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King Leopold II was the king of Belgium from 1865 to 1909, and was the founder of the Congo Free State. He was born on April 9, 1835 in Brussels, Belgium, and died on December 17, 1909 in Laeken, Belgium. He was heir to the throne to his father, Leopold I, and his mother Louise was the daughter of King Louis Philippe of France.
Belgium was a relatively new country that ran under a constitutional monarchy, initially under Leopold I. When Leopold II was born, he was a sickly child and was thought to have tuberculosis, and he had a defect in his sciatic nerve that caused him to walk with a limp. He did not have a particularly good relationship with his father because of his lack of discipline, often needing to make appointments just to meet with him. At the age of 9, King Leopold II received his first title as Duke of Brabant, and became a lieutenant in the Belgian army when he was ten.
In 1853, he married Archduchess Marie-Henriette of Austria-Hungary for diplomatic purposes, and succeeded his father as king when Leopold I died in 1865. By this time, King Leopold II had traveled widely throughout the world and became an advocate for the expansion of Belgium, an opinion that differed of which Leopold was the chairman, he forged an agreement with an American named Henry Stanley to bring the Congo Basin under the control of Europe by way of unfair trade and slavery. Eventually this would become King Leopold’s Congo Free State, which existed from 1885 to 1908. This colony earned a bad reputation because of the brutal mistreatment of its people, which left millions dead, and the relentless pillaging of the region’s natural resources that included ivory and rubber.
King Leopold II was condemned for his actions in the Congo, and eventually control of the region was handed completely over to Belgium from Leopold II. Nonetheless, he has been regarded as an exceptional historical figure because of his involvement as a king at a time when such positions were increasingly becoming simple figureheads with little control versus the government. During his reign, King Leopold II also successfully pushed for military modernization and expansion, and his successor to the throne was his nephew, Albert I.