduard Gilliaert during the second East African Campaign of 1940-1941. On 3 July 1941, the Italian forces (under General Pietro Gazzera) surrendered when they were cut off by the Force Public under Lieutenant-général Auguste-Eduard Gilliaert. A Congolese unit also served in the Far Eastern Theatre with the British army in the Burma Campaign.

Economic policy

The economic exploitation of the Congo was the colonizer’s top priority. One important tool was the construction of railways to open up the mineral and agricultural areas.

First World War

Rubber had long been the main export of the Belgian Congo, but its importance fell from 77% of exports (by value) to only 15% as British colonies in southeast Asia began to farm rubber. New resources were exploited, especially copper mining in Katanga province. The Belgian-owned Union minière du Haut-Katanga, which would come to dominate copper mining, used a direct rail-line to the sea at Beira. World War I increased demand for copper, and production soared from 997 tons in 1911 to 27,462 tons in 1917, then fell off to 19,000 tons in 1920. Smelters operated at Lubumbashi. Before the war the copper was sold to Germany; but the British purchased all the wartime output, with the revenues going to the Belgian government in exile. Diamond- and gold-mining also expanded during the war. The British firm of Lever Bros. greatly expanded the palm-oil business during the war, and output of cocoa, rice and cotton increased. New rail and steamship lines opened to handle the expanded export traffic.


Under Belgian rule, two distinct periods of massive investment in the Congo’s economic infrastructure stand out: the 1920s and the 1950s.

After the First World War, priority was given to mining (copper and cobalt in Katanga, diamond in Kasai, gold in Ituri) as well as to the transport infrastructure (such as the rail lines between Matadi and Léopoldville and Elisabethville and Port Francqui). To obtain the necessary capital, the colonial state gave the private companies, to a large extent, a free hand. This allowed, in particular, the Belgian Société Générale to build up an economic empire in the colony. Huge profits were generated and for a large part siphoned off to Europe in the form of dividends.

The necessary work force was recruited in the interior of the vast colony with the active support of the territorial administration. In many cases, this amounted to forced labour, as in many villages minimum quotas of “able-bodied workers” to be recruited were enforced. In this way, tens of thousands of workers were transferred from the interior to the sparsely populated copper belt in the south (Katanga) to work in the mines. In agriculture, too, the colonial state forced a drastic rationalisation of production. The so-called "vacant lands" (land that was not directly used by the local tribes) were taken over by the state, which redistributed the territory to European companies, individual white landowners (colons), or the missions. In this way, an extensive plantation economy was developed. palm oil production in the Congo increased from 2,500 tons in 1914 to 9,000 tons in 1921, and 230,000 tons in 1957. Cotton production increased from 23,000 tons in 1932 to 127,000 in 1939. During the First World War, the system of "mandatory cultivation" (cultures obligatoires) was introduced, forcing Congolese peasants to grow certain cash crops (cotton, coffee, groundnuts) destined as commodities for export. Territorial administrators and state agronomists had the task to supervise and, if necessary, sanction those peasants who evaded the hated mandatory cultivation.

The mobilization of the African work force in the capitalist colonial economy played a crucial role in spreading the use of money in the Belgian Congo. The basic idea was that the development of the Congo had to be borne not by the Belgian taxpayers but by the Congolese themselves. The colonial state needed to be able to levy taxes in money on the Congolese, so it was important that they could make money by selling their produce or their labour within the framework of the colonial economy.

