The Real Cost of Rubber #1


Over the course of history, it has been the actions of the people that shape events, the places that they are in that determine these people’s economic opportunities or handicaps, and those economic opportunities or handicaps that determine who gets power and ownership over places, resources, or populations. This project, exploring the connection of people, places, and power specifically within the European Imperialization of Africa, asks how each of these components allowed an entire population to be taken over and manipulated for their resources.

Key Terms:

Social Darwinism: The belief that natural selection will declare Europeans superior to Africans.

Missionaries: Catholics and protestants that followed explorers to build churches, schools, and medical clinics with the goal to expel the evils of the slave trade and bring religion to an uncivilized group of people.

Usman dan Fodio: West African leader who sought to purify Islam. Many Africans were more willing to help European colonists in order to end his power.

The Berlin Conference: Although no Africans were invited to the conference, it created the policy that a European power has to have government office in an African country before they can lay claim to it.

King Leopold: A wealthy Belgian King who exploited the people of the Congo for rubber, copper and ivory by using ransoms to force labor under brutal conditions for almost no pay.

Ethiopia: One of the few African countries whose king, Menelik II, was able to maintain independence by fighting off the European settlers.

African Resistance: When African people inevitably resisted Europeans scorched farmlands, causing thousands of people to die of starvation.

William Sheppard: A black American missionary who used his skin color to help him establish the first Presbyterian mission far up the Kasai River. Being the first black American missionary, Sheppard paved the way for many other African Americans to embrace the country’s send-them-back policies in order to make a better life for themselves.

Kot aMeeky: King of the Kuba Kingdom, aMeeky threatened to decapitate any person who helped Europeans find his empire.

King Bope Mekabe: The identity of whom the Bakuba people claimed Sheppard was a reincarnated spirit.

The Rubber Boom: After Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber, the Congo was quickly turned into a goldmine. While extracting this resource Europeans, especially Belgians, developed very unethical methods of collecting the rubber since nobody wanted such a physically exhausting job.

The 1897 Brussels World Fair Exhibit: 267 people from the Congo were brought to Europe to act as an exhibit of Belgium’s gift of civilization to the barbaric African people. This was the most popular exhibit at the fair.

Right Hands: Europeans sent to control the rubber-harvesters in the Congo would be instructed to cut off the right hand of any man that they killed to ensure ammunition was not being “wasted” on activities like hunting. The hands were used to intimidate the workers as well as to track the merits of the soldiers.

Enduring Understandings:

1). People’s perceptions of events are largely influenced by the things that those in power choose to tell them instead of the realities that are actually happening.

  • Everyone who went to the world fair to see Belgium’s Congo exhibit was impressed at how they brought civilization to such barbaric people, when in reality all they brought was death, rape, and starvation. (King Leopold’s Ghost, p. 176)
  • People knew nothing of the horrors happening in the Congo–only what their king told them. (King Leopold’s Ghost p.173)

2). When it comes down to extreme situations of hardship or greed, people stop thinking in terms of what is good for their fellow man and instead begin to hyperfocus on themselves or those close to them.

  • People would collect as many hands as possible–meaning that they’d kill as many people as possible– in order to gain merit and opportunity for themselves. (King Leopold’s Ghost, p.164)
  • Men who were forced to harvest rubber eventually began wars and violent revolts because they could not endure their situations any longer. (king Leopold’s Ghost, P.173)


The European imperialism of Africa can be summarized within the categories of people, places, and power because it was the greed and hardship of the people that was enacted by those in power who targeted certain areas of the world for their much-desired natural resources as well as their incapability to defend themselves. Not only were the African people who were forced to be workers during the rubber boom victims to the power Europeans held over them, but their families were as well (King Leopold’s Ghost, p. 159). Women were raped and starved for the sake of leverage, and it gave the Europeans an unbreakable power over the African villagers (King Leopold’s Ghost, p.162). Contrary to popular belief at the time, it was not the African’s skintone or “barbaric” nature that made them subject to other people’s control, but instead it was merely their location. Living in a place rich with natural resources yet not close enough to Europe to benefit from major inventions and advancements like the Maxim gun, the people of the Congo (as well as the rest of Africa) were made into victims of foreign exploitation (American History: Pathways to the Present, p.322).


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