Leopold II of Belgium

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Leopold II
Leopold ii garter knight.jpg
King of the Belgians
Reign 17 December 1865 – 17 December 1909
Predecessor Leopold I
Successor Albert I
Sovereign of the Congo Free State
Reign July 1, 1885 - November 15, 1908
Spouse Marie Henriette of Austria
Issue Princess Louise of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Prince Leopold, Duke of Brabant
Stéphanie, Crown Princess of Austria
Clémentine, Princess Napoléon
Full name
Dutch: Leopold Lodewijk Filips Maria Victor
French: Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor
House House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Father Leopold I of Belgium
Mother Louise of Orléans
Born (1835-04-09)9 April 1835
Brussels, Belgium
Died 17 December 1909(1909-12-17) (aged 74)
Laeken, Belgium
Burial Church of Our Lady of Laeken
Religion Roman Catholic

Leopold II (9 April 1835 – 17 December 1909) was the second King of the Belgians, and is chiefly remembered for the founding and exploitation of the Congo Free State. Born in Brussels the second (but eldest surviving) son of Leopold I and Louise of Orléans, he succeeded his father to the throne on 17 December 1865, reigning for 44 years until his death, the longest of any Belgian monarch.

Leopold was the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken on his own behalf. He used Henry Morton Stanley to help him lay claim to the Congo, an area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, the colonial nations of Europe committed the Congo Free State to improving the lives of the native inhabitants. From the beginning, however, Leopold essentially ignored these conditions and ran the Congo using a mercenary force for his personal gain. Some of the money from this exploitation was used for public and private construction projects in Belgium during this period.

Leopold extracted a fortune from the Congo, initially by the collection of ivory, and after a rise in the price of rubber in the 1890s, by forcing the population to collect sap from rubber plants. Villages were required to meet quotas on rubber collections, and individuals' hands were cut off if they did not meet the requirements. His regime was responsible for the death of an estimated 2 to 15 million Congolese. This became one of the most infamous international scandals of the early 20th century, and Leopold was ultimately forced to relinquish control of it to the Belgian government.

Personal life[edit]

Leopold in 1844

Leopold was born in Brussels on 9 April 1835. He was the second child of the reigning Belgian monarch, Leopold I, and his second wife, Louise, the daughter of King Louis Philippe of France. The French Revolution of 1848, which spared Belgium, forced Louis Philippe to flee to the United Kingdom, ruled by Leopold's German cousin Queen Victoria. The royal families of Belgium and the United Kingdom were linked by numerous marriages, and were additionally both descended from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Louis Philippe died two years later, in 1850. Leopold's fragile mother was deeply affected by the death of her father, and her health deteriorated. She died that same year, when Leopold was 15 years old.

Three years later, in 1853, he married Marie Henriette of Austria in Brussels on August 22. Marie Henriette was a cousin of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, and granddaughter of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor through her father, Austrian archduke Joseph. Marie Henriette was lively and energetic, and endeared herself to the people by her elevated character and indefatigable benevolence, while her beauty gained for her the sobriquet of "The Rose of Brabant".[1] She was also an accomplished artist and musician, and a fine horsewoman, passionate about horseback riding to the point that she would care for her horses personally. Some joked about this "marriage of a stableman and a nun",[2] the shy and withdrawn Leopold being the nun.

Four children were born of this marriage, three daughters and one son, also named Leopold. The younger Leopold died in 1869 from pneumonia after falling into a pond at only 9 years old. His death was a source of great sorrow for King Leopold, who thereby lost his only heir. The marriage had become unhappy and the couple lived more or less separate lives, and the couple separated completely after a last attempt to have another son, which, however, resulted in their daughter Clementine. In 1895 Marie Henriette retreated to Spa to live out the remainder of her days, and she died there in 1902.[3]

A political cartoon pillorying Leopold's affair with Caroline Lacroix.
The Abbot: Oh! Sire, at your age?
The King: You should try it yourself!

