In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Belgian Colonial Rule

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Historiography
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Precolonial Period
  • Decolonization and Independence

African Studies Belgian Colonial Rule
Matthew G. Stanard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0107


Central Africa’s long history witnessed growing connections to the wider world as a result of the Atlantic slave trade and then increasing activity by East African Swahili traders and Europeans in the 1800s. Strictly speaking, the official period of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo began in 1908 and lasted until 1960, when the Congo achieved its independence. But Belgian involvement began earlier. In 1885, the United States and European states—including Belgium—recognized King Leopold II of Belgium as the sovereign of a huge state roughly contiguous with the Congo River basin called the État Indépendant du Congo, or the EIC. (Leopold II’s colony is generally called the Congo Free State in English. One sees the French term État Libre du Congo and the Dutch terms Onafhankelijke Staat Congo and Onafhankelijke Kongostaat much less frequently.) Although Leopold’s rule (1885–1908) was in many ways an international endeavor, it became increasingly Belgian over time, as the white colonial population became majority Belgian. African populations in many areas of the EIC suffered atrocities at the hands of European and African colonial agents because of Leopold II’s approach of extracting natural resources by force. Missionary and other documentation of this suffering prompted a humanitarian campaign, foreign criticism, and finally Belgian reproaches. In an unfolding of events that was anything but inevitable, Leopold ceded his colony to Belgium in 1908, after which Belgium ruled it as a colony known as the Congo Belge (Belgian Congo) until 1960. As with all colonies in Africa (with the exception of quasi-independent Liberia, under heavy US influence), the Belgian Congo was a European creation, and its borders and indeed very existence did not reflect African interests nor native ethnic, linguistic, economic, or other groups. Belgians never completely ruled all of their huge colony, but over time they intensified their administration, enacted reforms, and introduced European medical practices, Christianity, the French language, and much else. After World War I, Belgians gained Ruanda-Urundi, which Belgium governed not as the League of Nations mandate that it was but rather like another colony. In 1960, Congolese realized their independence, creating the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was renamed Zaire during the period 1971–1997. (It is today increasingly common to drop the definite article “the” before “Congo,” as in “Democratic Republic of Congo.” This article generally retains the definite article, reflecting historical nomenclature.) The dividing of what follows into the Congo Free State period, the Belgian Congo period, and the postcolonial period is somewhat arbitrary: even though 1908 and 1960 were milestones, the situation changed primarily in a juridical fashion in those years, and in important ways there was more continuity than change.

General Overviews

Until near the end of the twentieth century, surveys of Belgian colonialism in central Africa clearly centered on Europe and the colonial administration, and scholars acted as if African history began with the arrival of Europeans in the nineteenth century. In the early twenty-first century, one can say that overviews fall into two categories: those centered on Belgium, the colonial administration, and the colonial experience from a European viewpoint, and those focused on central Africa, the Congo, Congo’s peoples, and the variety of ways in which Africans experienced and resisted foreign domination. In the former category is Buelens 2007, which examines colonial companies and colonial finance in great detail A quite different kind of work focused on Belgium is Ewans 2003, a brief article providing a quick overview of Belgium’s overseas expansion, including how it fits into Belgian history and memories. Among Afrocentric works is Africanist Jean-Luc Vellut’s collection of carefully researched and wide-ranging essays in Vellut 2017—they are essential reading. Manning 1998 provides a concise but necessarily broad-ranging history of all of francophone Africa south of the Sahara between 1880 and 1995, including the Belgian Congo. Also among those works focused on Africa is Nzongola-Ntalaja 2002, whose subtitle, “A People’s History,” indicates its deliberate focus on common people. Van Reybrouck 2014 also fits into this latter category, drawing as it does on everyday Africans’ experiences with and memories of the colonial era, drawn from David van Reybrouck’s work as a journalist, historian, and traveler in Africa. Early academic histories of Belgian imperialism, as opposed to popular or nostalgic works, were written mainly by non-Belgians, such as Slade 1962 (cited under Congo Free State Period) and Anstey 1966 (cited under Belgian State Rule Period). Generational change, additional archival resources becoming available, and the appearance of Hochschild 1998 (cited under Red Rubber) have led to a growth in history writing among Belgians and Congolese, among others. This has resulted in such fine syntheses as Vanthemsche 2012 and Ndaywel è Nziem 2012, both of which advance our knowledge and show us that more work needs to be done. Recent history writing and generational change also contributed to Goddeeris, et al. 2024, a state-of-the-art work drawing together a plethora of expertise. In addition to the overviews listed here, see others in the Precolonial Period, Congo Free State Period, and Belgian State Rule Period sections.