The economic boom of the 1920s turned the Belgian Congo into one of the leading copper ore producers worldwide. In 1926 alone, the Union Minière exported more than 80,000 tons of copper ore, a large part of which was processed in Hoboken in Belgium. In 1928, King Albert I visited the Congo to inaugurate the so-called 'voie national' that linked the Katanga mining region via rail (up to Port Francqui) and river transport (from Port Francqui to Léopoldville) to the Atlantic port of Matadi.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the export-based Belgian Congo economy was severely hit by the world crisis, because of the drop of international demand of raw materials and agricultural products (for example, the price of peanuts fell from 1.25 francs to 25 centimes (cents)). In some areas, as in the Katanga mining region, employment declined by 70%. In the country as a whole, the exploitation of forced labour was diminished and many such labourers returned to their villages. In order to improve conditions in the countryside, but also to combat the disastrous effects of erosion and soil exhaustion brought about by the mandatory cultivation scheme, the colonial government developed the so-called "indigenous peasantry" scheme, which began to be implemented on a large scale throughout the Congo after the Second World War. The objective of the scheme was to modernize indigenous agriculture by assigning plots of land to individual families and providing those with government support in the form of selected seeds, agronomic advice, fertilizers, etc. The National Institute for Agronomic Research in the Congo (INEAC - Institut Nationale pour l'Etude Agronomique au Congo belge), created in 1934, with its large experimental plantations and laboratories in Yangambe, played an important role in crop selection and in the vulgarisation of agronomic research.

During World War II, industrial production and agricultural output increased drastically. The brunt of the "war effort" was borne by the Congolese population for instance through a reinforcement of the mandatory cultivation policy. After Malaysia fell to the Japanese, the Belgian Congo became a strategic supplier of rubber to the Allies. The Belgian Congo was one of the major exporters of uranium to the US during World War Two (and the Cold War), particularly from the Shinkolobwe mine. The colony provided the uranium used by the Manhattan Project, including in atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

After World War II, the colonial state became more active in economic and social development of the Belgian Congo. An ambitious ten-year plan was launched in 1949. It put emphasis on house building, energy supply and health care infrastructure. The ten-year plan ushered in a decade of strong economic growth, from which, for the first time, the Congolese began to benefit on a substantial scale. At the same time, the economy had expanded and the number of Belgian nationals in the country more than doubled, from 39,000 in 1950 to more than 88,000 by 1960.

In 1953, the Congolese were granted the right for the first time to buy and sell private property in their own names. In the 1950s, a Congolese middle class, modest at first, but steadily growing, emerged in the main cities (Léopoldville, Elisabethville, Stanleyville and Luluabourg).

"Civilising mission"

Justifications for colonialism in Africa often invoked as a key argument that of the civilizing influence of the European culture. This self-declared "civilizing mission" in the Congo went hand-in-hand with the goal of economic gain. Conversion to Catholicism, basic western-style education and improved health-care were objectives in their own right, but at the same time helped to transform what Europeans regarded as a primitive society into the Western model, in which workers who were disciplined and healthy, and who had learned to read and write, could be more efficiently put to work.

The development of education and health care in the Belgian Congo was impressive. The educational system was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and, in some rare cases, by Protestant churches. Curricula reflected Christian and Western values. Even in 1948, 99.6% of educational facilities were run by Christian missions. Indigenous schooling was mainly religious and vocational. Children received basic education such as learning how to read, write and some mathematics. The Belgian Congo was one of the few African colonies in which local languages (Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba and Swahili) were taught at primary school. Even so, language policies and colonial domination often went hand in hand, as evidenced by the preference given to Lingala—a semi-artificial language spread through its common use in the Force Publique—over more local (but also more ancient) indigenous languages such as Lomongo and others.

In 1940 the schooling rates of children between 6 and 14 years old was 12%, reaching 37% in 1954, one of the highest rates in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Secondary and higher education for the indigenous population were not developed until relatively late in the colonial period. Black children, in small numbers, began to be admitted to European secondary schools from 1950 onward. The first university in the Belgian Congo, the Catholic University of Lovanium, near Léopoldville, opened its doors to black and white students in 1954. In 1956 a state university was founded in Elisabethville. Progress was slow though; until the end of the 1950s, no Congolese had been promoted beyond the rank of non-commissioned officer in the Force Publique, nor to a responsible position in the administration (such as head of bureau or territorial administrator).

