Belgium is a small country in northwest Europe that joined Europes race for colonies in the late 19th century. Many European countries wanted to colonize distant parts of the world in order to exploit the resources and civilize the inhabitants of these less-developed countries. Belgium gained independence in 1830. Then, King Leopold II came to power in 1865 and believed that colonies would greatly enhance Belgiums wealth and prestige.
Leopolds cruel, greedy activities in the current Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi continue to affect the welfare of these countries today.
European adventurers experienced great difficulty in exploring and colonizing the Congo River Basin, due to the regions tropical climate, disease, and the resistance of the natives. In the 1870s, Leopold II created an organization called the International African Association. This sham was supposedly a scientific and philanthropic organization which would greatly improve the lives of native Africans by converting them to Christianity, ending the slave trade, and introducing European health and educational systems.
King Leopold sent the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to the region. Stanley successfully made treaties with native tribes, set up military posts, and forced most Muslim slave traders out of the region.
He acquired millions of square kilometers of central African land for Belgium. However, most of Belgiums government leaders and citizens did not want to spend the exorbitant amount of money that would be needed to maintain distant colonies. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, other European countries did not want the Congo River region.
King Leopold II insisted that he would maintain this region as a free-trade zone, and he was given personal control of the region, which was nearly eighty times larger than Belgium. He named the region the Congo Free State.
Leopold promised that he would develop his private property to improve the lives of the native Africans. He quickly disregarded all of his Berlin