Empire
in The age of internationalism and Belgium, 1880–1930
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Few aspects of Belgian history have caused as much controversy as the country’s colonial past. Leopold II’s rule in the Congo was characterised by exploitation, violence and a devastating death toll. This chapter examines the complex relationship between empire and internationalism. It shows how internationalism could be placed at the service of empire while also providing the means to challenge imperial designs.

In their quest for expansion in Africa, Leopold II and his supporters used international law and international conferences. They presented the colonisation of the Congo region as part of an international struggle against slavery. The Brussels Conference of 1889–90 – a major diplomatic event – typified this approach. Yet, in its turn, the attack upon Leopold’s Congo Free State also used international conferences and transnational communication channels. The chapter shows how E. D. Morel, the famous British campaigner for Congo reform, built links with activists in other countries, including the Belgian politicians Emile Vandervelde and Georges Lorand.

The final section extends the discussion to the interwar period. It considers the role of the Belgian Congo within the new international order and examines the interactions between colonial officials and the League of Nations.

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