La nôtre [religion] est sans contredit
la plus ridicule, la plus absurde,
et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecté le
(Ours is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd
and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this
Letters of Voltaire and Frederick the
Great (New York: Brentano's, 1927), translated by Richard
Aldington, letter 156 from Voltaire to Frederick II of
Prussia, 5 January 1767
We have already seen a number of Christian attrocities, not
only in considering the Crusades
and other wars
including wars fought
on God's behalf, but in considering forced conversions, Christian
and slavery .
Christians also have a poor record in facilitating the worst
forms of colonialism. Here we look at just one example, probably
the most extreme: The Congo Free State.
The Congo Free State (later the Belgian Congo)
In the nineteenth century, colonialism was widely seen as an
opportunity for missionary activity. Colonists and missionaries
established symbiotic relationships to further both of their
interests. Of the Europeans who scrambled for control of Africa
at the end of the 19th century, Belgium's King Leopold II left
arguably the most notable legacy.
Civilisation In Congo by Edouard
This was probably painted at Leopoldville, an AIC station
in the Congo Free State.
While the Great Powers competed for territory elsewhere, the
king of Belgium carved his own private colony out of 100km2
of Central African rainforest. The state existed from 1885 to
1908 and included the area of the present Democratic Republic
of the Congo. The king's stated motivation was to open the heart
of Africa to Christian missionaries and Western capitalists,
and to protect the "natives" from Arab slavers. (He
did not mention that he would be establishing his own system
Congo Free State, Slaves c 1905
The king's new private colony became a massive labour camp,
where he made a fortune for himself from the harvest of its
wild rubber, and was responsible for the death of millions -
estimates vary from 5 million to 13 million people. Anyone who
failed to bring enough rubber for agents was killed. Those who
failed to pay their taxes were condemned to slavery.
Congo Free State Slaves c 1904
Failure to pay taxes often resulted in the offenders being
condemned to slavery
The system was maintained by the Force Publique. Officers
were white, all Christian, overwhelmingly Catholic. Other ranks
were black, many from distant peoples of the upper Congo. Others
had been kidnapped during the raids on villages in their childhood
and brought to Roman Catholic missions, where they received
military training in conditions close to slave ry. (Click on
the following link for more on the traditional Christian practice
Armed with modern weapons and the chicotte a bull whip
made of hippopotamus hidethe Force Publique routinely
took and tortured hostages, flogged, and raped Congolese people.
A slave is whipped with a chicotte
a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide
Congo Free State c. 1905
The Force Publique also burned the houses of recalcitrant
Missionaries build a chapel in the Congo
Free State c 1905
The bricks probably come from destroyed local villages
Officers were keen not to waste costly ammunition, so soldiers
were required to prove that each bullet had been used properly.
This equated to proving that each bullet had been used to kill
a human being. In practice, chopping off a right hand was regarded
as sufficient proof. The idea of using a token body part to
prove death was well established. Jews in the bible cut off
and counted the foreskins of their enemies. Europeans rat catchers
claimed financial rewards for each rat tail they produced).
This system was open to further abuse, and soldiers realised
that they could practice their favourite sport - shooting monkeys
- and as long as they brought back a human right hand for each
used bullet, their officers would be perfectly happy.
Not all lost limbs were attributed to
amputation in the Congo Free State
Yoka's (standing) right hand was amputated. Mola (seated)
lost both hands to gangrene after they were bound so tightly
as to cut off the blood supply.
Equateur, Congo Free State, circa 1905
In some instances a soldier could shorten his service term
by bringing more hands than the other soldiers, which led to
widespread mutilations and dismemberment. Multiple mutilation
was practised, people having both hands chopped off or an arm
and a foot chopped off. Even children were mutilated - the size
of the limb did not matter.
Congo Free State. This child suffered
Congo Free State, Mutilated Children
Leopold II, The devoutly Catholic King
of the Belgians, who owned the Congo Free State as his
None of the Catholic officers seems to have noticed anything
wrong in all this. Neither did any of the Catholic missionaries
favoured by the king's administration. As Peter Forbath noted
The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the
European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free
State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself.
Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place
of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber...
They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make
up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace... the people
who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force
Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of
how many hands they collected1.
