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The Congo Free State was a large area in Central Africa which was privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians. Its origins lay in Leopold's attracting scientific, and humanitarian backing for a non-governmental organization, the Association internationale africaine. Using first the multi-national AIA, then the "Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo" (Faransé: Comité d'études du Haut-Congo), and finally the International Association of the Congo (Faransé: Association internationale du Congo), Leopold secured control of most of the Congo basin. Unlike the multinational AIA, the AIC was Leopold's personal vehicle. As the sole shareholder and chairman, he increasingly used it to gather and sell ivory, rubber, and minerals in the upper Congo basin (though it had been set up on the understanding that its purpose was to uplift the local people and develop the area). He gave the AIC the name Congo Free State in 1885. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908. The Congo Free State eventually earned infamy due to the increasingly brutal mistreatment of the local peoples and plunder of natural resources, leading to its abolition and annexation by the government of Belgium in 1908.
Under Leopold II's administration, the Congo Free State became one of the greatest international scandals of the early twentieth century. The report of the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials who had been responsible for killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903 (including one Belgian national for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese people).
The loss of life and atrocities inspired literature such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and raised outcries, even from such upholders of the colonial mission as Winston Churchill. One view is that the forced labour system directly and indirectly eliminated 20% of the population.
European and U.S. reformers exposed the conditions in the Congo Free State to the public through the Congo Reform Association. Also active in exposing the activities of the Congo Free State was the author Arthur Conan Doyle, whose book The Crime of the Congo was widely read in the early 1900s. By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic manoeuvres led to the end of Leopold II's rule and to the annexation of the Congo as a colony of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo.
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