|Belgian Colonial Empire
Empire colonial belge/Belgische koloniën
Belgian colonial empire at its peak
|Political structure||Colonial Empire|
|-||Belgium acquires Congo Free State||1908|
|-||Ruanda-Urundi formally mandated to Belgium||1924|
|-||Independence of the Belgian Congo||1960|
|-||Independence of last mandate, Ruanda-Urundi||1962|
|Today part of|
|Warning: Value not specified for "common_name"|
The empire was unlike those of the major European imperial powers in that roughly 98% of it was just one colony (about 76 times larger than Belgium)—the Belgian Congo—which had originated as the personal property of the country's king, Leopold II, rather than being gained through the political or military action of the Belgian state.
Belgians tended to refer to their overseas possessions as 'the colonies' rather than 'the empire'. Unlike other countries of the period with foreign colonies, such as Britain or France, Belgium never had a monarch styled 'Emperor'.
The nation of Belgium achieved independence only in 1830. (Immediately prior to that (1815-1830), it had formed part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.) By the time Belgium had consolidated power and considered an overseas empire, major imperial powers such as the United Kingdom and France, and to some degree, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands already had staked out the most economically promising territories for colonization within their spheres of influence. In 1843, King Leopold I signed a contract with Ladd & Co. to colonize the Kingdom of Hawaii, but the deal fell apart when Ladd & Co. ran into financial difficulties. Leopold II tried to interest his government in establishing colonies, but it lacked the resources to develop the candidate territories and turned down his plans.
Leopold II acquired the Congo through private acquisition and military force, not through the apparatus of the state. Leopold II exploited the Congo for its natural rubber, which was becoming a valuable commodity. The Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company employed the Force Publique brutally to extract profits from the territory. His regime in the Congo operated the territory as a forced labor colony, using murder and mutilation as punishments for villagers who did not fulfill the quota for and distribute the appropriate amount of rubber. It is estimated that millions of Congolese died during this time. Many of the deaths were attributed to lack of immunity to new diseases introduced by contact with European colonists. The consensus is that ten million Congolese died during the rule of Leopold, accounting for a fifth of the population.
Although the Congo Free State was not officially a Belgian colony, the country Belgium was its chief beneficiary, in terms of its trade and the employment of its citizens. Leopold II personally becoming monstrously rich from the rubber and ivory exports of the colony acquired at gunpoint. The wealth Leopold extracted was used to construct numerous fine public buildings in Brussels, Ostend and Antwerp. Today he is remembered in Belgium as the 'Builder-King'. Through the Royal Trust, he sold most of his property to the nation, adding to his fortune.
In 1908, to defuse an international outcry against the brutality of the Congo Free State, the Belgian government agreed to annex it as a colony, which forthwith was named the Belgian Congo. The Belgian parliament had long resisted taking responsibility for the Congo Free State as a colony of Belgium. It also annexed Katanga, a territory held under the Congo Free State, which Leopold had gained in 1891. He had sent an expedition that killed its king, Msiri, cut off his head, and hoisted it on a pole. Leopold had administered Katanga separately, but in 1910 the Belgian government merged it with the Belgian Congo. The Belgian Congo was one of the three colonies occupied by Belgian forces.
The conditions in the Congo improved following the Belgian government's takeover from the Congo Free State. Select Bantu languages were taught in primary schools, a rare occurrence in colonial education. Colonial doctors greatly reduced the spread of African trypanosomiasis, commonly known as sleeping sickness. The colonial administration implemented a variety of economic reforms that focused on the improvement of infrastructure: railways, ports, roads, mines, plantations and industrial areas. The Congolese people, however, lacked political power and faced legal discrimination. All colonial policies were decided in Brussels and Leopoldville. The Belgian Colony-secretary and Governor-general, neither of whom was elected by the Congolese people, wielded absolute power. Among the Congolese people, resistance against their undemocratic regime grew over time. In 1955, the Congolese upper class (the so-called "évolués"), many of whom had been educated in Europe, initiated a campaign to end the inequality.
During World War II, the small Congolese army achieved several victories against the Italians in North Africa. The Belgian Congo, which was also rich in uranium deposits, supplied the uranium that was used by the United States to build the atomic weapons that were used in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Ruanda-Urundi was a part of German East Africa under Belgian military occupation from 1916 to 1924. It was made a League of Nations class B mandate of Belgium from 1924 to 1945. It was designated as a United Nations trust territory (still under Belgian administration) until 1962, when it developed as the independent states of Rwanda and Burundi. After Belgium began administering the colony, it generally maintained the policies established by the Germans, including indirect rule via local Tutsi rulers, and a policy of ethnic identity cards, (a policy later retained in the Republic of Rwanda.) Revolts and violence against Tutsi, known as the Rwandan Revolution, occurred in the events before independence.
Along with several other European powers and the United States of America, Belgium also gained a Concession (Chinese: zujie 租界) of some few square kilometers in Tientsin (or Tianjin), a Chinese Treaty port), as a result of the Boxer Rebellion. This was essentially a trading post, rather than a colony. The region was under Belgian control from 1902-1931.
Belgium provided support to Rafael Carrera in his leading Guatemala to independence in Central America in 1840, and expanded its influence in that region. On 4 May 1843, the Guatemalan parliament issued a decree giving the district of Santo Tomás "in perpetuity" to the Compagnie belge de colonisation, a private Belgian company under the protection of King Leopold I of Belgium. It replaced the failed British Eastern Coast of Central America Commercial and Agricultural Company. Belgian colonizing efforts in Guatemala ceased in 1854, due to lack of financial means and high fatalities suffered due to yellow fever and malaria, endemic diseases of the tropical climate.
In 1919, the Island of Comacina was bequeathed to King Albert I of Belgium for a year, and became an enclave under the sovereignty of Belgium. After a year, it was returned to the Italian State in 1920. The Consul of Belgium and the president of the Academy of Brera established a charitable foundation with the goal of building a village for artists and a hotel.