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King Leopold's Bonds and the Odious Debts Mystery

In 1898, in the wake of the Spanish-American war, Spain ceded the colony of Cuba to the United States. In keeping with the law of state succession, the Spanish demanded that the U.S. also take on Spanish debts that had been backed by Cuban revenues. The Americans refused, arguing that some of those debts had been utilized for purposes adverse to the interests of the Cuban people. This, some argue, was the birth of the doctrine of “odious debts”; a doctrine providing that debts incurred by a non-representative government and utilized for purposes adverse to the population do not need to be repaid by successor regimes.
This Article tests the historical evidence in favor of the birth of the odious debts doctrine at the turn of the twentieth century by considering the treatment of perhaps the archetypal odious debt: the debt that Belgium’s King Leopold undertook to finance his horrific exploitation of the Congo Free State (“CFS”). In 1908, Leopold was forced to transfer sovereignty over the CFS to Belgium. If the doctrine of odious debts existed at the time, we should see evidence of it in the public debate about whether Belgium was obliged to take on King Leopold’s debts. Based on original archival research into political debates, litigation regarding Leopold’s estate, and contemporary prices and yields of Leopold’s bonds, we see no such evidence.