On April 9th, 1835, King Leopold of Belgium was born. Son of Leopold I, the first king of Belgium, Leopold II is most remembered for his aggressive, imperial, foreign policy whilst on the throne.
Interestingly, the king’s expansionist foreign policy was interlinked with his domestic ambitions. Leopold’s stance on domestic policy is summed up best in a private letter he penned in 1888, which outlines his ambition to bring the country greatness by obtaining colonies:
…la patrie doit être forte, prospère, par conséquent posséder des débouchés à elle, belle et calme.
[Translated: the country must be strong, prosperous, therefore have colonies of her own, beautiful and calm.]
Nevertheless, King Leopold II’s reign, which began in July 1865, also saw several significant social reforms; in 1893, universal male suffrage was introduced; he advanced and modernised Belgian infrastructure; and he strengthened the Belgian military to an extent that it was actually able to defend its borders.
But, it was from colonialism that King Leopold II was able to make his name – and earn his infamy; in our article February 5th, we wrote about about the establishment of Belgian rule over the Congo;
On February 5th 1885 King Leopold II of the Kingdom of Belgium established a ‘personal union’ with the so-called Congo Free State…
The raw materials abundant in the state, including ivory, rubber and minerals, were extracted in an industrialised, and ruthlessly efficient manner.”
[The colonisation of the Congo was a central component to the reign of King Leopold II; as such, we urge readers to visit our article on this topic.]
The profits reaped from his conquest in Africa fueled the aforementioned domestic achievements during Leopold’s reign. The money obtained from the Congo allowed Leopold to build defensive towers on the Belgian borders and hire more men into the military. What’s more, it warranted an enormous amount of monetary investment into grand structures, landmarks and buildings by the king, such as the Cinquantenaire and the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken in Brussels. These construction projects earned him the title ‘Builder King’ and much veneration among his countrymen.
In November 1902, an anarchist attempted to assassinate King Leopold II – the attack was unsuccessful as the 3 shots fired by the would-be assassin all missed.
Leopold II died on December 17th, 1909. For most of the last century, his legacy has remained a predominantly positive one, as the term ‘Builder King’ continued to be used beyond the 1990s. In recent years, light has been shon on his atrocities in the Congo, with modern historical estimates suggesting that Leopold’s vicious control of the Congo killed as much as 25% of its population. His name has certainly been damaged in the eyes of the public, earning him a global reputation as a brutal, genocidal dictator.