WHEN WORD that Stanley had found Livingstone flashed over the telegraph wires in the spring of 1872, one person who followed such news with avid interest was a tall, august thirty-seven-year-old man with a spade-shaped beard, living in the rambling château of Laeken on a low hill on the outskirts of Brussels.
Seven years earlier, on the death of his father, Leopold II had inherited the distinctive title by which his country's monarchs were known, King of the Belgians. Belgium itself was barely older than its young monarch. After spells of Spanish, Austrian, French, and Dutch rule, it had only become independent in 1830, following a revolt against Holland. Any respectable country of course needed a king, and the infant nation had gone looking for one, finally settling on a German prince, related to the British royal family, who had taken the Belgian throne as Leopold I.
The small nation was an uneasy amalgam of speakers of French and speakers of Flemish, as the Dutch spoken in Belgium's northern half was then called. In his father's court, the future Leopold II spoke French and German from childhood and soon became fluent in English. However, although he tossed a few phrases of it into speeches now and then, he never bothered to learn Flemish, spoken by more than half his subjects. In this snobbery Leopold was not alone, for at this time his country's bitter language division marked class as well as region. Even in the north, business people and professionals tended to speak French and to look down on the impoverished Flemish-speaking farmworkers and factory laborers.
The marriage of Leopold's parents had been a loveless one of political convenience. Their older son was a gangling child who seemed ill at ease in the world, and his parents clearly preferred his younger brother and sister. When he was fourteen, Leopold's mother wrote to him, "I was very disturbed to see in the Colonel's report that you had again been so lazy and that your exercises had been so bad and careless. This was not what you promised me, and I hope you will make some effort to do your homework better. Your father was as disturbed as I by this last report." The young heir took little interest in his studies, with the notable exception of geography. From the age of ten on, he was given military training; by fifteen, he held the rank of lieutenant in the Belgian Army, at sixteen captain, at eighteen major, at nineteen colonel, and by the time he was twenty he was a major general. A formal portrait painted in his late teens shows him with sword, crimson sash, and medals. The awkward young Leopold's body is pencil-thin; his gold epaulettes seem too big for his shoulders; his head too big for his torso.
If Leopold wanted to see his father, he had to apply for an audience. When the father had something to tell the son, he communicated it through one of his secretaries. It was in this cold atmosphere, as a teenager in his father's court, that Leopold first learned to assemble a network of people who hoped to win his favor. Court officials proved eager to befriend the future monarch, to show him documents, to teach him how the government worked, to satisfy his passion for maps and for information about far corners of the world.
Even though there was little affection between father and son, the old king was a shrewd observer. "Leopold is subtle and sly," he told one of his ministers. "He never takes a chance. The other day ... I watched a fox which wanted to cross a stream unobserved: first of all he dipped a paw carefully to see how deep it was, and then, with a thousand precautions, very slowly made his way across. That is Leopold's way!" Leopold would not always be cautious; at times he would overreach himself or reveal too much about what prey he was after. But there was something foxlike about the manner in which this constitutional monarch of a small, increasingly democratic country became the totalitarian ruler of a vast empire on another continent. Stealth and dissembling would be his trusted devices, just as the fox relies on these qualities to survive in a world of hunters and larger beasts.
In 1853, when Leopold turned eighteen, his father took him to Vienna and, eager for ties with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, betrothed him to an eligible young Hapsburg, Archduchess Marie-Henriette.
No match could have been more disastrous. The sixteen-year-old bride was best known for her passion for horses and for a most unroyal raucous laugh. Leopold had a distinct tendency to fall off horses and no visible sense of humor. He was an ungainly, haughty young man whom his first cousin Queen Victoria of England thought "very odd" and in the habit of "saying disagreeable things to people." Then known as the Duke of Brabant, Leopold had a pedantic obsession with trade matters, which baffled everyone. In Vienna, one lady observed that this puzzling engagement was "between a stable-boy and a nun, and by nun I mean the Duke of Brabant."
Leopold and Marie-Henriette loathed each other at first sight, feelings that apparently never changed. Everything possible went wrong with the wedding. Leopold got scarlet fever. The train bringing the royal entourage to a carefully timed elaborate welcoming ceremony for Marie-Henriette at the Belgian border was half an hour late, because a teenage railway telegraph operator had left his post to listen to a band concert celebrating the day. Marie-Henriette's barnyard laugh startled town hall receptions all over Belgium. On their honeymoon in Venice, she wept in public when Leopold would not let her ride in a gondola for which boatmen and musicians had already been hired. Leopold went for days at a time without speaking to her. "If God hears my prayers," she wrote to a friend a month after the wedding, "I shall not go on living much longer."
