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Leopold II: a currency for the Congo Free State?

At the end of the 19th century, the Congo, with its territory 80 times bigger than Belgium, became the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium. After the 1885 Berlin Conference, Leopold II was internationally recognised as the sovereign of the Congo Free State. In other words, he became the absolute sovereign ruler of the free State, with sovereignty being fully incarnated in the king’s persona. At that time, the Belgian government did not want a colony and therefore did not interfere in Congolese affairs.

Congo Free State 5-Congolese-franc coin. [1]

The colonial invasion and occupation was long and painful, with some Congolese historians even going as far as to call it a “thirty years’ war”. This point of view is important. Effectively, the period has all too often been depicted as one of a peaceful colonisation, as if the Congolese people actually applauded the arrival of the colonial troops. What coins/or which banknotes were used in the Free State? How did they go down with the population? And were these notes and coins the means of payment used the most?

Before colonization, the Congolese economy was not a monetary economy, which does not mean to say that there was no commercial activity, indeed quite the contrary. There were local markets and some products were even traded on an international scale. Trade mainly took place through barter and money did not play the key role that it does in a developed market system. Local inhabitants settled most economic transactions by barter but sometimes used the copper crosses from the Katanga province and the mitako, a copper wire about 50 cm long.

Accepting money as a means of payment was therefore by no means easy for the local people. That is why this period has sometimes been described as “the battle of the currency”; so some Congolese people would even have paid for their train ticket on the African Great Lakes Railway with poultry, because the chicken was a widely-used barter unit.

Despite being aware that the use of banknotes and coins as a means of payment would not go down easily, Leopold II decided to introduce them all the same. The Free State’s monetary system was set by Royal Decree dated 27 July 1887, which fixed the value of the Congolese franc as the equivalant of 1/3100 of a kilo of 9/10 fine gold. The Decree provided for the minting of 20 francs in gold, 5, 2 and 1 francs as well as 50 centimes in silver, and 10, 5, 2 and 1 centimes in copper featuring a hole in the middle. By Decree of 27 August 1906, coins of 20, 10 and 5 centimes in copper nickel were also brought in, again with a hole in the middle.

The gold 20-franc coin was never minted and therefore not put into circulation, unlike all the other denominations. The silver coins were struck, bearing the portrait of Leopold II, surrounded by the words LEOPOLD II R. D. BELG. SOUV. DE L’ETAT INDEP. DU CONGO, on the obverse side. On the copper and copper-nickel coins, the King’s portrait is replaced by the double-crowned monogram of Leopold II five times over.

The Decree of 7 February 1896 provided for the first and only banknotes of the independent State to be issued, with a face value of 10 and 100 francs and for a total amount of 400,000 francs. Immediately afterwards, Baron Edmond van Eetvelde, who was Secretary of State at the time, signed a Decree limiting the issue to a total value of 269 850 francs (2,000 100 franc notes and 6,985 10 franc notes). As a security feature, each note was given a letter from the alphabet as well as a number; furthermore, the notes were signed by Baron van Eetvelde and Henry Pochez, Treasurer. The 1887, 1896 and 1906 Decrees gave the king a monopoly over the minting of coins and issuance of the State’s banknotes. From 1891 onwards, fixed exchange rates were established.

Banknotes from the Independent State of the Congo, extract from Mulongo (J.-C.). La Banque centrale du Congo. Une rétrospective historique. Publication de la Banque centrale du Congo. Kinshasa, 312 p [2]

On the front of the 10-franc banknote figure featured Cupid with the horn of plenty, in a context alluding to the transport sector, industry and mining. On the back is a medallion depicting the head of a woman wearing a laurel leaf crown. Both sides bear the wording “Independent State of the Congo”. The front of the 100-franc notes features a woman sitting on the shore amidst a batch of merchandise and holding a caduceus (the symbol of trade). A steamboat at sea. In the top right-hand corner is a lion lying down. On the other side, there is a medallion showing the head of a woman, wearing the Phrygian cap of freedom, strangely a symbol of the Republic (and French what is more). In this case too, both sides of the note bore the name “Independent State of the Congo”. The notes were payable to the bearer and could be exchanged at the General Treasury of the Independent State of the Congo, located at N° 10 rue de Namur in Brussels. There are very few banknotes left in their original state as most of them were destroyed by perforation.

The Independent State of the Congo banknotes were subject to widespread criticism, because their designer did not include on them the usual symbols of the continent or the country using the note; apart from the words “Independent State of the Congo”, there was nothing to indicate that it was a banknote from the Independent State of the Congo. Moreover, these notes were not printed by the National Bank of Belgium, but by the London-based company Waterlow & Sons Ltd, specialised in printing notes and stamps. It could be concluded that Belgium played no role at all, because the National Bank did not print the banknotes, but orders for notes and coins were actually placed through the National Bank.

Despite the introduction of these banknotes and coins, barter continued to be the main economic basis of trade. Furthermore, many commodity currencies or means of exchange in kind which often had a value that could be expressed in francs or centimes, were in circulation at the time, such as the above-mentioned mitako with a face value of 15 centimes. The number of coins in circulation declined from 1896 onwards. While coins were used for some kinds of transactions, this was never the case for banknotes: the value of the notes was simply too high to make small transactions and the Congolese had no confidence whatsoever in the paper money that was introduced. Moreover, the banknotes were not resistant enough to the very humid local climate.

The Congolese people had much more confidence in barter than in the Belgians’ paper money. Only a very tiny volume of notes and coins were actually in circulation, so payment in kind was predominant.

Helena Van De Sompel,
Museum Guide