Belgian Congo (Congo Belge in French and Belgisch Congo in Dutch) was a colony of Belgium in central Africa from 1908 until independence as the Republic of the Congo (République du Congo, also called Congo-Léopoldville) in 1960. It had originally been established in 1885 as the personal colony of King Leopold II of Belgium called the Congo Free State (État indépendant du Congo). By the turn of the century, however, the violence used by Free State officials against indigenous Congolese and a ruthless system of economic exploitation led to intense diplomatic pressure on Belgium to take official control of the country. Post-independence, the country’s name was changed to Democratic Republic of the Congo (République démocratique du Congo) on August 1, 1964, to distinguish it from the neighboring Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), formerly the French Congo. On October 27, 1971, the name was changed once again to Republic of Zaire (République du Zaïre) but this reverted back to Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997. All these name changes can lead to quite a confusing philatelic history!
Until the later part of the nineteenth century, few Europeans had ventured into the Congo basin. The rainforest, swamps and accompanying malaria and other tropical diseases, such as sleeping sickness, made it a difficult environment for European exploration and exploitation. Diogo Cão traveled around the mouth of the Congo River in 1482, leading Portugal to claim the region as England did with River Victoria. Western states were at first reluctant to colonize the area in the absence of obvious economic benefits.
Henry Morton Stanley, famous for making contact with British missionary David Livingstone in Africa in 1871, explored the region during a journey that ended in 1877 described in Stanley’s novel Through the Dark Continent (1878). In 1876 Leopold II, King of the Belgians hosted a geographic conference in Brussels, inviting famous explorers, philanthropists, and members of geographic societies to stir up interest in a “humanitarian” endeavor for Europeans to take in central Africa so as to improve and civilize the lives of the indigenous peoples. At the conference, Leopold organized the International African Association with the cooperation of European and American explorers and the support of several European governments, and was himself elected chairman. Leopold used the association for the promotion of plans to seize independent central Africa under this philanthropic guise.
Following the publication of Henry Stanley’s novel, Leopold began courting the explorer who had failed to enlist British interests in the development of the Congo region. Leopold hired Stanley to help the king to gain a foothold in the region and annex the region for himself. From August 1879 to June 1884, Stanley was in the Congo basin, where he built a road from the lower Congo up to Stanley Pool and launched steamers on the upper river. While exploring the Congo for Leopold, Stanley set up treaties with the local chiefs and with native leaders. Few to none of these tribal leaders had a realistic idea of what they were signing, and, in essence, the documents gave over all rights of their respective pieces of land to King Leopold II. With Stanley’s help, Leopold was able to claim a great area along the Congo, and military posts were established.
Christian de Bonchamps, a French explorer who served Leopold in Katanga, expressed attitudes towards such treaties shared by many Europeans, saying, “The treaties with these little African tyrants, which generally consist of four long pages of which they do not understand a word, and to which they sign a cross in order to have peace and to receive gifts, are really only serious matters for the European powers, in the event of disputes over the territories. They do not concern the black sovereign who signs them for a moment.” Leopold began to create a plan to convince other European powers of the legitimacy of his claim to the region, all the while maintaining the guise that his work was for the benefit of the native peoples under the name of a philanthropic “association”.
To give his African operations a name that could serve for a political entity, Leopold created, between 1879 and 1882, the International Association of the Congo (Association internationale du Congo, or AIC) as a new cover organization. This organization sought to combine the numerous small territories acquired into one sovereign state and asked for recognition from the European powers. On April 22, 1884, President Chester A. Arthur of the United States decided that the cessions claimed by Leopold from the local leaders were lawful and recognized the International Association of the Congo’s claim on the region, becoming the first country to do so.
In November 1884, Otto von Bismarck convened a 14-nation conference to submit the Congo question to international control and to finalize the colonial partitioning of the African continent. Most major powers (including Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Great Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States) attended the Berlin Conference, and drafted an international code governing the way that European countries should behave as they acquired African territory. The conference officially recognized the International Congo Association, and specified that it should have no connection with Belgium or any other country, but would be under the personal control of King Leopold.
It drew specific boundaries and specified that all nations should have access to do business in the Congo with no tariffs. The slave trade would be suppressed. In 1885, Leopold emerged triumphant. France was given 257,000 square miles (666,000 square kilometers) on the north bank (modern Congo-Brazzaville and the Central African Republic), Portugal 351,000 square miles (909,000 km²) to the south (modern Angola), and Leopold’s personal organization received the balance: 903,000 square miles (2,344,000 km²), with about 30 million people. However, it still remained for these territories to be occupied under the conference’s “Principle of Effective Occupation”.
In 1885, Leopold’s efforts to establish Belgian influence in the Congo Basin were awarded with the Congo Free State, or CFS. By a resolution passed in the Belgian parliament, Leopold became King-Sovereign (Roi-Souverain) of the newly-formed CFS, over which he enjoyed nearly absolute control. The Congo Free State became Leopold’s personal property, the Domaine Privé. Under Leopold II’s administration, the territory became a humanitarian disaster. The lack of accurate records makes it difficult to quantify the number of deaths caused by the ruthless exploitation and the lack of immunity to new diseases introduced by contact with European colonists. Leopold’s Force Publique, a private army that terrorized natives to work as forced labor for resource extraction, disrupted their societies and killed and abused natives indiscriminately.
