Red Rubber system and forced labour

With the majority of the Free State’s revenues derived from the export of rubber, a labour policy (known by critics as the “Red Rubber system”) was created to maximise its extraction. Labour was demanded by the administration as taxation. This created a “slave society” as companies became increasingly dependent on forcibly mobilising Congolese labour for their collection of rubber. The state recruited a number of black officials, known as capitas, to organise local labour. However, the desire to maximise rubber collection, and hence the state’s profits, meant that the centrally-enforced demands were often set arbitrarily without considering the numbers or the welfare of workers. In the concessionary territories, the private companies which had purchased a concession from the Free State administration were able to use virtually any measures they wished to increase production and profits without state interference. Treatment of labourers (especially the duration of service) was not regulated by law and instead was left to the discretion of officials on the ground. ABIR and the Anversoise were particularly noted for the harshness with which officials treated Congolese workers. The historian Jean Stengers described regions controlled by these two companies as “veritable hells-on-earth”

Workers who refused to supply their labour were coerced with “constraint and repression”. Dissenters were beaten or whipped with the chicotte, hostages were taken to ensure prompt collection and punitive expeditions were sent to destroy villages which refused. The policy led to a collapse of Congolese economic and cultural life, as well as farming in some areas. Much of the enforcement of rubber production was the responsibility of the Force Publique, the colonial military. The Force had originally been established in 1885, with white officers and NCOs and black soldiers, and recruited from as far afield as Zanzibar, Nigeria and Liberia. In the Congo, it recruited from specific ethnic and social demographics. These included the Bangala, and this contributed to the spread of the Lingala language across the country, and freed slaves from the eastern Congo.[24] The so-called Zappo-Zaps (from the Songye ethnic group) were the most feared. Reportedly cannibals, the Zappo-Zaps frequently abused their official positions to raid the countryside for slaves. By 1900, the Force Publique numbered 19,000 men.

The red rubber system emerged with the creation of the concession regime in 1891 and lasted until 1906 when the concession system was restricted. At its height, it was heavily localised in the Équateur, Bandundu and Kasai regions.


A 1906 Punch cartoon depicting Leopold II as a rubber vine entangling a Congolese man.

The image is used under the Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0