Leopold had many mistresses. In 1899, at age 65, Leopold took Caroline Lacroix, a 16 year old French prostitute, as a mistress, and they remained together until his death. Leopold lavished upon her large sums of money, estates, gifts, and a noble title, Baroness Vaughan. Because of these presents and the illegitimacy of their relationship, Caroline was deeply unpopular among the Belgian people and internationally. She and Leopold married secretly in a religious ceremony five days before his death, though their failure to perform a civil ceremony rendered the marriage invalid under Belgian law. After the king's death, it was soon discovered that he had left Caroline a massive amount of wealth, which the Belgian government and Leopold's three estranged daughters attempted to seize as rightfully theirs. Caroline bore two illegitimate sons that were likely Leopold's; the boys would have had a strong claim to the throne had the marriage been valid.

Early political career[edit]

Leopold as a younger man

As Leopold's older brother, also named Louis Philippe, had died the year before Leopold's birth, Leopold was heir to the throne from the moment he was born. When he was 9 years old, Leopold received the title of Duke of Brabant, and was appointed a sub-lieutenant in the army. He served in the army until his accession, by which time he had reached the rank of lieutenant-general.[1] Leopold's public career began on his attaining the age of majority in 1855, when he became a member of the Belgian Senate. He took a lively interest in the Senate especially in matters concerning the development of Belgium and its trade, and began to urge Belgium's acquisition of colonies.

Between the years 1854 and 1865 Leopold travelled abroad, visiting India and China as well as Egypt and the countries on the Mediterranean coast of Africa. Leopold's father died on December 10, 1865, and Leopold took the oath of office on December 17.[3]

Domestic reign[edit]

Leopold II at his accession to the throne

In 1865 Leopold became king. Leopold explained his goal for his reign in an 1888 letter addressed to his brother, Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders: "the country must be strong, prosperous, therefore have colonies of her own, beautiful and calm."[4]

Leopold's reign was marked by a number of major political developments. The Liberals governed Belgium from 1857 to 1880 and during their final year in power legislated the Frère-Orban Law of 1879. This law created free, secular, compulsory primary schools supported by the state and withdrew all state support from Roman Catholic primary schools. In 1880 the Catholic Party obtained a parliamentary majority and 4 years later restored state support to Catholic schools. In 1885 various socialist and social democratic groups drew together and formed the Labour Party. Increasing social unrest and the rise of the Labour Party forced the adoption of universal male suffrage in 1893.

Leopold's reign also saw a number of social changes enacted into law. Among these were the right to form labour unions and the abolition of the livret d'ouvrier, an employment record book. Laws against child labour were passed; children younger than 12 were not allowed to work in factories, children younger than 16 were not allowed to work at night, and women younger than 21 years old were not allowed to work underground. Workers gained the right to be compensated for workplace accidents, and were given Sundays off.

The first revision of the Belgian constitution came in 1893 under Leopold's reign. Universal male suffrage was introduced, though the effect of this was tempered by plural voting. The eligibility requirements for the senate were reduced, and elections would be based on a system of proportional representation, which continues to this day. Leopold pushed heavily for a power of royal referendum, whereby the king would have the power to consult the electorate directly on an issue, and use his veto according to the results of the referendum. The proposal was rejected as it would have given the king the power to override the elected government, and the rejection caused Leopold such disappointment that he considered abdication.[5]

Leopold emphasized military defence as the basis of neutrality, and strove to make Belgium less vulnerable militarily. He achieved the construction of defensive fortresses at Liège, at Namur and at Antwerp. During the Franco-Prussian War, he managed to preserve Belgium's neutrality in a period of unusual difficulty and danger.[1] Leopold pushed for a reform in military service, but he was unable to obtain one until he was on his death bed. Under the old system of Remplacement, the Belgian army was a combination of volunteers and a lottery, and it was possible to pay your way out of service. This was replaced by a system where one son in every family would have to serve in the military.

Builder King[edit]

The triumphal arch of the Cinquantenaire complex in Brussels

Leopold commissioned a great number of buildings, urban projects and public works, largely with the profits from the Congo. These projects earned him the epithet of "Builder King" (Koning-Bouwer in Dutch, le Roi-Bâtisseur in French). The public buildings were mainly in Brussels, Ostend and Antwerp, and include the Hippodrome Wellington racetrack, the Royal Galleries and Maria Hendrikapark in Ostend; the Royal Museum for Central Africa and its surrounding park in Tervuren; the Cinquantenaire park, triumphal arch and complex and the Duden Park in Brussels, and the 1895-1905 Antwerpen-Centraal railway station.

