Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.
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Leopold’s private hell: Leopold II of Belgium
When he wasn’t enslaving the natives of the Congo, Leopold II ruled Belgium. Here he appears on an 1873 5 franc piece.
At first glance Leopold II, who ruled Belgium from 1865 to 1909, looks like just another bearded 19th century European monarch.
Benevolent at home, Leopold gave workers the right to form unions and take Sundays off. Child labor was restricted. All men were given the right to vote.
Abroad, though, he was a monster, running the Congo as his private colony, enslaving the populace and killing and maiming millions.
"He turned his 'Congo Free State' into a massive labour camp, made a fortune for himself from the harvest of its wild rubber, and contributed in a large way to the death of perhaps 10 million innocent people,” the BBC reported in a 2004 story on the murderous king’s legacy.
Leopold’s private army, Force Publique, murdered men who failed to harvest enough rubber, and killed their wives and children, too. Leopold’s soldiers cut the hands and feet off children and the penises off men and routinely beat natives to death.
While many of history’s mass murderers were held to account for their sins against humanity, Leopold came out smelling like a well-fertilized rose. The Belgian government bought him out in 1908, extracting the payment, of course, from the Congolese.
In 1914, American poet Vachel Lindsay included these lines in a work called The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race:
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host,
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell