RUBBER, AFRICA (Western Colonialism)

Rubber, also known as hydrocarbon polymer or latex, comes from plants and vines that once grew abundantly on the African continent. During the nineteenth century, French Guinea, Angola, the Gold Coast, French Congo, and the Congo Free State were among the five top rubber-producing states on the African continent. The Ivory Coast, German East Africa, and Nigeria also experienced rubber booms.

Nineteenth-century inventions, such as the pneumatic bicycle tire, and growing industrial uses of rubber products (tubing, hoses, springs, washers, and diaphragms) created a worldwide demand for rubber. During boom years, rubber was the most sought-after export commodity and the greatest income earner for many African states. The African rubber boom lasted from 1890 to 1913 with significant economic, social, and political consequences for many African states. Exploitation and hardship became standard for Africans in the colonies that produced rubber. However, the most devastating impact wrought by the demand for rubber occurred in the Congo Free State, the personal colony of King Leopold II of Belgium (1865-1909).

African rubber came from two sources, trees and vines. Rubber vines were far less durable than trees. Rubber-producing vines, landolphia, were fragile and easily killed. Areas in which rubber was harvested from vines were constantly threatened by the exhaustion of supplies. For example, in Angola, rubber extraction from vines began in the Quiboco forest in 1869; by 1875 no rubber was left in the forest. Similarly, rubber production from Dahomey (now Benin) reached a peak of 14.5 tons per year in 1900, and then declined to 5.9 tons in 1901 and 1.6 tons the year after that as the vines died. Likewise, in French Guinea, the majority of the rubber vines were used up between 1899 and 1905.

Unlike the vines, rubber trees, Funtumia elastica, were hearty and tolerated frequent tapping. If the trees were overtapped they went dormant, but they did not die. Generally, within five years an overused tree was once again producing rubber and could be tapped. Methods of tapping trees to harvest rubber varied greatly from state to state. Early in the rubber boom, in the Gold Coast for example, workers simply cut down the trees to extract as much rubber as possible. Later, they began to climb the trees and tap them with a series of shallow cuts to the tree trunk.

In the Ivory Coast, local people harvested rubber with great care so as to not damage the trees. Unfortunately, increased demand for rubber lead to poaching practices and rubber poachers, whose only goal was to extract as much rubber as quickly as possible, often invaded the Ivory Coast’s forests and damaged the trees. The never-ending quest for rubber lead to boundary disputes between local peoples. Perpetual warfare broke out over access to rubber-harvesting territories as people crossed indigenous boundaries looking for rubber.

Rubber was acquired by colonial powers either through free-trade practices or by forced labor under the direction of a European-controlled concession company. In the areas in which rubber was bought and sold under free-trade agreements, world prices influenced the collection of rubber. High prices encouraged traders and harvesters to collect as much rubber as fast as possible. When worldwide rubber prices dropped, so did production; harvesters turned to other pursuits and traders moved on to more lucrative markets.

However, in areas in which rubber production was managed under a system of concession companies, rubber gatherers were not paid market rates for their rubber and the world price of rubber had little effect on demand. In areas controlled by concession companies, such as the Congo Free State, all rubber was gathered by using forced labor and coercion. When rubber prices dropped, in order to keep profits steady, concessionaires simply increased the quota demanded from rubber gatherers.

Rubber Gatherers in Cameroon. Inspectors check the latex collected by native laborers in 1941 in Cameroon. Although the African rubber boom ended in about 1913, rubber production continued in Africa into the later decades of the twentieth century.

Rubber Gatherers in Cameroon. Inspectors check the latex collected by native laborers in 1941 in Cameroon. Although the African rubber boom ended in about 1913, rubber production continued in Africa into the later decades of the twentieth century.


Using the premises of scientific exploration and the need to end the Arab slave trade in Africa, Leopold established the International Association of the Congo. He recruited Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), the famous Welsh-born explorer of Africa, to seek out and establish several trading and administrative stations along the Congo River and to establish monopoly control over the rich ivory trade in the Congo.

