Text AThe Belgian Empire
(1) In 1884 and 1885, Leopold II, king of the Belgians, finally realized one of his manyexpansionist dreams: the great powers had recognized the existence of the Congo FreeState. This was an enormous domain in Central Africa created by his obsessive quest for a lucrative colony. Belgium itself had no official links with this atypical colony, over which Leopold II ruled as an absolute monarch for the next twenty-three years. But in1908, after severe international criticism of the inhumane treatment of the native population, the Belgian State took over Leopold’s Free State, and the Congo remained aBelgian colony until 1960.
(2) The recognition of the Congo Free State by the foreign powers coincided with theBerlin Conference (1884–1885), which determined the international attitude towards the breaking up of Africa. The Berlin Act introduced, among other dispositions, aninternational regulation for the so-called “Conventional Congo Basin.” This vast region,which included not only the recently founded Congo Free State but also large parts of theneighboring colonies, was declared a free-trade zone. Internal navigation was entirelyfree, any form of differential treatment of trading nations was prohibited, and no importor transit duties could be levied. At the request of the Congo Free State, which struggledwith huge budgetary deficits, the last provision was altered some years later. Indeed,during the 1890 international conference held in Brussels, it was agreed that an importtax of no more than 10 percent could be levied, provided no country was discriminatedagainst.(3) After World War I the Convention of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1919) replaced theBerlin Act. This new regulation maintained the essential provisions regarding free tradein the Congo Basin, but abolished the 10 percent limit on import taxes. Discriminatorytreatment of any country was still explicitly prohibited. As with the Berlin and BrusselsActs, the 1919 Convention did not regulate export duties. Thus, during the seventy-fiveyears of colonial rule (1885–1960) Congolese trade was characterized, at least in theory, by a genuine open-door policy. Belgium was not allowed to favor its own commercial or industrial interests.
(4) Nevertheless, during the free-state period the provisions of the Berlin Act were notscrupulously applied. In practice, free trade was curtailed by the king’s economic policy,which was designed to secure maximum revenue for the state’s treasury and for theking’s own private Congolese possessions. The monopolization of vast stretches of land—indeed, of the richest areas—by the Congo Free State, by some private companies,or by Leopold himself,
impeded the development of free enterprise and freetrade. As an astute observer humorously remarked, Congolese trade policy under Leopold