Boy Soldiers and Ivory — Ancient History in Congo

Conscripting little boys is not a practice limited to African rebel armies. Nor is it limited to Africans. The earliest record I found of boy soldiers in Congo was in the army of King Leopold II of Belgian in the 1890s. The boys fought in the Belgians’ war against the Arabs.

Commandant Dhanis
Commander Dhanis led the Belgian army against the Arabs during the last decade of the 19th century.

Captain Sydney Hinde’s insightful comments are below:

“The Commandant instituted a very good system …of supplying every white man …with as many boy-servants as he chose to employ. These were generally savage little rascals, lately-freed slaves, the children of prisoners of war, or presents sent from native chiefs. … As soon as they were old enough and sufficiently strong –often, with good feeding, a matter of only a few months – they were given guns, and taught how to use them; thus forming a sort of bodyguard .. Very quickly after having arms in their hands they asked to be allowed to become soldiers, and were drafted into the regular force. Eventually, what was called a “boy company” was formed, and it became the smartest set of soldiers we had.”

boy hunter with homemade 12 calibre
Today, this young boy of the TL2 is using a 12 caliber shotgun rather than the breechloading rifles of the Belgo-Arab war. His ancestors, at his same age, might well have fought with either the Arabs or Belgians in this very area.

The Belgo-Arab war was branded by the Belgians as an “anti-slavery” war. But, more accurately, it was an ivory war. It was the killing of a European ivory merchant who ventured too far up the Lomami into Arab ivory forests that started the full-scale war. After the Belgians won the war, the quantity of ivory leaving Congo did not decrease; it was just carried by paid laborers instead of by slaves.

What Captain Hinde had to say about Belgian paid labor in the west of the Congo as opposed to Arab slave labor in the east, however, is sobering:

“…there is a marked difference between these people [Belgian laborers] and the carriers used by the Arabs in the Manyema district: the latter are slaves, forced to work, but fed on a sufficient meat diet; the former are free men, but indifferently nourished. The Manyemas are able to carry 80 or 90 lb. without much difficulty, while [our porters] are rarely equal to a burden of more than 60 lb.”

Another sobering thread in Hinde’s account of the war is his description of the spoils of war: ivory. The descriptions below were just a century and a couple decades ago and yet there was no sense then that the elephants could disappear from Congo. Rather, ivory was considered a well-deserved bounty that the Belgians acquired. With it came access to experienced ivory hunters.

“We even employed [the Arabs’] elephant-hunters who had been taken fighting and left them their arms on condition that they hunted for us”

Hinde also wrote about negotiations with Kassongo, a fortified town , “ ..the Commandant granted Kassongo … respite of five days on condition that all the ivory that had been taken from Lippens [a murdered Belgian agent] should be delivered up to us. This they… complied with and brought an additional present of some thirty magnificent tusks…..”

Nyangue and Kassongo-1890s
This map published in 1894, just after the war, shows the major Arab towns of Nyangwe and Kassongo, both along the Lualaba south of the current-day town of Kindu.

In the southern TL2 where Hinde reported abundant elephants, they now are very rare, the old matriarchs are dead, the fragmented families are making their last stand.

Captain Hinde
Captain Hinde was a British doctor who served in the Belgian army and made detailed observations during the war.

Reference: The Fall of the Congo Arabs by Sidney Langford Hinde, 1897; reprinted 1969 by Negro Universities Press, New York.


  1. paula
    Posted 2009-03-01 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Great post, makes you wonder about the violent history of Congo and how it has contributed to the current state of the country.

  2. Terese Hart
    Posted 2009-03-01 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Agreed. This is a country struggling for unity out of a past of division and warfare….

  3. Posted 2009-03-04 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    Informative history but sad account in regards to elephants. The Congo was and is a most troubling part of the world.

  4. Terese Hart
    Posted 2009-03-04 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    So true. There is much that is troubling and much that has been lost, and yet so much that is still present and that can be saved…..

  5. Saeed
    Posted 2010-10-31 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Yes it was war of ivory between Arabs and europians , not anti slave war

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