Culture

The Fascinating Story of the Belgian King and Tyrant Who Tried to Buy the Philippines Three Times

King Leopold II wanted the Philippines so bad.
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Look at historical photographs from late-19th century Congo and we realize how brutal Belgium was to its former colony—rather to King Leopold II's personal colony.

As other European colonial powers were barging into Africa and plundering resources and taking African lives, Belgium's King Leopold II built the Congo Free State and privately owned it. Here, he established Belgium as an imperial power and committed widespread horrors under his rule.

It is widely considered to be one of the most atrocious regimes of the 19th to 20th centuries. Leopold II's goal at the time was to "bring civilization" to the people of Congo. The region accounted for a large segment of Central Africa.

Feasted, the king and his men did.

Cartoon depicting Leopold II and other imperial powers at the Berlin conference of 1884.
Photo by François Maréchal .

When slaves didn't meet daily quotas for rubber or ivory, their hands were cut off and family members met their demise. Disease and malnourishment was rampant, and the living conditions in Congo were just horrid. In the end, it is estimated that 10 to 15 million Congolese people perished.

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But before Leopold II set his sights on Africa, he tried to negotiate a deal to purchase the Philippinesthree times to be exact.

According to historian Ambeth Ocampo, accounts of King Leopold II's fascination with Asia and the Philippines can be found in the 1962 book, A La Recherde d'un Etat Independent: Leopold II et les Philippines 1869-1875.

It is said that King Leopold's intent was to establish the Philippines as a Belgian colony. When he first ascended to the throne in 1865, Leopold II wanted to expand his nation's influence to the East. And this would begin with the Philippines, due to its convenient location and its networks to China and Japan.

His government, however, didn't share the same vision. Leopold's colonization campaign was unpopular amongst members of his Parliament. At the time, most of his people looked to protect Belgian interests. They also knew that this would mean utilizing the navy and army, which would be far too costly for the nation.

In 1866, Leopold II even sent his envoy to Madrid to meet with the Queen of Spain, Isabella II, about the possible Belgian possession of the Philippines. His ambassador didn't support this move, knowing that the plan would be annexed by the Belgian Parliament.

Once Leopold II got a hold of this, he replaced his ambassador with someone more agreeable. This was the first attempt. The second attempt, on the other hand, came just two years later, when Isabela II was overthrown. Ever brazen, Leopold II would seek the outright sale of the Philippines with Spain's new administration. Unfortunately for the king, he didn't have enough funds.

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Leopold II then attempted to get some help from English banks. He planned on making the Philippines an independent country and eventually a colony of the Belgian monarchy. However, his requests for personal loans went nowhere.

When all his attempts failed, he targeted Africa. And in 1885, his expansion finally came into fruition. Hence, the Congo Free State.

We can only imagine the kind of state King Leopold II would have run if he had succeeded in his quest to own and run the Philippines. But based on the horror stories of Congo, suffice to say, let's just say we're glad that never happened. 

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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the Assistant Section Editor of Esquire Philippines.
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