Zaire Table of Contents
From 1840 to 1872, the Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, engaged in a series of explorations that brought the Congo to the attention of the Western world. During these travels, Livingstone was out of touch with Europe for two years. Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist, was commissioned by the New York Herald to conduct a search for him. The two met at Ujiji, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, in 1871. Three years later, Stanley was commissioned by the New York Herald and London's Daily Telegraph to continue the explorations begun by Livingstone. With three British companions, Stanley began the descent of the Congo from its upper reaches, completing his journey in 1877. Returning to Europe, he tried to interest the British government in further exploration and development of the Congo but met with no success. His expeditions did, however, attract another European monarch.
Stanley's adventures brought the Congo to the attention of Belgium's King Léopold II, a man of boundless energy and ambition. The European occupation of Africa was well under way, but the Congo River basin remained for the most part unknown to Europeans. With no great powers contesting its control, the area appeared to present an ideal opportunity for Belgian expansion.
Recruiting Stanley to help him from 1878, Léopold II founded the International Association of the Congo, financed by an international consortium of bankers. Under the auspices of this association, Stanley arrived at the mouth of the Congo in 1879 and began the journey upriver. He founded Vivi, the first capital, across the river from present-day Matadi and then moved farther upriver, reaching a widening he named Stanley Pool (now Pool de Malebo) in mid-1881. There he founded a trading station and the settlement of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) on the south bank. The north bank of the river had been claimed by France, leading ultimately to the creation of the colony of French Congo. The road from the coast to Vivi was completed by the end of 1881 and Stanley returned to Europe. He was back in Africa by December 1882 and sailed up the Congo to Stanleyville (now Kisangani), signing more than 450 treaties on behalf of Léopold II with persons described as local chieftains who had agreed to cede their rights of sovereignty over much of the Congo Basin. In 1884 Stanley returned to Europe.
At the Conference of Berlin, held in 1884-85 to settle disputes among the European nations and in essence to partition Africa among them, thirteen powers, following the example set by the United States, separately recognized Léopold II's International Association of the Congo, which had already adopted its own flag, as an independent entity. Shortly afterward the association became the Congo Free State. By the General Act of Berlin, signed at the conclusion of the conference in 1885, the powers also agreed that activities in the Congo Basin should be governed by certain principles, including freedom of trade and navigation, neutrality in the event of war, suppression of the slave traffic, and improvement of the condition of the indigenous population. The conference recognized Léopold II as sovereign of the new state.
Shortly thereafter, in order to meet the conference's legal requirement of "effective occupation," Léopold II proceeded to transform the Congo Free State into an effective instrument of colonial hegemony. Indigenous conscripts were promptly recruited into his nascent army, the Force Publique, manned by European officers (see The Colonial Period , ch. 5). A corps of European administrators was hastily assembled, which by 1906 numbered 1,500 people; and a skeletal transportation grid was eventually assembled to provide the necessary links between the coast and the interior. The cost of the enterprise proved far higher than had been anticipated, however, as the penetration of the vast hinterland could not be achieved except at the price of numerous military campaigns. Some of these campaigns resulted in the suppression or expulsion of the previously powerful Afro-Arab slave traders and wary merchants. Only through the ruthless and massive suppression of opposition and exploitation of African labor could Léopold II hold and exploit his personal fiefdom.
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents