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Success of Belgium: A Colonial Empire*

*ODTÜ Tarih Bölümünde HIST407 Çağdaş Dünya Tarihi dersi için 2019 Sonbahar döneminde hazırlanmış çalışmadır.


Belgium is a small but important country of Europe, on the other hand one of the most problematic countries in the continent.  Its importance came from jeopolitical position of Belgium. Belgium share borders with Germany, France and Nederlands also located near of British Isles. Also Belgium have great economy and stabile political structure. Otherwise, country is dealing with problems which comes from multi-ethnic and multi-lingualistic origin of people. The ethnic groups in Belgium are, mainly Dutch,French and German people. And every group preserve their own language and culture. This division between people is main the problem of Modern Belgium. Today, the government developing many projects as a solution.

Belgium can be most successful country in this age becasue it became independent, established a political system, economical system and create colonial empire in this very short period.In the begining of 20th century Belgium had most some of the most valuable colonies of world like Congo and it achived this in only 55 years, under the rule of Leopold II. The colonial empire which created by Leopold II was 78 times bigger than modern Belgium.[1] So in this paper, we will discuss their success with all positive and negative aspects of Early Belgium history. We will try to understand reasons of this success and effecs to later times.

Revolution in Belgium
Image 1 Revolution in Belgium


1. Belgium Independence Movement

With the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) provinces of Belgium and Netherlands united.[2] But Belgian people were not happy under Dutch rule. This unification was result of only diplomatic process. For Belgians, their king -William I- was “too Protestant, too Dutch and too autocratic.”[3] Under these circumstances, Belgium intellectuals and middle-class started an opposition with their publications in the newspapers.[4] This opposition rapidly turned to a revolt. Revolution period was mainly about street fights between Dutch Army and revolutionaries.[5] But there was no clear winner. Because, King William was not capable for suppress a revolt and European powers take an action immediately.[6] William’s unsuccessful strategies and mistakes became the key factor of revolutionary movement and independence as a result.

Because of the geopolitical importance of Belgium, revolution became an international crisis/matter. European powers were involved this situation. They found, independent and neutral Belgium as a solution. It designed as a buffer zone in the middle of Europe.[7] Another important factor in their mind was liberalism. European states supported the idea of new liberal state with industrial and financial capitalism.[8] Because of these factors Belgium became an independent state with the approval of European Great Powers.

Ruling system of new state was another matter for Belgium people. Clearly, there was a large consensus among the people to contain the monarch.[9] But they also limited the powers of monarch and established an assembly; which means ruling system became constitutional monarchy.

But, right after the revolution attitude of aristocracy changed. Poor people -peasants and workers- fought in the revolution but they couldn’t get any right or status after the revolution.[10] And the first ruler; Leopold I started to deal with internal opposition right after the independence. He provoked political groups in the parliament against each other. Because of this, Belgium constitution was exact result of this balance of powers and superiority of monarch.[11]

One of the powerful groups in the Belgium politics was Catholics. Their policies were ruled by the Vatican directly. The Vatican was ambitious about internal politics of Belgium and tried to get rid of the liberal rulers.[12]

2. Industrial Revolution

We can say that Industrial Revolution was the turning point of history of modern people. After the revolution in England, people started to produce more materials with less expenses. It provided rapid economic growth to states but on the other hand they must had enough resources for their industrial needs. Belgium was one of the first places which industrial revolution spread (after England and Scotland).[13] Because Belgium already had very rich resources, especially coal mines, in its own territories.

The first importance of Industrial Revolution was the development internal-combustion engines. With this new technology long journeys became shorter. For example, before the revolution journey to New World took months. So, trade networks became more universal and European powers started to bring needs from far distances.

Another importance was developing of heavy industry. Industrial activities like mining, shipbuilding, steel production or gun production became easier and common in the continent of Europe. But these new industries bring new needs of resources and Europe couldn’t find in its own continent. As a result, Industrial Revolution was the one of the main reasons of colonialism.

On the other hand, Industrial Revolution had some other developments which had effects on daily life. For example, railways and telegraphs made communication faster. People started to beat distances and news/ ideas spread faster. Also, quick-firing guns and modern warships changed concept of war in the continent.[14]

Industrial Revolution caused some social developments. Peasants evolved workers and created new social atmosphere in the cities.  They had different concerns than upper class and started to discuss about them. People became more politicized and thought about possible solutions.

3. Economy of New Belgium

Belgium economy rapidly developed with the help of industrial development in the country. In the early years steel companies were backbone of Belgium economy. Companies like; SA Usine Boel, Ougrée-Marihaye, John Cockerill Company, Espérance-Longdoz, and Forges de la Providence created locomotives of Belgium heavy industry.

Also, industrialization of Belgium economy started in revolutionary period of Belgium. Textile facilities developed during the revolution in Ghent and Verviers. And in the same time, steel factories and coal industry developed in Liege and Hainout.[15]

Clearly, capitalist economy and industry were some of the key reasons of Belgium’s independence. After the independence, these companies became more and more effective. They financed colonial activities and military developments, later. As a return, Belgium economy improved itself with colonial income.

4- Colonial Empire  

Colonization was the most important phenomena of these ages. Great powers of Europe need colonies to cover expenses of their industrial economy. Basically, they need raw materials like iron or they need slaves to use in farms or factories. But Belgium was not a biggest country in Europe, so what was the reason behind the colonial ambition of Belgium? The only reason was, Leopold II’s himself.

Image 2 Leopold II


Leopold II, before the becoming king, read many books and reports about colonies and colonialization. Also, he traveled to see untouched lands.[16] In his mind, colonialization was only way to became one of the great powers of Europe. For example; in the letter which he wrote to Belgium ambassador in London, he said “I want to take a slice of this delicious Africa cake”. [17]

Another reason for colonial ambition of Leopold II was the situation in the in domestic politics. As it stated before there were many groups in the assembly and Leopold II wanted to serve the interests of Belgium’s capitalist class.[18] Probably he thought that potential income from Congo, developed capitalist class and they will be richer.

Leopold II established an organization which called the International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of Central Africa, main purpose was slave trade and this attempt financed and organized by Leopold II.[19]

Actually, colonialization ideas didn’t start with the Leopold II. In the reign of Leopold I, colonialization was an option for Belgium but it seem impossible because of the economic reasons -he was the first king of new established Belgium- and Belgium’s military weakness against the other colonial states.[20] Meanwhile, Belgian scientists were gathering information about Latin America, India and Middle East. Also, Belgian businessmen had networks with China, India and other countries in Far East. On the other hand, missioners in non-Christian lands bring information about their places. But these were not state policy, only some individual efforts.[21] So, Belgium colonialization was result of long and detailed process. Also, it was special because project developed and run by the monarch himself.[22] It means, there were no possible problems about budget or security.

It is very important that; Leopold II was very ambitious about colonial expansion and established committees for colonial research[23]. They searched suitable lands for Belgium’s needs and write reports directly to Leopold II.  Congo seemed perfect example; it located middle of the Africa and have connection with the Nile.

But there were some problems for Leopold II’s this great goal. Firstly, great powers like Britain, France and Holland were against another rival in colonial race. They didn’t want to share these rich lands. Secondly, according to their political structure Leopold II must get approval of parliament for this aggressive operation. He used very simple solution; he lied his parliament and his own people.[24]

He advocated great and well prepared propaganda to Belgium people and international media. With this propaganda he gets public support and convinced political parties. Also, he promised free trade port in Congo to other colonial empires. After the deal and approval of parliament, Congo Free State founded in 1885. This new state look like independent on the paper, there was no direct line between Congo and Belgium.

Belgium established very strict military regime in the Congo. They controlled workers who had to work under hard conditions. Also, there were many Belgium citizen and military forces divide them from local people.[25] With this military power, Leopold II caused death of millions of people in Congo.[26] Soldiers cut the hands of people because they had to prove that they saved bullets.[27] This bloody regime was proof of Leopold II’s colonial ambition.

After all, this quotation may be summary of colonial activities of Belgium in the Congo;

“The Belgians weren’t imperialists; they did not want an empire. The Congo was about one man who wanted money. That’s what made it so bad. The state’s only purpose was to collect rubber. The king didn’t want to exterminate people; he wanted them to work for him.”[28]

Belgium Rule in Congo
Image 3 Belgium Rule in Congo



Belgium has well developed economy and important diplomatic power. Country founded in 19th century and became one of the important countries in the Europe. Economically, it benefited advantages of Industrial Revolution. Rulers and elites established many heavy industrial factories in the country. Politically, it became independent after a revolution and founded constitutional monarchist regime. So, state gained powerful leadership under the control of parliament. One of these powerful leaders was Leopold II, which was most important figure of colonial activities of Belgium. He directly ruled and financed these activities and made Congo colony of Belgium. Belgium rule in Congo was cruel, bloody and inhuman but gained many advantages to Belgium. Belgian people bring many raw materials for their huge industrial facilities and solved problem of labor with hundreds of slaves from Congo. With the colonialization, Belgium improved economy and became one of the most stabile countries of Europe. Even today, economy of Belgium on the list of biggest economies of world with only 11 million population. As a result, the reason of Belgium’s success is their colonial campaign. Differently from other colonial empires like Dutch or British ones; Belgium managed their organization with power of ruler/state. Belgium didn’t rule Congo with the companies, its ruler directly ruled his own colony. With this method, state increased their profit and expanded their economic activity. After all the small European state became well developed and modern state which we know as Belgium today.



Arblaster, Paul. 2006. A History of the Low Countries. New York: Palgrave.

Barreau, Jan-Claude, and Guillaume Bigot. 2006. Bütün Dünya Tarihi. İstanbul: Dharma.

Cook, Bernard. 2002. Belgium: A History. New York: Peter Lang.

Francois, Pieter. 2010. ‘A Liitle Britain on the Continent’ Pritish Perseptions of Belgium, 1830-1870. Pisa: Plus.

Kennedy, Paul. 1989. The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers. New York: Vintage Books.

Vanthemsche, Guy. 2012. Belgium and the Congo: 1885-1980. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Witte, Els, Jan Craeybeckx, and Alain Meynen. 2009. Political History of Belgium: From 1830 Onwards. Brussels: ASP.


[1] Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. p. 1069

[2] Van Der Essen, Leon. A Short History of Belgium. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,1916. p. 145

[3] Van Der Essen, p. 151

[4] Craeybeckx, Jan. Meynen, Alain. Witte, Els. Political History of Belgium. Brussels: ASP,2009. p.23

[5] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.23

[6] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.24

[7] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.24

[8] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p. 24

[9] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.25

[10] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.25

[11] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.25

[12] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.36

[13] Harman, Cris. Halkların Dünya Tarihi. İstanbul: Yordam, 2010. p. 313

[14] Paul, Kennedy. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. p.144

[15] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.21

[16] Vanthemsche, Guy. Belgium and the Congo, 1885–1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. p. 17

[17] Harman, p. 385

[18] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.135

[19] Vanthemsche, p.85

[20] Vanthemsche, p.16

[21] Vanthemsche, p.18

[22] Craeybeckx, Meynen, Witte, p.135

[23] Vanthemsche, p.16

[24] Vanthemsche, p.19

[25] Vanthemsche, p.85

[26] Congo p.86

[27] Harman, p.385

[28] Congo, p.86