Belgium Colonization and the Ignition of the HIV Global Pandemic

by Dr. Lawrence Brown

In an article entitled “The Early Spread and Epidemic Ignition of HIV-1 in Human Populations” in the magazine Science in October 2014, Nuno Faria and his fellow researchers revealed the location of Ground Zero for one of the world’s most deadly infectious diseases—HIV. They discovered that HIV-1 originated in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and explain that the deadly virus spread throughout the Congo via the railroad network. HIV-1 was subsequently transmitted by Haitian professionals back to Haiti and then to the United States (1).

Faria and colleagues presented their research findings as follows:

Our estimated location of pandemic origin explains the observation that Kinshasa exhibits more contemporary HIV-1 genetic diversity than anywhere else. It clarifies why the oldest known HIV-1 sequences were sourced from this city and why several early cases indicative of AIDS are linked to Kinshasa (p. 57).

King Leopold II of Belgium
King Leopold II of Belgium

Although the researchers make the assertion that “…we have uncovered the dynamics of the establishment of HIV-1 in humans” (p. 56), the historical dynamics behind the HIV-1 epidemic ignition remain obscured due to serious omissions. The primary historical dynamic omitted from their paper is the major influence of Belgian colonization in the Congo before and after the 1920s. Another key fact omitted is that Mobutu Sese Sekou changed the DRC capital city’s name to Kinshasa in 1971 after winning independence from Belgium in 1960 (2). Prior to the 1960s, the previous name of Kinshasa—and the name of the capital during the 1920s—was Leopoldville, in the then Belgian Congo (3). The city was named after King Leopold II of Belgium.

Adam Hochschild gives a historical accounting of King Leopold’s actions (4). The King made the Congo his own personal colony in 1885 and shortly thereafter began making a fortune by constructing rubber plantations that utilized the forced labor of the Congolese people to meet the demand for rubber at the time. To transport Leopold’s prized resource, the Congolese were conscripted to build the railroad network system that would later prove pivotal in HIV-1 transmission.

When Congolese workers did not meet their quotas under Leopold’s regime, Leopold’s military regiment—known as the Force Publique—would often cut off their hands. Women were frequently held hostage and raped (4). After 23 years of forced labor, plantation building, and rubber extraction, Leopold reluctantly turned over the Congo to the Belgian people in 1908 for a sum of 50 million francs (2). Hochschild estimates that as a result of Belgian colonization, approximately 10 million Congolese lost their lives (p. 233) due to four main factors: (a) murder; (b) starvation, exhaustion, and exposure; (c) disease; and (d) a plummeting birth rate.

Hochschild’s book captures much of the terror of Leopold’s reign over the Congo and Belgium’s crimes against humanity, but words alone cannot convey the staggering scope of the traumas inflicted on the Congolese during this time. Two documentaries illustrate vividly the sheer level of society-altering violence and mass trauma the Belgians inflicted on the Congolese: one is entitled Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death (2004) and the other is named after the book King Leopold’s Ghost (2006).

The specific health and dietary effects of colonization of the Congolese are outlined in one telling passage written by Charles Gréban de Saint-Germain, a magistrate at Stanley Falls (4). The magistrate described the dire health conditions of the Congolese in 1905:

Disease powerfully ravages an exhausted population, and it’s to this cause, in my opinion, that we must attribute the unceasing growth of sleeping sickness in this region; along with porterage and the absence of food supplies, it will quickly decimate this country…. The villages for the most part have few people in them; many huts are in ruins; men, like women and children, are thin, weak, without life, very sick, stretched out inert, and above all there’s no food (p. 231).

This emphasis on the lack of food sheds light on how colonial practices could have contributed to HIV crossing over from animal to human populations. As Chitnis, Rawls, and Moore (5) detail:

Over 50,000 porters were used per year to headload rubber from the interior to the coast by 1906; a railroad was under construction from 1899 through 1913, mostly with slave labor. The “[d]iversion of labor was so great that food was in short supply and had to be imported” and if laborers sickened they received no rations, having to scavenge in the forests (p. 8).

It is important to note that the reason there was no food is because the Congolese were no longer allowed to grow their own food due to the insatiable demand for rubber. Hence, labor was diverted from the people growing their own food to collecting rubber for Leopold’s empire. Thus, there can be no accounting of HIV-1’s crossover, transmission, and emergence out of Leopoldville in the 1920s without taking into account the social determinants of Congolese health prior to the 1920s.

This critical historical context explains how the HIV-1 epidemic was ignited and later led to a global pandemic. By the time of HIV-1’s emergence in the Congo, diseases such as smallpox, sleeping sickness, and lung and intestinal infections were responsible for many deaths—deaths exacerbated by Belgian colonization (4). Although deaths from the aforementioned diseases might not seem to be attributed to Belgian colonization, Hochschild argues that:

…the story is more complicated, for disease rarely acts by itself alone. Epidemics almost always take a drastically higher and more rapid toll among the malnourished and the traumatized… (p. 231).

There is a level of intentionality to King Leopold’s motives that cannot be mistaken. As he remarked sometime before the Berlin Conference of 1885: “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake” (2). A Congolese worker told Roger Casement—a British investigator and Irish nationalist—a different story about the actual impact of Leopold eating his cake (7):

We had to go further and further into the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. Wild beasts—the leopards—killed some of us when we were working away in the forest, and others got lost or died from exposure and starvation, and we begged the white man to leave us alone, saying we could get no more rubber, but the white men and their soldiers said: “Go! You are only beasts yourselves; you are nyama (meat).” We tried, always going further into the forest, and when we failed and our rubber was short, the soldiers came to our towns and killed us. Many were shot, some had their ears cut off: others were tied up with ropes around their necks and bodies and taken away (p. 64-65).

And so HIV-1 emerged from Leopoldville in the 1920s among a people decimated by successive waves of Leopold-led and Belgian-arranged violence, murder, mutilation, and mass trauma. HIV-1 transmission was facilitated by a colonial system set up by Leopold and his Force Publique and from 1885 to 1911, leading to a loss of half the Congolese population (2, 4).

*Photo: How Colonialism Created the HIV/AIDS Pandemic

Faria and colleagues mention another causal factor for HIV epidemic ignition: changes in the population’s sexual behavior and the prevalence of commercial sex workers. Yet these factors, like the existence of railroads and animal-to-human crossover, would also have been heavily affected by mass historical traumas experienced by the Congolese people (8). Congolese historian César Nkuku Khonde writes that prostitution was “a phenomenon of colonial origin” (p. 224). John Hobbis Harris, an English missionary, wrote of his visit to the Congo in a 1912 publication (9), where he alluded to sexual abuse and the torture of Congolese women:

To-day one sees the havoc which King Leopold created when he let loose upon the Congo tribes the scum of Europe. None have escaped the infection; girls of tender years and even boys not yet in their teens delight in practices of which in the old days the chiefs would have kept them in complete ignorance for another five years. Upon the women the results have been most revolting, for in the Congo the majority of women have lost their womanhood and have fallen into a daily condition from which even the beast of the forest refrain (p. 67).

In a remarkable turn of phrase, Harris describes European colonization as the “infection” that afflicts the Congolese people. In the judgment of John Hobbis Harris, King Leopold’s Force Publique not only depopulated the Congolese through their brutality, but under Leopold’s regime, food was scarce, humanity was debased, and previous social norms were perverted.

Despite its omissions, Faria and colleagues’ research does provide a valuable service. The research firmly establishes that HIV-1’s origin was not due to a polio vaccine campaign that took place in the 1950s in Central Africa (10), nor was it created by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which was not founded until 1947 (10, 11). However, the hunting of chimpanzees and the practice of reusing syringes could have contributed to the transmission of the disease (5, 10). The practice of hunting chimpanzees or eating chimpanzees as wild game before the 1920s would have been greatly affected by a variety of factors associated with Belgian colonization (5).

Belgian colonialism is implicated in the animal-to-human crossover and the transmission of the HIV-1 vis-à-vis the sexual behaviors of the population, the building of the railroads, the influx of migrant workers, and colonial public health campaigns. By neglecting to mention the empirical historical data concerning Belgian colonization and European colonial practices, Faria and co-authors essentially place blame for the HIV-1 global pandemic at the feet of the Congolese. In doing so, not only does their research risk inducing shame among the Congolese people and creating the basis for social stigma globally (12-17), the paper’s findings prevent the reader from being able to properly account for the influence of Leopold’s avarice and the Force Publique’s malevolence.

BELGIAN CONGO - CIRCA 1948 A stamp printed in Belgian Congo shows railroad Leopoldville - Matadi,
BELGIAN CONGO – CIRCA 1948 A stamp printed in Belgian Congo shows railroad Leopoldville – Matadi,

We now know that HIV-1 emerged from Leopoldville in the 1920s and spread first among African people. The colonization of the Congolese by King Leopold II and the Belgians helps explain how the virus became a global pandemic.

HIV-1 disproportionately devastates sub-Saharan Africa people precisely because European colonization exacted tremendous violence, extracted critical resources, disrupted social structures, and weakened the health of indigenous populations. European nations broke their promise to protect and promote the welfare of the indigenous African people. Instead the Belgians dehumanized and debased African societies producing the social determinants of death that gave rise to deadly infectious diseases. HIV-1 was ignited in Leopoldville, but the resulting HIV global pandemic is also the apparition of a grotesque and horrific legacy—the European infection of mass historical trauma and the devastation of Congolese health wrought by King Leopold II, the Force Publique, and Belgian colonization.

References and Notes

  1. Faria, N. R., A. Rambaut, M. a. Suchard, G. Baele, T. Bedford, M. J. Ward, a. J. Tatem, et al. 2014. “The Early Spread and Epidemic Ignition of HIV-1 in Human Populations.” Science 346(6205): 56–61.
  2. Graseck, Susan, Andy Blackadar, Sarah Kreckel, Dan Devine, Anne Campau Prout, L Perry Curtis, and Lucy Mueller. 2005. “Colonialism in the Congo: Conquest, Conflict, and Commerce.” Providence, RI.
  3. Gondola, Ch. Didier. 2002. The History of Congo. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
  4. Hochschild, A. 1999. King Leopold’s Ghost. Houghton Mifflin.
  5. Chitnis, Amit, Diana Rawls, and Jim Moore. 2000. “Origin of HIV Type 1 in Colonial French Equatorial Africa?” AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses 16 (1): 5–8.
  6. World Health Organization. 2011. Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants.
  7. Doyle, A. Conan. 1909. The Crime of the Congo. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Company.
  8. Sotero, Michelle M. 2006. “A Conceptual Model of Historical Trauma: Implications for Public Health Practice and Research.” Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice 1(1): 93–107.
  9. Harris, John H. 1912. Dawn in Darkest Africa. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  10. Harindra, Veerakathy. 2008. “HIV: Past, Present and Future.” Indian Journal of Sexually Transmitted Disease 29 (1): 1–6.
  11. Bogart, Laura M, and Sheryl Thorburn. 2005. “Are HIV/AIDS Conspiracy Beliefs a Barrier to HIV Prevention among African Americans?” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 38(2): 213–18.
  12. Seay, Laura, and Kim Yi Dionne. 2014. “The Long and Ugly Tradition of Treating Africa as a Dirty, Diseased Place.” Washington Post, August 25.
  13. Brown, DeNeen L., and Pamela Constable. 2014. “West Africans in Washington Say They Are Being Stigmatized because of Ebola Fear.” Washington Post, October 16.
  14. Calabrese, Eric, and Rebecca Harshbarger. 2014. “‘We Are Liberian, Not a Virus’: SI Immigrants Face Ebola Stigma.” New York Post. October 17.
  15. Hamid Gbawuru Marah, Twitter post, October 13, 2014, 9:29 a.m.,
  16. Major, Brenda and Laurie T O’Brien. 2005. “The Social Psychology of Stigma.” Annual Review of Psychology 56: 393–421.
  17. Pascoe, Elizabeth a, and Laura Smart Richman. 2009. “Perceived Discrimination and Health: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Psychological Bulletin 135 (4): 531–54.

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Dr. Lawrence Brown is currently an assistant professor of public health at Morgan State University. His research explores the intersection between the social determinants of health and global health outcomes, particularly with respect to historical trauma, European colonization, and American Apartheid (which is segregation plus serial forced displacement). He is also engaged in Baltimore communities as an activist for equitable redevelopment and is a frequent guest host on the Marc Steiner Show (88.9 FM). You can reach him on Twitter @bmoredoc

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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5 thoughts on “The Ghost of King Leopold II Still Haunts Us

  1. Quite remarkable to write a historical article about the colonial history of the Congo without mentioning Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Of course being written in 1908 it’s possible to pick holes in that too, but as a response to the Belgium colonial regime – which even at the time was regarded as excessively brutal – is quite the omission indeed, especially given it’s ongoing impact which continues to this day.

    As to Colonialism causing the HIV pandemic – the article is quite fascinating as to how it facilitated emergence, but I don’t think you can really place any particular blame beyond that. It’s analogous in many ways to WW1 ‘causing’ the 1918 Flu epidemic – in that case it’s beyond dispute that the presence of large numbers of men crowded together in insanitary conditions on the Western Front, and populations at home under dietary stress, facilitated the emergence of a particularly virulent strain, but it wasn’t inevitable that the epidemic would arise at that particular time and place, just more likely that it would establish should the dice roll such that a virulent strain was present in a chicken and passed to a vulnerable human. Any other argument is somewhat an appeal to the spontaneous generation model of disease.

    Similarly with HIV – there’s always steady flow of disease agents from animal to human populations and that HIV made the jump at this point is interesting but not essentially causal – it could have started on it’s worldwide journey with the Arab exploitation of Easter Africa a couple of hundred years before, or not be seen at all until decades later, as seems to be the case with Ebola. Certainly the excesses of Belgium Colonialism made it more likely, but nevertheless it’s still a game of probabilities


  2. It was as bad all over Africa (not just Congo) and for the Africans in diaspora. It was bad for all the Black people of the Pacific & PNG. The Australian Aborigines had it bad (successful complete genocide in Tasmania) with very very very few left who are not mixed & very very few left in total. Then the ones in North Africa and Asia who are almost completely removed from history.




  3. King Leopold’s Congo – Cry, the beloved country, you have been to hell and back, and now you must rebuild, for your children and grandchildren


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