home / world currency / belgium

(KM 24)
- Brussels Mint

Date: A.D. 1873

Obverse: Portrait head left - LEOPOLD II ROI DES BELGES (leop wiener below bust)

Reverse: Coat of arms within wreath between denomination 5 (left) F (right) with date 1873 below - L'UNION FAIT LA FORCE

Engraver: Leopold Wiener

Portrait of Leopold II, King of the Belgians at the age of 54 by Alexander Bassano, 1889.

Portrait of King Leopold II in old age from the book 'Their majesties as I knew them; personal reminiscences of the kings and queens of Europe' from 1911.

Portrait of Leopold as a child by the German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Leopold as a young man in fancy dress costume.

Photograph of Leopold c. 1860.

Photograph of Leopold c. 1870.

Portrait of Leopold's father Leopold I by the Belgian painter Nicaise De Keyser, 1856.

Portrait of Leopold's mother Louise-Marie of Orléans the daughter of King Louis Philippe I of France by the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865.

Portrait of Leopold's wife, the Queen-Consort Marie Henriette of Austria of the House Habsburg-Lorraine by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, c. 1865.

Picture of Albert I who succeeded Leopold II. He was the son of Prince Philippe, Leopold's brother who was the third (second surviving) son of Leopold I.

Photograph of two members of the Force Publique.

Photograph of Tippu Tip (top) in 1889 and Rumaliza (bottom) in 1900. Tippu Tip was a powerful slave and ivory trader who was of mixed race, part Arab (Oman) with royal blood from the earliest Arab excursions into the African interior and part Bantu and Rumaliza was a brutal slave trader who became the Sultan of Ujiji. Both came into conflict with Belgian forces.

Workers collecting rubber in the Lusambo Forest.

Photograph of a Congolese man with a missing hand and the other mutilated, presumably cut off as punishment.

This is a silver 5 francs coin of Belgium minted in 1875 depicting Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor known as King Leopold II of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The obverse depicts a bearded King Leopold head left with the inscription LEOPOLD II ROI DES BELGES (Leopold II King of the Belgians) with the engravers name LEOP(old) WIENER below. The reverse shows the coat of arms of the monarchs of Belgium which shows the Brabant lion rampant within a shield and the royal crown on top. To either side is the denomination 5 (to the left) and F(rancs) (to the right). This is encircled by a laurel wreath with the date 1873 below. At the top is the motto in French L'UNION FAIT LA FORCE (Unity Makes Strength).

The coat of arms for the Kingdom of Belgium, and the modern state, is based on the symbols used by the short-lived United States of Belgium which existed as an independent polity from January to December 1790. a coin of which can be found on this website HERE. The Duchy of Brabant had taken the lead in what became known as the Brabant Revolution which was an insurrection against Emperor Joseph II, and afterwards dominated the resulting union. Thus the Lion of Brabant (a lion rampant or, armed and langued gules) became a symbol for the federation and remains the major part of the modern coat of arms of Belgium. The motto is also a variation of the Belgian State motto In Unione Salus or "Salvation in Union".

This coin was engraved in 1864 by the sculptor Leopold Wiener. Wiener was from a Jewish family of engravers born on July 02, 1823. His older brother, Jacques Wiener, was a famous medalist who had apprenticed under their uncle L. Baruch, himself a fine engraver. Jacques is known for producing a series of medals of notable buildings and churches in Belgium and engraved the first official Belgian stamps. His younger brother Charles was also an engraver, serving at the Hague as engraver to King William III of Holland, later moving to London where he was assistant engraver at the Royal Mint. He then moved to Lisbon where he served as chief engraver of Portuguese coinage until moving back to Brussels to work with his brother Jacques where the two produced a large number of commemorative medals.

Leopold studied under his older brother Jacques and then became a pupil of David d'Angers in Paris. In 1847 he returned to Belgium and started engraving a series of large historical medals which commemorated contemporary events and became very popular. Also in 1847 Wiener won a public competition looking for designs to replace the image of Leopold I on coinage. This would be his first work done for a national currency. He was appointed chief engraver at the Royal Mint of Belgium in 1864 after the death of Joseph-Pierre (J.P.) Braemt who created the first Belgian coins under the reign of Leopold I. He was responsible for all the currency of Leopold II (about 150 pieces) while he continued striking medals. He also enjoyed a considerable reputation as a sculptor and some of his monumental works still adorn public places in Belgium. Wiener was Jewish and one of his medals of note was an 1859 portrait study of Henri Loeb, chief rabbi of Belgium.

