The Congo Free State, which existed from 1885 to 1908 as the personal dominion of Leopold II of Belgium, is infamous for its ‘red rubber’ atrocities, which excited the condemnation of figures as various as Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain and Roger Casement. Estimates of the number of deaths caused by Leopold’s ruthless exploitation of the country range from five to twenty million people. The statistics are disputed, as they are bound to be in a land where no proper censuses or other administrative records were kept. But the bottom line is that the detestable Leopold owned the Free State as surely as J D Rockefeller owned Standard Oil. How did such a situation come about?
Leopold was granted these extraordinary rights to the Congo at the Berlin Conference of 1884–5, attended by fourteen nations, which triggered the famous ‘Scramble for Africa’ by European states and resulted in Britain, France, Portugal and Germany becoming masters of most of the continent. In 1870 only 10 per cent