Like many young couples of the day, the newlyweds apparently found sex a frightening mystery. Like few others, however, they were enlightened about it by the woman who gave her name to the age. When they paid a visit to Cousin Victoria in England, the queen delicately expressed some doubt, in a letter to Leopold's father, as to whether the marriage had been consummated. Taking Marie-Henriette aside, she explained what was expected of her, as did her husband, Prince Albert, with the eighteen-year-old future king. This may have been the first time anyone had bothered to do so, for when Marie-Henriette became pregnant, several years later, Leopold wrote to Albert that "the wise and practical advice you gave me ... has now borne fruit." But the marriage remained miserable. Marie-Henriette fled the royal château of Laeken to go horseback riding for most of each day. Leopold was to find respite from his frustrations on a wider stage.
When he thought about the throne that would be his, he was openly exasperated. "Petit pays, petits gens" (small country, small people), he once said of Belgium. The country, less than half the size of West Virginia, lay between Napoleon Ill's much grander France and the fast-rising empire of Germany. The young heir acted peeved and impatient. The country he was to inherit seemed too small to hold him.
His eyes turned abroad. Even before he was twenty, Leopold, pen and notebook in hand, visited the Balkans, Constantinople, the Aegean, and Egypt, traveling in style on British and Turkish warships, and, returning home, gave tedious speeches on Belgium's potential role in world trade. Everywhere he went, he looked for imperial opportunities. He got the Khedive of Egypt to promise to form a joint steamship company connecting Alexandria with Antwerp. He tried to buy lakes in the Nile delta so that he could drain them and claim the land as a colony. He wrote, "One could purchase a small kingdom in Abyssinia for 30,000 francs.... If instead of talking so much about neutrality Parliament looked after our commerce, Belgium would become one of the richest countries in the world."
In the nineteenth century, as is true today, Seville was a magnificent array of fountains and walled gardens, of red-tile roofs and white-stucco walls and windows covered by wrought-iron grillwork, of orange and lemon and palm trees. Threading through the Spanish city were narrow cobblestone streets filled with visitors come to look at one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Europe.
When the twenty-six-year-old Leopold arrived in Seville, in March 1862, his purpose was not to see the cathedral or the famous mosaics and courtyards of the brightly tiled Alcázar palace. Instead, he spent a full month in the Casa Lonja, or Old Exchange Building, a massive, square structure opposite the cathedral.
For two centuries Seville was the port through which colonial gold, silver, and other riches had flowed back to Spain; some eighty years before Leopold's visit, King Carlos III had ordered that there be gathered in this building, from throughout the country, all decrees, government and court records, correspondence, maps and architectural drawings, having to do with the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Collected under one roof, these eighty-six million handwritten pages, among them the supply manifest for one of Columbus's ships, have made the General Archive of the Indies one of the great repositories of the world. Indifferent to his schoolwork as a boy, with no interest whatever in art, music, or literature, Leopold was nonetheless a dedicated scholar when it came to one subject, profits. During the month he spent in Seville, he wrote home to a friend, "I am very busy here going through the Indies archives and calculating the profit which Spain made then and makes now out of her colonies." The man whose future empire would be intertwined with the twentieth-century multinational corporation began by studying the records of the conquistadors.
The research whetted his appetite and made him restless. He claimed that his doctors had prescribed long cruises in hot climates, and, escaping his miserable home life, he headed farther afield. In 1864, now twenty-nine and more obsessed with colonies than ever, he set off to see the British possessions of Ceylon, India, and Burma. He also visited the East Indian islands owned, to his irritation, by Belgium's next-door neighbor, Holland, whose small size had not prevented it from acquiring lucrative colonies.
The future king's interest in the Dutch East Indies was stimulated by a curious two-volume treatise called Java; or, How to Manage a Colony. Fascinated by the book, Leopold began corresponding with the author, an English lawyer aptly named J.WB. Money. Money had been impressed by the coffee, sugar, indigo, and tobacco plantations of Java, whose profits had paid for railroads and canals back in Holland. Judging from Leopold's later actions, we can guess which features of the book might have caught his eye. Money described, for example, a monopoly trading concession given to a private company, one of whose major shareholders was the Dutch king. To stimulate production, Dutch plantation owners paid bonuses to supervisors on Java in relation to the size of the crop harvested. And finally Money noted that the huge Dutch profits from Java depended on forced labor. Leopold agreed, remarking that forced labor was "the only way to civilize and uplift these indolent and corrupt peoples of the Far East."
