Leopold II was born in 1835 and was king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909. During his reign, and for many years afterward, the Belgian people regarded him as a great humanitarian who spread Christianity to the people of Congo in Central Africa.
In reality, Leopold enslaved the Congolese and forced them to produce rubber for export to Europe. He made a personal fortune from the colony and is responsible for killing more people than Hitler.
Let’s have a look at the top 10 most interesting facts about Leopold II.
Leopold II Facts
1. His father was the first king of Belgium.
When Leopold II was born, Belgium was only five years old. It was a newly independent country formed from areas that had belonged to the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Luxemburg previously. His father, Leopold I, was the first king of Belgium, and they were the first royal family, an interesting fact about Leopold II.
2. Queen Victoria of England was his cousin.
Leopold I and Queen Victoria’s mother were siblings, making Leopold II and Queen Victoria first cousins. His father’s other sister was Charlotte, Empress of Mexico. His mother’s father, i.e., his grandfather, was King Louis Philippe of France, who was forced to flee to England in the French Revolution.
3. Leopold II had an arranged marriage.
When Leopold II was 18 years old, he had an arranged marriage to Marie Henriette of Austria. They had four children. Three girls and a son, also Leopold, who died from pneumonia, aged nine. He also had two sons by his mistress Caroline Lacroix, who he married in a religious ceremony five days before he died. But in terms of Belgian law, the marriage was invalid as they had not performed a civil service. His sons, therefore, did not inherit nor stand to become king.
4. He was known as the “Builder King.”
Another interesting fact about Leopold II is that he commissioned many public works in the major cities of Belgium, which were paid for from the profits of the Congo. They included museums, theatres, gardens, and train stations. This earned him the nickname of the “Builder King” (Koning-Bouwheer in Dutch). He also built many private residences in Belgium and on the French Riviera. Before he died, he put his private properties into a trust for the people of Belgium because he didn’t want them to go to his daughters, who were all married to foreign princes.
5. Leopold II is the only individual to own a colony.
Leopold II’s father very much wanted Belgium to have colonies like the other European powers at the time. Leopold II took up this cause on his father’s death, but he wanted the territory for himself. At the Berlin Conference of 1884, Leopold II got permission to own Congo in his personal capacity by telling his European neighbors that his intention was to spend his personal funds converting the locals to Christianity. He also promised that Europe would have free trade access to the area. He renamed his acquisition the Congo Free State, and it is the only colony ever to be owned by an individual.
6. Congo chiefs were tricked into giving their land to him.
Leopold II employed the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley to acquire the Congo for him. Stanley got the Congolese chiefs to sign treaties giving Leopold II their lands by threatening them and playing tricks on them. One of his tricks was to remove the bullet and gunpowder from a gun and instruct someone to shoot him. He would double over and pull a bullet out from his shoe and pretend that it had gone right through him – “proving” to the chief that White men could not be shot. He would also direct the sun through a magnifying glass to light his cigar to show that he could control the sun.
7. He never visited the Congo himself.
Despite owning the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1909, he never traveled there himself, an interesting fact about Leopold II.
8. He made $1 billion in today’s currency from the Congo.
When Leopold II first acquired the Congo, his interest was mainly in ivory. It was used for many things, including piano keys, false teeth, and jewelry. Then the inflatable bicycle tire was invented, and shortly afterward, the automobile went into large-scale production. The demand for rubber skyrocketed, and Congo had vast wild forests of rubber vines. Leopold’s profits from these enterprises would equal $1 billion in today’s currency.
9. He is responsible for the deaths of 10 million Congolese.
The problem with rubber is that it is very labor-intensive to harvest. Leopold II would have made no profit if he paid his workers. So instead, he ordered that Congolese men be enslaved and ordered to produce a fixed amount of rubber every day. Their families were captured and killed if they failed. Whole villages were burned down to save time clearing land and grow even more vines. Food sources were destroyed, and people starved or died of disease. There were many uprisings, but the participants were also killed. It is estimated that Leopold II’s activities resulted in the population of the Congo being halved. About 10 million people died because of him.
10. He ordered all records to be destroyed.
In 1909 Belgium annexed the Congo Free State under pressure from the international community to end the atrocities that Leopold II was committing. Before handing it over, Leopold II ordered all records of his activities to be destroyed, including the archives of the finance department and the interior department. We will never know the full extent of the crimes he committed, an important fact about Leopold II.
Leopold II of Belgium was instrumental in establishing the young nation of Belgium through his public works and benevolence. But his colony saw a very different side of him. The Congolese people suffered terribly under his reign, and the natural resources of the land were plundered.
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