Health care, too, was largely supported by the missions, although the colonial state took an increasing interest. Endemic diseases, such as sleeping sickness, were all but eliminated through large-scale and persistent campaigns. In 1925 medical missionary Dr. Arthur Lewis Piper was the first person to use and bring tryparsamide, the Rockefeller Foundation's drug to cure sleeping sickness, to the Congo. The health-care infrastructure expanded steadily throughout the colonial period, with a comparatively high availability of hospital beds relative to the population and with dispensaries set up in the most remote regions.

There was an "implicit apartheid". The colony had curfews for Congolese city-dwellers and similar racial restrictions were commonplace. Though there were no specific laws imposing racial segregation (as in South Africa and in the South of the United States at the time) and barring blacks from establishments frequented by whites, de facto segregation operated in most areas. For example, the city centers were reserved to the white population only, while the blacks were organized in cités indigènes (called 'le belge'). Hospitals, department stores and other facilities were often reserved for either whites or blacks. In the police, the blacks could not pass the rank of non-commissioned officer. The blacks in the cities could not leave their houses from 9 pm to 4 am. This type of segregation began to disappear gradually only in the 1950s, but even then the Congolese remained or felt treated in many respects as second-rate citizens (for instance in political and legal terms).

Because of the close interconnection between economic development and the 'civilising mission', and because in practice state officials, missionaries and the white executives of the private companies always lent each other a helping hand, the image has emerged that the Belgian Congo was governed by a "colonial trinity" of King-Church-Capital, encompassing the colonial state, the Christian missions, and the Société Générale de Belgique.

The ideology underpinning colonial policy was summed up in a catch-phrase used by Governor-General Pierre Ryckmans (1934–46): Dominer pour servir ("Dominate to serve"). The colonial government wanted to convey images of a benevolent and conflict-free administration and of the Belgian Congo as a true model colony. But the colonialists paid no or very little attention to the full emancipation of the Congolese. The colonizer alone believed he knew what was good for the Congo. The local population received no voice in the affairs of the state.

Only in the 1950s did this paternalistic attitude begin to change. From 1953, and even more so after the triumphant visit of King Baudouin to the colony in 1955, Governor-General Léon Pétillon (1952–1958) worked to create a "Belgian-Congolese community", in which blacks and whites were to be treated as equals. In the 1950s the most blatant discriminatory measures directed at the Congolese were hastily withdrawn (among these: corporal punishment by means of the feared chicotte—a fine whip of hippopotamus hide). In 1957 the first municipal elections open to black voters took place in a handful of the largest cities — Léopoldville, Élisabethville and Jadotville.


Congolese resistance against colonialism was widespread and took many different forms. Armed resistance occurred sporadically and localized until roughly the end of the Second World War (e.g., revolt of the Pende in 1931, mutiny in Luluabourg 1944). From the end of the Second World War until the late 1950s, the so-called "Pax belgica" prevailed. Until the end of colonial rule in 1960, passive forms of resistance and expressions of an anti-colonial sub-culture were manifold (e.g., Kimbanguism, after the prophet Simon Kimbangu, who was imprisoned by the Belgians).

Apart from active and passive resistance among the Congolese, the colonial regime over time also elicited internal criticism and dissent. Already in the 1920s, certain members of the Colonial Council in Brussels (among them Octave Louwers) voiced criticism regarding the often brutal recruitment methods employed by the major companies in the mining districts. The stagnation of population growth in many districts—in spite of spectacular successes in the fight against endemic diseases such as sleeping sickness—was another cause for concern. Low birth rates in the countryside and the depopulation of certain areas were typically attributed to the disruption of traditional community life as a result of forced labour migration and mandatory cultivation. Many missionaries who were in daily contact with Congolese villagers, took their plight at heart and sometimes intervened on their behalf with the colonial administration (for instance in land property questions).