Few Belgians shared Leopold's dreams of colonies. They were deterred by practical considerations—such as their country's lack of a merchant fleet or navy—that seemed petty to him. When he returned from one of his trips he presented to the finance minister, a vocal opponent of colonialism, a gift: a piece of marble from the ruins of the Acropolis, with a locket holding Leopold's portrait, around which was the legend II faut à la Belgique une colonie (Belgium must have a colony).
Where was it to be found? Throughout his twenties, he scoured the world. He wrote to an aide:
I am specially interested in the Argentine Province of Entre Rios and the very small island of Martin Garcia at the confluence of the Uruguay and the Parana. Who owns this island? Could one buy it, and establish there a free port under the moral protection of the King of the Belgians?...Nothing would be easier than to become the owner of lands in the Argentine states three or four times as big as Belgium.
He invested in the Suez Canal Company. He asked an aide to try to acquire Fiji, because one should not "let such a fine prey escape." He looked into railways in Brazil and into leasing territory on the island of Formosa.
Leopold's letters and memos, forever badgering someone about acquiring a colony, seem to be in the voice of a person starved for love as a child and now filled with an obsessive desire for an emotional substitute, the way someone becomes embroiled in an endless dispute with a brother or sister over an inheritance, or with a neighbor over a property boundary. The urge for more can become insatiable, and its apparent fulfillment seems only to exacerbate that early sense of deprivation and to stimulate the need to acquire still more.
During the nineteenth-century European drive for possessions in Africa and Asia, people justified colonialism in various ways, claiming that it Christianized the heathen or civilized the savage races or brought everyone the miraculous benefits of free trade. Now, with Africa, a new rationalization had emerged: smashing the "Arab" slave trade. At this early stage of his career, however, the future Leopold II did not try to cloak his ambitions with such rhetoric. For him, colonies existed for one purpose: to make him and his country rich. "Belgium doesn't exploit the world," he complained to one of his advisers. "It's a taste we have got to make her learn."
Leopold did not care whether the colonial wealth he wanted came from the precious metals sought by the Spaniards in South America, from agriculture, or—as would turn out to be the case—from a raw material whose potential was as yet undreamed of. What mattered was the size of the profit. His drive for colonies, however, was shaped by a desire not only for money but for power. In western Europe, after all, times were fast changing, and a king's role was not as enjoyable as it once had been. Most annoying to him was that in Belgium, as in surrounding countries, royal authority was gradually giving way to that of an elected parliament. Someone once tried to compliment Leopold by saying that he would make "an excellent president of a republic." Scornfully, he turned to his faithful court physician, Jules Thiriar, and asked, "What would you say, Doctor, if someone greeted you as 'a great veterinarian'?" The ruler of a colony would have no parliament to worry about.
After ascending the throne, in 1865, Leopold was even more restless than before. A French marshal who saw him at a reception in Paris in 1867 thought him conspicuous "by his great height, his great nose, and his great beard; with his sword, which banged his legs, he looked like a functionary who had put on his uniform without knowing how to wear it." Everyone was struck by the nose. "It is such a nose," Disraeli wrote, "as a young prince has in a fairy tale, who has been banned by a malignant fairy."
At home, life went from bad to worse. In 1869, the king's nine-year-old son fell into a pond, caught pneumonia, and died. At the funeral, for the only time in his life, Leopold broke down in public, collapsing to his knees beside the coffin and sobbing uncontrollably. He had the presence of mind, however, to ask Parliament to pass a law requiring the state to pay the expenses of the royal funeral.
What made the loss of his only son especially devastating was the king's firm belief that thrones and royal property were for men only. In the course of their marriage, however, Queen Marie-Henriette gave birth to three daughters, Louise, Stephanie, and Clementine, but to no more sons. When the last daughter, Clementine, was born, according to her sister Louise, "the King was furious and thenceforth refused to have anything to do with his admirable wife." From the beginning, she wrote, "the King paid little attention to me or my sisters." Leopold unsuccessfully tried to have himself made an exception to a Belgian law requiring assets to be bequeathed to one's children.
Marie-Henriette found solace with her beloved horses, which she trained herself. Princess Louise once watched as, obeying the queen's commands, a horse entered the château of Laeken, climbed the staircase to the queen's rooms, and descended again. Marie-Henriette befriended the minister of war, and at maneuvers, to the astonishment of military attachés, he sometimes invited her to lead cavalry charges.
