Leopold II, King of the Belgians (Louis Philippe Marie Victor) (April 9, 1835–December 17, 1909), succeeded his father, Leopold I of Belgium, to the Belgian throne in 1865 and remained king until his death. Outside of Belgium, however, he is chiefly remembered as the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken by the King to extract rubber and ivory which relied on slavery and was responsible for the death of millions of Africans.
Leopold was born in Brussels to Leopold I and Princesse Louise-Marie Thérèse Charlotte Isabelle d'Orléans. At an early age he entered the Belgian army, and in Brussels, on August 22, 1853, he was married to Marie Henriette Anne von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduchess of Austria. She was the daughter of Joseph, Archduke of Austria (1776 - 1847) who was son of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor (1747 - 1792).
Leopold II and Marie Henriette Anne's children were:
- Louise-Marie Amélie, born Brussels February 18, 1858 and died at Wiesbaden March 1, 1924. She married Prince Philipp of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
- Leopold Ferdinand Elie Victor Albert Marie, Count of Hainaut (as eldest son of the heir apparent), Duke of Brabant (as heir apparent), born at Laeken on June 12, 1859 and died at Laeken on January 22, 1869 from pneumonia, after falling into a pond.
- Clémentine Albertine Marie Léopoldine, born at Laeken on July 30, 1872 and died at Nice, France on March 8, 1955. She married Prince Napoléon Victor Jérôme Frédéric Bonaparte (1862 - 1926), head of the Bonaparte family.
Leopold II was also the father of two sons, Lucien Philippe Marie Antoine (1906-1984) and Philippe Henri Marie François (1907-1914), born out of wedlock. Their mother was Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix (1883-1948), aka Caroline Lacroix, a prostitute who married the king on December 12, 1909, in a religious ceremony with no validity under Belgian law, at the Pavilion of Palms, Château de Laeken , five days before his death. These sons were adopted in 1910 by Lacroix's second husband, Antoine Durrieux. Though Lacroix is said to have been created Baroness de Vaughan, Lucien the Duke of Tervuren, and Philippe the Count of Ravenstein, no such royal decrees were ever issued.
On November 15, 1902, Italian anarchist Gennaro Rubino unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate King Leopold. Leopold was riding in a royal cortege to a ceremony in memory of his recently-deceased wife, Marie Henriette. Upon their approach, Rubino fired three shots at Leopold's carriage. Rubino's shots missed Leopold entirely and Rubino was immediately arrested at the scene.
In Belgian domestic politics Leopold emphasized military defense as the basis of neutrality, but he was unable to obtain a universal conscription law until on his death bed. King Leopold II died on December 17, 1909 and was interred in the Royal vault at the Church of Our Lady, Laeken Cemetery, Brussels, Belgium.
Leopold fervently believed that overseas colonies were the key to a country's greatness, and worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium. Neither the Belgian people nor the Belgian government were interested, however, and Leopold eventually began trying to acquire a colony in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen.
After a number of unsuccessful schemes for colonies in Africa or Asia, in 1876 he organized a private holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association. In 1879, under the auspices of the holding company, he hired the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley to establish a colony in the Congo region. Much diplomatic maneuvering resulted in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, at which representatives of 14 European countries and the United States recognized Leopold as sovereign of most of the area he and Stanley had laid claim to. On February 5, 1885, the result was the Congo Free State (later the Belgian Congo, then Zaire, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo), an area 76 times larger than Belgium, which Leopold was free to rule as a personal domain.
Reports of outrageous exploitation and widespread human rights abuses (including enslavement and mutilation) of the native population, especially in the rubber industry, led to an international protest movement in the early 1900s. Finally, in 1908, the Belgian parliament compelled the King to cede the Congo Free State to Belgium.
Leopold II is still a controversial figure in the Democratic Republic of Congo; in 2005 his statue was taken down just hours after it was re-erected in the capital, Kinshasa. The Congolese culture minister, Christoph Muzungu decided to reinstate the statue, arguing people should see the positive aspects of the king as well as the negative. But just hours after the six-metre (20 foot) statue was erected in the middle of a roundabout near Kinshasa's central station, it was taken down again, without explanation.
Leopold and the Belgians
Leopold II is perceived by many Belgians as the "King-Builder" ("le Roi-Bâtisseur" in French, "Koning-Bouwer" in Dutch) because he commissioned a great number of buildings and urbanistic projects in Belgium (mainly in Brussels, Ostend and Antwerp). The buildings include the Royal Glasshouses at Laeken (in the domain of the Laeken Royal Castle ), the Japanese tower , the Chinese pavilion , the Musée du Congo (now called the Royal Museum for Central Africa) and their surrounding park in Tervuren, the Jubilee Triple Arch in Brussels and the Antwerp train station hall. He was able to satisfy his megalomania and erect these buildings with the wealth provided by Congo exploitation.
There has been a "Great Forgetting", as Adam Hochschild puts it in King Leopold's Ghost, after Leopold's Congo was transferred to Belgium. In Hochschild's words:
- The Congo offer a striking example of the politics of forgetting. Leopold and the Belgian colonial officials who followed him went to extraordinary lengths to try to erase potentially incriminating evidence from the historical records. (Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost).
Remarkably the colonial Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren Museum) does not mention anything at all regarding the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State. The Tervuren Museum has a large collection of colonial objects but of the largest injustice in Congo, "there is no sign whatsoever" (in Hochschild's words again). Another example is to be found on the sea walk of Blankenberge, a popular coastal resort, where a monument shows a colonialist with a black child at his feet (supposedly bringing him "civilisation") without any comment, further illustrating this "Great Forgetting".
Writings about Leopold
Many prominent writers of the time took part in international condemnation of Leopold II's exploitation of the Congo, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Booker T. Washington, and those mentioned below.
The American mystic poet Vachel Lindsay wrote: "Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost / Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host / Hear how the demons chuckle and yell / Cutting his hands off, down in Hell."
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild describes the history and brutality of King Leopold's rule in the Belgian Congo.
King Leopold's Belgian Congo was described as a colonial regime of slave labor, rape and mutilation in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Mark Twain wrote a biting sarcastic political satire, King Leopold's Soliloquy.
- Neal Ascherson: The King Incorporated, Allen & Unwin, 1963. ISBN 1-86207-290-6 (1999 Granta edition).
Congo: White king, red rubber, black death (2003) is an astonishing documentary by Peter Bate (BBC) on Leopold II and the Congo (see also: BBC page).