In 1903, the Congolese were still suffering heavily under King Leopold’s homicidal ghosts when two Australian explorers discovered the gold along the Angola River at Moto in today’s Ituri District. Soon after, the Belgian parliament voted to annex the Congo to turn it into a proper colony of the Belgian State. This should have been the beginning of a more humane and promising era since annexation involved the adoption of a Colonial Charter in which the Belgian State stipulated unequivocally that “Nobody can be forced to work on behalf of and for the profit of companies or privates.” Unfortunately, Belgium’s parliament also stipulated that the economic development of, and social services for, the colony had to be funded by revenues raised in the Congo.
Following the enactment of these new laws, working Congolese were supposed to receive a wage but exploiting the Congo’s natural resources required a huge labour force. Massive numbers had to be hired to construct the necessary roads, ports, mines, colonial administrations centres, and other infrastructure – and once their work had begun, they needed to be housed and fed. This required industrial farming and livestock-raising, which in turn necessitated the hiring of another sizeable contingent of farmers, shepherds and herdsmen. Because of the lack of adequate roads or riverine shipping facilities, food and supplies had to be carried by men over long distances to the mines, while raw minerals had to be moved to the trading centres. Again, an army of porters was required. But how could the colonial administration pay for the wages of tens of thousands of new farm labourers, porters and mine workers when it had not yet raised any revenues?
So the colony’s civil servants came up with an ingenious answer: they imposed a head tax on all Congolese men. This strategy, they assumed, would solve two problems. Firstly, the tax would greatly incentivise all Congolese to seek employment. And secondly, taxes would provide the revenues necessary to pay wages. However, the colonial administrators had forgotten that most Congolese – deeply traumatized by King Leopold’s ruthless reign – had no desire to work under the Belgians. And just when the need to bring in new, more willing workers became imperative to the success of eastern Congo’s gold mines, an epidemic of sleeping sickness raced through the country, wiping out whole villages and discouraging even those willing to work from travelling.
So the colonial authorities came up with a new scheme to ‘facilitate’ the payment of the head tax by offering men the possibility of paying their taxes with unpaid labour. In practical terms, it was the reintroduction of King Leopold’s ‘prestations’ – the legalised extortion of Congolese labourers. When the Congolese did not embrace this ‘slavery-for-taxes’ offer with the expected enthusiasm, more serious measures such as the reintroduction of compulsory work became inevitable.
The Belgian colonial authorities partly justified their dramatic return to King Leopold’s odious practices by blaming the additional increase in the labour force that was necessitated by the advent of World War I. The colonial administration had to fulfil its treaty obligations under a mutual military assistance pact with its allies and so it had to organise a military excursion against neighbouring German-occupied Tanganyika and Cameron. Where would the authorities find the men that could be uniformed, trained and fight against the Germans? The only answer was to forcibly recruit tens of thousands of Congolese into military service in order to create the 17,000 strong Force 12 Congo’s Golden Web Publique and to man the huge supply and logistics operations necessary to sustain the deployment of these troops. And with the forced recruitments came compulsory labour and the use of the chicotte8 – all mandated with highly detailed amendments to the Colonial Charter and Labour Laws.
To finance this additional expense, the authorities pressed ahead with the production of gold and other high-value export goods, such as diamonds from Kasai. “It was a remarkable and unexpected economic phenomenon that the Belgian Congo achieved during the war,” marvelled Jacques Crokaert. He described9 how gold production at the Kilo Mines kept the colonial treasury in good standing with its international creditors – recounting how gold production in Ituri and Uélé had more than doubled from 929 kg in 1914 to 2364 kg in 1918, while diamond exports had increased during the same period from 15,000 to 164,000 carats. The Belgian authorities had met the financial challenges with bravura – and a lot of Congolese sweat and blood. Indeed, the colonial administration had funded its conflict against colonial Germany with gold and diamonds – establishing the historic foundation for today’s concept of ‘conflict minerals’.
Not only was Congo’s gold now inexorably connected with war, the exploitation of the mineral was also linked with painful abuses. Unleashing the Force Publique – many recruited from the non-Congolese Africans who had served in the brutal security forces of King Leopold’s reign, and led by Belgian officers – brought a reign of terror into gold mining regions. Villagers were beaten, raped, and killed, while whole villages were torched when traditional chiefs did not provide sufficient workers for the gold mines.