Following the Casement Report, the British, European and American press exposed the conditions in the Congo Free State to the public in the early 1900’s. In 1904, Leopold II was forced to allow an international parliamentary commission of inquiry entry to the Congo Free State. By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic maneuvers led to the end of Leopold II’s personal rule. On October 18, 1908, the Belgian Parliament voted in favor of annexing the Congo as a Belgian colony. The government of the Belgian Congo was arranged by the 1908 Colonial Charter.Executive power rested with the Belgian Minister of Colonial Affairs, assisted by a Colonial Council (Conseil Colonial). Both resided in Brussels. The Belgian parliament exercised legislative authority over the Belgian Congo.
The highest-ranking representative of the colonial administration in the Congo was the Governor-General. From 1886 until 1926, the Governor-general and his administration were posted in Boma, near the Congo River estuary. From 1926, the colonial capital moved to Léopoldville, some 186 miles (300 kilometers) further upstream in the interior. Initially, the Belgian Congo was administratively divided into four provinces: Léopoldville (or: Congo-Kasaï), Equateur, Orientale and Katanga, each presided over by a vice governor-general. An administrative reform in 1932 increased the number of provinces to six, while “demoting” the vice governors-general to provincial governors.
When the Belgian government took over the administration in 1908, the situation in the Congo improved in certain respects. The brutal exploitation and arbitrary use of violence, in which some of the concessionary companies had excelled, were curbed. The crime of “red rubber” was put to a stop. Article 3 of the new Colonial Charter of 18 October 1908 established that: “Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or privates”. But forced labor, in differing forms and degrees, would not disappear entirely until the end of the colonial period. Opening up the Congo and its natural and mineral riches for the Belgian economy remained the main motive for colonial expansion. One important tool was the construction of railways. Other priorities, such as healthcare and basic education, slowly gained in importance.
The Belgian Congo was directly involved in the two world wars. During World War One, an initial stand-off between the Force Publique and the German colonial army in German East-Africa (Tanganyika) turned into open warfare with a joint Anglo-Belgian invasion of German colonial territory in 1916 and 1917 during the East African Campaign. By 1916 the Belgian commander of the Force Publique, Lieutenant-General Charles Tombeur, had assembled an army of 15,000 men supported by local bearers — Reybrouck indicated that during the war no less than 260,000 native bearers were used — and advanced on to Kigali. Kigali was taken by May 6, 1916, and the army went on to take Tabora on September 19 after heavy fighting. In 1917, after Mahenge had been conquered, the army of the Belgian Congo, by now 25,000 men, controlled one-third of German East Africa.
After the war, Belgium was rewarded for the participation of the Force Publique in the East African campaign with a League of Nations mandate over the former German colony of Ruanda-Urundi (1924-1945). During World War II the Belgian Congo served as a crucial source of income for the Belgian government in exile in London after the occupation by the Nazis. The Force Publique again participated in the Allied campaigns in Africa. Belgian Congolese forces (with Belgian officers) notably fought against the Italian colonial army in Ethiopia in Asosa, Bortaï and Saïo under Major-general Auguste-Eduard Gilliaert during the second East African Campaign of 1940-1941.
In the early 1950s, political emancipation of the Congolese elites, let alone of the masses, seemed like a distant event. But, it was clear that the Congo could not forever remain immune from the rapid changes that, after the Second World War, profoundly affected colonialism around the world. The independence of the British, French and Dutch colonies in Asia shortly after 1945 had little immediate effect in the Congo, but in the United Nations pressure on Belgium (as on other colonial powers) increased. Belgium had ratified article 73 of the United Nations Charter, which advocated self-determination, and both superpowers put pressure on Belgium to reform its Congo policy. However, the Belgian government tried to resist what it described as ‘interference’ with its colonial policy.
In the winter of 1958–59, while the Belgian government was debating a program to gradually extend the political emancipation of the Congolese population, it was overtaken by events. On January 4, 1959, a prohibited political demonstration organised in Léopoldville got out of hand. At once, the colonial capital was in the grip of extensive rioting. It took the authorities several days to restore order and, by the most conservative count, several hundred died. The eruption of violence sent a shock-wave through the Congo and Belgium alike. On January 13, King Baudouin of Belgium declared in a radio address that Belgium would work towards the full independence of the Congo “without hesitation, but also without irresponsible rashness”.
