Leopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor von Saxe Coburg Gotha was born on 9 April 1835 in Brussels as the second son of King Leopold I of Belgium and Queen Louise-Marie. He carried the titles of Prince of Belgium, Duke of Brabant from 1846 until his accession in 1865, and Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Duke of Saxe.
In 1846 he was appointed a sub-lieutenant in the Belgian army, in which he served until his accession. By the time he acceded to the throne, he had reached the rank of lieutenant-general.
In 1853, Prince Leopold entered the Belgian Senate, which is one of the birthrights of Belgian princes. On 22 August of that year, he married Archduchess Marie-Herniette of Habsburg-Lorraine, daughter of Archduke Joseph of Austria and niece to the Austrian Emperor. The couple had four children, Princess Louise (1858 – 1924), later Archduchess of Austria, Prince Leopold (1859 – 1869), Count of Hainaut, Princess Stephanie (1864 – 1945), last Crown Princess of Austria, and Princess Clementine (1872 – 1955) (later Princess Napoléon). Their only son died of a pneumonia at the age of 10, which transferred the succession rights to Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders, and his sons. The marriage was not a happy one, and the Queen retreated to Spa, where she lived from 1893 onwards. The King also had two sons with his mistress, Blanche Delacroix, a Parisian prostitute whom he married religiously on his death bed. This marriage never had any validity under Belgian law.
Prince Leopold travelled a lot, and as his father, he was convinced of the necessity for Belgium to have a colony. Even before he became King, he invested greatly in the urbanisation of Brussels and the renovation of the Belgian palaces. As member of the Senate, he frequently addressed the political powers in the country to convince them of the advantages of having a Belgian colony.
Leopold took the oath as second King of the Belgians on 17 December 1865. He continued his great refurbishing plans, and his many travels inspired him with many plans to change the urban planning of the capital and the Royal domain in Laeken. His greatest achievement was to be recognized as Sovereign of the Freestate Congo, unfortunately at the same time his biggest mistake. He prepared the way for the acquisition of a colony meticulously and long in advance. In 1876 already, he organized an international conference in Brussels, focusing on the discovery of Central Africa.
This conference would result in the foundation of the Association for the Civilisation and Exploration of Central Africa in 1877. He hired British explorer Stanley to travel around the river Congo. Together they set up the Study Committee on the Upper Congo in 1878, later converted into the International Association of the Congo. All these organisations were set up with the same goal: to provide the Belgian King with as large a piece of the African pie as possible. In 1885, all Leopold’s efforts were rewarded when he was officially recognized as Sovereign of the independent state of Congo during the Berlin Conference. The Belgian Parliament officially approved the position of Leopold II as Sovereign of Congo. Leopold’s unbridled chase of fortune and profit was disapproved by the international community. The companies in charge of developing the territory mistreated the native inhabitants. The people were exploited and tortured, and treated like slaves in such an abhorring way that the international community was shocked. Although an international conference in Brussels in 1890 condemned slavery, nothing changed for the people in Congo. An International Commission of Inquiry pointed out many abuses and shortcomings in the Congo policy, and under great international pressure, Congo Freestate was transferred to the Belgian government, thus becoming a Belgian colony in 1908.
Leopold II received a reputation of being a bully and a generally unpleasant person. He was internationally despised for the way in which people were treated in the Congo. However, in truth it needs to be acknowledged that King Leopold II was also a visionary when it came to developing the infrastructure of the country. Under his instigation, the harbours of Antwerp, Ghent and Ostend were modernised, and the harbour of Zeebrugge was founded. He had the famous Greenhouses of Laeken designed, as well as the Palace of Laeken. He also had an underground railway station constructed under the Palace of Laeken and he ordered the design and erection of the Royal Galleries in Ostend. He transformed Brussels from a medieval town to the modern city with wide avenues it is today. All these initiatives gave him the nickname “The Builder King”.
Like his father, Leopold II saw national defence and international affairs as his personal playground. He wanted to organize a professional army, and lobbied to get Parliament to accept a law on compulsory military service. One of his ambitions was to attack the Netherlands, with which he wanted to revenge the Ten Day Campaign of 1931. The Belgian army was superior to the Dutch: they had more soldier, younger officers, and a more professional training programme. His military advisors, however, convinced him not to push through with his plans.
The King died on 17 December 1909, exactly 44 years after he took the oath. He left most of the fortune he gained through Congo to his mistress, Blanche Delacroix.
All pictures in the public domain.