In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium dreamed of making his small unimportant country a grand empire to rival the great European powers of the day. However, he was faced with facts that Belgium was rather poor and that when it came to global empires its people just really didn’t give a fuck. To get around this, Leopold formed a fake humanitarian aid organization which funded so called philanthropic expeditions. These expeditions had the actual aim of seizing control of all of central Africa. Eventually catching wind of these shenanigans, the other great powers of Europe freaked right the fuck out. Up until this time, most European powers had been happy enough just trading with the various kingdoms and tribes that controlled the African interior. However, many of the great thinkers of the day had begun warning of a coming Malthusian collapse. Increasingly, people believed that it was only a matter of time before the world ran out of resources, a turn of events expected to result in a just a literal shit ton of famine and war. As a result of Leopold trying to seize control of central Africa, the other European powers realized that the only way to guarantee themselves access to the sweet sweet natural resources of the continent, was to seize control of as much territory as possible before their rivals could. Hence was kicked off what became known as the Scramble for Africa.
It should come as no surprise that the race to claim all of Africa did little to help the European political situation. With the great powers on the brink of war, Leopold came forward to suggest an alternative. Rather than killing each other, the European powers instead in 1885 agreed to carve up the continent into zones of control. This was of course done with absolutely no input from the various kingdoms and tribes already existing in the areas in question. Under the agreement, a large part of central Africa would be left as a neutral buffer zone, which Leopold heroically volunteered to administer. Hence it was that the king of Belgium came to personally own over a million square miles of territory, home to some 20 million people. Leopold named his new personal empire, the Congo Free State.
At the time, none of the other super powers really wanted the Congo Free State because its territory was rather hard to access and it was widely seen as being devoid of valuable resources. However, this all changed thanks to a rising demand for rubber, which was increasingly being used for various uses, foremost amongst them tires for new contraptions like bicycles and automobiles. The Congo Free State was chock full of rubber producing vines, and Leopold found himself sitting on a literal rubber gold mine. All he had to do was find a cost effective way to harvest the rubber. Now if your first thought was to turn the entire region into a veritable slave society, congratulations, you are just as big of a piece of shit as Leopold.
The people of the Congo Free State had long been divided into many different tribes, many of whom didn’t really get along with each other. Leopold took advantage of this by selecting a few tribes at random, calling them the Force Publique, and giving them authority to organize the local labor pool. By organize I of course mean they beat, whipped, and murdered anyone who failed to meet arbitrary quotas set up by pompous business asshats back in Belgium. The whole thing worked rather well as far as Leopold was concerned. He quickly found himself flush with cash, which he mostly spent on fancy monuments to himself and underage prostitutes. However, the various Congolese tribes actually doing the work did not quite agree. The rubber quotas were so large that people in many villages lacked the time needed to actually grow food. When they began to refuse to harvest rubber, the Force Publique upped the ante by torturing people, taking hostages, maiming or killing children, and burning entire villages. Eventually, failure to meet rubber quotas became punishable by death. To ensure that the Force Publique wasn’t frivolously wasting bullets on things like hunting, their Belgian bosses began to require the delivery of severed hands to prove they were actually shooting people instead of animals. This resulted in a whole economy forming around severed hands, with many villages attacking each other to collect hands to appease the Force Publique with when they were unable to meet their ridiculous rubber quotas. As with any economy there was innovators, by which I mean some people figured out that they could save bullets
This went on for twenty fucking years. Society pretty much just fell right the fuck apart. The constant violence and inability to farm enough food caused rampant malnutrition, which in turn resulted in a series of epidemics sweeping across the Congo Free State. As the labor pool shrank, by which I mean people dying, the tactics used to ensure quotas were met became more barbaric, which in turn caused further famine and disease in a terrible shit cycle. The nightmare finally came to an end in the early twentieth century after various missionaries and journalists began alerting the world to what was going on. A series of articles, books, and inquiries eventually forced the Belgian government to seize direct control of the Congo Free State in 1908. By that time, half of the region’s population had died, some 10 million people. King Leopold and his lackeys were never charged with any crimes. Leopold died the next year of old age.