Still lacking a colony to rule, Leopold focused on building projects at home. He had a taste for monuments, great parks, broad boulevards, and grand palaces. Soon after taking the throne he began what turned out to be a lifelong program of renovations at Laeken. Through purchases and expropriations, he enlarged the grounds of the royal estate severalfold. When one local resident refused to move, Leopold ordered an earth embankment built around the reluctant landowner's estate. Among the new buildings at Laeken was a vast string of greenhouses. When they were finally finished, a person could walk for more than a kilometer through them, the château, and connecting passageways, without going outdoors. In later years, when the king was showing his nephew, Prince Albert, some work in progress, Albert said, "Uncle, this is going to become a little Versailles!" Leopold replied, "Little?"
If Leopold were a figure in fiction, his creator might, at this point in the story, introduce a foil, a minor character whose fate would sound an ominous warning about where dreams of empire can lead. But Leopold already had such a character in his life, more appropriate to the role than one a novelist could have invented. It was his sister.
The Belgian royal family, always eager to form alliances with the Hapsburgs, had married off Leopold's younger sister Charlotte to Archduke Maximilian, brother of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. In 1864, Maximilian and his wife, her name appropriately changed to Carlota, were installed by Napoleon III of France as the figurehead Emperor and Empress of Mexico, where Napoleon was maneuvering to establish a French-aligned regime. Leopold enthusiastically supported his sister's venture into empire-building. As Maximilian and Carlota set off for their new dominion, the European public cheered the handsome young couple, who were portrayed as following in the footsteps of the conquistadors. Most Mexicans, understandably, wanted no such rulers imposed on them, and they rose in rebellion. The nascent empire collapsed, and in June 1867 rebels captured and executed Maximilian. His death was inglorious but not inelegant: he shook hands with the members of the firing squad, handed them all gold pieces, pointed to his heart, and said, " Muchachos, aim well."
The previous year, Carlota had returned to Europe to plead for support for her husband's failing regime. Napoleon III was unwilling to back up his Mexican ambitions with the necessary military force, so Carlota went to Rome to beg for help from the Pope. On the way she began behaving strangely. Modern psychiatry would doubtless have a more precise diagnosis, but the language of her day seems more appropriate: Carlota went mad. She became convinced that an organ grinder on the street was a Mexican colonel in disguise, and that spies of every sort were trying to poison her. As a precaution she ate only oranges and nuts, checking the peels and shells for signs of tampering. She made her coachman stop at Rome's Trevi fountain so that she could fill a crystal pitcher with water certain not to be poisoned. In her hotel suite she kept a small charcoal stove and, tied to table legs, several chickens, to be slaughtered and cooked only in her sight. With her obedient staff in despair, her rooms slowly filled with feathers and chicken droppings.
Flushed and weeping, Carlota burst in on the Pope one morning as he was finishing breakfast, dipped her fingers in his hot chocolate, and licked them hungrily, crying, "This at least is not poisoned. Everything they gave me is drugged, and I am starving, literally starving!" A cardinal and the commander of the Papal Guards maneuvered her out of the room, whereupon Carlota gave the guards' commander a list of her staff members who should be arrested for treachery.
Carlota's aides sent an urgent telegram to Leopold in Brussels. Since he did not want his sister rattling around Europe in this condition, he installed her and her keepers in a succession of Belgian châteaux, safely out of public sight. She was never to appear in the wider world again. For fear of unhinging her further, no one dared tell her for some months of Maximilian's execution; when they finally did, Carlota refused to believe them. She continued to send him letters and presents, believing that he would soon become Emperor of France, Spain, and Portugal.
The collapse, in so short a time, of his sister's and brother-in-law's empire did not dampen Leopold's enthusiasm for one of his own. All around him he saw the stirrings of a new age of colonialism; this was the era in which the future South African politician and diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes would say, "I would annex the planets if I could." In 1875, Leopold tried to buy the Philippines from Spain but was once again frustrated. "For the moment, neither the Spanish nor the Portuguese nor the Dutch are inclined to sell," he wrote to one of his officials that year, and then added, "I intend to find out discreetly if there's anything to be done in Africa."
In the mid-1870s, sub-Saharan Africa was a logical place for an aspiring colonialist to look. The British and the Boers controlled South Africa, and an enfeebled Portugal claimed most of what used to be the Kingdom of the Kongo, as well as Mozambique on the east coast. Along Africa's great western bulge, Portugal, Spain, Britain, and France owned a few islands and small pockets of territory. Otherwise, about 80 percent of the entire land area of Africa was still under indigenous rulers. It was ripe for conquest—or, as Leopold was now learning to say, for protection.