Congo Free State:. One of the countless
child victims of the Rubber Terror, where mutilation was
punishment for rebellion, or for failing to meet production
Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking
at the severed hand and foot of Boali, his five-year old
Source: E. D Morel, King Leopold's Rule in Africa,
It would have been an easy matter to publicly expose the excesses,
but no-one seems to have thought it necessary. Belgian Catholics
stayed silent for years. One Baptist missionary seems to have
realised that the system was less than perfect, and wrote to
King Leopold's chief agent in the Congo
I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people's stories
that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you
will only kill them for crimes they commit
(John Harris, Baptist Missionary in Baringa.)
Congo Free State. As well as amputations,
people suffered from untreated gunshots and other wounds
When rumours of the reality started to leak out, the British
commissioned Roger Casement to investigate, The rumours turned
out to be true. A campaign was started to stop the abuse. As
always with such campaigns it was led by atheists, freethinkers,
liberals and Quakers, with support from African Americans some
reforming evangelicals. The Congo Reform Association sought
to reveal the full truth behind Leopold's "secret society
of murderers". It was led by diplomat Roger Casement and
ED Morel, with support from a number of eminent writers including
Anatole France, Arthur Conan Doyle (The Crime of the Congo)
and Mark Twain (King Leopold's Soliloquy). Joseph Conrad's
Heart of Darkness was inspired by a voyage to the Congo
Free State. The chocolate magnate William Cadbury, a Quaker,
was one of the main financial backers. The campaign became the
first modern mass human rights movement.
King Leopold's Soliloquy by the
atheist Mark Twain
Notice the various Christian references on the cover
Twain satirises the king's grand plans:
"Radiating from the pyramid, like the spokes of a
wheel, there are to be forty grand avenues of approach,
each thirty-five miles long, and each fenced on both sides
by skulless skeletons standing a yard and a half apart
and festooned together in line by short chains stretching
from wrist to wrist and attached to tried and true old
handcuffs stamped with my private trade-mark, a crucifix
and butcher-knife crossed, with motto, "By this sign
we prosper"; each osseous fence to consist of 200,000
skeletons on a side, which is 400,000 to each avenue.
It is remarked with satisfaction that it aggregates three
or four thousand miles (single-ranked) of skeletons --
15,000,000 all told -- and would stretch across America
from New York to San Francisco.
Twain also notes the king's Christian
faith. In the pamphlet King Leopold says he had come to
Congo with piety oozing from every pore, that he had only
wanted to convert the people to Christianity. He asserts
that for a King to be criticized as he has been is blasphemy
surely, under the rule of God, any King who was
not doing God's will would not have been helped by God.
He complains insufficient emphasis is being given to the
fact that he sent missionaries to the villages to convert
them to Christianity.
Eyewitness reports from Protestant, Presbyterian, evangelical
and nonconformist missionaries were collected and published.
Protestant, Presbyterian, evangelical and nonconformists all
had an interest in discrediting the Catholic Church, and their
reports were dismissed as attempts to smear Catholic priests.
Photographs of the atrocities were easy to explain away.
Congo Free State c.1905
In 1908, following a public outcry, the colony was removed
from the King's control and taken over by the Belgian government.
The Congo Free State was reinvented as the Belgian Congo. Leopold
said when he was forced to hand over the Congo Free State: "I
will give them my Congo but they have no right to know what
I have done there," and proceeded to burn the archives.
Funeral of King Leopold II in 1909. He
was a devout Catholic, so the Catholic Church was well
represented at his funeral, rather better than at the
funerals of any of his millions of victims.
The Congo's soldiers never moved far away from the role allocated
to them by King Leopold - a force to harry, rape and kill the
population. The chopping off of limbs has also been preserved
from colonial times. The population of the Democratic Republic
of Congo has never truly recovered, and mass mutilations were
inflicted on innocent citizens once again in the 1990's
More Christian Violence and Warfare
King Leopold's Rule in Africa. Morel, E. D. (Edmund Dene),
1873-1924 (London, W. Heinemann, 1904). .Read
Arthur Conan Doyle (The Crime of the Congo) Read
Mark Twain (King Leopold's Soliloquy). Read
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed,
Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston and New York:
Houghton Mifflin, 1998
Henry Richard Fox Bourne, Civilisation in Congoland: A Story
of International Wrong-doing. London: P. S. King & Sonm,