Leopold worked in the Brussels mint on the gold and silver coins of both Leopold I and Leopold II. Between 1867 and 1882 over 27 million 20 francs coins were minted and brought into circulation. Wiener used the old design created for the reverse of the 5 francs under Leopold I for the new coins minted under Leopold II and created a new obverse showing the head of Leopold II with a small beard. The coins of the 5 Francs still used French legends with the last coin leaving the Brussels mint in 1876. These silver coins were withdrawn from circulation in 1932. Most of the silver coins of this time period have a lower silver content than coins minted before except the 5 francs coin which retained the previous 900/1000 silver content. Leopold Wiener passed away on January 24, 1891 at the age of 67 and is considered the most important Belgian coin engraver of the second half of the 19th century.

King Leopold II of Belgium was born Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor at the Royal Palace of Laeken in Brussels Belgium on April 9, 1835. He was the eldest surviving son of Leopold I, King of the Belgians and his second wife and Queen-Consort Louise of Orléans, the daughter King Louis-Philippe of France. They were the very first royal family of Belgium as, at the time of his birth, the country was just five years old. Queen Victoria of Britain was his first cousin.

From birth Leopold was styled his Royal Highness The Crown Prince of Belgium, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duke of Saxony until he was created the Duke of Brabant at the age of eleven. Leopold received the education and training customarily given a heir presumptive and at an early age he was appointed a sub-lieutenant in the army, serving in the grenadiers until his accession in 1865, by which time he had reached the rank of lieutenant-general. Leopold's fragile mother Louise was deeply affected by the death of her father Louis-Philippe in 1850 and her health deteriorated. She died that same year of tuberculosis when Leopold was 15 years old.

On August 22, 1853 Leopold married the seventeen year old Marie Henriette of Austria from the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, the daughter of Joseph Anton Johann, the Archduke of Austria. She was the first cousin of the mentally deficient Emperor of Austria Ferdinand I who had abdicated a few years earlier, cousin of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph and Granddaughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. This marriage was a political arrangement that sought to strengthen the position of the relatively new kingdom. Marie brought a prestigious Habsburg pedigree and she was catholic (although Leopold was protestant) which would be welcomed in a country with a large and powerful Catholic majority. Marie Henriette was said to be lively and energetic, and she endeared herself to the people by her character and benevolence. She was an accomplished artist and musician who was passionate about horse riding and her beauty gained her the sobriquet of "The Rose of Brabant". She struck people as the polar opposite of her husband Leopold who was shy and withdrawn.

Beginning around 1854 Leopold began to travel extensively, often with his wife, to Spain, Morocco, Algiers, Egypt, Palestine, India, and China. He has been called the most traveled monarch in Europe, so extensive was his knowledge of international affairs. He wrote weekly to his cousin Queen Victoria which is said to have had some influence in her views on foreign policy, although the Queen rarely answered his letters and was said to have a somewhat low opinion of him.

The new young couple was awkward and inexperienced in relationships and matters of intimacy. Queen Victoria learned of the difficulty when the young couple visited England several weeks after the marriage ceremony; Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, spoke quietly to the pair about the facts of life and their royal duty. The advice must have worked as the couple had four children, one son and three daughters.

Their second child was a son they named Leopold, and because King Leopold believed that only males should ascend to the throne, his son became the most important person in the world to him. To their horror the young prince fell into a pond and later fell ill and died of pneumonia at the age of nine. At the funeral, the normally unemotional and dispassionate King Leopold broke down in public, collapsing to his knees beside the coffin sobbing. After their son's death, Leopold and Marie Henriette tried to have another child, hoping for a son. After the birth of yet another daughter, Clémentine, in 1872, the couple abandoned all hopes of ever having another son and their already strained marriage broke down completely. By all accounts the marriage was not a happy one and Leopold's dour disposition and many mistresses did not help matters. Marie Henriette retreated to the town of Spa in 1895, and died there in 1902.

Although he had the habit of taking many mistresses, once separated from his wife and at the age of 65, he all but abandoned this habit and took the sixteen year old French prostitute Caroline Lacroix as his sole mistress. They had two children together, Lucien the Duke of Tervuren and Philippe he Count of Ravenstein, who were illegitimate thus ineligible to succeed him. He was obviously very fond of her as the relationship would continue until his death. He is said to have lavished gifts upon her and gave her the noble title of Baroness Vaughn. Leopold secretly married her just days before his death leaving her a substantial fortune however the the marriage was rendered invalid.