Leopold carefully combed the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society for information about the continent and closely followed the treks of white explorers. He amassed a big file of notes, in nearly illegible handwriting. When the Scottish explorer Verney Lovett Cameron, about to become the first European to cross Africa from east to west, was reported in 1875 to be running out of money, Leopold swiftly offered a contribution of 100,000 francs. The money was not needed, it turned out, but the king's gesture declared him a patron of African exploration.
Henry Morton Stanley at this time was in the midst of another expedition in Africa. He and his usual huge caravan of guards and porters had set off in 1874 from the east coast to the interior, heading for the biggest blank space on the map, the equatorial heart of the continent, where no European had yet been. On the way, he planned to map several of the great east African lakes and then push on to a large river, west of them, which might be the start of the Nile or the Congo. While he was still near the coast, messengers brought back Stanley's newspaper dispatches; then nothing more was heard from him.
Livingstone, Stanley, and the other explorers, Leopold saw, had succeeded in stirring Europeans by their descriptions of the "Arab" slave-traders leading sad caravans of chained captives to Africa's east coast. As king of a small country with no public interest in colonies, he recognized that a colonial push of his own would require a strong humanitarian veneer. Curbing the slave trade, moral uplift, and the advancement of science were the aims he would talk about, not profits. In 1876, he began planning a step to establish his image as a philanthropist and advance his African ambitions: he would host a conference of explorers and geographers.
He sent a trusted aide to Berlin to recruit German participants while he himself slipped across the English Channel to London, settling into a suite at Claridge's. By this time, he was far from being the awkward, naive youngster who had visited Queen Victoria on his honeymoon, more than twenty years earlier. As we watch him now moving about London, for the first time in his life he seems polished and cosmopolitan, at ease and quietly purposeful. He moves mainly in a world of men, but he remembers the names of their wives and children, and always asks about them warmly. His frustrations are concealed, his raw lust for colonies moderated by the knowledge that he must depend on subterfuge and flattery. He pays a visit to dear Cousin Victoria at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, dines twice with her son, the Prince of Wales, and visits eminent geographers and military men. Shrewdly, he also goes to lunch with Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts, a well-known patron of missionaries. Most important, he meets the explorer Cameron, recently returned from crossing Africa, and grills him about his travels. To his delight, Leopold finds that the British have little interest in the great swath of territory Cameron has just explored. Most of it is believed to be the basin of the Congo River, although Cameron himself traveled far south of the river, and like everyone else in Europe still has no clear idea of its course. This is the land that now becomes the object of the king's desires.
In September 1876, Leopold's Geographical Conference convened in Brussels. In the orders he gave to subordinates, no detail of protocol, however minute, escaped his attention: "The names must be spelled just as I have written them. G.C.B. means Grand Cross of Bath. F.R.G.S. means Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. K.C.B. means Knight Commander of the Bath.... These letters must be written after the names." He sent a Belgian ship across the Channel to Dover for the British guests, and had a special express train bring them the rest of the way. He issued orders that all those coming to the conference should be waved across the Belgian frontier without customs formalities. Representatives, who came from all the major European countries, were appropriately greeted by Leopold in English, French, or German.
Among the thirteen Belgians and twenty-four foreign guests were famous explorers, like France's Marquis de Compiegne, who had gone up the Ogowe River in Gabon, and Germany's Gerhard Rohlfs, who had had himself circumcised so that he could pass for a Muslim while trekking to remote parts of the Sahara; geographers, like Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, the president of the Berlin Geographical Society; humanitarians, like Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, president of Britain's Anti-Slavery Society, and Sir John Kennaway, president of the Church Missionary Society; business executives, like William Mackinnon of the British India Line; and military men, like Rear Admiral Sir Leopold Heath of England, who had headed the Royal Navy's Indian Ocean antislavery patrol, and Vice Admiral Baron de la Roncière-le-Noury, president of the Paris Geographical Society. Never in the nineteenth century had so many eminent Europeans in the field of exploration gathered in one spot, and the guests were delighted to become acquainted with one another in the luxurious surroundings of the Royal Palace. Almost the only notable European concerned with Africa who was not there was Stanley, whose work the conference acknowledged with a formal resolution. He was, everyone hoped, still alive somewhere in the middle of the continent. There had been no news of him for months.
