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AHEAD OF JULY 21st (6): KING LEOPOLD II, THE KING WHO GAVE US A COLONY

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A serie of articles about the monarchy and the new King of Belgians. Will be followed in the first days of reign of King Philippe.

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Leopold II  (9 April 1835 – 17 December 1909) was the King of the Belgians, and is chiefly remembered for the founding and exploitation of the Congo Free State. Born in Brussels the second (but eldest surviving) son of Leopold I and Louise-Marie of Orléans, he succeeded his father to the throne on 17 December 1865 and remained king until his death.

Leopold was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken on his own behalf. He used Henry Morton Stanley to help him lay claim to the Congo, an area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, the colonial nations of Europe committed the Congo Free State to improving the lives of the native inhabitants.

Leopold extracted a fortune from the Congo, initially by the collection of ivory and rubber.

Leopold’s public career began in 1855, when he became a member of the Belgian Senate. That same year Leopold began to urge Belgium’s acquisition of colonies. In 1853 he married Marie Henriette, daughter of the Austrian archduke Joseph, in Brussels on 22 August 1853. Four children were born of this marriage; three were daughters, and the only son, Leopold, died when he was 9 years old.

In 1865 Leopold became king. His reign was marked by a number of major political developments. Leopold emphasized military defense as the basis of neutrality, but he was unable to obtain a universal conscription law until on his death bed.

The colonial policy of Leopold II

Leopold fervently believed that overseas colonies were the key to a country’s greatness, and he worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium. Leopold eventually began trying to acquire a colony in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen. The Belgian government lent him money for this venture.

After numerous unsuccessful schemes to acquire colonies in Africa and Asia (like the Philippines), in 1876 Leopold organized a private holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association, which he called the International African Society, or the International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of the Congo. In 1878, under the auspices of the holding company, he hired the famous explorer Henry Stanley to explore and establish a colony in the Congo region.

Much diplomatic maneuvering resulted in the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 regarding African affairs, at which representatives of fourteen European countries and the United States recognized Leopold as sovereign of most of the area to which he and Stanley had laid claim. On 5 February 1885, the Congo Free State was established under Leopold II’s personal rule, an area 76 times larger than Belgium, which Leopold was free to control through his private army, the Force Publique.

Criticism on politicalside obliged the  King to cede the Congo Free State to Belgium in 1908. The Congo Free State was transformed into a Belgian colony known as the Belgian Congo under parliamentary control.

Leopold II died in Brussels  in 1909.

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