Upon Leopold's attainment of majority in 1855 he was admitted to the Belgian Senate by right of birth. He took an active interest in the business of government, especially in matters of trade. Because of the smaller and unthreatening state of their kingdom, Leopold's father had gained the reputation of neutrality, and as the person who could act as a valued intermediary among the old and powerful monarchies of Europe, gaining the nickname the "Nestor of Europe". As a relatively new and small kingdom that had, under his father, seen its share of economic woes, both Leopold and his father sought to maintain good relations with Britain and saw in that kingdom a model for growth. After his travels, Leopold believed the way for Belgium to become less dependent on it's allies, grow its economy and become a world power was to model itself after Britain. Leopold I died on December 10, 1865, and Leopold took the oath of office on December 17, at the age of thirty. From the outset he was determined his reign would oversee the growth of Belgium into a world power and to do so he urged the doctrine of colonization and extension of trade, through a merchant marine and through sending samples of Belgium's manufactured goods to all parts of the world.

Since its independence and the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium under his father, Belgium was a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary and laicist democracy with a constitution based on the Napoleonic code. Through his fathers reign and during the earlier part of his own reign there was two main political parties, the Catholic Party and the Liberal Party, the later being the first political party in Belgium and the dominant party during his fathers reign and early in his own reign. The Liberal party had won a clear victory in the elections of 1848 which was followed by lowered tax burdens for the urban populations and free, secular, compulsory primary schools supported by the state. In this same initiative they denied state funds to Catholic schools, a major error in a majority catholic country. The popularity of the Liberal Party was already eroding in favor of the Catholic Party leading to a win for the Catholic party in the 1884 elections.

Because of the strong democratic institutions from its founding, and the Liberal policies by its government, Belgium was often referred to as the "Laboratory of Europe." Because of the nature of the Belgian government, the power of the monarchy was relatively weak, a system that both his father and Leopold had to contend with. Leopold, like his father, was unsatisfied with the amount of power afforded to the monarch by the constitution and sought to extend it wherever the Constitution was ambiguous or unclear. His reign also marked a time of major social and political change in Belgium that mirrored the many socialist and social democratic groups throughout Europe who sought to challenge the monarchy and further enfranchise and empower the common man through universal suffrage.

In the early years of his reign he devoted much of his attention to domestic concerns where he advocated for improved housing for the working class and the elderly and created a fund for injured workmen that allowed up to five thousand workers a year to receive benefits. Belgium was one of the first to build railways and to help stimulate growth through manufacturing and trade, he sought to further develop and extend the rail system. He also championed urban development and municipal improvement projects in various cities like Brussels, Antwerp, Mons and Liege. During his reign trade unions were legalized and laws against child labor were passed dictating that no child under twelve was allowed to work in a factory. Most importantly he was always looking for a way to secure an overseas colony, something that the Belgian government expressed little interest in pursuing. It would be his eventual success in obtaining an overseas colony that would end up defining him as a highly controversial figure within his own time and to later generations.

Leopold first attempted to buy a colony, failing this he founded the International African Association, with the cooperation of the American government, some European governments and various explorers, as means to promote his plans to establish a colony as a "humanitarian mission" to civilize and improve the lives of the indigenous people of Africa. He looked to the Congo after reading about its exploration by Portugal. However Portugal saw the region as offering too many difficulties to justify the effort such as thick wild rain forests, swamps, malaria and sleeping sickness as well as fierce local resistance in a generally harsh environment, while offering little economic benefits in return. Still Leopold thought he might be able to make a go of it and engaged Henry Morton Stanley who had explored the region earlier and described what he found in his 1878 novel 'Through the Dark Continent'. He hired Stanley to further explore the area and help him prepare to annex the region. Between 1879 and 1884 Stanly further explored the area, oversaw the construction of a main road from the lower Congo to Lake Nkunda, launched steam ships on the upper river and made contact with hundreds of local tribal leaders to secure land concessions from them in exchange for gifts and promises of a better life.

The explorer and journalist Henry Morgan Stanley (born John Rowlands) pictured with the young Ndugu M'Hali, a slave given to Stanley in Tanzania whom he freed and adopted but renamed Kalulu, the word for a young male antelope in Swahili. Both Stanley and Kalulu are pictured armed in this 1872 photo taken about a year after his 700 mile expedition to find physician, missionary and explorer David Livingstone.

