The reign of King Leopold II ran from 1865, when he succeeded his father as King of the Belgians, to his death in 1909. In between those dates was the ravaging of what was known as the Congo Free State, a large expanse of central Africa known after the king's death as the Belgian Congo, and, following independence, as Zaire and, today, following the ouster of Zaire's long-time and extremely corrupt ruler Mobutu Sese Seko, as the Democratic Republic of Congo. A land rich in natural resources and possessing some of the world's most pristine jungle, it has known mostly hardship for more than 100 years.
King Leopold II was committed to expanding his personal overseas interests -- in effect, colonies -- and, after failing to buy the Philippines set his sights on the Congo. To stake his claim, the king contracted with the explorer Henry Stanley to establish a colony there, and by 1885, the Congo was firmly entrenched as the king's possession, now called the Congo Free State.
For the people living in the Congo, it was all downhill from there. The king ruthlessly exploited the region's resources, especially its rubber industry, and used the citizens as slaves to enrich himself. Estimates of how many native Africans died as a direct result of King Leopold II's policies range into the millions. A recent study of the period by Adam Hochschild titled "King Leopold's Ghosts," puts the number dead at 10 million.
King Leopold II's reign of terror in the Congo ended a year before his death as a result of mounting criticism of his brutal rule over that territory. After relinquishing his hold on the Congo, the Belgian parliament renamed it the Belgian Congo, which it remained until achieving independence in 1960.