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Forced Labor and Belgian Policies in Belgian Congo

Final Draft

In my research paper I am going to discuss the harsh rule of the Belgians on the Congolese. I am going to

discuss how they entered into the country and they’re aim behind it. There are also a couple of policies

which the Belgians enforced into the country either to force the Congolese to work for them or adapt to

the conditions they have forced them to live in which I will also discuss. These policies and tactics that

the Belgians have used created many rejections from the Congolese and disturbed them in many ways. It

has also caused many damages to the society such as confliction between the people and depopulation.

To find out more exact details about forced labor and the Belgian rule during that time I analyzed primary

sources one which was written by a Belgian author and the other is an author with German-Jewish origins

and saw what people thought about the situation from both points of view, the Belgian point of view and

the worlds point of view. It is certain that the Belgians thought that they are doing the right thing and that

the others are accusing them for treating the natives badly without looking at the reasons which led them

to take these actions from the start. A. Wauters thinks that the Belgians should “be fairly judged”

(A.Wauters. 1930. p51) because they have faced many difficulties either from the natives themselves or

difficulties in handling the massive amount of land which is “ eighty times as large” as Belgium

(A.Wauters. 1930. p51). On the other hand many people criticized what the Belgians are doing to the

Congolese to the extent that some have “conducted a campaign against the Belgian Congo” (A. Wauters .

1930. p61). However, when analyzing both the sources many ,if not saying nearly all, will disagree with

the Belgian rule. A feeling of guilt is sensed in the Belgians from the sources because of what they are

doing but they are denying the results of their actions. Analyzing and studying the sources gave me more

information about happened in the Belgian Congo and the policies of the Belgians on the native

Congolese.
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Zaire formerly known as Belgian Congo is found in the centre of the African Continent. “It is the largest

country” (Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008) found in Central Africa. Belgian Congo is a state with great

abundance of many minerals and “It serves as the nation’s administrative, economic and cultural

centre.” (Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008) which is the main reason behind most of the colonization from

the European countries. Most of the European and Western main powers colonized Belgian Congo to gain

control of these valuable resources which “include vast deposits of industrial diamonds, cobalt, and

copper”(Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008). Many wars to colonize Congo which caused many riots in the

country and making it unstable. The most famous colonization was from the Belgians as they ruled in a

very different way to the other European powers. It was ‘paternalistic’ which means that the Congolese

are treated as irresponsible youngsters. where the other European powers such as France and Britain used

assimilation and collaboration (Goff, Moss, Schroeder, Terry & Upshur. 2008. pp48-49). They were

opposite to each other in a way because the French and the British worked together with the Africans

whereas the Belgians used them as slaves claiming that there reasons of being there is to develop the

country and its citizens. It ended up to be the opposite where they destroyed the society as a result of their

rule and the policies that they enforced.

At the beginning the rule of the Belgians in Congo was indirect. The Belgians created the Free State of

Congo from 1890 to 1910 which was the period in which they ruled indirectly. Belgians colonized the

Free State of Congo for many reasons but they were primarily there for the rubber. After 1910 the

Belgians established their government in the Free State of Congo to replace the one that was already there

and fix the errors that were in the previous system. This is because the Belgians thought that without

changing the Congolese’s government there will be no chance of development (Rothschild. 1936. p580).

Their excuse for doing that is that the Africans were not responsible enough to take care of themselves

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and they “were to be cared for and trained as if they were children” (Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008).

Belgians ruled the Congolese very harshly and as mentioned previously treated them as children which is

called the paternalism. They enforced forced labor into the country which led to many disastrous results.

They not only forced labor into the country they also forced their ideas and thoughts in order to develop

the country and make it more westernized. They did this without taking into account the offend and the

emotional destruction that this might cause. They inculcated the western ideas without caring about the

social responsibility that they had (Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008). The Belgians might have thought that

they are doing the best thing because in their thinking that having a western mind is the best step you

could take to develop a country. In contrast, the conservative natives, the original owners of the land

disliked it very strongly as it imposed new and very different ideas to the ones that they have been used

to which might cause discomfort, stress and the loss of identity(Rothschild. 1936. p585).

