Historical Justice for the Atrocities in the Congo Free State
TO: President Barack Obama
Senators __________________ and ___________________,
Congress of the United States of America
Dear Mr. President, United States Senators and Representatives,
We, your constituents, wish for you and the people you serve a good life, welfare, and successful work in the interest of humanity!
We hereby bring to your attention today a heavy, but yet obscure period of history – the African Holocaust, committed under the rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. This dark criminal time has not been officially admitted by Belgium and has not to this day received its due historical justice.
The United States of America was persuaded and manipulated in becoming the first world power to accord diplomatic recognition to the International Association of the Congo under Leopold’s sovereignty in April 1884 (Belgium itself did not recognize it until February 1885). The United States also approved the Berlin Treaty Act on Congo on February 26, 1885.
Unfortunately, Leopold II violated most of the regulations set forth in that Act. His rule of the Congo as his personal slave estate was atrocious – millions of people perished (estimates vary and an exact count is not easily reached since many records were destroyed by the king in 1908); Hands were severed off from thousands of men and young boys, women were kidnapped and violently raped, and villages were plundered and burnt, while the immense resources of the area were ruthlessly exploited. It was a period of depopulation, when about half of the inhabitants of the land died. The Free State regime produced one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history.
That sad historical period is still alive and hurtful in the minds of people on the African Continent, and especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That great country has gone through a lot of turmoil and humanitarian crises in recent years as you are well aware. We strongly feel that denying careful attention to the bleeding wounds of the past is not beneficial for reaching appropriate solutions for the present or the future.
Leopold II was also a key person responsible for the larger colonization of Africa, because by his actions, initiatives, political maneuvering, and insatiable appetite for glory, he inspired six other European nations to annex the interior of the African continent in the so-called “Scramble for Africa (1876-1914).” The following colonization period brought about much pain to the native populations of the continent.
At the time the atrocities were happening, they were exposed by international activists like the African American journalist and minister George Washington Williams. Several American missionary boards, like those of the Congregational and Presbyterian churches, wrote petitions to stop the butchery. Even though Leopold was able for a while through manipulations and deception to keep the support of the USA, in view of the massacres exposed, the Congress took a strong position against the regime in 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt did not grant permission to King Leopold II to visit the United States in February of 1908.
However, after over a century that history has been conveniently forgotten. Monuments and busts of King Leopold II (“The Builder”) were erected all over Belgium; coins were minted with his image (the last one in 2007). This is truly a disgrace to Europe and an insult to Africa and the world. It is also an embarrassment to the United States since Brussels hosts the NATO headquarters.
For years the people of Belgium were denied the opportunity to know the true story. Their history textbooks and museums do not reflect the sad events of the Congo Free State. This began to change when the prominent American writer Mr. Adam Hochschild wrote King Leopold’s Ghost in 1998.
In response to his book Belgian historians promised to make a clear exposition of the regime in 2004, but failed to do so in a satisfactory and transparent way. In response to that failure, 48 members of the British House of Commons on May 24, 2006, sponsored Early Day Motion 2251, to declare the Free State rule a “Colonial Genocide” and request Belgium’s apology for it; that motion was tabled and not reconsidered later.
We want to note here that “genocide” in our opinion is not the appropriate term for Leopold’s rule in the Congo. However, the system of forced labor, rape, mutilations, mass murder, and exploitation for the sole purpose of profit, presently deserves a strong condemnation. This gloomy history, in which under the direction of a European king millions of Africans were brutally slaughtered, should be fully exposed once again.
Therefore, in the interest of historical justice, for the sake of righteousness, humility, repentance, and the healing of past wounds, we petition you and the Congress in regards to the massacres of millions of Congolese people during the brutal regime of King Leopold II of Belgium (1885-1908), to do the following:
1. To appoint a research commission to reexamine, review, and revisit the history of the crimes committed during Leopold’s rule of the Congo.
2. To make a public declaration reaffirming the actions taken by both Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration during the period of 1906-1908. We petition you to once again denounce the Congo Free State regime for its deceptions, grave violations of international law, destruction of innocent lives, and crimes against humanity.
3. To request an official apology from the Kingdom of Belgium to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Africa, and to the rest of the world for the horrors committed there under their second monarch and for their refusal to acknowledge and take responsibility for that heavy historical burden.
4. To make a motion on the establishing of a permanent museum exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute or another place that members of the Congress might consider appropriate, in order to commemorate the millions of African victims of the Congo Free State regime. This will help educate the public regarding that awful time; the regime’s massacre of African peoples can be hardly compared to any other time in history.
Those would be significant steps toward historical healing, catharsis, and reconciliation. They will also send a strong message to the world that the dreadful events of the Congo Free State must never be repeated. Even though this ugly history occurred over a century ago, its lasting shadow and continuing effects are still evident in the Congo presently.
Therefore, we firmly consider that these actions we are petitioning for to be very important and necessary in view of the present situation in many African nations. We plead with you to assist us in fully putting the past behind so that we will be able to bring about a better and more hopeful future for the people of the Congo, of Africa, and the rest of the world.
We deeply appreciate your careful consideration of these our petitions!
Thank you for your time and thoughtful attention to this letter!