  • Buelens, Frans. Congo 1885–1960: Een financieel-economische geschiedenis. Berchem, Belgium: EPO, 2007.

    Buelen’s encyclopedic history of the Congo during the colonial period focuses on the metropole’s finances and the colonial economy, including colonial companies. It constitutes a massive resource for further research. It is less valuable as a narrative or analytical history of colonial finance, political economy, or administration.

  • Ewans, Martin. “Belgium and the Colonial Experience.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 11.2 (2003): 167–180.

    DOI: 10.1080/1460846032000164609

    This short journal article serves as a quick introduction to Belgium and empire, including Belgians’ “amnesia” regarding their contentious colonial past.

  • Goddeeris, Idesbald, Amandine Lauro, and Guy Vanthemsche, eds. Colonial Congo: A History in Questions. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2024.

    A cutting-edge examination of the Congo’s and Belgium’s intertwined histories. Each chapter centers on a crucial question such as whether there was less violence in the colony after the Leopoldian era or whether colonial agriculture was a success story.

  • Manning, Patrick. Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, 1880–1995. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Although this revised edition suffers from a surprisingly large number of typographical errors, it is an extremely useful overview from an Africanist perspective. It is somewhat unusual to find historical treatment of the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo placed in the larger context of francophone sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Ndaywel è Nziem, Isidore. Nouvelle Histoire du Congo: Des origines à la République démocratique. Brussels: Le Cri, 2012.

    This new history of the Congo from its origins to the Democratic Republic is the latest issuing of Ndaywel’s Histoire générale du Congo (Paris: De Boeck, 1998), a monumental narrative and analytical history of Congo, the first such work written by a Congolese scholar. To be read with Vellut 1999 (cited under Historiography).

  • Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History. London: Zed Books, 2002.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350223004

    Nzongola-Ntalaja is a renowned Congolese scholar. This ambitious volume covers Congo’s history from the advent of European rule to the end of the twentieth century in fewer than three hundred pages. It is strongest on the post-1960 period. Appropriate for undergraduates.

  • van Reybrouck, David. Congo: The Epic History of a People. Translated by Sam Garrett. New York: Ecco, 2014.

    Bestselling history of the Congo from the late 1800s onward, written by man of letters van Reybrouck and based on his travels and numerous interviews. It dispatches with the precolonial and Leopoldian periods before delving into the colonial and the postcolonial eras.

  • Vanthemsche, Guy. Belgium and the Congo, 1885–1980. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139043038

    Vanthemsche sets the standard in an impeccably researched volume on the Congo’s effects or “imprints” on Belgium’s domestic politics (limited), foreign affairs (allowed Belgium to “punch above its weight”), and economy (slight, except in certain sectors). The costs-and- benefits analysis goes beyond the more limited scope of Stengers 1957 (cited under Congo Free State Period).

  • Vellut, Jean-Luc. Congo: Ambitions et désenchantements 1880–1960. Paris: Karthala, 2017.

    With contributions from Anne Cornet, Patricia van Schuylenbergh, and Guy Vanthemsche, makes available several of this influential scholar’s most important essays on central Africa and Belgian colonialism, most of them previously published elsewhere. Mainly chronological but wide-ranging. Subjects include warfare in central Africa, artwork, Belgium’s “colonial bloc,” Kimbanguism, the death penalty, resistance, and the colonial image of “the white.” Essential reading.

  • Vellut, Jean-Luc, ed. La mémoire du Congo: Le temps colonial. Tervuren, Belgium: Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, 2005.

    Some unjustly criticized this book on memory and the colonial era (and the Royal Museum for Central Africa exhibition from which it emerged) as an apologia for empire. Instead, it shows colonialism as an episode, albeit a violent one, in Africa’s long history. Contributors include an astonishing range of experts.

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