Childhood & Early Life
Leopold II was born as the second child of the reigning Belgian monarch, Leopold I, and his second wife, Louise in Brussels on 9 April 1835. His elder brother, Louis Philippe, had died before Leopold’s birth. His mother died in 1850.
He was made the Duke of Brabant when he was nine and was appointed a sub-lieutenant in the army.
He attained the age of majority in 1855 and started playing an active role in the Belgian Senate. He harbored ambitious plans for the development of his country and urged his father to acquire colonies. As the crown prince he travelled extensively and visited India, China, Egypt, and the countries on the Mediterranean coast of Africa.
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Accession & Reign
King Leopold I died on 10 December, 1865, and Leopold II ascended to the throne at the age of 30. From the very beginning he had major plans for the development of Belgium, and started embarking on a series of reforms.
Several laws were enacted during his reign which included laws against child labor and laws regarding the employment of young women in certain hazardous occupations. Workers were also given the right to be compensated for workplace accidents.
At that time Belgium did not possess numerous overseas colonies like her neighboring countries Holland, France, and Great Britain did. Thus, Leopold was motivated to acquire Asian and African colonies of his own. Over the next few years he made several attempts to acquire colonies but was unsuccessful.
In 1876, he organized the International African Association which ostensibly aimed to implement humanitarian projects in the areas of Central Africa.
In 1878, he enlisted the help of the famous explorer Henry Stanley to explore and establish a colony in the Congo region under the auspices of this association.
Over the next few years Stanley travelled across Central Africa setting up trading posts and building roads to convince the Africans that the Belgians were implementing these projects for the betterment of the African natives. He also convinced the local chiefs to sign treaties with Leopold, which had been drafted according to the requirements of the Belgian monarch.
During the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 which regulated European colonization and trade in Africa, Leopold persuaded the representatives of 14 European countries and the United States to recognize him as the sovereign of the land which Stanley had claimed for him.
The Congo Free State, an area 76 times larger than Belgium, was established on 5 February 1885 under Leopold II's personal rule and private army, the Force Publique. Congo was a place rich in natural resources and immediately upon becoming its ruler, Leopold started exploiting the resources.
Initially he was interested in the ivory business which yielded great profits for a few years. With time he realized that rubber was even more profitable and focused all his energies on the rubber trade.
There was a rapidly increasing global demand for rubber and Leopold wanted to make the most of it. The collection of sap from the rubber plants was a labor intensive process, and in order to increase the rubber production, Leopold’s army started treating the Congo natives brutally.
The enslaved Africans were made to work under the harshest conditions and were given impossibly high targets to achieve. Leopold’s army even held the women hostage while forcing the men to work, and often resorted to cutting off the limbs of the workers who did not meet their set targets.
Unspeakable terror was unleashed in Congo during his reign which resulted in the deaths of approximately 10 million natives. Eventually the stories of his atrocities reached the outside world and international pressure began to mount on him to relinquish control over Congo.
Finally in 1908, the Congo Free State was transformed into a Belgian colony known as the Belgian Congo under parliamentary control.
Personal Life & Legacy
Leopold II married Marie Henriette of Austria in 1853. Marie was very beautiful, lively and extremely popular among the Belgian citizens. She was also a highly talented woman. This marriage produced three daughters and one son. The marriage became strained following the death of their only son and the couple separated.
Leopold II had several mistresses, the most prominent one being Caroline Lacroix who the King had met in 1899 when he was 64 and she, 16. He lavished vast amounts of wealth on her and remained close to her until his death. Caroline gave birth to two illegitimate sons. The King left her a massive amount of wealth upon his death.
He died on 17 December 1909 and was succeeded by his nephew, Albert. His reign of 44 years is the longest in Belgian history.