Leopold knew that even the wealthy and well-born would be delighted to live in a palace. The only complication was that the Royal Palace, in downtown Brussels, was really the king's office; the royal family's home was the suburban château of Laeken. And so the Royal Palace's staff quarters and offices were hastily converted to guest bedrooms. To make room for the visitors, some servants slept in linen closets, and desks, books, and filing cabinets were moved to the basement or the stables. On the opening day, dazzled conference participants filed up a new baroque grand staircase of white marble to be received by Leopold in a throne room illuminated by seven thousand candles. The king awarded the Cross of Leopold to everyone he had invited. "I have a suite of magnificent apartments to myself—all crimson damask and gold," Major General Sir Henry Rawlinson of the Royal Geographical Society wrote to his wife the first night. "Everything is red, even the Ink and the Ammunition [toilet paper]!"
Leopold's welcoming speech was a masterpiece. It clothed the whole enterprise in noble rhetoric, staked out his own role in what was to come, and guaranteed his plans a stamp of approval by the group he was hosting.
To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.... It seemed to me that Belgium, a centrally located and neutral country, would be a suitable place for such a meeting.... Need I say that in bringing you to Brussels I was guided by no egotism? No, gentlemen, Belgium may be a small country, but she is happy and satisfied with her fate; I have no other ambition than to serve her well.
He ended by naming the specific tasks he hoped the conference would accomplish, among them deciding on the "location of routes to be successively opened into the interior, of hospitable, scientific, and pacification bases to be set up as a means of abolishing the slave trade, establishing peace among the chiefs, and procuring them just and impartial arbitration."
Between sumptuous banquets, those attending the conference pulled out their maps and marked points in the blank space of central Africa for such "hospitable, scientific, and pacification bases." Each one, the high-minded guests decided, would be staffed by a half-dozen or so unarmed Europeans—scientists, linguists, and artisans who would teach practical skills to the natives. Every post would contain laboratories for studying local soil, weather, fauna, and flora, and would be well stocked with supplies for explorers: maps, trading goods, spare clothing, tools to repair scientific instruments, an infirmary with all the latest medicines.
Chairing the conference—Leopold stayed modestly in the background—was the Russian geographer Pyotr Semenov. In honor of Semenov's daring exploration of the Tyan Shan Mountains of Central Asia, the tsar had granted him the right to add Tyan-Shansky to his name. Semenov, however, knew next to nothing about Africa—which suited Leopold perfectly. He was easily able to maneuver Semenov so that the chain of bases endorsed by the conference would stretch across the unclaimed territory of the Congo River basin that interested Leopold most. The British participants had wanted some of these posts nearer to British possessions.
Before the guests dispersed to their respective countries, they voted to establish the International African Association. Leopold magnanimously volunteered space in Brussels for the organization's headquarters. There were to be national committees of the association set up in all the participating countries, as well as an international committee. Leopold was elected by acclamation as the international committee's first chairman. Self-effacingly, he said that he would serve for one year only so that the chairmanship could rotate among people from different countries. He presented each guest with a gilt-framed portrait of himself in dress uniform, and the awed dignitaries and explorers headed home.
The new body was welcomed throughout Europe. Prominent citizens, from the Rothschilds to Viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal, hastened to send contributions. The national committees, which sounded impressive, were to be headed by grand dukes, princes, and other royals, but most of them never got off the ground. The international committee did meet once in the following year, reelected Leopold as chairman, despite his earlier pledge not to serve again, and then evaporated.
Nonetheless, Leopold had, foxlike, gone a step forward. He had learned from his many attempts to buy a colony that none was for sale; he would have to conquer it. Doing this openly, however, was certain to upset both the Belgian people and the major powers of Europe. If he was to seize anything in Africa, he could do so only if he convinced everyone that his interest was purely altruistic. In this aim, thanks to the International African Association, he succeeded brilliantly. Viscount de Lesseps, for one, declared Leopold's plans "the greatest humanitarian work of this time."
If we take a step back and look at Leopold at this moment we can imagine him the political equivalent of an ambitious theatrical producer. He has organizational talent and the public's good will, as proven by his successful Geographical Conference. He has a special kind of capital: the great public relations power of the throne itself. He has a script: the dream of a colony that had been running through his head since he was a teenager. But he has as yet no stage, no cast. One day in September 1877, however, while the king-producer is planning his next move, a bulletin in the London Daily Telegraph from a small town on the west coast of Africa announces some remarkable news. It is just the opening Leopold has been waiting for. Stage and star have appeared, and the play can begin.