The Real Cost of Rubber #2


This updated version of the project contains primary source evidence to further enrich and focus the main ideas behind my study of the European Imperialization of Africa. Through reading primary source accounts of this event, it was clear what key terms and ideas are more relevant than others and what different perspectives could be taken of the same situation.


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.

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. Despite this, Leopold claimed to be totally ignorant of the cruelties occurring in the Congo and he claimed not to be profiting at all from this new Belgian state.

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.

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.

Heavy Head Tax: A tax making it so that all able-bodied men were forced to move to work areas like plantations, mines, railways, ports, or white residential districts.

Force Publique: The force responsible for looting villages and taking hostages when they didn’t think people were working hard enough.

Leopold’s Secret Trust: After claiming that he did not profit from the exploitation of congo in any way, a secret German bank account was discovered in Leopold’s name containing 1.8 million francs.


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)
  • People believed Leopold’s claims that the Belgians would not even think of mistreating the blacks because “no state prospers unless the population is happy and increasing.” (Interview with Leopold II, quoted in Publishers’ Press 1906)
  • People believed that Leopold had not invested a single cent in the success of the Congo. (Interview with Leopold II, quoted in Publishers’ Press 1906)

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)

    Mutilated Victims Twain 1905: 40

    (Mutilated Victims Twain 1905: 40)

  • 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)
  • Leopold’s personal greed far outweighed his morality

    (Political cartoon showing King Leopold. Twain 1905: 29)

    (Political cartoon showing King Leopold. Twain 1905: 29)

  • “Leopold was, by any standards, a monster – a man of immense ability, but one who was wholly devoid of principle and prepared to lie, cheat and deceive on a grand scale in order to achieve his ends.” (Ewans 2002: 2)

3). Looking back on situations always yields a different point-of-view than people were able to achieve while an event was occurring around them.

  • It wasn’t until much later that Leopold, who claimed a complete lack of financial interest in Congo, was found to have a bank account containing 1.8 million francs of profit from his investments in the state. (Reader 1998: 542)
  • The people of the Congo would not have been able to understand the world was demanding so much rubber.
    Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 10.31.48 PM
  • The people of the Congo would not have understood why hands were becoming so in-demand that they were cut off of living people and even used as currency. (Gondola 2002: 68)
  • What everyone in Europe believed to be a new Belgian state was more accurately one massive trading company that grossly exploited it’s workers. (Daniels 1908: 893)



The overpowering and debilitating hold that Leopold held over the people of the Congo can blatently be seen through this cartoon by the way that the rubber, bearing the head of the kind, is attacking and defeating the helpless man.

The overpowering and debilitating hold that Leopold held over the people of the Congo can blatently be seen through this cartoon by the way that the rubber, bearing the head of the kind, is attacking and defeating the helpless man. (Stifled by Coils of Rubber, Linley Sambourne, in Punch 1906).

To experience the European Imperialization of Africa as a citizen of the Congo would have been terrifying, suffocating, and utterly dehumanizing. After being threatened into working by means of having family members taken as hostages, any able-bodied men would have no choice but to break their backs harvesting enough rubber to meet their quotas (Gondola 2002:68). On average, every twenty days a man worked at this undesirable trade would solely go towards paying the rubber tax required by the newly established Belgian government (Ascherson 1999: 252). With these shocking statistics, it is no surprise that poverty and starvation swept across the Congo, making a bad situation get even worse. (Gondola 2002: 67). But, juggling the endless prospect of hard labor, the separation from and inability to protect loved ones, and the starvation that came shortly after the farmers abandoned their crops for rubber seemed to be the least of people’s concerns when the soldiers were taken into consideration. Whenever a town failed to meet it’s rubber quota, troops were sent to spread terror by killing as many people and burning as many buildings as possible (Russell 1934: 453). People could be beaten, raped, killed, or, not uncommonly, subjected to having their right hands cut off for what could seem like absolutely no reason (Simmons 1963: 12). As time wore on, rubber just got more and more popular across Europe and the United States, leaving no hope for those in the Congo who were desperate to push through these unlivable conditions (Gondola 2002: 66).




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