Leopold was careful to make sure that his efforts to gain control of the Congo were marketed as a means to benefit the indigenous population as well as those nations who sought to benefit from any commercial venture he started there. At this time colonialism was not seen as an inherently evil enterprise as it is today, even by those who most vocally criticized what eventually took place in the Congo. However times had changed and many had come to believed that colonialism needed to benefit both the colonial power as well as the indigenous population so it was important that he give assurances that he would work to improve the lives of the natives, build roads, churches, schools, introduce them to Christianity and drive off slave traders. At the same time he assured the US, Britain France and the German States they would be welcome to engage in commerce there and further promised France, who already nominally laid claimed the area, land concessions in return for their support. He also convinced the United States of his humanitarian intent there receiving the blessing of President Chester A. Arthur and enough politicians to ensure that the US would be the first to recognize the Belgian Congo as a legitimate state when the time came.

By 1882 Leopold had formed a new organization called the International Association of the Congo with the purpose of organizing the many territories he had acquired into a single state and asked for recognition of that state from European powers. As a result of his work earlier, and with the help of Henry Shelton Stanford, the United States deemed his efforts lawful and recognized his claim to the region in 1884 stating "The Government of the United States announces its sympathy with and approval of the humane and benevolent purposes of the International Association of the Congo." That year Otto Von Bismark convened a conference of 14 nations to settle the question of control of the Congo and the partition of the African continent.

Representatives of most major European powers including Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States met in Berlin and drafted a set of international codes to govern the actions of European nations as they pertain to acquired African territories. They passed the Berlin Act which provided for free trade, no monopoly, the abolition of slavery and cannibalism, and approved Leopold to govern the Congo Free State and affirmed that it would not be connected with Belgium but was a private holding of the King. The land was partitioned between three claimants with France receiving 257,000 sq mi on the north bank of the Congo River as promised, Portugal would retain 351,000 sq mi to the south, and Leopold would receive the remaining 905,000 sq mi. At the time of colonization the population of this territory was estimated at 30 million however it is clear that the actual population of the Congo at this time was completely unknown.

Force Publique officer with Askari volunteers. The Force Publique was made up of native Africans under the command of a small number of white commanders. They served as both a police force and defense force. They were used to enforce the law, keep the peace between warring factions, to fight Arab slave traders and rebellious tribes but were also used to help enforce quotas on rubber collection.

With international recognition as a neutral independent sovereignty by most nations in the west, he then received approval from the Belgian government who recognized the Belgian Free State and Leopold as its sovereign king. Leopold now had his colony and in 1886 he formed the Force Publique, an army and police force to help him govern it. This force was originally made up of mostly Europeans (Belgian, Italian, Danish, Swedish, etc.) who served as officers, and mostly native African soldiery recruited from the Congo, Zanzibar and British West Africa. Eventually this force would consist of almost exclusively Belgian officers and native Congolese soldiers. During the direct rule of Leopold as the Congo Free State this force remained relatively small. By 1891 there were roughly 3,560 soldiers and by 1900 it was at its largest at and estimated 17,000 men. The job of this force was to establish and maintain control of the territory, eliminate the presence of Arab slave traders, keep the peace between native communities, police the communities and eventually their duties would also include ensuring that workers meet rubber and tax quotas.

It would be this force that would play a central role in the events that would unfold in the Congo. Largely a force of men drawn from a population that was already very fractured by wildly diverse tribal affiliations and long standing traditional enemies, taken from their villages, quickly trained, given a riffle and a uniform and let loose on the population. Not long before these men were living in a very primitive society and culture all this entails but now they were armed with guns and often free to do as they please with little supervision. Because there were very few Europeans in country they were often left in and around villages as sentries and when they were directed to by their European commanders, it was often to commit brutal acts of reprisal only reinforcing the idea that such actions we not only okay but encouraged. The brutality practiced by this force often reminiscent of the harsh customs that already existed there however they were often accompanied by a European commander who often did little to discourage such actions.

Leopold also set up governmental departments to run his new colony including a Department of Interior (police, public health, public works, defense), Department of Foreign Affairs (education, religion, commerce) and the Department of Finances (income, expenditures, and debt) each headed by a hand picked administrator general (or secretary general) who answered to Leopold alone and whose job was to direct the ever growing number of bureaucrats that filled the ranks of these departments headquartered in Brussels. There was also the relatively weak Governor-General and a Judiciary headed by a Minister of Justice headquartered at Boma as well as a Supreme Court with three justices and district courts with public prosecutors. Other major offices were the Chief of Police, the commissioners of the 14 administrative districts, and of the various zones and sectors. However, because of the size of the territory and difficult nature of travel due to the harsh terrain making it almost impossible to easily reach communities in the interior, most governance on a local level was left to local community leaders already in place.

