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«1. INTRODUCTION In the Belle Époque, colonial thought took new forms, and a second wave of European colonisation swept over Africa. King Leopold II ...»

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The king's most eloquent campaigner...

Emile de Laveleye, Leopold II and the creation of the Congo

Free State


___________________________________________FRFC Researcher – University of Liège


In the Belle Époque, colonial thought took new forms, and a second wave of

European colonisation swept over Africa. King Leopold II of Belgium (1835r. 1865-1909) became active in Congo in 1876. His ambition to develop a so-called "philanthropic" project materialised in a process of state formation, but this was overshadowed by intrigues and tensions resulting from the territorial race between Western powers and Leopold's own men in the field. Only a decade after this race began, at the Berlin Congress in 1884was a final settlement adopted in the form of the Congo Free State, of which the king of the Belgians became the almost unassailable sovereign.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century tensions between liberal and conservative forms of government influenced intellectual life everywhere in Europe and gave rise to strong debate between advocates of free trade and supporters of colonialism. The old idea that Leopold II was an isolated thinker and doer who earned himself a place among the powers that took Africa entirely by his own efforts has been refuted by a new generation of historians. Vincent Viaene (2008) reconstructed in detail the formation and evolution of a Belgian parti colonial that operated next to and sometimes independently of the king. My own research has explained how, in developing his colonial doctrine since the early 1860s, Leopold II was inspired by many intellectuals who wanted to strengthen Belgian trade and industry through a policy of economic expansion outside Europe (Vandersmissen, 2008a; 2009a; 2009b). I have shown how – as a crown prince – Leopold developed an efficient system of information gathering on colonial issues. He methodically constructed a personal set of opinions on how colonies should be organised. His travels to North Africa and the Middle East (Egypt, the

Holy Land, Syria and Cyprus in 1854-1855; Algeria and Egypt in 1862Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jan Vandersmissen:

jan.vandersmissen@ulg.ac.be BTNG | RBHC, XLI, 2011, 1-2, pp. 7-57 1863), the Balkans and Turkey (Romania, Istanbul and Athens in 1860), and Asia (Ceylon, India and China in 1864-1865) actually were systematic study through direct observation. Over the years he improved his interviewing techniques when talking with specialists and highly placed officials who could inform him about political and economic developments in regions with "colonial potential". In Brussels, he built up a documentary network, organised with the help of his secretary Adrien Goffinet (1812-1886) and constantly enriched with new data by a "study circle" of brilliant men such as Henri-Alexis Brialmont (1821-1903) and Jules Lejeune (1828-1911). After his accession to the throne in 1865, Leopold II changed tactics from classic information gathering to a more active manipulation of people and institutions that could help him realise his expansionist dreams. Scholars, politicians, businessmen, journalists, diplomats, learned societies,... – all became entangled in the king's web (Vandersmissen, 2009a). As Hannes Vanhauwaert has shown quite correctly, the king developed a Machiavellian system of influencing, using and misusing a long series of advisors who were crucial for reaching his goals within a given context. Leopold II attracted people to himself and integrated them into his inner circle through use of much flattery, but when they had become useless or disobedient – for example, Emile Banning (1836-1898) in the early 1890s with regard to the situation in Congo – he dropped them instantly and removed them from their privileged positions (Vanhauwaert, 2005).

It has become clear from recent studies that Leopold II always used the capacities of intellectuals in a systematic way. The first time this actually evolved into a series of serious actions was in the early 1870s, when he focused his attention on scholars who were active in the field of economic geography. In 1875, through interaction with the "geographical movement", Leopold's attention shifted from East Asia to Central Africa (Vandersmissen, 2009a). With the International Geographical Conference that took place in Brussels in 1876, the geographical network became a cornerstone of Leopold's colonial construction (see also La Conférence de géographie, 1976). It proved to be an ally for his new venture in many ways. The geographical societies of London, Paris and Berlin offered a platform for the "civilising project" to be realised in Africa by welcoming favourable "humanitarian arguments" in their discussions, lectures and journals. The geographical societies of Antwerp and Brussels, founded shortly after the Conference, were real propaganda machines for the Leopoldian enterprise.

The exercise in diplomatic and political "arm wrestling" between 1876 and 1885 leading to the creation of the Congo Free State has already been investigated at length, in particular under the impulse of Jean Stengers, but [8] J. VANDERSMISSEN historians paid almost no attention to the intellectual networks that weighed on the process of state formation after the Brussels Conference of 1876.2 In this article I analyse an example of such an intellectual network through a case study about the relationship between Leopold II and the Belgian liberalminded political economist Emile de Laveleye (1822-1892), an influential opinion maker who had the ability to disseminate his publications and ideas on an international scale.3 To help him realise his African enterprise, the king sought aid from lawyers and intellectuals active in the field of political economy. I advance the thesis that the king used de Laveleye's sharp pen in his favour and thus had access to de Laveleye's contacts in the world of politics and journalism, as well as to a group of leading thinkers on international law.