The Belgians used many policies to enforce their ideas. Two of which are the social policy and the

adaptation policy. The social policy concentrates on the responsibility that the Belgians had towards the

natives. The main reason behind enforcing it is because “the Belgian Congo (was) dominated by the

serious problem of depopulation” (A.Wauters. 1930. p57).Depopulation is caused “by famine resulting

from forced labor and flight” and the “introduction of new diseases such as smallpox and sleeping

sickness – probably decreased the population of the whole colony by half”. Another reason for

depopulation is caused by the Belgians committing “crime against humanity”, which means by killing

people (genocide) (Jan-Bart. 2006. p7) . They might have no mention of it as it would have brought

embarrassment and shame to the country .I feel that they have enforced this policy to resolve the problem

of depopulation which they were the origins for. Belgians declare that this “is an obvious exaggeration”

(A.Wauters. 1930. p57) and that there might be other reasons which might have caused depopulation.

However they still felt that “Great responsibility attaches to the white man in this regard” (A.Wauters.

1930. p57). This might seem very contradictive because even though they denied the fact that they might

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have caused depopulation but still they felt that they had the responsibility to take action and solve the

problem. It seems to me that the Belgians are trying to hide their mistakes and distract the world by trying

to solve problems of their colony when they are the ones that created the problems in the first place.

The Congolese social existence equilibrium was disturbed because immigration of Belgians in huge

numbers for recruitment (A. Wauters. 1930. p57). It has also produced another problem which is as a

result of many white men coming into the country and pass new ideas to the locals and create a new

social class which is known as the “Wage earning class” (A.Wauters. 1930. p57). This class is very

different to the other classes as it comes with different habits and behavior which caused a lot of

confusion within the society and disrupted the economic order. It caused confusion because it changed the

ideas and thoughts of the people not knowing who they are, by this I mean their identity and where they

belong.

The adaptation policy, was another policy that deals with the society of the Congolese. This policy was

intended to create a society where the Congolese were closely equal to the white men. They thought that

if happened in the US where the African Americans have raised their standard of living and succeeded in

many aspects either be it scientific or artistic why can’t this be done in Africa (Rothschild. 1936. p584) .

They wanted to start with the problem that has been caused by the laborers that have been working far

away from the villages and had a more modern view of life that made it very hard for them to go back to

the villages (Rothschild. 1936. p585). This was because the villagers still had their traditional ideas in

their mind and rejected any new ideas which will make them reject the laborers with the new and more

westernized ideas. The adaptation policy was applied by having the native laborers sign long period

contracts. These laborers were taken away from their surroundings and put into more westernized

habitats(Rothschild. 1936. p585). Another aim of the adaptation was to provide a supply of laborers. This

was done by building new villages close to industrial locations. This was so that it would prevent

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recruiting people who live far away to work in a place away from their families (Rothschild. 1936. pp585-

586). I think that the Belgians not only thought that it would be beneficial to the Congolese as they will

be able to work close to their homes, but because it is known as tradition in Africa that the son follows in

his father’s steps so this will make the Belgians certain that they will have laborers. Both these policies

are supposed to be an advantage towards the Congolese where the result was either destruction to the

society or the benefits went to the Belgians. To summarize this policy was enforced to make the

Congolese adapt to the western ideas that they have forced into to the country and the conditions that

laborers were put in.

Forced Labor was one of the actions that Belgians took that the consequences of were dreadful. The

definition of forced labor is very obvious and there is nothing complicated about it. If meant that the

Belgian governments was forcing the natives to work for them. They might not have done it through

punishments but by many other tactics and different ways in which would make the Congolese work

whether they want it or not. There are many reasons for why a government to use forced labor. I assume

that the reason for forced labor in Congo was because it was a burden to bring the Belgians into the

country. So to solve the problem they wanted more native Congolese to work so as a result they used

forced labor. Forced labor that was enforced by the Belgians in the Congo was a major problem as they

enforced it hugely throughout the whole country which made it seem that they are using Congo as a labor

camp. To start the Belgians started to “break down the native economic structure so as to force the Negro

to abandon his customs and adopt the proletarian forms of work.” (Rothschild. 1936. p581). This clearly

shows us that the Belgians neglected the social responsibility that they had as they broke down the native

structure which might have meant a lot to the natives. This was because they would have been brought up

with this structure and for strangers to come and destroy it and force a new structure would be offensive.

Another tactic used by the “Indirect compulsion by taxation.” (Rothschild. 1936. p582). They brought the

idea of paying taxes into the country. In this case the natives will have to work in order to pay the taxes.