Stanley was instructed to secure treaties from local clan chiefs. Unbeknownst to the local chiefs, they signed documents that ceded their lands and the labor of their people to Leopold. Based on treaties that Stanley acquired with some 450 chiefs, Leopold was granted the Congo as a personal possession at the Congress of Berlin (1884-1885). Leopold’s Congo encompassed a vast territory, covering nearly one million square miles and inhabited by twenty million people. It was larger than England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined. The Congo region was primarily composed of thick, dense rain forest; however, savannahs and snow-covered volcanic mountains were also part of this terrain.

In the Belgian-controlled Congo Free State, Leopold carried out a massive plunder of the region’s resources from 1885 to 1908. He designed policies to loot its rubber, brutalized the people, and ultimately slashed the population by 50 percent (some 10 million people). Almost all exploitable land was divided among concession companies.

The extraction of rubber was accomplished with the imposition of brutal practices against the local people. Forced labor, hostages, slave chains, starving porters, burned villages, paramilitary company “sentries,” and the use of the chicotte were standard practices imposed on local peoples. (The chicotte was a whip made out of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide cut into long, sharp-edged corkscrew strips. It was most often applied to the bare buttocks of a man staked spread-eagle to the ground. These whippings left permanent scars. Twenty strokes of the chicotte sent a victim into unconsciousness, and one hundred or more strokes were often fatal. The chicotte was freely used in Leopold’s Congo.)

In the Congo, concession companies were granted exclusive rights to exploit all the products of the forest for a period of thirty years. The people of the area were expected to collect ivory and wild rubber for the company in lieu of paying taxes to the state. Extra economic coercion in the form of beatings, kidnapping, mutilation, and rape of family members was necessary to force local people to gather rubber.

Rubber agents collected the names of all the men in the villages under their control; each man was given a quota of rubber to collect every two weeks. The rubber agents who worked for the concession companies signed two-year contracts. Their goal was to make a lot of money and return home as quickly as possible. In order to do this they assigned armed sentries, supported by the villages, to watch and ensure proper amounts of rubber were collected. The agents had a personal stake in the amount of rubber collected because they received a 2 percent commission on all rubber they shipped. More importantly, if an agent did not meet his quota he was docked the value of the missing rubber.

The majority of rubber in the Congo came from vines, which eventually died off. In order to increase the supply of rubber being produced, agents insisted that women and children gather rubber as well. In order to avoid exploitation and hardship, some rubber gatherers destroyed the vines on purpose. They believed that if the rubber was gone, the concession company would go away.

The search for rubber created a crisis in the Congo. The agents were irrationally harsh toward gatherers who could not produce enough rubber fast enough. Rubber gatherers abandoned their villages and went into hiding for fear of losing life, limb, or family members. Force Publique officers (Leopold’s army) sent their soldiers into the forest to find and kill fleeing villagers and rebels hiding there. To prove they had succeeded, soldiers were ordered to cut off and bring back the right hand of every person they killed. Often, however, soldiers cut off the hands of living persons, even children, to satisfy the quota set by their officers.

This terror campaign succeeded in getting workers to collect rubber. A few villages attempted rebellion, attacking agents and killing sentries. However, resistance by villagers was met with extreme and immediate brutality. Whole villages would be massacred and burned to the ground. Some local people simply gave up and accepted massacre, preferring death to the ceaseless search for rubber that kept them searching in the forest for up to twenty-four days each month. The violence used against the people of the Congo was so extreme that in 1908 Leopold was forced to turn his colony over to the Belgian government.

The tactics used by the agents of the concession companies in Leopold’s Congo were perhaps little different than methods used by other colonial powers. The striking thing about Leopold’s Congo was the vast deception of his philanthropic mission there. Leopold convinced European powers and the United States to grant him the colony of the Congo. He promised to rid the area of the Arab slave trade and develop free trade on the Congo River. Leopold may have ended the Arab slave trade in the Congo, but he simply replaced it with his own form of slavery. He took possession of the land and its twenty million inhabitants and forced them to work for his personal enrichment and to the benefit of his business associates. He neither developed the region nor provided any benefit to the local people.

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