By Ranjith MR

Rubber is a versatile industrial raw material with a lot of vital applcations in man’s everyday life. Being the major raw material used in manufacturing tyres that have significantly satisfied man’s thirst for speed, natural rubber today has become most indispensable for all across the world. However, behind the glorified commercial significance of the present, rubber has a horrid past that lie buried in history – a past drenched in the life-blood and sweat of millions of hapless African natives. It is a little known story of violence, molestation and murder connected with its exploitation from the African jungles dating back to over a hundred years, much before natural rubber shot into prominence.


“If I had them by throat! [Hastily kisses the crucifix, and mumbles]. In these twenty years I have spent millions to keep the press of the two hemispheres quiet, and still these leaks keep on occurring. I have spent other millions on religion and art, and what do I get for it? Nothing. Not a word of compliment. These generosities are studiedly ignored in print. In print I get nothing but slanders – and slanders again – and still slanders, and slanders on top of slanders!”

These are the beginning lines of King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a 1905 pamphlet by Mark Twain.
Millions of Africans died just for this one man’s (King Leopold’s) greed for wealth and glory. The dark story of ruthless exploitations, human right violations, torture, rape and murder occurred on a very large scale just to collect some natural resources, mainly rubber. In spite of being talked about, written and documented by prominent personalities, the dark secret history of Congo rubber exploitation remained dormant for almost 100 years. There were economic and political reasons behind this planned amnesia. However, in spite of his prolonged efforts to keep the press quiet, the secret was finally out. It is his great anguish and diappointment at his failure to keep the bloody secret of human violence from the world King Leopold is trying to express in the above monologue King Leoplod is trying to express his anguish and dissappoinment on his failure to keep the bloody secret concealed.

The clever ploy

In any part of the world, colonies are made for economic exploitation of natural resources and human labour, Africa was not an exception. It had plenty of untapped natural resources like ivory, minerals, diamonds, rubber etc. So, all the major European powers were trying to tap the continent’s juicy shares through colonisation. In the Berlin Conference of 1884 through 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium succeeded in convincing the major powers that his interests in Congo were purely philanthropic and all he wanted was to bring civilization to Congo. Henry Morton Stanley, a great explorer of the time, was employed by the King to lay foundations of his future colony in Congo. Eventually, Congo Free State remained a personal possession of King Leopold II from 1885 to 1908, until it was taken over by the Belgium Government and renamed as Belgium Congo.
During that time there was an exponential demand growth for rubber in international market thanks to the invention of pneumatic tyre by John Boyd Dunlop. Goodyear Tyre & Rubber Co. commenced tyre production on November 21, 1898. King Leopold II, a clever and immensely greedy businessman, made arrangements to get to Europe as much quantity of rubber as possible and as fast as possible; he could foresee the competition which would soon arise from growing rubber plantations in South America and Southeast Asia.
Rubber was one among many precious natural resources available in Congo. Rubber, then was obtained form a vine of the genus of Landolphia. It was not possible to cultivate this vine and it was available only in wild habitat. Congo had it aplenty! The technique used for rubber tapping and collection was crude and unscientific. Rubber collection from this vine was labour-intensive and dangerous; so the natives of Congo in large numbers were forcibly utilized to do the hard labour.

The brutal strategy

A colonial army called the force publique (public force), mostly comprising local Africans and a few Belgian officers, was created. The army was equipped with Belgian automatic rifles. This army was indented to protect the territory of Congo and was mainly used to enforce rubber collection and to suppress internal revolts and protests. This force was entrusted with both military and policing functions.
A common strategy used to collect more rubber was to demand certain quota of rubber from each village; failing to meet this quota was violently punished. In some cases, the complete village was set ablaze for not getting sufficient quantity of rubber. The army entrusted to enforce rubber collection was permitted to use force and violence at their will.
Whips and guns were ferociously used to control the labour force. Over a period of time Congo became a vast forced-labour camp. Soldiers were issued with fixed number of cartridges and, to prove the cartridges were used well, they were told to cut and bring the hands of the victim for each cartridge fired. Sometimes they would bring the cut-off hands of live persons to account for missing cartridges, leaving the unfortunate victims to live mutilated till the end of their lives. Even women and children were not spared from the brutal acts mutilations. In each army unit, there was a soldier tasked to smoke and preserve the chopped hands.
Over a period of time, rubber collection started to decline due to less yield and lack of manpower. Then a new system of exploitation known as “Concession System” was introduced. It was a more effective system to increasing rubber collection, but more atrocious. Concession companies deployed for rubber collection held rubber-collectors’ wives and children as hostages. They were released only when sufficient quantity of rubber had been delivered. Official hostage licenses authorized these companies to detain women and children at their will. Under this system, thousands of Africans were chained, kept in temporary prisons, whipped, mutilated or killed. Rape was very common in Concession Camps. There were reported cases of forced incest. All these crimes on humanity remained dormant for years.

Truth trickles out

The world came to know of these inhuman brutalities through the hard work and dedication of one man — Edmund Dene Morel. He started a magazine with a firm determination to throw light on the atrocities happened in the interiors of the Dark Continent. One of history’s most under-estimated heroes, Edmund Dene Morel was a fearless advocate of truth. He persuaded missionaries, travellers and the exploited victims of Congo to speak out the truth and published them his magazine West African Mail. These revelations had their impact to the extent that the British House of Commons passed a resolution on Congo in 1903. Subsequently, the British Consul in the Congo, Roger Casement, was sent for an investigation.
Edmund Dene Morel, along with Dr. Henry Grattan Guinness and Roger Casement, formed The Congo Reform Association in 1904 with the professed intention of aiding the ruthlessly exploited and impoverished native workforce of the Congo. The Association had the support of famous authors like Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad etc. ED Morel himself wrote a book titled Red Rubber dealing with the forced labour system of Congo.
Some statistics and photographs of the victims confirmed the unbelievable story of wanton rubber exploitation and human rights violations in Congo.

Manipulation of facts

In 1908, when the Belgium Government took over Congo from King Leopold II, Congo Free State became Belgium Congo. Before giving up Congo to Belgium, the King had set up a wide mineral exploitation industry, and the Belgium Government continued the exploitation. Congo remained a Belgium colony till 1960. Belgium was already benefitted by the huge amount of money King Leopold II collected through rubber trading. So it was treated as a patriotic act and used as a ploy to diplomatically hide the painful truth of the past. After the king’s death in 1909, a new image of the Leopold II was created, depicting him as a benefactor and civilizer. The entire history was re-written and the blood stains were tactfully washed away with new stories about philanthropy and civilization.
Historians have estimated the death toll in Congo as high as, 10 million in just 23 years between 1885 and 1908. Apart from large-scale murder and mutilation and oppression under the colonial regime, over work, malnutrition, disease, starvation and stress also took their toll on the native population. It was man’s greed for wealth and glory that took the lives of millions of fellow beings slightly different in skin color
References: Mark Twain (King Leopold’s Soliloquy, (1905) ) , Arthur Conan Doyle (Crime on Congo (1909) ), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness (1899) ), a BBC documentary in 2004, all unravelling the dark period in the history of Congo.