The Belgian Congo (French: Congo belge, Dutch: Belgisch-Kongo, Lingala: Kongó ya Bɛ́lɛjika), is a colony located in Central Africa.
It borders the French Equatorial Africa to the north; British East Africa to the east; British Central Africa and Portuguese Angola to the south; French Equatorial Africa, the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west; and is separated from British East Africa by Lake Tanganyika in the east. The country has access to the ocean through a 40-km stretch of Atlantic coastline at Muanda and the roughly 9 km wide mouth of the Congo River which opens into the Gulf of Guinea.
Government and Administration
Colonial Charter of 1908
The government and administration of the Belgian Congo was organized by the 1908 Colonial Charter of 1908. According to the Colonial Charter, the top executive and administrative powers rests in the Belgian Minister of Colonial Affairs, assisted by a Colonial Council (Conseil Colonial) that deliberates and reports on all submitted questions by the King relating to colonial administration and all draft decrees. Both bodies reside in Brussels (Belgium). The Belgian Parliament exercises full legislative authority over the Belgian Congo.
The colonial budget and finances are audited and controlled by the Court of Audit of Belgium, that reports to the Belgian Parliament.
The highest-ranking representative of the colonial administration in the Congo is the Governor-general. The Governor-General is assisted by more than one Vice-Governor General and the Council of Government.
In terms of jurisdiction, two systems co-existed: a system of European courts and one of indigenous courts ("tribunaux indigènes"). These indigenous courts are presided over by the traditional chiefs, but have only limited powers and remain under the firm control of the colonial administration.
The European courts are organized in the Court of Cassation of Belgium, two Courts of Appeal (Leopoldville and Élisabethville), Courts of First Instance, courts of district, courts of prosecution and police courts. The General Public Prosecutor
The territorial service, the true backbone of the colonial administration, is divided into provinces, districts and territories
Each province, administered by a Provincial Governor (former vice-Governor-generals), assisted by a Provincial Council and District Commissioners.
In each district, its administration is in charge of an District Commissioner, assisted by a secretary.
A territory is managed by a territorial administrator, assisted by one or more assistants or territorial agents. The territories are further subdivided into numerous chiefdoms ("chefferies"), at the head of which the Belgian administration appoints "traditional chiefs" ("chefs coutumiers").
Initially, the Belgian Congo was administratively divided into four provinces: Léopoldville (or Congo-Kasaï), Equateur, Orientale and Katanga. An administrative reform in 1932 increased the number of provinces to six, by the establishment of the Kasaï and Kivu provinces.
Basic information of the provinces:
|Province||Administrative center||surface||main languages||Notes|
|Léopoldville (or Congo-Kasaï)||
|362,953||French, Dutch. Kikongo and Lingala|
|403,290||French, Dutch and Lingala|
|528,925||French, Dutch, Swahili and Lingala|
|496,962||French, Dutch and Swahili|
|321,534||French, Dutch, Swahili and Tshiluba|
|230,209||French, Dutch, Swahili|
Socially the Belgian Congo is a segregated society. It distinguishes between settlers, évolués and natives (indigènes). Each group having a separate legal and social status. Settlers have most of the civil and legal rights, are tried in the European courts and have full civil rights and freedom of movement and work. Settlers are on the apex of society, followed downward by évolués and at its base the natives.
Évolué are defined as a man having broken social ties with his group, [and] having entered another system of motivations, another system of values. Natives can acquire such condition by means of education, income, having white-collar jobs, and living primarily in urban areas of the colony. The évolué are tried in European courts and having full civil rights and freedom of movement and work in and outside Belgian Congo. The can also obtain international passport and Belgium citizenship.
The natives are the large the majority of the population of Belgian Congo. As such they are tried in their own indigenous courts, have limited rights, must register their residence in their village, have a work or residence pass if they are in urban areas, and are obligatory drafted in corvée for public works projects or the militia.
Sparsely populated in relation to its area, the Belgian Congo is home to a vast potential of unexploited natural resources and mineral wealth.
Main cash crops include coffee, palm oil, rubber, cotton, sugar, tea, and cocoa. Food crops include cassava, plantains, maize, groundnuts, and rice. After World War I the system of mandatory cultivation was introduced: Congolese peasants were forced to grow certain cash crops (cotton, coffee, groundnuts) destined for the European market. Territorial administrators and state agronomists have the task to supervise and if necessary sanction those peasants who evaded the hated mandatory cultivation.
