It happened today - February 5, 2016

On this day in history, Feb. 5 of 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State. It is an episode as bizarre as it is horrible.

It is horrible because the Congo became a nightmare of repression rarely equaled in the annals of colonialism. The native population declined by as much as half in three decades, worked to death to produce rubber and slaughtered if they did not produce enough. There was nothing remotely resembling the rule of law, or decency. A private army that enforced rubber quotas, the Force Publique, was required to collect the severed hands of those they had killed for not producing enough rubber, and among other ghastly sidenotes to the main horror a trade arose in severed hands.

It is bizarre because Belgium was at the time a constitutional monarchy. It had parliamentary institutions and “progressive” social legislation. Yet the king somehow established the Congo Free State as a personal possession and got away with it. Screened by elaborate pretensions to humanitarian goals and institutions, validated by his fellow European rulers and recognized by the United States, the Congo Free State was neither free nor a state. It was a personal tyranny, a private hell on earth in which universal slavery was essentially introduced, as the inhabitants were obliged to provide rubber (and ivory) only to Leopold’s officials and were killed for not providing enough. Eventually the Belgian government took over the Congo Free State, in 1908, and things got somewhat better.

Leopold, meanwhile, destroyed the archives recording his deeds. And you can see why he’d be afraid to have them examined. The Congo Free State was quite literally the heart of darkness. It was the setting for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness whose theme is moral relativism arising from modernity and whose setting is this ghastly example of unmatched horror arising from a superficially enlightened polity.

Imperialism gets a lot of bad press these days. But it is one of those abstractions that obscures more than it reveals. The British Empire had its bad moments and its bad attitudes. But on the whole it was, like the Roman Empire, a force for good in the world, often dramatically improving governance and even social customs where its flag was raised, and leaving its former colonies better off than areas conquered by other powers and, indeed, some of the few not conquered by anyone in the era of European expansion.

Belgium, on the other hand, produced this unspeakable horror. It is not immediately obvious why, given that Belgium itself was hardly a byword for repression or aggression. One might have expected, say, Imperial Germany or Russia, or the Mongols, to capture an area and mistreat it in this way. But Belgium?

It’s also weird that the power imbalance between Europe and areas of European settlement and everyone else was so great that the Belgian king could have seized a vast swath of Africa and done as he would with it. But that’s mostly a topic for another day. For now the strange, and dreadful, thing is what he chose to do with it.