I was listening to No Agenda today and they were talking about the toppling of the Leopold II statue in Belgium, ascribing it to his genocide waged against the Congolese people. John Dvorak stated he was skeptical of the 10 million figure used and even more so of the figure wikipedia cites of 10-15 million people killed.

Millions of the Congolese people died: modern estimates range from 1 million to 15 million deaths, with a consensus growing around 10 million. Some historians argue against this figure, citing the absence of reliable censuses, the enormous mortality of diseases such as smallpox or sleeping sickness, and the fact that there were only 175 administrative agents in charge of rubber exploitation

Assuming the region that the killings took place was more-or-less the same area as the present Democratic Republic of Congo, which now has a population around of 100 million people and a population of 12 million in the 1950's. Would a population two or three times that many people being born and subsequently dying (probably violently) even be feasible?

Note, I'm not sure what the time period of the genocide was, but most likely between 1885 and 1908.

Note: On the Sunday episode of No Agenda Dvorak retracted his assertion realizing that he was talking about the 1950 population of the wrong Congo, making the same mistake I made in the original version of this question.

  • Thinking there should be a genocide and belgium but not sure if I should make 'em on this site. Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 21:38
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    Is your question: "During the reign of Leopold II, did 10-15 million Congolese people die?" [with some proviso about them being earlier than expected deaths or something] or the far more murky "Was Leopold II responsible for those deaths?" or the far too wishy washy "Is it even possible that Leopold II could have been responsible?"
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 21:46
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    Shoot, thanks for clarifying, but my question is, is it even possible, for 10-15 million people to have been born and died during his reign given the population of Congo in 1950? I'll take out the part about "responsible" Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 21:49
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    I think you got your Congo’s mixed up. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, formerly known as Belgian Congo has a population of about 100 million.
    – TimRias
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 23:00
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    Killed is a subset of died (which could be from disease, starvation, etc.). In the Americas for example, many tens of millions died after 1492 (largely due to disease), but only a small fraction of these deaths were killings. Similarly under the Khmer Rouge, about one quarter of the population died, but most of these deaths were by disease and starvation and not killings. You should make clear what your question is about. I think the historians who've come up with the 10M and similar estimates have made it pretty clear that they're talking about deaths and not killings.
    – user55016
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 3:20

1 Answer 1


Your question seems to assume that all the people who died during the genocide were born during that time period, but I don't see why that's necessarily true. The numbers that are asserted are that the population was on the order of 20 million prior to the genocide, and 10 million afterwards (40 years later). Furthermore, the debate seems to be less over whether that many people died, than over whether the deaths were attributable to the Belgian administration.

The relevant Wikipedia section says:

[recent and older (1919) investigations concluded that] roughly half the population perished during the Free State period. Hochshild points out that since the first official census by the Belgian authorities in 1924 put the population at about 10 million, these various approaches suggest a rough estimate of a population decline by 10 million.

From p. 233 of King Leopold's Ghost Google books link:

An official Belgian government commission in 1919 estimated that from the time Stanley began laying the foundation of Leopold's state, the population of the territory had "been reduced by half." Major Charles C. Liebrechts, a top executive of the Congo state administration for most of its existence, arrived at the same estimate in 1920. The most authoritative judgment today comes from Jan Vansina, professor emeritus of history and anthropology and perhaps the greatest living ethnographer of Congo basin peoples. He bases his calculations on "innumerable local sources from different areas: priests noticing their flocks were shrinking, oral traditions, genealogies, and much more." His estimate is the same: between 1880 and 1920, the population of the Congo was cut "by at least a half."

Half of what? Only in the 1920s were the first attempts made at a territory-wide census. In 1924 the population was reckoned at ten million, a figure confirmed by later counts. This would mean, according to the estimates, that during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately ten million people.

Following up the citations from Wikipedia that are critical of these numbers: one (Sophie Mignon, ""Non, Léopold II n'est pas un génocidaire!") is secondary, quoting Jean Stengers, "Critique de Livre de Hochschild":

Those who spoke, in the aftermath of World War I, of the terrible depopulation of the Congo, attributed it primarily to epidemics, often appalling, especially of sleeping sickness and smallpox (...), and to the drop in fecundity caused by these sicknesses and also — these were often missionaries who spoke — to "immorality". Hochschild does not deny these factors, but in his eyes, sickness and the drop in fecundity are largely explained by the weakening of the population caused by the regime's crimes. The main point therefore stems from these crimes.

Stenger goes on to argue that the atrocities cited by Hochschild occurred at different times and places than the enormous drop in population (e.g., Heart of Darkness, on which Hochschild draws, is set in 1890, before forced rubber harvesting began ...). But he doesn't appear to dispute the drop in population size.

Ceux qui parlaient, au lendemain de la Première Guerre, de la terrible dépopulation du Congo, l'attribuaient en ordre principal aux épidémies souvent épouvantables, surtout de maladie du sommeil et de variole (...), et à la baisse de la natalité due à des maladies et aussi - ce sont souvent des missionnaires qui parlent - à l'« immoralité ». Hochschild ne nie pas ces facteurs, mais a ses yeux, maladies et chute de la natalité s'expliquent largement par l'affaiblissement de la population du aux crimes du régime. L'essentiel remonte donc a ces crimes.

  • In other words: Leopold Policy caused depopulation of Congo, halving its population in half. What part of that of it directly attributed to killings and what part of it can be attributed to other things caused by him (like lower birth rates, worse living conditions, etc) is harder to pinpoint.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 14:12
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    The more contrarian people engaged in this debate would argue that some of the depopulation wasn't even indirectly caused by Leopold (e.g. due to disease etc. that would have happened with or without him)
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 14:31

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