Belgian Congo, is by large, an important rubber producer. Large rubber plantations and lands for harvesting of naturally occurring rubber are still given or managed by large European companies. Although the most repressive work practices and extensive use of forced labor are supposed to being banned, they still occur.
Forests cover 60 percent of the total land area. There are vast timber resources, and commercial development of the country’s 61 million hectares of exploitable wooded.
The economy relies heavily on mining. The Belgian Congo is the world's largest producer of cobalt ore, and a major producer of copper and industrial diamonds. The Belgian Congo has 70% of the world’s coltan, and more than 30% of the world’s diamond reserves, mostly in the form of small, industrial diamonds. The coltan is a major source of tantalum, which is used in the fabrication of electronic components.
After WWI, priority was given to mining (copper and cobalt in Katanga, diamond in Kasai, gold in Ituri) as well as to the transport infrastructure (rail lines Matadi-Léopoldville and Elisabethville-Port Francqui).
To obtain the necessary capital, the colonial state gave the private companies to a large extent a free hand. This allowed in particular the Société Générale de Belgique (SGB) to build up an economic empire in the colony. The SGB had a monopoly in the investment and construction of roads, railroads (Compagnie du chemin de fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga) and canals and dominant position in mining thru its affiliates (Union minière du Haut Katanga and Société internationale forestière et minière du Congo). Huge profits were generated and for a large part siphoned off to Belgium in the form of dividends.
SGE’s economic empire was broken up in 1940 by order of the Arbitration Court of the Benelux. The Congo Agreement (1941) open investment from Benelux companies in the fields of mining, agriculture, forestry and transport. It also opens up a market for consumer goods.
The necessary work force was recruited in the interior of the vast colony with the active support of the territorial administration. In many cases this amounted to forced labor, as in many villages minimum quota of “able-bodied workers” to be recruited was enforced. In this way, tens of thousands of workers were transferred from the interior to the sparsely populated copper belt in the South (Katanga) to work in the mines. In agriculture too, the colonial state forced a drastic rationalization of production.
The so-called "vacant lands"—i.e. the land that was not directly used by the local tribes—fell to the state, who redistributed it to European companies, individual white landowners (settlers) or the missions. This way an extensive plantation economy developed. As result rubber, palm oil and cotton production increased significantly.
The mobilization of the African work force in the capitalist colonial economy played a crucial role in spreading the use of money in the Belgian Congo. The basic idea was that the development of the Congo had to be borne not by the Belgian taxpayers but by the Congolese themselves. The colonial state needed to be able to levy taxes in money on the Congolese, so it was important that they could earn money by selling their produce or their labor within the framework of the colonial economy.
During the great depression of the 1930s, the export-based Belgian Congo economy was severely hit by the world crisis, because of the drop of international demand of raw materials and agricultural products (for example, the price of peanuts fell from 1.25 francs to 25 cents). In some areas, as in the Katanga mining region, employment declined 70% and in the whole country the exploitation of forced labor was diminished while many forced laborers returned to their villages.
Banking and finance
Bank of the Belgian Congo, estyablished jointly in 1909 by a a number of Belgian banks jointly established the Bank of the Belgian Congo, is the fiscal agent for the colonial government. It issues the Congolese franc, the legal tender of the Belgian Congo. It became officially became the central bank of Congo in 1941.
However, the dominant bank is the Société Générale de Belgique and majority owner of the Bank of Belgian Congo until 1941.
Transport and Communications
Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB, a SGB company) provides maritime connection with Belgian Congo. The 'Office des transports coloniaux (or "Colonial transport agency, OTRACO) is publicly owned company, based in Léopoldville, which has the monopoly of railways, ports and river transport in the north and west of the Belgian Congo.
Belgian Congo was served until 1941 by Belgian’s national aircarrier Sabena. Sabena provided weekly (airplane) and by weekly (airship) flights on the Leopolville-Brussels route. It also serves the local flights of Boma-Léopoldville-Élisabethville.
Armed Forces and public order
Public order in the colony is maintained by the Force Publique (Dutch: Openbare Weermacht), a locally recruited army under Belgian command. The FP/OW serves both has gendarmerie and military force. Serving under Belgian officers, the Askari of the FP/OW are an ethnically-mixed African soldiery that eventually is comparable to British or Imperial German Askaris. For the joint military and police role, the FP/OW is split into territorial units, charged with maintaining public order, and mobile units charged with territorial defense. Aviation support for the FP/OW, is provided by the Aviation militaire de la Force Publique (Avi or Avimil).