De Laveleye and his colleagues joined Leopold II in his reflections about the most suitable political, economic and social structures for the new state under construction in Central Africa. Based on an analysis of publications and records preserved in Ghent4 and Brussels,5 this article tries to answer a set of specific questions. First, what were Emile de Laveleye's ideas about expansionism and colonisation? Second, how and why did Leopold II, de Laveleye and his network of academic friends and colleagues become interrelated? Third, what opinions did the academic network have on the Congolese question? And finally, how did this network leave its mark on the features of the Congo Free State after 1885? The general objective of this article is to offer a better understanding of the Leopoldian system of deploying influential people to implement a sophisticated strategy whose goal was to create a successful overseas possession under the king's personal rule, in the face of potential opposition from other great powers. Furthermore, 2.

Jean Stengers (1922-2002), professor of history at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, collected some important studies in: Le Centenaire de l'État indépendant du Congo. Recueil d'études – Bijdragen over de honderdste verjaring van de Onafhankelijke Kongostaat, Brussels, 1988.


This essay is the result of a comprehensive investigation in preparation of a paper for the

Colloquium "Transcending Boundaries in Europe in the Period of the Belle Époque:

Organising Knowledge, Mobilising Networks, and Effecting Social Change", on 20 and 21 May 2010 at the Mundaneum in Mons, Belgium. My short presentation was entitled "How King Leopold II used Emile de Laveleye's intellectual network for the benefit of his African project". I thank Prof. dr. William Boyd Rayward and Stéphanie Manfroid for organising this inspiring exchange of ideas, as well as Prof. dr. Andrew Fitzmaurice, Associate Professor at the Department of History of Sydney University, for his detailed comments and relevant suggestions with regard to Sir Travers Twiss.


Ghent University, Central Library (GUCL), Ms 3640.


The Archives of the Royal Palace (ARP) in Brussels, especially the Documents about Belgian Expansionism (DBE).

–  –  –

Belgian society disapproved of colonisation projects, certainly in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Economic liberalism was in its heyday. Its concepts were translated in political terms by governments dominated by members of the Liberal Party (Rogier II, 1847-1852; de Brouckère, 1852Rogier III, 1857-1867; Frère-Orban, 1868-1870; Frère-Orban-Van Humbeeck, 1878-1884). These men had a natural aversion to colonisation, which was understood to be a process by which a state gained possession of overseas territories. It generally implied an occupation by emigrants who ruled and exploited the land for the benefit of the "metropolis". Not only politicians but also businessmen based their rejection of colonisation projects on "rational arguments" inspired by the work of economists such as the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), the Englishman John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), or the Belgians Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) and Charles Le Hardy de Beaulieu (1814-1894) (Stengers, 1965). They shared the conviction that economic prosperity on a global scale could only be realised by stimulating free enterprise and limiting government initiative. As JanFrederik Abbeloos (2008, 109) stated in a recent article, "The laissez-faire theory was never put into full political practice, but with regard to the promotion of exports, trade barriers were brought down between 1857 and

1870. Belgium's technological leadership in woollen and iron industries allowed the state to remain one of the less protected European economies throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries".6 The development of Belgian industry in the second half of the nineteenth century created the need to find new outlets for Belgian trade. For many firms, continuing their almost unlimited profit-making became problematic.

Competition was fierce, and poverty among the labourers rose. Commerce had been mainly focussed on markets in neighbouring countries, but now interest grew in launching operations in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in populous regions in Latin America and the Far East. Liberal decisionmakers agreed that – for a country such as Belgium – promoting a more

6. About the abolition of protectionism see also Willequet (1965a; 1965b)

[10] J. VANDERSMISSEN active presence of Belgian firms in foreign markets, breaking down trade monopolies and implementing and consolidating genuine free trade on a global scale were much better instruments to safeguard the future of the country's trade and industry than colonisation. Although it was tempting to consider the emigration of the poorest elements of society, the majority of the Belgian elite shared the view of the economists that colonies were expensive, could lead to military conflicts and were often poorly managed. Attempts to establish colonies of Belgian emigrants overseas – for example, in Guatemala (Santo Tomas) and West Africa (Rio Nuñez) – were rare, and all ended in disaster. Consequently, plans for large-scale state-controlled or state-supported colonisation of overseas territories were not popular in government circles (Everaert & De Wilde, 1992; Ansiaux, 2006; Vandersmissen, 2009a).

Another important argument Belgian politicians used to repudiate any colonial initiative was the fact that Belgium's neutrality status was part of the Constitution and could not be changed in an instant. Nor was it considered wise to change this status. Indeed, Belgium's neutrality was perceived as a guarantee for survival as an independent state. The signatories of the Treaty of London (1831) were obliged to intervene if Belgium were to be attacked or invaded by a foreign power. And the threat of such an attack was not merely theoretical. If Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873, r. 1852-1870) were to execute his deepest desires, a military confrontation with France would be imminent. Colonial projects were a risk because they could lead to confrontations with other countries and, hence, to questions about Belgium's neutrality status (Coolsaet, 1998; Vandersmissen, 2009a).

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