The reality on the ground was that the territory of the Belgian Congo was vast and the number of officials working there was relatively small as it was certainly a hard sell to entice Europeans to work there, even those who had few other options, thus most of the colonial government was concentrated in small, dispersed stations which could only exercise control over small areas. In fact there was seldom more than 1,500 officials and staff present, and seldom more than 3,000 whites total in the territory at any given time.

Leopold and his officials soon found that control of the vast Congo was an expensive and problematic affair. Most of the territory was unmapped dense jungle that was extremely difficult terrain and offered little commercial value. Because of this they were largely unable to reach a large percentage of the native communities. These jungles were also ideal in proving cover for rebellious tribes and Arab Zanzibari slave traders and warlords, who had to be dealt with through force of arms in difficult and unfamiliar terrain. Men such as the slave trader, plantation owner and strong man Hamad bin Muhammad bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi commonly referred to as Tippiu Tip, who worked for the Sultans of Zanzibar and controlled many areas of the Eastern part of the territory, or the notoriously cruel Muhammad bin Khalfan bin Khamis al-Barwani, commonly known as Rumaliza, a slave and ivory trader who, with the help of Tippu Tip, became the Sultan of Ujiji before being defeated by Belgian forces under the command of Baron Francis Dhanis in 1894.

On the Crimes Against Humanity Committed in the Congo: It is clear that Leopold's stated humanitarian reasons for his interest in the Congo was just a pretense to mask his real reasons which were purely commercial. Not only is it clear his reasons were for profit, as all colonial ambitions are, but this was certainly already clear to the other countries involved who also stood to benefit from him reaching his goal. It is also clear, and well documented, that many of Leopold's officials in the depots up the Congo river terrorized the local inhabitants, forcing them to work under the threat of violent reprisals. Quotas were set and his agents seeking to meet them were willing to go to extreme measures. It is clear that such acts of cruelty were committed like whipping, beatings, flogging, mutilation and even executions and burning of homes and villages to punish those who did not comply or bucked the system.

It is clear that the actions of some who served the Belgian King in the Congo represent some of the most severe cases of brutality committed in the name of colonial ambitions. These acts are attested to by eye witness accounts of missionaries documented in many sources such as The Crime of the Congo which can be read HERE by Arthur Conan Doyle. It is also confirmed by former Belgian workers who served in the Congo. These men attest to the fact that barbarous acts were committed but claim the extent has been highly exaggerated. They claim the number of people involved and the number of deaths and incidents of mutilation was relatively low and most of these incidents were perpetrated by native troops of the Force Publique driven by promises of rewards for higher quotas or seeking to use their new found power to settle old tribal scores. They blame bad actors, not official policy.

While there is no credible objection to the fact that such brutal acts occurred in the Congo, there is a considerable amount of uncertainty by those who have studied the events of this time and place to certain statistics that have become popularly accepted and are now often presented as factual. These statistics are often used by writers without any attempt to communicate the many problems and uncertainties related to any attempt at placing a number on population, causalities, manner of death, or the stark differences between the objectives of Leopold and the Congo Free State and Adolf Hitler and the Nazi's to whom he and they are often, and some would say incorrectly, compared.

Objections arise primarily to the assertions put forth in works by many reporters, authors and journalist such as Adam Hochschild (King Leopold's Ghost) and others like the journalist Edmund Morel who present death-tolls in the tens of millions, or as high as twenty million, and the use of the words genocide and holocaust by some authors when referring to Free State rule in the Congo thus linking it in the readers mind to the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi regime in Germany, and linking Leopold to Adolf Hitler, who sought the extermination of the Jews through highly coordinated mass murder. Any attempt to place a number on the casualties in the Congo will be problematic at best (impossible in actuality), and any reporting on the deaths in the Congo without an attempt to break down how these deaths occurred represents serious omission (either intentional or just poor form) of critical information, and any comparison to the Nazi Holocaust shows, at the very least, a fundamental misunderstanding on the very different goals these two groups had in undertaking their endeavors, at the worst a disingenuous attempt to equate the two in order to mislead or ignite strong emotional reactions with provocative headlines and to distort history to a preconceived subjective conclusion. It does not help that there is a dearth of reliable information making it very easy for unscrupulous people to present anything as fact to a public that may never look into the matter any further than these headlines.

