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King Leopold II
Leopold was the second king of Belgium, the Duke of Brabant, and a cousin of Queen Victoria. He married Marie Henriette of Austria, with whom he had three daughters and a son (who unfortunately died of pneumonia at the age of nine.) Leopold was awkward and lanky well into his twenties, unskilled in combat despite being named a lieutenant-general, and uninterested in the social customs of royalty. Although uninterested in most of his studies, Leopold had an obsession with geography. He studied maps and trade documents, planning ways to increase Belgium’s wealth and power. When he saw the larger powers of Europe becoming richer from their imperial colonies, he started looking for unclaimed land to buy or conquer. As Leopold got older, he came into himself and his social skills grew to reflect his increased ambitions. He quietly schemed his way into conquering the interior of Africa, calling it the Congo Free State. Despite gaining support for his conquest by citing philanthropic motives, he used forced labor in the Congo to make money off of rubber and ivory. Before selling the Congo to the Belgian government in 1908, due to increased outcry from humanitarian groups, Leopold’s actions caused the kidnapping and killing of over 9 million Congolese. Leopold died in 1909.
John Rowlands (Henry Morton Stanley)
Stanley, born John Rowlands, was the illegitimate son of a Welsh housemaid. He grew up in a workhouse before boarding a ship for New Orleans. Never content to stay in one field or area for very long, he continued roaming across the country and fabricating new and exciting backstories for himself. He became a journalist, and went to Africa where he found the long-lost explorer Livingstone. He later went back and became one of the first white westerners to cross the entire African continent, then worked with Leopold to gain territory in the Congo by building a road from the western coast to the interior.
General Henry Shelton Sanford
Sanford was a rich diplomat from Connecticut who lived most of his later years in Belgium. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium for seven years, and successfully convinced the President to recognize King Leopold’s claim to the Congo. With a long list of failed business ventures, the only thing Sanford was ever successful in was his work with Leopold.
“Colonel” George Washington Williams
Williams was a smart African American, who was the first to gather evidence against Leopold and openly condemn his actions in the Congo. Williams switched back and forth between careers in his short life, being first a soldier, then attending theology school and becoming a pastor, then a newspaper writer, then briefly serving in the state legislature. He was a civil rights advocate and campaigned to get the President to recognize Leopold’s Congo (believing it would be a perfect opportunity for African American men to go and work in Africa where they would be respected.) When he traveled to the Congo, though, he saw the terrible conditions and wrote an open letter to Leopold about the crimes against humanity that were occurring there. He contracted tuberculosis in Africa and died in 1891 at the age of 41.
Konrad Korzeniowski (Joseph Conrad)
Conrad was a young Polish man who signed on to become an apprentice officer in the Congo. However, he only spent six months in the Congo before quitting the job he signed on for and going back home. This was in part due to disagreements with the other officials there, in part due to the sickness that he caught in the Congo, and most likely in part due to the horrors he saw committed there. He came home, and eight years later, wrote the famous novel Heart of Darkness about his experience there.
Edmund Dene Morel
Morel was one of the first Europeans who publicly denounced the crimes occurring in the Congo, and did so by publishing proof of slavery there. He found this proof when working at the shipping company that brought ivory back from the Congo, and noticed that hardly any goods were being shipped in to pay for the ivory coming out. He is mostly responsible for turning the tide of public opinion against Leopold’s actions in the Congo.
Sheppard was an African American explorer who was appalled at what he saw when he went to the Congo. Along with Morel, he was one of the most important opponents of Leopold’s actions in the Congo. He was also tried in court in the Congo for helping resistance movements, but was acquitted.
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