The missions and certain territorial administrators also played an important role in the study and preservation of Congolese cultural and linguistic traditions and artefacts. One example among many is that of Father Gustaaf Hulstaert (1900–1990), who in 1937 created the periodical Aequatoria devoted to the linguistic, ethnographic and historical study of the Mongo people of the central Congo basin. The colonial state took an interest in the cultural and scientific study of the Congo, particularly after the Second World War, through the creation of the Institut pour la Recherche Scientifique en Afrique Centrale (IRSAC, 1948).

Towards independence

In the early 1950s, political emancipation of the Congolese elites, let alone of the masses, seemed like a distant event. But, it was clear that the Congo could not forever remain immune from the rapid changes that, after the Second World War, profoundly affected colonialism around the world. The independence of the British, French and Dutch colonies in Asia shortly after 1945 had little immediate effect in the Congo, but in the United Nations pressure on Belgium (as on other colonial powers) increased. Belgium had ratified article 73 of the United Nations Charter, which advocated self-determination, and both superpowers put pressure on Belgium to reform its Congo policy. However, the Belgian government tried to resist what it described as 'interference' with its colonial policy.

Colonial authorities discussed ways to ameliorate the situation of the Congolese. Since the 1940s, the colonial government had experimented in a very modest way with granting a limited elite of so-called évolués more civil rights, holding out the eventual prospect of a limited amount of political influence. To this end "deserving" Congolese could apply for a proof of "civil merit", or, one step up, 'immatriculation' (registration), i.e., official evidence of their assimilation with European civilisation. To acquire this status, the applicant had to fulfill strict conditions (monogamous matrimony, evidence of good behaviour, etc.) and submit to stringent controls (including house visits). This policy was a failure. By the mid-1950s, there were at best a few thousand Congolese who had successfully obtained the civil merit diploma or been granted "immatriculation". The supposed benefits attached to it—including equal legal status with the white population—proved often more theory than reality and led to open frustration with the évolués. When Governor-General Pétillon began to speak about granting the native people more civil rights, even suffrage, to create what he termed a “Belgo-Congolese community”, his ideas were met with indifference from Brussels and often with open hostility from some of the Belgians in the Congo, who feared for their privileges.

It became increasingly evident that the Belgian government lacked a strategic long-term vision in relation to the Congo. ‘Colonial affairs’ did not generate much interest or political debate in Belgium, so long as the colony seemed to be thriving and calm. A notable exception was the young King Baudouin of the Belgians, who had succeeded his father, Leopold III, under dramatic circumstances in 1951, when Leopold was forced to abdicate. Baudouin took a close interest in the Congo.

On his first state visit to the Belgian Congo in 1955, King Baudouin was welcomed enthusiastically by cheering crowds of whites and blacks alike, as captured in André Cauvin’s documentary film, Bwana Kitoko. Foreign observers, such as the international correspondent of The Manchester Guardian, remarked that Belgian paternalism “seemed to work”, and contrasted Belgium’s seemingly loyal and enthusiastic colonial subjects with the restless French and British colonies. On the occasion of his visit, King Baudouin openly endorsed the Governor-General’s vision of a “Belgo-Congolese community”; but, in practice, this idea progressed slowly. At the same time, divisive ideological and linguistic issues in Belgium, which heretofore had been successfully kept out of the colony’s affairs, began to affect the Congo as well. These included the rise of unionism among workers, the call for public (state) schools to break the missions’ monopoly on education, and the call for equal treatment in the colony of both national languages: French and Dutch. Until then, French had been promoted as the unique colonial language. The Governor-General feared that such divisive issues would undermine the authority of the colonial government in the eyes of the Congolese, while also diverting attention from the more pressing need for true emancipation.

Political Organization

Congolese participation in World War II and news of changes in other colonies resulted in their organising to gain more power. As a result of the inability of the colonial government to introduce radical and credible changes, the Congolese elites began to organise themselves socially and soon also politically. In the 1950s two markedly different forms of nationalism arose among the Congolese elites. The nationalist movement—to which the Belgian authorities, to some degree, turned a blind eye—promoted territorial nationalism, wherein the Belgian Congo would become one politically united state after independence.

