On February 5, 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established The Congo as a “personal possession.”
We’ll get to the romance in a minute, but first some background on Leo.
He was as they say in Belgium, a douche.
He was well connected, his sister became the Empress Carlota of Mexico, his first cousin, Queen Victoria was on the throne of Great Britain along with their first cousin, Prince Albert, and another first cousin, King Fernando II ruled the coastal nation of Portugal.
He had connections.
He was the “founder” and sole owner of the Congo Free State and all its people, property, and assets. It was a private project; one he took on his own.
Henry Morton Stanley, of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame was his agent and claimed the Congo on Leo’s behalf. This was all blessed by a precursor to the United Nations, The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, and was totally legit in international law.
Meanwhile, he raped and pillaged the country side of its gold, diamonds, and other minerals and precious stone.
Why not? After all, he was the King.
But, he wasn’t always lucky…when international furor arose over his treatment of the Congolese due to photographs, he said “The only witness I’ve not been able to bribe is the camera.”
He married Austrian Archduchess Marie Henriette Anne, a 17 year old beauty who had no say in her own future. Her father, Archduke Joseph and her mother, Maria Dorothea decided her fate.
18 year old Prince (at that time) Leopold, considered by his family and friends as a cold and off-putting man, was so ill he couldn’t attend his own wedding and sent a proxy!
Isn’t it romantic?
As a couple, they could not have been less alike. She was vivacious, outgoing, athletic – a true horsewoman – and fun loving.
He was as dull as dishwater.
By most accounts the only thing they had in common was a short temper.
On courtier was rumored to have said, “…as the union of a stable boy (Marie) and a nun (Leopold.)
Leopold’s main goal in marriage was producing an heir, and things got so bad, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert offered marriage counseling!!
Loveless marriage aside, the couple did provide the heir and a few spares. There were four children: Louise-Marie Amelie who married a German prince, Leopold Ferdinand Elie Victor Albert Marie, the heir apparent, Stephanie Clothlde Louise Herminie Marie Charlotte who also married a German Prince, and Clementine – seriously, one name!! – who married Prince Napoleon Victor Jerome Frederic Bonaparte.
The lineage being sealed allowed the couple to “take a break” from one another. Translation: Marie Henriette traveled to Hungary, which she loved, as often as possible.
But alas, peace didn’t last long as little Prince Leopold died in 1869 form pneumonia after falling into a pond; Marie was heartbroken and Leo blamed her for the prince’s death. Not, of course, that she had anything to do with it, she was just the mother, so it had to be her fault.
See douche reference above.
The couple reunited to produce another spare but was disappointed when Clementine was born, and finally decided to stop the charade they called a marriage and move on to other things.
Leo moved on to Caroline Lacroix, which is where this story actually begins.
Sorry, you know I’m wordy.
Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix, better known as Caroline Lacroix, was the most famous of Leo’s mistresses – there were a few.
He fathered two sons by her. They were later adopted by Lacroix’s second husband Andoine Durrieux. The King granted them titles, honorary ones because Parliament would not support a real one. They were Lucien Philippe Marie Antione, duke of Tervuren and Philippe Henri Marie Francois, count of Ravenstein.
She was French, Leo’s favorite type, and she met the king while he was in Paris. She was 16, he was 65.
She was also a prostitute.
They started a relationship that lasted until the king died in 1909. He showered her with gifts, money, estates, a title, all of which ticked the Belgians off no end.
Caroline was very unpopular not only in Belgium, but internationally. Leopold’s popularity waned and he was criticized worldwide not only for his affair, but for his treatment of the Congolese people.
The press dubbed her “La reine du Congo” or the Queen of the Congo as most of her gifts and income came from the “Free State.”
The press went nuts with the story saying “…the king no longer stoops to prostitution like his associates…prostitution climbs to meet the king.”
The king was labeled lecherous and besotted even though he’d had so many previous affairs he was called “le roi des Belges et des Belles,” the king of the Belgians and the Belles.
This affair was different as she was in many eyes a common streetwalker.
The relationship’s infamy came at a time when Leopold’s international reputation as a Monarch was in trouble. Some historians say the affair cost the king more popularity at home than any of his crimes in the Congo.
Few allies were willing to defend him and he became the target of a protest movement led by the Congo Reform Association.
The Belgian socialists claimed the affair was proof that the king was in his dotage, under the control of a “rapacious and ambitions woman, “and was unfit to govern!!
History- repeating- just sayin’.
After the queen died, Leopold saw no reason to hide his affair with Lacroix. He moved her into a mansion across from his villa and built a pedestrian bridge between the two.
From all accounts, she was really no prize. Probably unfaithful to the king as a paramour, she was prone to fits of rage and outbursts especially when she felt she was mistreated by the court.
When she relayed her displeasure to Leopold, he went off like a steam engine, chastising and firing those in his wake.
Suddenly, in December of 1909, the king became ill.
Doctors determined it was an intestinal blockage. His mistress and their two sons rushed to his bedside. His children with the Queen were nowhere to be found as their relationships with their father had “cooled.”
Five days before his demise, Caroline married Leopold on his death bed. The marriage had no legal authority under Belgian law, but as it was a religious ceremony, it was recognized by the Vatican.
Belgians were outraged and shocked that the Church would sanction the union even allowing Caroline to remain at the king’s bedside when the priest was present.
Since there was no civil ceremony, a Belgian requirement, Parliament considered the marriage void. But, alas, the king had remembered his blushing bride in his will, leaving her property, art, Congolese bonds, and other sources of income.
She was instantly a multimillionaire.
In that the king’s relationship with his daughters was practically nonexistent, he did all he could to give away as much of his wealth as possible. Actual disinheritance wasn’t an option, but if all was gone, the girls, who had shamed him for his treatment of their mother and his affair, would be left with nothing.
Once the king was dead, legal battles ensued.
A $10,000,000 trust in Caroline’s name was the target of the princesses. The Belgian government determined that as the trust formed part of Leopold’s private estate, the daughters had a right to their share.
After all, the money came from the Congo Free State.
When the legal wrangling was over, and all the lawyers paid, everyone wound UP with a cool million dollars, Caroline with more.
Now a rich widow, Caroline was fodder for the newspapers on a continuing basis. Seven months after the king slipped into eternity, she married her former lover, Antoine Durrieux, who had been her pimp in her Parisian days when she met the King.
Historian Adam Hochschild says their collaboration was “…surely one of the most successful feats of pimpery of all time.”
And of course, love didn’t last for the couple, they divorced. Caroline gave Derriuex a settlement of $1,000,000.
She never remarried though there were plenty of suitors.
Caroline wrote her memoirs in 1937 in which she claimed she “…had loved and was faithful to the king and that he loved her…”