Visiting the Congo was an important step in the training of the heir to the Belgian throne. In Leopold's case, it was also the start of a lifelong passion for tropical exploration. After his abdication, he would undertake many expeditions through Africa, Asia and South America, recording his experiences in his Carnets de Voyages and taking a vast collection of magnificent photographs (see Léopold III, mon père and Léopold III photographe by Esmeralda de Réthy).
In 1929, the Revue de Zoologie et de Botanique africaine published an article on the Prince's first voyage to the Congo. Here is an excerpt:
In 1925, HRH Prince Leopold of Belgium, Duke of Brabant, undertook a study trip, lasting many months, to central Africa, and, more particularly, to the Belgian Congo. The route he took led him from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. The Prince had an opportunity to traverse very diverse regions, with very different physical characteristics, flora and fauna. These regions...encompass widely varying types of forests and wildernesses, and sometimes reach very high elevations, notably north of Lake Kivu.Despite his many occupations, the Prince, a fervent friend of Nature, was able, in the course of the trip, to find the time to gather specimens of the insect life of some of the regions he visited...Among a total of around 3300 specimens, there were found 1100 species and varieties: among these, many little known types, and over 40 new ones...The relatively high number of species reported and the number of new discoveries and rare forms, clearly shows the importance of the collection assembled by the Prince.
A hardy outdoorsman, Leopold trekked through the wilds on foot. He thoroughly investigated Congolese conditions, visiting mines, railways, hospitals, prisons and missions, interviewing local officials and questioning the humblest of his father's African subjects. He came away with a highly critical view of the colonial régime. He was very worried by the ill-health of the indigenous people, noting in his diary:
The population is weak and does not seem to increase much, its nutrition...is very insufficient, many terrible tropical illnesses are decimating it...an excessive and badly understood employment of labor aggravates the problems mentioned...bad recruitment, lack of care (lodging, clothing, return of sick workers to their villages, poor nutrition, etc.) bad hygiene in the camp clusters, low birth rate in the camps and urban agglomerations...
He noted the devastation caused, in particular, by the irresponsible policies of the palm oil industry:
These companies had obtained huge concessions of millions of hectares and were trying to expand them even further, by resorting to enclosures made to the detriment of the natives. Furthermore, to gather the palm nuts, the companies did not establish plantations, but limited themselves to harvesting the nuts produced by the palm trees in the forest. This forced upon the natives the hazardous task of climbing the tree trunks (which may reach) 20 or 30 meters in height. What is more, this harvesting policy obliged the natives to live with their families in insalubrious forests, where sleeping sickness often reigns. The result is a considerable mortality rate among the workers, and, above all, among their wives and children (L'education d'un Prince by Gilbert Kirschen.)
Despite his admiration for the heroism of the Christian missionaries, Leopold had some critical words for them, too:
The Catholic and Protestant missionaries have played so important a role in the Congo that it is impossible to pass an unmixed judgment on them... The idealism, the devotion, the self-sacrifice of the missionaries, men and women, must never be lost from view and deserve to be rendered homage. I am more hesitant when it comes to the concrete realizations of the missions. I was won over by the Brothers of the Christian Schools who determined...to promote the formation of carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, all knowing, of course, how to read and write and how to integrate themselves in industrial society, without having to break brutally with their milieu. Other missions....created....uprooted people, by forcing the natives to abandon their traditional values...this error never appeared so clearly to me as during that voyage in 1925 (L'éducation d'un Prince, by Gilbert Kirschen).
In 1933, the Prince would return to the Congo, further developing his grasp of the colonial situation. His wife proved an intrepid traveling companion and entered wholeheartedly into his concerns. In her memoirs, Astrid mon amie, her friend Anna Sparre explains:
(In her letters) she described not only the majestic landscapes...she also revealed her emotion, as she was faced with suffering, poverty and infant mortality. Upon her return, she moved heaven and earth to bring aid...Her sense of responsibility had been awakened and she did not stop at good intentions. Her husband entirely shared her sentiments. After their return, he delivered remarkable speeches: the Belgian interventions in the colonies, in his view, ought to benefit, first of all, the natives and their country...The princess, of course, did not deliver official speeches, but obtained results thanks to her disarming smile and her active commitment.
Leopold's bold and uncompromising moral stand on colonial issues did nothing to win him favor in certain industrial circles. Already, he was beginning to make powerful enemies, with ominous consequences in the decades to come.
(*the passages quoted were originally in French, the translations are mine)