In opposition to this was the ethno-religious and regional nationalism that took hold in the Bakongo territories of the west coast, Kasai and Katanga. The first political organisations were of the latter type. ABAKO, founded in 1950 as the Association culturelle des Bakongo and headed by Joseph Kasa-Vubu, was initially a cultural association that soon turned political. From the mid-1950s, it became a vocal opponent of Belgian colonial rule. Additionally, the organization continued to serve as the major ethno-religious organization for the Bakongo and became closely intertwined with the Kimbanguist Church, which was extremely popular in the lower Congo.

In 1955, Belgian professor Antoine van Bilsen published a treatise called Thirty Year Plan for the Political Emancipation of Belgian Africa. The timetable called for the gradual emancipation of the Congo over a 30-year period—the time Van Bilsen expected it would take to create an educated elite who could replace the Belgians in positions of power. The Belgian government and many of the évolués were suspicious of the plan—the former because it meant eventually giving up the Congo, and the latter because Belgium would continue to rule for another three decades. A group of Catholic évolués responded positively to the plan with a moderate manifesto in a Congolese journal called Conscience Africaine; they raised issues as to the extent of Congolese participation.

In 1957, by way of experiment, the colonial government organised the first municipal elections in three urban centres (Léopoldville, Elisabethville and Jadotville), in which Congolese people were allowed to stand for office and cast their vote. Events in 1957–58 led to a sudden acceleration in the demands for political emancipation. The independence of Ghana in 1957 and President De Gaulle’s August 1958 visit to Brazzaville, the capital of the French Congo, on the other side of the Congo river to Léopoldville, in which he promised France’s African colonies the free choice between a continued association with France or full independence, aroused ambitions in the Congo. The World Exhibition organised in Brussels in 1958 (Expo 58) proved another eye-opener for many Congolese leaders, who were allowed to travel to Belgium for the first time.

In 1958, the demands for independence radicalised quickly and gained momentum. A key role was played by the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC). First set up in 1956, the MNC was established in October 1958 as a national political party that supported the goal of a unitary and centralised Congolese nation. Its most influential leader was the charismatic Patrice Lumumba. In 1959, an internal split was precipitated by Albert Kalonji and other MNC leaders who favoured a more moderate political stance (the splinter group was deemed Mouvement National Congolais-Kalonji). Despite the organisational divergence of the party, Lumumba’s leftist faction (now the Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba) and the MNC collectively had established themselves as by far the most important and influential party in the Belgian Congo. Belgium vehemently opposed Lumumba’s leftist views and had grave concerns about the status of their financial interests should Lumumba’s MNC gain power.

Lipanda 1960

While the Belgian government was debating a programme to gradually extend the political emancipation of the Congolese population, it was overtaken by events. On 4 January 1959, a prohibited political demonstration organised in Léopoldville by ABAKO got out of hand. At once, the colonial capital was in the grip of extensive rioting. It took the authorities several days to restore order and, by the most conservative count, several hundred died. The eruption of violence sent a shock-wave through the Congo and Belgium alike. On 13 January, King Baudouin declared in a radio address that Belgium would work towards the full independence of the Congo "without hesitation, but also without irresponsible rashness".

Without committing to a specific date for independence, the government of prime minister Gaston Eyskens had a multi-year transition period in mind. They thought provincial elections would take place in December 1959, national elections in 1960 or 1961, after which administrative and political responsibilities would be gradually transferred to the Congolese, in a process presumably to be completed towards the mid-1960s. On the ground, circumstances were changing much more rapidly. Increasingly, the colonial administration saw varied forms of resistance, such as refusal to pay taxes. In some regions anarchy threatened. At the same time many Belgians resident in the Congo opposed independence, feeling betrayed by Brussels. Faced with a radicalisation of Congolese demands, the government saw the chances of a gradual and carefully planned transition dwindling rapidly.