Most historians who study the Belgian Congo do not deny there was a decline in the population of the Congo after colonization. Many of those who were employed there admit to noticing a marked decline as did Roger Casement who had visited the colony soon after its founding and then later on his mission of discovery which resulted in the Casement Report, a highly valuable primary source for the condition of the Congo both int he early days as well as much later in 1894 when it was released. Most historians do not, indeed cannot, deny that serious abuses occurred resulting in many deaths however they will also admit that it is, at this time, impossible to place a real number calculated with any certainty nor are they able to break down percentages of deaths by the cause. These problems lead to wildly different estimations based on little more than conjecture. Deaths are estimated at anywhere between tens or hundreds of thousands to 20 million, population decline is estimated anywhere between 25% to 75% and causes of deaths are attributed to the naturally high death rate in a primitive society and harsh environment, disease (epidemics of Sleeping Sickness and Small Pox among others), lower birth rates due to drastic change and upheaval, fighting between tribes, against Arab slave traders, against colonial rule, starvation, migration and of course the killings carried out by colonial agents. More often it will simply be stated that a certain number of people died during the Congo Free State rule with little if any attempt to clarify to a reader that these wildly different reasons all contributed to the very real population decline and there currently is no way to ascertain how many deaths can be attributed to each cause. This leads to the assumption that all these deaths were caused by the colonial government, Leopold himself and leads overly simplistic and hyperbolic assertions presented as factual like "Leopold II, the Butcher King of the Belgian Congo murdered 20 million people."

A good example of this problem can be found in the very first paragraph of the article on Leopold II on Wikipedia where many people go for information and seldom delve much deeper. Here it states "During his absolute rule of the Congo, an estimated 5-15 million Africans died." How did they die? where did those numbers come from? Over 20 million people died during the administration of President Barrack Obama, is he responsible for them all? How did they die? We have a good idea how they died because unlike in the Congo we have a good idea how many people live here, how many died and how they died. This statement cites three sources and two are newspaper articles, one very short unsourced article from the The Independent published in 2017 titled "Belgium's genocidal colonial legacy haunts the country's future", the other is another very short, undated and unsourced (save a mention of the book King Leopold Ghost) article from an unknown author from The Guardian titled "The hidden holocaust." The third source is just another article written that regurgitates the same unsourced data and uses the same hyperbolic language. While this is not surprising for Wikipidia, it is indicative of the shoddy sources of information that command the attention of the reader with hyperbolic titles meant to shock and enraged but not really inform or add anything to the complex and difficult history of this time and place.

Most historians seem to be in agreement with the British historian Jean Stengers who acknowledges that exact figures are hard, if not impossible, to establish since no one knows how many people inhabited the vast jungles of the Congo in 1884, before colonization, as the first official census was not performed until 1924 which put the population at roughly 10 million. Inadequate, nonexistent or destroyed records of population levels or reasons for deaths leaves any estimate as largely a matter of conjecture. As for how they died The Journalist and writer Charles Neal Ascherson also states that it is "impossible to separate deaths caused by massacre and starvation from those due to the pandemic of sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) which decimated central Africa at the time." There is also the argument that transmission of disease is simply a reality when one population meets another and questions whether such deaths should be attributed to Leopold and his agents as these deaths were not intentional and could have easily been caused by any population that chose to go to the Congo like the many missionaries and Arab slave traders who were there before the establishment of the colony and certainly brought diseases that the native population would not have had any resistance to.

Daniël Vangroenweghe, the Belgian historian and anthropologist states 'Talk of whether Leopold killed 10 million people or 5 million is beside the point, it was still too many." So why are such statistics important and why do some believe it is important not to present questionable statistics as fact? The first problem with this statement is that whether it be one million, five million or twenty million, Vangroenweghe in his statement lay all these deaths at the foot of Leopold II. This will be, and has been, translated and presented by many as an intentional act committed by Leopold. While it is true that any atrocities committed in the Congo, regardless of the number, is too many, the reasons for many of these deaths have no link to any intentional act by any one person. The reason these statistics are important, and why it is important to know the details and the problematic nature of assessing any reliable number in this case, or why it is important that they not be either exaggerated, minimized or treated as empirical should be obvious to any historian or reasonable person.

One need only reference the sensitive nature of the Jewish Holocaust when numbers are carelessly asserted or dismissed to know why such statistics are important, let alone the need for truth and accuracy in the historical record. Truth, clarity and historical accuracy should never be dismissed as being beside the point. There are people to this day who work to try to shine a light on these evens and offer factual information from which realistic estimates might be established. Reporting statistics with a disregard for accuracy or clarity only further muddies the water.

