Historical reasoning is a vital skill for students, and is best done through primary sources, which are created by someone with direct, first-hand knowledge of the event taking place. Studying primary sources leads to improved critical thinking skills, which are vital in a democracy. Examining a variety of primary sources leads to a better understanding of different perspectives, a deeper understanding of the past, and higher engagement with the subject. Document-based-questions, or DBQs, provide students with support to help lead them to their own conclusions.

This set of sources, including written accounts, photographs, and political cartoons, focuses on the establishment and governance of the Congo Free State, which existed from 1885-1908. The Free State was created as the personal colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, who acted under the guise of humanitarian concerns. Sovereign power over the lands was obtained by Henry Morton Stanley, an explorer who traveled the Congo, founded outposts, and made treaties with chiefs (included in the set of documents is an example of such a treaty). Other nations, however, were interested in the Congo as well, and at the Berlin Conference in 1885 Leopold successfully played the other powers off of each other in order to gain control of the Congo. One of the key articles of the treaty is included in the set of written sources.

Today it is widely agreed that the conditions in the Congo were inhumane. The Force Publique (see photograph one) was the armed forces for the Congo, and in addition to defending the area it enforced the “taxes” that the Congolese were required to pay. These taxes were usually in the form of rubber, ivory, other agricultural products, and they were heavy enough that it was extremely difficult for them to find the time to provide for their own families. When the quotas were not met, beatings by the chicotte (whip) were common, as was the practice of taking women and children hostage to force their husbands to meet the tax. Other times members of the Force Publique or of company-based militias committed more extreme atrocities, including destroying villages, murdering the population, and cutting off the hands of the living to prove that their bullets had been used to kill. The photographs included show a range of examples of these conditions.

The international response was extensive, as the Congo became a widely-discussed scandal in Europe and America. George Washington Williams, an African American journalist, wrote an open letter to King Leopold in 1890, creating an interest in conditions in the Congo. Christian missionaries in the Congo, who had initially not created much of a stir against the conditions, began to speak out (see the letters of Reverends Clark and Whitehead). Roger Casement, who was born in Ireland and became a British diplomat, toured the Congo in 1903 and issued a scathing report. Edmund D. Morel, a British author and journalist, with the help of Casement, founded the Congo Reform Association and began an all-consuming campaign to end the atrocities in the Congo. The publicity led to a bevy of newspaper articles and political cartoons (see political cartoon section).

Because no census was taken until 1924, there is disagreement about how many Congolese died from murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, and disease. Many sources agree that the population was cut by half, and number estimates range from 1.5 to 12 million. Despite Leopold’s efforts at a counter publicity campaign, the damage was done, and after two years of debate the government of Belgium agreed to take over the Congo from Leopold. Though conditions improved somewhat, Belgium treated the Congo no better than other European countries treated their colonies. Not until 1960 did the Congo achieve its independence, and even then, it was unprepared because Belgium had not made education and infrastructure a priority.