In addition to his public works, he acquired and built numerous private properties for himself inside and outside of Belgium. He expanded the grounds of the Royal Palace of Laeken, and built the Royal Greenhouses, the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion near the palace. In the Ardennes, his domains consisted of 6,700 hectares (17,000 acres) of forests and agricultural lands, a golf course and the châteaux of Ciergnon, Fenffe, Villers-sur-Lesse and Ferage. He also built important country estates on the French Riviera, including the Villa des Cèdres and its botanical garden, and the Villa Leopolda.

Thinking to the future after his death, Leopold did not want the collection of estates, lands and heritage buildings he had privately amassed to be scattered amongst his daughters, each of which was married to a foreign prince. In 1900, he created the Royal Trust, by means of which he donated most of his property to the Belgian nation. This preserved them to beautify Belgium in perpetuity, while still allowing future generations of the Belgian Royal family the privilege of their use.

Attempted assassination[edit]

On 15 November 1902, Italian anarchist Gennaro Rubino had attempted to assassinate Leopold, who was riding in a royal cortege from a ceremony in memory of his recently deceased wife, Marie Henriette. After Leopold's carriage passed, Rubino fired three shots at the King; the shots missed Leopold. Rubino was immediately arrested.

Congo Free State[edit]

Obtaining the Congo Free State[edit]

Further information: Congo Free State
Monument in Arlon (Belgium)."I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilisation and for the good of Belgium."

Leopold fervently believed that overseas colonies were the key to a country's greatness, and he worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium. Leopold eventually began to acquire a colony in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen. The Belgian government lent him money for this venture.

In 1866, Leopold instructed the Belgian ambassador in Madrid to speak to Queen Isabella II of Spain about ceding the Philippines to Belgium. However, knowing the situation fully, the ambassador did nothing. Leopold quickly replaced the ambassador with a more sympathetic individual to carry out his plan.[6]

In 1868, when Isabella II was deposed as Queen of Spain, Leopold attempted to take advantage of his original plan to acquire the Philippines. But without funds, he was unsuccessful. Leopold then devised another unsuccessful plan to establish the Philippines as an independent state, which could then be ruled by a Belgian. When both of these plans failed, Leopold shifted his aspirations of colonization to Africa.[6]

After numerous unsuccessful schemes to acquire colonies in Africa and Asia, in 1876 Leopold organized a private holding company disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association, which he called the International African Society, or the International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of the Congo. In 1878, under the auspices of the holding company, he hired the famous explorer Henry Stanley to explore and establish a colony in the Congo region.[7] Much diplomatic maneuvering resulted in the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 regarding African affairs, at which representatives of fourteen European countries and the United States recognized Leopold as sovereign of most of the area to which he and Stanley had laid claim. On 5 February 1885, the Congo Free State, an area 76 times larger than Belgium, was established under Leopold II's personal rule and private army, the Force Publique.

Exploitation and atrocities[edit]

A child victim of Belgian atrocities in Congo stands with a missionary (probably Mr Wallbaum), Congo, ca. 1890-1910
Map of the Belgian Congo (1884)

Leopold then amassed a huge personal fortune by exploiting the Congo. The first economic focus of the colony was ivory, but this did not yield the expected levels of revenue. When the global demand for rubber exploded, attention shifted to the labor-intensive collection of sap from rubber plants. Abandoning the promises of the Berlin Conference in the late 1890s, the Free State government restricted foreign access and extorted forced labor from the natives. Abuses, especially in the rubber industry, included the effective enslavement of the native population, beatings, widespread killing, and frequent mutilation when the production quotas were not met. Missionary John Harris of Baringa, for example, was so shocked by what he had come across that he wrote to Leopold's chief agent in the Congo saying: "I have just returned from a journey inland to the village of Insongo Mboyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people's stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit."[8] Estimates of the death toll range from two million to fifteen million,[9][10][11] since accurate records were not kept. Historians Louis and Stengers state that population figures at the start of Leopold's control are only "wild guesses", and that attempts by E. D. Morel and others to determine a figure for the loss of population were "but figments of the imagination".[12]

Adam Hochschild, however, devotes a chapter of his book King Leopold's Ghost to the problem of estimating the death toll. He cites several recent lines of investigation, by anthropologist Jan Vansina and others, that examine local sources (police records, religious records, oral traditions, genealogies, personal diaries, and "many others"), which generally agree with the assessment of the 1919 Belgian government commission: roughly half the population perished during the Free State period. Since the first official census by the Belgian authorities in 1924 put the population at about 10 million, that implies a rough estimate of 10 million dead.[13]