Circumstances in Belgian Congo were changing rapidly with varied forms of resistance, such as refusal to pay taxes. In some regions anarchy threatened. At the same time many Belgians resident in the Congo opposed independence, feeling betrayed by Brussels. Faced with a radicalization of Congolese demands, the government saw the chances of a gradual and carefully planned transition dwindling rapidly. The Belgian government wanted to avoid being drawn into a futile and potentially very bloody colonial war, as had happened to France in Indochina and Algeria, or to the Netherlands in Indonesia. For that reason, it was inclined to give in to the demands for immediate independence voiced by the Congolese leaders. Despite lack of preparation and an insufficient number of educated elite (there were only a handful of Congolese holding a university degree at that time), the Belgian leaders hoped that things might work out. This became known as “Le Pari Congolais” — the Congolese bet.
In January 1960, Congolese political leaders were invited to Brussels to participate in a round-table conference to discuss independence. The conference agreed surprisingly quickly to grant the Congolese practically all of their demands: a general election to be held in May 1960 and full independence — “Dipenda“—on June 30, 1960. This was in response to the strong united front put up by the Congolese delegation. As planned scarcely five months earlier, the hand-over ceremony by the Belgians took place on time on June 30 at the new residence of the Governor-General of the Belgian Congo in Léopoldville, becoming the Republic of Congo-Léopoldville under Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasa-Vubu.
Scarcely one week later, a rebellion broke out within the Force Publique against its officers, who were still predominantly Belgian. This was a catalyst for disturbances arising all over the Congo, mainly instigated by dissatisfied soldiers and radicalized youngsters. In many areas, their violence specifically targeted European victims. Within weeks, the Belgian military and later a United Nations intervention force evacuated the largest part of the more than 80,000 Belgians who were still working and living in the Congo. It was a hasty and traumatic time for those who were forced into exile as refugees. This led to a five-year-long period of war and political instability, known as the Congo Crisis, from 1960 to 1965, ending with the seizure of power by Joseph-Désiré Mobutu.
The further history of the Congo will be dealt with during the different entities’ stamp days. The Congo Free State issued stamps from 1886 (the first sets featured portraits of King Leopold II) until 1901 (several sets of beautiful bicolors). I have yet to acquire one of these; the Scott catalogue lists the CFS issues in Volume 1 under Belgian Congo but I consider them as a separate stamp issuing entity.
Big Blue, a blog covering the classic 1840-1940 period of worldwide stamp collecting, summarizes “Belgium Congo stamps, for the most part, are “classic” African Pictorial issues featuring African animals (Elephants and Watusi cattle), natives (Bangala Chief, Ubangi Woman), landscape (Oil Palms), and transportation (River Steamer on the Congo River). Well designed and highly attractive to the stamp collector, one would suspect from the beginning these issues were a not insignificant source of income for the Colony.”
The first stamps issued by the Belgian administration was a set of ten CFS stamps originally issued between 1896 and 1900 overprinted CONGO BELGE (Scott #31-40). There are two types of these handstamped overprints, those applied in Brussels and those applied locally. Each of these include eight varieties and most of the handstamps are also found inverted or doubled. Counterfeits of these exist as well. The first inscribed stamps of colony were a set of four bicolors issued in 1909 (Scott #41-45) borrowing on the Congo Free State designs but bearing the name of the colony in French. A 1910-1915 set of 15 (Scott #46-59) added the Dutch name, BELGISCH CONGO, to the mix.
The first departure from the designs portraying local scenes, people and animals was a 15-stamp set released on June 30, 1928, picturing Sir Henry Morton Stanley (Scott #115-128). The final Belgian Congo general issue stamps were a pair issued on February 19, 1960, marking the tenth anniversary of the Commission for Technical Cooperation in Africa South of the Sahara (Scott #321-322). The colony also issued semi-postal, air mail, postage due, and parcel post stamps.
Scott #142 was released in 1931 as part of a 18-stamp set portraying people and views of the Congo (Scott #139-156). Denominated 25 Belgian centimes, it was engraved and printed in deep blue, perforated 11½. Issued on April 1, 1931, and withdrawn from sale on August 31, 1942, it portrays a hut from the area of the Uele River. This originates in the mountains near Lake Albert and flows west for about 750 miles (1,210 kilometers) to join the Mbomou River at Yakoma. The Uele–Mbomou confluence at Yakoma marks the start of the Ubangi River, which in turn flows into the Congo River. The Uele is the longest tributary of the Ubangi. The combined Ubangi–Uele length is about 1,410 miles (2,270 kilometers). The Uele flows through the current provinces of Haute-Uele and Bas-Uele, formerly known as Orientale Province.
The native peoples living along the Uele River include the Azande (meaning ” the people who possess much land”) — historically regarded as conquering warriors who practiced witchcraft and magic but who currently are small-scale farmers; the Boa who live mainly through subsistence farming and hunting, with some river commerce, and are known for their masks, which are thought to be used to enhance a warrior’s courage before battle and in ceremonies to celebrate victories; and the Mangbetu people who are known for their highly developed art and music and stood out to European explorers because of their elongated heads. Traditionally, babies’ heads were wrapped tightly with cloth in order to give them this distinctive appearance. Many Mangbetu currently believe their ancestors to have practiced cannibalism.