When faced with the accusations that some of his agents in the Congo were cutting off the hands of native workers, Leopold is reputed to have said "Cut off hands - that's idiotic. I'd cut off all the rest of them, but not hands. That's the one thing I need in the Congo." While it is likely that Leopold never said this, and if he did say it, it certainly doesn't help his reputation as being cold and unfeeling, but it does highlight the problem with accusations of a holocaust in the Belgian Congo. The single minded intent of the Nazis was to exterminate the Jews. Certainly Jews were used as slaves as well but there is no question that the desired end result was the death of every Jew in their custody. This was simply not the case in the Congo. Contrary to his assertion that his interest in the Congo was humanitarian, it is clear now, as was clear to many at the time, that the intent of his endeavors there was purely for profit.

Leopold's intent, while just as single minded as the Nazi's, was not the systematic murder of the native population of the Congo any more than it was the intent of the Spanish who colonized the Americas. His main goal was to use them as cheap labor in order to maximize production and profits. Whether he approved of, or even ordered any, mutilations or executions in the Congo, it would certainly have been to frighten the population into working harder, not to kill them off as to do so he would be eliminating his work force. It was certainly clear that no European would be willing to do the job if the native population were exterminated. Like slavery in the United States, it was a practical matter. As morbid and sad as it seems to us today, it just did not make good business sense to kill something of such value to a profitable business venture. It was simply business and profit that drove him and to intentionally kill his workers was not good business.

It is generally agreed by historians that extermination was never the policy of the Free State. Adam Hochschild who is highly critical of the Belgian colonial efforts in his book 'King Leopold's Ghost' admits that "... no reputable historian of the Congo has made charges of genocide; a forced labor system, although it may be equally deadly, is different." The Historian David Van Reybrouck echoes this conclusion stating "It would be absurd ... to speak of an act of 'genocide' or a 'holocaust'; genocide implies the conscious, planned annihilation of a specific population, and that was never the intention here." Leopold's British biographer, Barbara Emerson, states that "Leopold did not start genocide. He was greedy for money and chose not to interest himself when things got out of control."

It is safe to say that the Free State government along with the private business concerns it worked with created an environment and kept the native population in fear. It is safe to say, because of the many witnesses, that they were often guilty of crimes against humanity. It was made clear to Roger Casement that the government and the private businesses worked together to set up a tax / quota system that kept the indigenous population in a state of virtual slavery. It is clear that agents of the Government, Businesses and the native Force Publique kept the population in fear and sometime committed horrible acts of cruelty. It is clear that there was a definite drop in the population for many reasons. It is clear that greed won the day in the Congo and in many ways the people allowed their worst natures to prevail. One could call these acts inhuman but in reality they are very much human as humans have proven time and again they are capable of both the greatest acts of cruelty as well as they most gracious acts of kindness. It is not inhuman but just another case of the worse of human nature.

It did not take long for word to spread about what was going on in the Congo. As early as 1890 George Washington Williams published an open letter to Leopold describing what he witness there during a trip to the Congo that year. By this time rumors were already widespread hinting of troublesome human rights issues in the colony. In his plea to Leopold Williams used the term "crimes against humanity" which would become a standard phrase used when referring such situations in international law. According to Emerson, Leopold was appalled to hear about the atrocities in his domain writing to his secretary of state: 'These horrors must end or I will retire from the Congo. I will not be splattered with blood and mud: it is essential that any abuses cease.' By 1895 these abuses had become commonly known by the European and American public who began to debate the "Congo Question." This led Leopold to create the Leopold Commission for the Protection of Natives made up of missionaries, but little changed.

Soon concern and condemnation came from all directions and from well known personages such as Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and Arthur Conan Doyle as well members of the Belgian, British and US governments. The release of the Casement Report by the Irish Diplomat for Britain Roger Casement was particularly damaging as it included statements detailing killings, mutilations, kidnappings and cruel beatings of the native population by soldiers of the Congo Administration. Although supporters of the Free State argued against claims of atrocities, a Commission of Inquiry, appointed by the regime in 1904, confirmed the stories of atrocities leading to further pressure on the Belgian government to take action. In 1908 the Belgium parliament, under severe international criticism and at the prompting of members of the Catholic Party and Progressive Liberals, strongly compelled the king to relinquish ownership of the Congo Free State to Belgium. In the end his pet project cost Belgium 215 million francs required to pay off the substantial debts the colony had incurred, to pay off its bond holders, to complete Leopold's building projects in Belgium and to pay off the King himself to the sum of 60 million francs. This done, it became the Belgian Congo, a colony under the direct control of the Belgian parliament.