Smallpox and sleeping sickness also devastated the disrupted population.[14] By 1896 the sleeping sickness had killed up to 5,000 Africans in the village of Lukolela on the Congo River. The mortality statistics were collected through the efforts of Roger Casement, who found, for example, only 600 survivors of the disease in Lukolela in 1903.[15]

Criticism of his rule[edit]

Reports of outrageous exploitation and widespread human rights abuses led in the early 1900s to international outcry and a widespread war of words. The campaign to examine Leopold's regime, led by British diplomat Roger Casement and former shipping clerk E. D. Morel under the auspices of the Congo Reform Association, became the first mass human rights movement.[8] Supporters included American writer Mark Twain, who wrote a stinging political satire entitled King Leopold's Soliloquy, in which the King supposedly argues that bringing Christianity to the country outweighs a little starvation, using many of Leopold's own quotes against him.[16]

Arthur Conan Doyle also criticised the 'rubber regime' in his 1908 work The Crime of the Congo, written to aid the work of the Congo Reform Association. Doyle contrasted Leopold's rule to the British rule of Nigeria, arguing that decency required those who ruled primitive peoples to be concerned first with their uplift, not how much could be extracted from them. It should be noted that, as Hochschild describes in King Leopold's Ghost, many of Leopold's policies were adopted from Dutch practices in the East Indies, and similar methods were employed to some degree by Germany, France and Portugal where natural rubber occurred in their colonies.

Relinquishment of the Congo[edit]

Criticism from both the Catholic Party and the Labor Party caused the Belgian parliament to compel the King to cede the Congo Free State to Belgium in 1908.[citation needed] The Congo Free State was transformed into a Belgian colony known as the Belgian Congo under parliamentary control. It later became, successively, the Republic of the Congo, Zaire (under Mobutu Sese Seko), and currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC (not to be confused with the Republic of the Congo, formerly a colony of France).

Death and legacy[edit]

Leopold II's funeral procession passes the Royal Palace of Brussels, December 22, 1909

On 17 December 1909, Leopold II died at Laeken, and the Belgian crown passed to Albert, the son of Leopold's brother, Philip, Count of Flanders. His reign of 44 years remains the longest in Belgian history. He was interred in the royal vault at the Church of Our Lady of Laeken in Brussels. By the end of his reign, he was unpopular, and his funeral procession was booed.

After the king's death and transfer of his private colony to Belgium, there occurred, as Adam Hochschild puts it in King Leopold's Ghost, a "Great Forgetting". Many Belgians in the 20th and 21st centuries remember Leopold II as the "Builder King" for his extensive public works projects and many remain unaware of the atrocities in Africa for which he was responsible. Hochschild records that, on his visit to the colonial Royal Museum for Central Africa in the 1990s, there was no mention of the atrocities committed in the Congo Free State, despite the museum's large collection of colonial objects. Another example of this "Great Forgetting" may be found on the boardwalk of Blankenberge, a popular coastal resort, where a monument shows a pair of colonialists as heroes protecting a desperate Congolese woman and child with "civilization".[17] The beach at Ostend has a 1931 sculptural monument to Leopold II, showing Leopold and grateful Ostend fishermen and Congolese. The inscription accompanying the Congolese group mentions The gratitude of the Congolese to Leopold II for having liberated them from slavery under the Arabs. In 2004, an activist group cut off the hand of the leftmost Congolese bronze figure, in protest against the atrocities committed in the Congo. The city council decided to keep the statue in its new form, without the hand.[18][19]

In 1900, Leopold created the Royal Trust, by means of which he donated most of his property to the Belgian nation.

Leopold II remains a controversial figure in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His statue in the capital, Kinshasa, was removed after independence. Congolese culture minister Christoph Muzungu decided to reinstate the statue in 2005, pointing out the sense of liberating progress that had marked the beginning of the Free State and arguing that people should see the positive aspects of the king as well as the negative; but just hours after the six-metre (20 ft) statue was erected in the middle of a roundabout near Kinshasa's central station, it was taken down again by the same workers that had erected it.[20] Although the reasons for its removal remain unclear, it was possibly due to the threats of rioting by the locals. The Congo continues, however, to use a variation of the Free State flag, which it adopted after dropping the name and flag of Zaire.


