One of the enduring images of the Free State was the severed hands which became “the most potent symbol of colonial brutality”. The practice was comparatively common in colonial Africa (by the Portuguese in Cabinda, for example) and originated in connection with the rubber industry. Suspected of indiscipline, Force Publique soldiers were expected to provide proof that they had not stolen ammunition or used their military equipment for hunting purposes. The practice of hacking the hands off corpses in the aftermath of punitive expeditions became common as evidence (pièces justificatives) that government supplies had not been misused. When soldiers did misuse their equipment, they cut hands from living people to cover their activities. Photographs of victims, taken by missionaries, were among the most potent propaganda for opponents of Leopold’s regime in Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Mutilated people from the Congo Free State
The image is used under the Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0