In 1959, King Baudouin made another visit to the Belgian Congo, finding a great contrast with his visit of four years before. Upon his arrival in Léopoldville, he was pelted with rocks by blacks who were angry with the imprisonment of Lumumba, convicted because of incitement against the colonial government. Though Baudouin's reception in other cities was considerably better, the shouts of "Vive le roi!" were often followed by "Indépendance immédiate!" The Belgian government wanted to avoid being drawn into a futile and potentially very bloody colonial war, as had happened to France in Indochina and Algeria, or to the Netherlands in Indonesia. For that reason, it was inclined to give in to the demands for immediate independence voiced by the Congolese leaders. Despite lack of preparation and an insufficient number of educated elite (there were only a handful of Congolese holding a university degree at that time), the Belgian leaders hoped that things might work out. This became known as "Le Pari Congolais"—the Congolese bet.

In January 1960, Congolese political leaders were invited to Brussels to participate in a round-table conference to discuss independence. Patrice Lumumba was discharged from prison for the occasion. The conference agreed surprisingly quickly to grant the Congolese practically all of their demands: a general election to be held in May 1960 and full independence—"Dipenda"—on 30 June 1960. This was in response to the strong united front put up by the Congolese delegation.

Political maneuvering ahead of the elections resulted in the emergence of three political alliances: a coalition of the federalistic nationalists consisting of six separatist parties or organizations, two of which were ABAKO and the MNC—Kalonji; the centralist MNC—Lumumba; and that of Moïse Tshombe, the strong-man of Katanga, who wanted to preserve the economic vitality of its area and the business interests of the Union Minière (as Kalonji did with respect to the diamond exploitations in Kasaï). The parliamentary elections resulted in a divided political landscape, with both the regionalist factions—chief among them ABAKO—and the nationalist parties such as the MNC, doing well. A compromise arrangement was forced through, with Kasa-vubu becoming the first president of the Republic of the Congo, and Lumumba its first head of government. As planned scarcely five months earlier, the hand-over ceremony by the Belgians took place on time on 30 June 1960 at the new residence of the Governor-General of the Belgian Congo in Léopoldville.

Scarcely one week later, a rebellion broke out within the Force Publique against its officers, who were still predominantly Belgian. This was a catalyst for disturbances arising all over the Congo, mainly instigated by dissatisfied soldiers and radicalized youngsters. In many areas, their violence specifically targeted European victims. Within weeks, the Belgian military and later a United Nations intervention force evacuated the largest part of the more than 80,000 Belgians who were still working and living in the Congo. It was a hasty and traumatic time for those who were forced into exile as refugees.


The rebellion that had started in Thyssville in the Bas-Congo in July 1960 quickly spread to the rest of the Congo. In September 1960, the leaders split, with President Kasa-Vubu declaring prime minister Lumumba deposed from his functions, and vice versa. The stalemate was ended with the government's arrest of Lumumba. In January 1961, he was flown to the rich mining province of Katanga, which by that time had declared a secession from Léopoldville under the leadership of Moïse Tshombe (with active Belgian support). Lumumba was handed over to Katangan authorities, who executed him.

In 2002 Belgium officially apologised for its role in the elimination of Lumumba; the CIA of the United States has long been suspected of complicity, as they suspected Lumumba's politics were too far left. The Soviet Union during the Cold War years was active in expanding its influence in Africa against European colonial powers. A series of rebellions and separatist movements seemed to shatter the dream of a unitary Congolese state at its birth. Although the nation was independent, Belgian paratroopers intervened in the Congo on various occasions to protect and evacuate fellow citizens. The United Nations maintained a large peace-keeping operation in the Congo from late 1960 onward. The situation did not stabilise until 1964–65. Katanga province was re-absorbed and the so-called Simba Rebellion ended in Stanleyville (province Orientale). Shortly after that army colonel Joseph Désiré Mobutu ended the political impasse by seizing power in a coup d'état.

