(CNN)While statues of slave traders, imperialists and US Confederate leaders are being torn down, removed or protested against in the English-speaking world, Belgium has begun removing statues of its one-time King Leopold II.
Never heard of him. Who was King Leopold II? One of the most brutal and ambitious of the 19th century European exploiters of Africa, Leopold II was king of Belgium for more than 40 years, from 1865 to 1909. A first cousin of Queen Victoria, he ruled at a time when Europeans were colonizing — that is, conquering — other parts of the world. Leopold was responsible for a particularly cruel part of that conquest, during the so-called “Scramble for Africa.” What exactly did he do? Read MoreLeopold hired the adventurer Henry Morton Stanley to explore the Congo River basin, signing purported treaties with local leaders along the way. Leopold then used the treaties to stake a claim to an enormous chunk of central Africa — more or less the territory that is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Belgium then as now had a parliament and government that actually ran the country, and they did not support Leopold’s colonial plans, so he declared the “Congo Free State” to be his personal possession, not Belgium’s, and got other countries including the United States and European powers to recognize him as its “proprietor.” What did he get out of that?A huge fortune, for starters, based first on ivory and then on rubber when the automobile and bicycle industries took off. Leopold used a private army to coerce Africans to gather wild rubber from the vines of the rainforests. His army would seize the women and children of villages to force men to collect rubber in ever-increasing quotas. That sounds brutal.It was worse than it sounds. Men were regularly worked to death, while hostages sometimes starved. Naturally, there were rebellions against the “proprietor,” who suppressed them with particular cruelty: His troops were ordered to produce the severed hand of a rebel for each bullet they expended. That meant if the troops shot and missed, they would sometimes cut the hand off a living person. Led by white officers, the troops themselves were often Africans, making them complicit in the trauma the colony suffered. Historians estimate that under Leopold’s misrule, 10 million people died. Was that kind of behavior acceptable even then?Other colonial empires such as Portugal, France and Germany copied Leopold’s methods, but by the end of his life, Leopold was seen as a villain and forced to relinquish control of the so-called Free State. He made Belgium buy it from him a year before his death, and it was renamed the Belgian Congo. It gained independence in 1960 and was first renamed Zaire, then the Democratic Republic of Congo after its long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was toppled in 1997. Leopold II seems largely to have been forgotten given what he did.Leopold’s name may not be widely remembered today, but a phrase first used to describe his actions lives on: Crime against humanity.