Upon his accession in 1865, Leopold decided Belgium should be beautiful, rich, secure, and more powerful. Accordingly, he transformed Brussels and Ostend, built monuments and public works, backed Belgian enterprises abroad, gained fortifications, and, on his deathbed, signed an army reform. Additionally, since the idea of European expansion was impossible, Leopold determined that Belgium should seek colonial expansion elsewhere.
Leopold created allegedly humanitarian associations and sent H. M. Stanley to establish stations on the Congo River. These efforts helped Belgium gain influence in the Congo. Additionally, since no great power wished another to gain the vast Congo basin, Leopold used the apparent weakness of Belgium to become the sole proprietor of his Congo Free State after the 1884–85 Congress of Berlin.
Leopold as king-sovereign enlarged it, gaining Orientale Province (Haut-Zaïre), effective control of mineral-rich Katanga (Shaba), and eastern regions, eliminating East African slavers. However, Britain blocked Leopold’s drive to the Nile, preventing further expansion.
Leopold never visited the Congo and did not envision Africans as real. For a decade, he was chronically short of funds to administer the state and its army. Tenacious, clever, and unscrupulous, he extorted a great deal from Belgium.
He built a railway around cataracts to render the Congo River navigable to the sea but otherwise avoided development. In 1891 he declared all “vacant land” (including fallow fields and hunting grounds) state property.
In 1892 he created state lands that included about half the Congo. There, aside from two concessions, profits went solely to the state’s expenses. As world demand for rubber rose, the Congo became profitable, and greed overtook Leopold’s concern for Belgium.
In 1896 he created large Crown lands in the Congo, whose profits accrued directly to him rather than to the state. Demands for more rubber led to abuses, including mutilation and murder of the indigenous population.
Criticism mounted in English-speaking countries. Ultimately, the outcry became so intense and the abuses so well-documented that in 1908, Belgium, to end abuses, reluctantly took the Congo away from Leopold.