Leopold and Marie Henriette

Leopold's sister became the Empress Carlota of Mexico, and his first cousins included both Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and her husband Prince Albert, as well as King Fernando II of Portugal.

He had four children with Queen Marie-Henriette, of whom the youngest two have descendants living as of 2014:

Leopold also fathered two illegitimate sons by Caroline Lacroix, later adopted in 1910 by Lacroix's second husband, Antoine Durrieux.[21] Leopold granted them courtesy titles that were purely honorary as they were not backed up by any official act or decree:

  • Lucien Philippe Marie Antoine (9 February 1906 – 1984), duke of Tervuren[21]
  • Philippe Henri Marie François (16 October 1907 – 21 August 1914), count of Ravenstein[21]

Styles, arms and honours[edit]

Royal styles of
Leopold II of Belgium
Coat of Arms of the King of the Belgians (1837-1921).svg
Reference style His Majesty
Spoken style Your Majesty
Alternative style Sire

Leopold was the Grand master of the Order of Leopold, the Order of the Crown, the Order of Leopold II, the Royal Order of the Lion, and the Order of the African Star.

Lesser coat of arms 
Greater coat of arms as King of the Belgians 
Greater coat of arms as Sovereign of the Congo Free State 
Royal monogram 



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Leopold II". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  2. ^ (French) « mariage d'un palefrenier et d'une religieuse »
  3. ^ a b "Leopold II". The Belgian Monarchy. Retrieved December 4, 2013. 
  4. ^ (French) « la patrie doit être forte, prospère, par conséquent posséder des débouchés à elle, belle et calme. » The King to the Count of Flanders, January 26, 1888; The Count of Flanders's papers.
  5. ^ (French) Jean Stengers, L'action du Roi en Belgique depuis 1831- Pouvoir et influence, 3 ed., Racine, Brussels, 2008, pp. 123-124
  6. ^ a b Ocampo, Ambeth (2009). Looking Back. Anvil Publishing. pp. 54–57. ISBN 978-971-27-2336-0. 
  7. ^ Hochschild, Adam: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Mariner Books, 1998. p. 62. ISBN 0-330-49233-0.
  8. ^ a b Dummett, Mark (24 February 2004). "King Leopold's legacy of DR Congo violence". BBC. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  9. ^ The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration and Exploitation of the World's Most Dramatic Rivers," Harper & Row, (1977). ISBN Forbath, Peter, p. 278.
  10. ^ Fredric Wertham A Sign For Cain: An Exploration of Human Violence (1968), Adam Hochschild King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998; new edition, 2006).
  11. ^ "War statistics". 
  12. ^ Wm. Roger Louis and Jean Stengers: E.D. Morel's History of the Congo Reform Movement, pp. 252–7.
  13. ^ Hochschild, Adam: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Mariner Books, 1998. p. 225-233 ISBN 0-330-49233-0.
  14. ^ "The 'Leopold II' concession system exported to French Congo with as example the Mpoko Company" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-12-02. 
  15. ^ "Le rapport Casement annoté par A. Schorochoff" (PDF). Posted at the website for the Royal Union for Overseas Colonies, http://www.urome.be. 
  16. ^ "Time". 16 May 1955. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  17. ^ (Dutch) Monument to De Bruyne and Lippens
  18. ^ Pieter De Vos. "Sikitiko" (in Dutch). Retrieved 2012-08-13. "De dank der Congolezen aan Leopold II om hen te hebben bevrijd van de slavernij onder de Arabieren (1:10)" 
  19. ^ "Leopold II krijgt zijn hand terug als Oostende zwicht" [Oostende herstelt afgehakte hand van Leopold II niet] (in Dutch). 2004-06-22. Retrieved 2012-08-13. 
  20. ^ Vasagar, Jeevan (4 February 2005). "Leopold reigns for a day in Kinshasa". The Guardian. 
  21. ^ a b c "Le Petit Gotha"


External links[edit]

Leopold II of Belgium
Cadet branch of the House of Wettin
Born: 9 April 1835 Died: 17 December 1909
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Leopold I
King of the Belgians
Succeeded by
Albert I
Belgian royalty
New title Duke of Brabant
Succeeded by