At the first blows the unhappy victims utter terrible shrieks, which soon die down to low groans. In addition, when the officer who orders the punishment is in a bad humour, he kicks those who cry or struggle.

One of the things that best symbolizes the cruel oppression and sheer brutality of the treatment of the native people during the colonial years that the Congo was "owned" by Belgium (actually by King Leopold II)—known by the bitterly ironic title État Indépendant du Congo (Congo Free State)—was the chicotte.1

It would be too simple to describe it as a whip (nor as a "horsehair whip" as one source erroneously puts it). It's more than that. It was made of a, usually fresh, strip of raw hippopotamus hide, cut in a corkscrew fashion, leaving the edges extremely sharp. In time it also hardened (while remaining flexible) making it more "effective" as the strap would wind around its victim. Not only welts, but the chicotte could leave deep scars as it split skin and muscle. Its use was able to physically and psychologically break a person. The form of punishment was used almost universally in the colony. Of the millions who broke their backs while being worked to death, a great many also felt the chicotte crack down and bite through flesh. Again and again and again.

In the King's mad scramble for a colony (the area of which was over 70 times that of his own country) and the exploitation—more correctly: rape—of its resources to fill his coffers, certain measures had to be taken to ensure the "workforce" would keep up the pace of procurement and to keep them in line. Many different methods of coercion and terror were used to make the people gather thousands of tons of ivory and rubber (primarily) and other resources and to keep them from rebelling (which remained a problem despite the genocidal numbers of the dead across Central Africa). Hostage-taking, summary and sometimes arbitrary executions, burning entire villages to the ground, humiliation, mutilation, rape.

Millions of people were treated as de facto slaves at a time when "civilization" liked to believe it no longer existed except by a few uncivilized groups (such as "African-Arabs") in isolated cases. And while perhaps not the worst practice of the "masters," few things are more symbolic and evocative of slavery than the whip—the only things that come close are yokes/chains, the use of which was common as well.

It also represented colonialism, itself. More often than not, those wielding the chicotte were not the white masters, but overseers and members of the State's militia cum private army (the Force Publique), made up of Congolese. More than just a means of keeping one's hands clean of the dirty work (many didn't bother) and saving money, colonial powers learned early of the value of taking small groups of indigenous people and giving them power and/or privilege over the rest. This functions in more than one way. First, it gives the group with power a sense of security that the others do not have and to maintain that, they will work even harder (and more brutally). It also serves to divide and separate the people, often creating tribalistic rifts and animosity, often along ethnic lines—all of which keeps "them" more likely to fight amongst themselves, rather than against the real oppressors.

The whippings were administered to a stripped victim's back and buttocks. According to the "laws," there were supposed to be no more than 25 lashes and one should stop when blood began to flow. As with most things in the Congo, there was no rule of law (as Rudyard Kipling described it in a poem: "Where there aren't no Ten Commandments"). Even when following the "law," overseers and officers were able to milk it for all the cruelty available under the limitations. One officer, noting the difficulty of using a chicotte "properly," described how to maximize the torture:

One should spread out the blows so that each shall give a fresh pang. Then we have a law which forbids us to give more than twenty-five blows in one day, and to stop when the blood flows. One should, therefore, give twenty-four of the blows vigorously, but without risking having to stop; then at the twenty-fifth, with a dexterous twist, one should make the blood spurt.

Again, despite the "laws" (the King took great effort to hide the things that went on in his colony and always discussed the Congo in "humanitarian" and "civilizing" terms), punishments were often for more than 25 strokes. So painful and harsh were the lashes that more than 25 could often lead to fainting and unconsciousness. As many as 100 were often given—the higher the number the more likely the victim would simply die, not an uncommon result. There were reports of 150 or 200 strokes—numbers that high meant almost certain death and were probably intended that way. When the blows were over, some officers made the victim get up and salute them. One eyewitness saw an officer pour salt and pepper into a victim's wounds.

Not used only for the men who were forced to labor, but the punishment was also meted out to both women and children (in a sick sense of fairness, they were often put to work, as well). Their ability to stand up to the pain and torture was less than the men—but like the men, they were just lazy, insufferable, subhuman savages, only good for work when you could get them to do it. If some died or were too injured to be of use, it made no matter. There were millions and before it was over, an estimated ten million Congolese lost their lives under colonial rule.

While there are numerous reports of initial horror at the practice, most (nonvictims) eventually became accustomed to it. It was often referred to as a "minor punishment."

1The Congo Free State, run solely under the authority of Leopold II, lasted from 1885 to 1908, when the Belgian government abolished it and established the Belgian Congo—still a colony and with a certain amount of control by the king. On the other hand, his power was limited as it was also controlled by parliament. The years of the worst abuse and atrocities occurred under Leopold.

(Sources: King Leopold's Ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa 1998 Adam Rothschild; Arthur Conan Doyle 1909 The Crime of the Congo available at, quotes from there)

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