History's deadliest king - Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja
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The increased demand for rubber led to a forced labor policy known as the Red Rubber System, which intended to maximize rubber extraction. The policy demanded forced labor as a form of taxation, which led to the enslaving of many Congolese people. It also gave private companies unrestricted access to supposedly “uninhabited” territories, as well as access to forced labor from Congolese populations.
These atrocities were overseen by the Force Publique (FP), the Belgian colonist’s military, which recruited white European soldiers and mercenaries as officers, as well as soldiers from West Africa, Zanzibar and Upper Congo. FP soldiers were required to cut off a hand from a person they killed in the line of duty to prove their lawful use of a bullet. However, soldiers cut the hands of living individuals to hide their use of bullets for hunting for game meat, or simply for punishing men who had failed to provide the required quota of rubber. Among many other atrocities, the FP took hostages and destroyed villages as a way to silence opposition. As Congolese populations were forced out of their villages to meet high Rubber quotes, agriculture fields were left unattended resulting in famine in some cases, and subsequent consequences on the Congolese economy.
International protest began as African American Journalist, George Washington Williams, wrote an open letter to King Leopold after his travels in Congo. He described the atrocities as “crimes against humanity”, and called for an investigation of crimes that were committed in Leopold’s name. While Leopold attempted to invalidate William’s claim, Williams continued to speak out against Leopold, drawing international action alongside other figures such as Reverend William Henry Sheppard, Emile Vandervelde, and Mark Twain.
As the Black Lives Matter protests grew in the United States in 2020, thousands of protestors in Belgium demanded King Leopold’s statues throughout the Belgium be taken down. Meanwhile in the Congo, Patrice Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana Amato Lumumba, called for the return her father's relics, a tooth, to honor the national hero and the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minster with a proper funeral and ceremony. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony was cancelled.
Lumumba’s tooth isn’t the only Congolese relic Belgium still holds. In 1947, 7 Congolese bodies were identified by a Catholic priest, who buried them in the churchyard of St. John Church in Tervuren. These bodies were among 267 Congolese women, men, and children used in Leopold’s “human zoo” which was held in what is now the Royal Central African Museum. To date, the museum still retains stolen art objects and natural artifacts, despite calls for the repatriation of these objects back to the Congo.
June 30th, 2021, marks the 61st anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s independence. Belgium has yet to acknowledge its crimes or answer calls for reparations.
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