Canada’s 150th anniversary offers a unique opportunity to shed light on some darker corners of Canadian history. One of the dustier chapters is our contribution to one of the most barbarous regimes of the last century and a half.
In a bid to extract rubber and other commodities from his personal colony, Belgian King Léopold II instituted a brutal system of forced labour in the late 1800s. Individuals and communities were given rubber collection quotas that were both hard to fulfill and punishable by death. To prove they killed someone who failed to fulfill a quota soldiers from the Force Publique, the colonial police, were required to provide a severed hand. With Force Publique officers paid partly based on the number collected, severed hands became a sort of currency in the colony and baskets of hands the symbol of the Congo Free State.
Between 1891 and 1908 millions died from direct violence, as well as the starvation and disease, caused by Leopold II’s terror. A quarter of the population may have died during Leopold’s reign, which sparked a significant international solidarity movement that forced the Belgian government to intervene and buy the colony.
Halifax’s William Grant Stairs played an important part in two expeditions that expanded Leopold II’s immensely profitable Congolese venture. The Royal Military College of Canada trained soldier was one of 10 white officers in the first-ever European expedition to cross the interior of the continent…