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The last but not least tactic used to enforce forced labor is by the “form of propaganda”. These

propagandas were authorized to be made by the Civil Servants (Rothschild. 1936. p582). This was a way

to force labor by using propaganda which would make the Congolese feel that they would have to work to

support their country or they wouldn’t be any use. These laborers that were forced to work for the

Belgians faced many bad conditions. As mentioned previously there were no close settlements to where

the industrial cities were which meant that the laborers had to work many miles away from their homes.

“They were torn away from the centers where they lived, where they were born, and where the ancestors

lived before them.” (Rothschild. 1936. p582). This could mean that they won’t see their parents, wives

and children for a long period of time which could devastate the person emotionally and physically. It

will also be very difficult to provide the best conditions possible for the workers because they recruited

hundreds of laborers which is a huge number to handle. Forced labor was also one of the main reasons for

the cause of depopulation and this they had to fix immediately. Not because the Belgians thought about

the society but because they didn’t want to lose any laborers (Rothschild. 1936 p582). Forced labor was a

massive destructive action that the Belgians took creating massive damage to the Congolese’s society.

Most countries thought badly about the Belgian rule in Congo even the other European powers who

themselves colonized many African cities. This was because they treated the Congolese very badly and

gave them no rights. Where on the other hand, the French and the British worked together with the

Africans and made them the leaders. The Belgians treated the Congolese as irresponsible youngsters and

were unsympathetic towards them. This made many criticize them for what they do. A letter was written

from an Englishman, Sir Herbert Samuel to the Minister of the Belgian colonies concerning their

treatment of the native people and saying that this should stop. However the Belgians think that people

are misunderstanding them and that they are doing it for the benefit of the natives. The Belgians say that

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they shouldn’t be blamed for what they do and that others should look at the surrounding circumstances

before criticizing their rule on the Congolese. Having colonized a “territory of enormous extent in

comparison with that of the mother-country” (A.Wauters. 1930. p52) is very difficult to control and this

is one of the reasons that made them rule in a harsh and paternalistic way to help them manage the

colony. (If so then why did they colonize it from the start?) A. Wauters also brings up an excuse for why

they have moved the natives from their homes and made them work in lands far away. He says that they

Belgians have done this because the “population of Congo is extremely sparse” (A. Wauters. 1930. p52)

and the places that were densely populated were very far from the industrial areas and where the minerals

were found. He has also said that that by treating them in a harsh way was the only way to control them

as they were a lot and that at that time in history that was their only option. I disagree because if you look

at the other European and Western powers which had many colonies in Africa at the same time that the

Belgians colonized the Congo and never used the policies that the Belgians did. An example of this would

be the French, they had colonies in the African continent during the same time period that the Belgians

colonized Congo. Unlike the Belgians, the French tried to make the Africans blend in and be part of the

French society. A.Wauters mentions that the Belgians were there for two main reasons which are “To

civilize the black race” and make the “minerals and agricultural wealth to circulate freely” (A. Wauters.

1930. p61).

To conclude we can see that all the policies that the Belgians enforced and forcing labor in Congo were

all merciless towards the natives and corrupted their societies even though the Belgians denied their

actions. They colonized a country rich in natural resources and used it to their own advantage. The

Belgians should have had little bit of respect or care towards the Congolese as they have already taken

away their land . In return they treated them badly and didn’t respect any of their cultural values and

ideas. They enforced policies such as the adaptation policy which gave no choice or say to the Congolese

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in their homeland. The Congolese were demanded to adapt to the new ideas which very different to their

ideas. They also had to work against their desire and live in very appalling conditions away from their

family, friends and loved ones. All these things resulted in criticism from many around the world towards

the actions of the Belgians in Congo. All the Belgians could say was that they were unfairly judged by all

the people!

Bibliography

A.Wauters. (Jan. 1930). Belgian Policy in the Congo. Journal of the Royal Institute of International
Affairs, Vol9. No. pp51-62. Online. Accessed 13.10.2008. J Stor.

Congo. (2008). In Encyclopedia Britannica . Retrieved September 25,2008, from Encyclopedia Britannica
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Goff, R., Moss, W., Terry, J., Upshur, J., Schroeder, M.(2008). The twentieth century and beyond. New
York: McGraw Hill

R. Rothschild. (Oct. 1936). Trends in the Native Policy in the Belgian Congo. Journal of Negro
Education. Vol. 5, No.4, pp. 577-590. Online. Accessed 13.10.08. J Stor.

Gewald, T. (2006). More than red rubber and figures alone. International Journal of African Historical
Studies, 39, 7. From Academic Search Premier database.