Mobutu enjoyed the support of the West, and in particular of the United States, because of his strong anti-communist stance. Initially his rule favored consolidation and economic development (e.g., by building the Inga dam that had been planned in the 1950s). In order to distance himself from the previous regime, he launched a campaign of Congolese "authenticity". The government abandoned the use of colonial place names in 1966: Léopoldville was renamed as Kinshasa, Elisabethville as Lubumbashi, Stanleyville as Kisangani. During this period, the Congo generally maintained close economic and political ties with Belgium. Certain financial issues had remained unresolved after independence (the so-called "contentieux"), for instance, the transfer of shares in the big mining companies that had been held directly by the colonial state. In 1970, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of independence, King Baudouin paid an official state visit to the Congo.

Mobutu’s régime became more radical during the 1970s. The Mouvement populaire de la Révolution (MPR), of which Mobutu was the président-fondateur, firmly established one-party rule. Political repression increased considerably. Mobutu renamed the Congo as the republic of Zaïre. The so-called "Zaïrisation" of the country in the mid-1970s led to an exodus of foreign workers and economic disaster. In the 1980s the Mobutu regime became a byword for mismanagement and corruption. Relations with Belgium, the former colonial power, went through a series of ups and downs, reflecting a steady decline in the underlying economic, financial and political interests.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, Mobutu lost support in the West. As a result, in 1990, he decided to end the one-party system and dramatically announced a return to democracy. But he dragged his feet and played out his opponents against one another to gain time. A bloody intervention of the Zaïrian Army against students on the Lubumbashi University Campus in May 1990 precipitated a break in diplomatic relations between Belgium and Zaïre. Pointedly, Mobutu was not invited to attend the funeral of King Baudouin in 1993, which he considered a grave personal affront.

In 1997 Mobutu was chased from power by a rebel force headed by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who declared himself president and renamed Zaïre as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Assassinated in 2001, Kabila was succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila. In 2006 Joseph Kabila was confirmed as president through the first nationwide free elections in the Congo since 1960. On 30 June – 2 July 2010, King Albert II of the Belgians and Yves Leterme, the Belgian Prime Minister, visited Kinshasa to attend the festivities marking the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence from Belgium.

Certain practices and traditions from the colonial period have survived into the independent Congolese state. It maintains a strong centralising and bureaucratic tendency, and has kept the organizational structure of the education system and the judiciary. The influence of the Congo on Belgium has been manifested mainly in economic terms: through the activities of the Union Minière (now Umicore), the development of a nonferrous metal industry, and the development of the Port of Antwerp and diamond industry. To this day, Brussels Airlines (successor of the former Sabena) has maintained a strong presence in the DRC. It is estimated that in 2010, more than 4,000 Belgian nationals were resident in the DRC, while the Congolese community in Belgium is at least 16,000 strong. The "Matongé" quarter in Brussels is the traditional focal point of the Congolese community in Belgium.


  • Baron Théophile Wahis (November 1908 – May 1912; originally appointed by Leopold II in 1900)
  • Félix Alexandre Fuchs (May 1912 – January 1916)
  • Eugène Joseph Marie Henry (January 1916 – January 1921)
  • Maurice Eugène Auguste Lippens (January 1921 – January 1923)
  • Martin Joseph Marie René Rutten (January 1923 – December 1927)
  • Auguste Constant Tilkens (December 1927 – September 1934)
  • Pierre Marie Joseph Ryckmans (September 1934 – July 1946)
  • Eugène Jacques Pierre Louis Jungers (July 1946 – January 1952)
  • Léon Antoine Marie Pétillon (January 1952 – July 1958)
  • Henri Arthur Adolf Marie Christopher Cornelis (July 1958 – June 1960)
  • References

    Belgian Congo Wikipedia