Gold coins: Belgium's colonial coins


03 June 2021
Sebastian Wieschowski, provides an introduction to the gold coins of Europe, focussing here on a relic from Belgium’s dark colonial past.

With his desire for a ‘place in the sun’ the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was not alone, he was just one of the last European monarchs who could claim any patch of earth for themselves.

To today’s observers, it might seem odd that palms, elephants and lions were to be seen on Belgian coins, yet this only reflected the ‘scramble’ for colonies in the 19th century.

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The ambitions of Leopold II

The colonial plans of the Kingdom of Belgium, in particular, was pushed forward by one man.

Leopold II was king of the Belgians between 1865 and 1909 and turned out to be instrumental in extending the Belgian territory far beyond the European continent.

One could argue that it was a welcome pastime; at home the king had little to report. Belgium had a modern system of government and thanks to the process of state formation the king, as a constitutional monarch, had only limited powers. The government in Brussels knew that colonies could become a burden on the state budget and so the population in the small country did not appear to have an increased interest in an overseas branch.

Their ruler, however, had other ideas.

In search of a suitable patch of soil, Leopold first made a find in Asia, but the project was rejected.

At an international conference in 1876, Leopold then selected the African continent as his playground, of course, for ‘purely philanthropic’ interest.

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Scramble for Africa

Already at the time of the conquest, however, Leopold’s real intentions and morals were revealed. Leopold cheated hundreds of regional tribal chiefs with the help of his ambassador Henry Morton Stanley, born in Wales in 1841, and the man famous for uttering the line ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ whilst on expedition in what is now Tanzania.

Stanley stated that his boss could steer the sun and, according to historical sources, expertly used a sleight-of-hand trick with a burning glass.

After the magic apparently convinced the provincial chieftains, Belgium was able to officially take possession of the Congo in 1884 as part of the ‘Congo Conference’ in Berlin. More precisely, the International Congo Society was the new owner and this was in possession of King Leopold, who now de facto became the owner of a whole African state with a territory that was seventy times the size of the motherland. From his private wallet, Leopold financed the development of public institutions and had, for example, arranged for former slaves to be educated in schools.

Shameful 'Congo cruelty'

But it wasn’t quite as straightforward, or innocent. This educational initiative served primarily as a showcase project for the sceptical population back in Belgium. In fact, a terror regime was established in the Congo, which ensured that the region’s population was shockingly halved over forty years. Field workers had their hands chopped off if their work was too slow; the term ‘Congo cruelty’ was born.

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The Belgian gold coins of the time depicted nothing of this brutality, simply featuring a portrait of the monarch; Leopold is presented in a dignified pose looking to the right.

The first series of gold coins according to the standards of the Latin Monetary Union was minted from 1867 to 1870 in millions.

Thereafter, the rough representation of the beard was replaced by a much more detailed variant; the hair was obviously of significance to the king. Depending on the year, between 2.2 and 5.9 million pieces of the second series exist, only the 1882 issue is comparatively rare, with about half a million pieces.

After that, Belgium concentrated on the production of silver coins, because the Latin Monetary standards were not limited to the coinage of gold coins and the Belgian state needed more and more cash to finance the king’s colonial plans. Leopold was thus also seen on silver coins until his death in 1909.