In the Rubber Coils

Spencer's Humanities Source Analysis Task


In 1898 the Abir Congo Company was founded by the Belgians and the British and was a company that harvested rare rubber vines in the Congo free estate in Belgium, private property of King Leopold II. The British had given the company the right to tax the natives of the country. Leopold used this as a way to gain free workers, as he made it so the tax was paid in the form of the rubber vines. The native people would take their required amount of vine to different trade posts along the rivers, which were used to transport the vines. Each post was ran by a European agent and was home to armed sentries, who would flog, torture and burn down native villages if the tax was not paid. If a native was killed, their hands would be chopped off and sent to Leopold, to show that no bullets were wasted. Soon villagers started to rebel against Leopold and he would have to send armed forces to restore order. The companies reputation around the globe was tarnished, as people started to learn of the unlawful killings happening in Belgium. Soon the vines become scarce as villagers would start harvesting them using destructive methods which were quicker but didn't allow the vine to grow back. Unable to stop this method ended Leopold's company, as they had no more vines to sell. In the Rubber Coils was published in 1906 in Britain. It's a secondary source as it depicts the treatment of the natives in a symbolic way, which is open to interpretation. However we can analyse this source to find the big issues with the company, by reading between the lines of the separate components of this political cartoon.

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Analysing Different Parts of the Source

The Name

Some of the most important information on the way the natives were treated can be found just by looking at the title of the cartoon. The word Rubber in the title literally refers to the vine that was being harvested, but rubber itself is stretchy and when wrapped around itself it becomes tighter and tighter . This could symbolise how not only did Leopold stretch the rules in a way that earned himself free labourers, but also how it became harder and harder for the Belgians to pay the sinister tax as the vine was quickly depleting. The other key word in the title Coils, is defined by the dictionary as "continuous, regularly spaced rings one above the other". The words continuous and regularly show how there was no breaks in the punishment the natives endured and the tax that they had to pay.

The Man and The Vine

The man entangled in the vine is the centrepiece of the cartoon. The vine has the head Leopold II and resembles a snake which is strangling the man to death. From this part of the cartoon we can see that the vine the man was collecting was ultimately his demise as it is straggling him to death in the picture. Leopold's head on the vine shows that he was the head of the company and the operation and you can see his merciless eyes staring into the mans agonising expression showing how much pain was felt by the natives and how little Leopold cared. The resemblance between the vine and a snake show how sneaky and evil Leopold was, as this is how snakes are viewed from the Christian story of the fall of man. This part of the picture shows how the natives of Belgium were tortured and ultimately killed by Leopold and his company.

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Leopold II

The Woman and The Child

In the background of the source a women is running from the vine, clutching her child to her chest. This symbol gives information about the families of those who spent all their days collecting vines and of those who were tortured and killed. The women holding the baby to her chest and obstructing its view shows that the environment that the native babies grew up in could emotionally scar them for life, which is why the women his hiding the scene from her child. The fact that the women is running away and not helping the man shows how helpless the villagers were to Leopold's wrath as she knows she can not save the man and is only trying to save herself and her child. The baby holding his arm out to the man also shows how the young of the natives need the men that were being killed to protect them and teach them the way of life. The women and child show how future societies of the natives would break down after Leopold's tax.

The Environment

The location of this political cartoon is very plain, with little plants and one of Leopold's posts can be seen in the background. The barren ground that the man stands upon shows the environmental effects from all the vines being harvested. After using the destructive harvesting methods to get the vines quicker, the beautiful Belgian environment was destroyed. The birds flying away in the background show the effects of this as their home has been destroyed, and they are leaving to find somewhere else to live. This shows the effect the destruction of the environment had on the native animals. The background shows that it wasn't only the people of Belgium who felt the effects of Leopold's Tax.

The Author and Possible Bias

In the Rubber Coils was published in Britain by Punch Cartoons in 1906 by head cartoonist Linley Sambourne. The publishers being British is interesting, a the British were funding the project. It's likely that this cartoon was published when the world found out what the company was doing, and Britain was trying to show that they were not supporting the acts committed in Belgium, to make the public feel as if they were living in the perfect country. The issue being published as a cartoon instead of being written about may be because Britain wanted the issue to be visual so people would be horrified and would think of Britain as more civilised. Britain trying to make other countries look responsible and not as good as itself could mean there is bias in this source as it may be highly exaggerated, though this may not be true as people had already heard of what was happening in Belgium before this was published. This could mean that this was a good meaning cartoon, that was meant to spread the word of the cruelty that was happening. This would mean there would be less bias in this source.

What can we learn from this?

What we Learn about Imperialism

From the information learnt from this source, we can see that imperialism was a time of selfishness. Lots people were only looking to satisfy the wants of themselves, and denied others of the things they needed. This can be seen in the form of Leopold II who denied the inhabitants food, shelter and even their lives, just so he could become rich. We also see that imperialism was a time of racism as the Europeans in Belgium were given houses at the posts along the river, while the Belgians were treated like dirt, as discussed in the example above. However on a more positive note, we can see that imperialism was a time of new things as these rare and incredibly useful vines were sold around the world and could only be found in Belgium, which means that they would never have accessible until Imperialism. Though, from this source we can see that the negatives of Imperialism out way the positives as it was a time of cruelty and discrimination and things done in the time of this event would result in people spending time in jail in the modern day. Yet in the time the source was published, some people were not only allowed to do these things,but in some cases it was encouraged. From this we can see that the world we live in today has become much more civilised then what it was in the days of Imperialism.

What we can Learn from the source

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Wikepedia, Abir Congo Company, Wikepedia, last updated 24th of March 2013, accessed 28th of April,

Amrita, "THINK YOU CAN OR THINK YOU CAN'T?", AmritaHumanities, last updated 3rd of May 2009, accessed 28th of April,

Punch Cartoons, In the Rubber Coils, Punch Cartoons, last updated unknown, accessed 29th of April,