Union Minière du Haut Katanga

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Group.png Union Minière du Haut Katanga  
A Belgian mining company, once operating in the province of Katanga, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Union Minière du Haut-Katanga ("Mining Union of Upper Katanga"), often abbreviated to UMHK, was a Belgian mining company, once operating in the province of Katanga, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly, Congo Free State, from 1908, the Belgian Congo, from 1972, Zaire).

It was created on October 28, 1906, as a result of a merger of a company created by King Léopold II of Belgium and Tanganyika Concessions Ltd (a British company created by Sir Robert Williams, 1st Baronet, of Park, which started prospecting for minerals in 1899, and was granted mining concessions in 1900), in order to exploit the mineral wealth of Katanga. It was owned jointly by the Comité spécial du Katanga, a joint venture company controlled by the Belgian Congo government, the Société Générale de Belgique, Belgium's largest holding company (which controlled 70% of the Congolese economy) and Tanganyika Concessions Ltd. Exercising preponderant influence over the Comité spécial, the Société Générale effectively controlled the Union Minière from its inception to 1960.[1] Some of the remains of the UMHK form part of the present day company Umicore.


Cheap copper has no terrors for the great Mid-African mines of the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, world's biggest producer. At the company's annual meeting in Brussels last week. President Jean Jadot stated that his company can make money on 8¢ or even 7½¢ copper. Katanga's 1930 earnings were 270,208,000 Belgian francs ($7,511,000), only about 6,000,000 francs down from the peak earnings of 1929. Elements in Katanga's strength are: tremendously rich ores; cheap native labour; big production of cobalt and radium (over 82%, of world radium supply) on the side; and, most recent, the newly opened Benguela Railway, which connects Katanga with the Atlantic, saves hundreds of rail miles, thousands of nautical miles for Katanga copper on its long journey to European markets.

Copper's Travail, August 10, 1931, Time[2]

During its years of operation, the UMHK greatly contributed to the wealth of Belgium, and, to a lesser extent, Katanga—which developed more than the surrounding regions without similar mineral resources. The company could be considered harshly capitalistic, but its motto at the time, best expressing their opinion of development was "good health, good spirits, and high productivity." Possibly it was because of this approach, and in order to keep and placate the workforce, that the Union introduced an accident compensation scheme as early as 1928. Katanga's mineral wealth led to the construction of railways (including the Benguela railway) to connect it with the Angolan coast which took place in 1911, other rail lines connected Katanga to Northern Rhodesia. Thereafter, mineral production, especially of copper, took off. For instance, in 1911, the Ruashi Mine, owned by the UMHK, began operation, supplying 997 tonnes of copper on its first year. By 1919, annual production had risen to 22,000 tonnes, produced by seven furnaces. In 1935, the Union was party to the World Copper Agreement. One of its prominent figure were Financier Belgian financier and lawyer Felicien Cattier and businessman Emile Francqui. In the 1950s, Congo was the world’s fourth largest copper-producing country.

Uranium and politics

In addition to the copper for which it is known, Katanga was also rich in other minerals. The company controlled the exports of cobalt (the UMHK was responsible for 75% of world production during the 1950s), tin, uranium and zinc in its mines, among the richest in the world. Henri Buttgenbach, a famous Belgian metallurgist and administrator of UMHK from 1911, described cornetite, fourmarierite, cuprosklodowskite and thoreaulite. The finding of radium deposits in Katanga at the same time eventually led to a Belgian radium-extracting industry. Johannes Franciscus Vaes, who has studied minerals coming from the UMHK, is responsible for the discovery of billietite, masuyite, renierite, richetite, schuilingite-(Nd), sengierite, tudtite and vandendriesscheite. Gaston Briart, after whom Briartite is named, was a UMHK consultant.