On November 15, 1902, while riding in a royal precession after a ceremony for Marie Henriette who had recently passed away, there was an attempt on Leopold's life by the Italian anarchist Gennaro Rubino. Rubino took three shots at the king as he passed but missed. Only the king's Grand Marshall Count Charles John d'Oultremont was injured receiving shards of glass in his face from the shattered window. Rubino was immediately caught and arrested receiving a life sentence in prison where he died in 1918. Rubino's reason for trying to kill the King was to prove his devotion to the anarchist cause. Although he chose to try to kill Leopold, any monarch would have been sufficient as he said after his capture that he would have fired "at the King of Italy as readily as at the King of Belgium, because monarchs are tyrants who cause the misery of their peoples." At his trial Rubino was unrepentant saying he recognized neither laws or judges. The jury found him guilty of attempted regicide and sentenced him to life in prison were he died in 1918.

King Leopold II died of a Hemorrhagic stroke on December 17, 1909 at the Royal Castle in Laeken at the age of 74. He was interred in the Royal crypt within the Church of our Lady of Laeken where all Belgian royalty are laid to rest. He was succeeded by Albert I, the son of Prince Philippe, Leopold's brother who was the third (second surviving) son of Leopold I. Like everything connected to Leopold and his colony, it is impossible to say how much wealth he amassed and how much he left behind. His colony had habitual problems turning a profit, and at the time he relinquished it to the Belgian government he also handed over significant debts. However the many public (and private) building projects he commissioned in Brussels, Ostend and Antwerp, leading to the moniker "The Builder King", suggest that he made a tidy sum.

Funeral of Leopold II, King of the Belgians: The funeral chariot: the cortège formed in front of the still unfinished Royal Palace headed for the Cathedral of Sainte-Gudule, Brussels, 22 December 1909.

Leopold arranged for most of his private buildings and estates to be placed into a national trust upon his death as all of his daughters were married to foreign kings. Estimates of his personal wealth varies from 50 to 500 million and he was thought to be one of the richest men in the world in his lifetime. Even his family seems unable to confirm how much he had at the time of his death as his great-great-great granddaughter Princess Stéphanie de Windisch-Graetz stated after requesting access to Leopold's last will and testament that "It's being refused to me, his legal heir. Without any reason. What I would like to know: what have they got to hide?"

Leopold II was the longest serving monarch in the relatively short history of Belgium. For much of his reign he was quite popular with his subjects, praised for being a great philanthropist, humanitarian, standing in opposition to the slave trade, spreading Christianity to Africa and transforming his nation by spending large sums of his personal wealth on public works. He was not a bloodthirsty monster contrary to some assertions. He was opposed to the death penalty, even when it came to Rubino who attempted to murder him. He did not call for his execution as punishment for his crime even though capital punishment was legal in Belgium until 1996. Leopold was a man driven by overwhelming ambitions who spent most of his time working towards his lofty goals which included transforming Belgium into a world power, and amassing wealth for both himself and Belgium seeing the two as as one and the same. He spent little time with his family and his marriage was not a happy one, of course his penchant for mistresses did not help matters. Descriptions of his personality range across the spectrum from charming to a bore, quiet and reserved to abrasive and aloof, cold and autocratic to kind and progressive. To many he was an unsympathetic character but to others he was well respected if not beloved.

When Leopold took the throne he stated "all that I desire is to leave Belgium larger, stronger and more beautiful". This was his true passion, this was his goal that he obsessively pursued with laser focus and it could be argued that in the end he succeeded, leaving so many wondering at what price? Today Leopold II has become a symbol of the evils of colonialism whose cruelty is on par with Adolf Hitler, however on closer inspection, as is often the case, this two dimensional view seems artificially constructed as people need to put a face to the evils committed in his name. He does not strike most as a sympathetic character so it is easy to hold him up as one of history's greatest villains and present him as a genocidal monster. While he is certainly not blameless by any means, he was deceptive in his reasons for pursuing the Congo and his concern for the welfare of the people there, he did not seek to aid or improve their lives, at worst he was aware of what was happening and chose to take no action in favor of greater profits, at best he was neglectful and uninterested in what was going on save as it pertained to his bottom line, but he was not a genocidal monster personally responsible for the deliberate murder of millions of people. However blame can, and should, be laid at his feet as he was the sole owner of the enterprise and, in the end, all responsibilities for all that was done there lead back to him whether he was fully aware of what was going on there or not.

In the end he was ultimately in charge so he was ultimately to blame. This was his passion project and most who have studied him would agree that he certainly was not the type not to stay informed. It is not completely clear how much he knew of what was happening in the Congo, how much he approved of or personally directed, how much was policy and how much was the work of bad actors. In his time, colonialism was not seen as inherently wrong, but today colonialism in and of itself is seen as an evil institution, let alone when things go off the rails as is the case in the Congo, and few pursued colonialism more ambitiously than Leopold.