In 1922, the UMHK built its first refinery for uranium ore, and by 1926 had a virtual monopoly of the world uranium market (holding most of the deposits known at the time), to be broken only by the German invasion of 1940. This uranium was mostly refined at Olen, Belgium. In 1939, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, head of the French newly-established Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), arranged for the UMHK to provide his organisation with 5 tonnes of uranium oxide, technical assistance with the construction of a reactor and a million francs, in exchange for having all discoveries made by the CNRS patented by a syndicate, with profits shared between the CNRS and the UMHK. This uranium oxide was transferred to England before German troops entered Paris.[3]

During its heyday, the UMHK operated schools, dispensaries, hospitals and sporting establishments, and had enjoyed virtually unlimited funds with the Banque de la Société Générale de Belgique. In 1959, Belgian profits from the Union Miniere were in excess of 3.5 billion Belgian francs, and export duties paid to the Congolese government constituted 50% of the government's revenue. There were times when the Belgian colony's tax on the UMHK accounted for up to 66% of its revenues. It is reported that in 1960, the UMHK had annual sales of $200 million USD, had produced 60 percent of the uranium in the West, 73 percent of the cobalt, and 10 percent of the copper, and had in the Congo 24 affiliates including hydroelectric plants, chemical factories and railways.

US atomic bombs

Union Minière supplied the United States of America with uranium needed for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At a meeting on 18 September 1942 between Edgar Sengier, head of UMHK, and US General Kenneth Nichols of the Manhattan Project, Nichols purchased the 1500 tonnes of uranium (mostly mined at Shinkolobwe mine, near the town of Likasi) that the project required. This was already in the United States, and additional ore was shipped from the Congo. The mine had a "tremendously rich lode of uranium pitchblende. Nothing like it has ever again been found"; the ore was 65% uranium and even the waste piles were 20%; "after the war the MED and the AEC considered ore containing three tenths of 1 percent as a good find".[4] Some 1200 tonnes of uranium stored at the Olen refinery were captured by the Germans in 1940, and only recovered by US troops at the end of the war.[5]

Lumumba and Mobutu

Turbulence started in 1960 with the Congolese declaration of independence. In 1961, the UMHK supported the secession of the province of Katanga from the Congo and the murder in January 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister after Belgian colonial rule, in order to preserve its holdings in a Katangan client-state. During the province's secession, the Union Minière transferred 1.25 billion Belgian francs (35 million USD) into Moïse Tshombe's bank account, an advance on 1960 taxes which should in fact have been paid to Patrice Lumumba's government. On 31 December 1966, the Congolese government, under President Mobutu Sese Seko (then Joseph Mobutu), took over the possessions and activities of the UMHK, transforming it into Gécamines (Société générale des Carrières et des Mines), a state-owned mining company. Mismanagement and failure to adopt modern standards of mining (rather than mining depletion), as well as outright theft by Mobutu, meant that mining production was greatly reduced, with production rate sinking as much as 70%. Those assets of UMHK not seized by Mobutu were absorbed by the Société Générale de Belgique, later becoming part of Union Minière (now Umicore).


Göran Björkdahl (a Swedish aid worker) wrote in 2011 that he believed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld's 1961 death was a murder committed in part to benefit mining companies like Union Minière, after Hammarskjöld had made the UN intervene in the Katanga crisis. Björkdahl based his assertion on interviews with witnesses of the plane crash at Ndola near the border of the DRC with Zambia, and on archival documents.[6][7]


  1. Robert Kovar, "La congolisation de l'Union minière du Haut-Katanga" in Annuaire français de droit international, 1967, No. 13, pp. 747-748
  2. http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,882051,00.html
  3. http://www.es.flinders.edu.au/~mattom/science+society/lectures/lecture29.html
  4. Kenneth D Nichols (1987). The Road to Trinity. New York: Morrow pp. 47. ISBN 0-688-06910-X
  5. "1200 tonnes of uranium"
  6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/17/dag-hammarskjold-un-secretary-general-crash
  7. I have no doubt Dag Hammarskjöld's plane was brought down, Göran Björkdahl, The Guardian, August 17, 2011

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