Union Minière du Haut-Katanga

The Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (French; literally "Mining Union of Upper-Katanga") was a Belgian mining company (with minority British share) which controlled and operated the mining industry in the copperbelt region in the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1906 and 1966.

Former head office in Brussels[1]
UMHK ore processing in Élisabethville (modern-day Lubumbashi) in 1917

Created in 1906, the UMHK was founded as a joint venture of the Belgian Compagnie du Katanga, the Belgian Comité Spécial du Katanga and the British Tanganyika Concessions.[2] The Compagnie du Katanga was a subsidiary of the Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l'Industrie (CCCI), which was controlled by the country's largest conglomerate, the Société Générale de Belgique.[3] With the support of the colonial state, the company was allocated a 7,700 square miles (20,000 km2) concession in Katanga.

Its primary product was copper, but it also produced tin, cobalt, radium, uranium, zinc, cadmium, germanium, manganese, silver, and gold. UMHK was part of a powerful group of global copper producers. By the start of World War II, the Société Générale controlled 70% of the Congolese economy.[4] Exercising preponderant influence over the Comité spécial, the Société Générale effectively controlled the Union Minière from its inception to 1960.[5] In 1968, the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga reorganized as Union Minière, which merged in 1989 with other entities to form the company that in 2001 renamed itself Umicore.

Colonial era




Cheap copper has no terrors for the great Mid-African mines of the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, world's biggest producer... Elements in Katanga's strength are: tremendously rich ores; cheap native labor; 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, 10 August 1931, Time[6]

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.[7] One of its prominent figure were Belgian financier and lawyer Felicien Cattier and businessman Emile Francqui. In the 1950s, Congo was the world’s fourth largest copper-producing country. [citation needed]



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 percent 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, studtite 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 organization 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.[8]

Shinkolobwe mine

The United States of America obtained uranium for the atomic bomb from the Union Minière. At a meeting on 18 September 1942 between Edgar Sengier, head of UMHK, and United States General Kenneth Nichols of the Manhattan Project, Nichols purchased the 1500 tonnes of uranium (mostly mined at Shinkolobwe mine, near the town of Jadotville) 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".[9] 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.[10][4]: 186–187, 217 

Social policy and influence

Mining by the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, 1922

During its heyday, the UMHK held quasi governmental power in Katanga, and operated schools, dispensaries, hospitals and sporting establishments, and had enjoyed virtually unlimited funds. 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.

After Congolese independence


The Belgian Congo became independent in June 1960. After a brief period of political unrest, Katanga Province seceded unilaterally from the Congo to form the State of Katanga under Moïse Tshombe. Fearing that the Congo's left-leaning political leaders, especially Patrice Lumumba, would nationalise its holdings, the UMHK supported Tshombe and became a major force within the new state, and still allowed for Belgian and international control.[11] During the province's secession, the Union transferred 1.25 billion Belgian francs (35 million USD) into Tshombe's bank account, an advance on 1960 taxes which should in fact have been paid to Lumumba's government.[citation needed] In 1963, the secession was ended and Katanga reintegrated into the Congo.

On 31 December 1966, the Congolese government, under President Joseph-Désiré 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 that the death of the-then United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was a murder committed in part to benefit mining companies like Union Minière, after Hammarsköld had made the UN intervene in Congo's Katanga crisis after a call for intervention by prime minister Lumumba. Björkdahl based his assertion on interviews with witnesses of the plane crash near the border of the DRC with Zambia, and on archival documents.[12][13]

Union Minière


In 1968, UMHK was reorganized following the nationalization of its Congolese assets, with its name shortened as Union Minière. It kept operationg under that name until after the 1989 merger that created what in 2001 became known as Umicore.


  1. ^ "Ancien immeuble de bureaux de l'Union Minière du Haut-Katanga". Région de Bruxelles-Capitale / Inventaire du Patrimoine Architectural.
  2. ^ Oliver, Roland; Sanderson, G.N., eds. (1975), The Cambridge History of Africa, Cambridge University Press, p. 342, ISBN 978-0-521-22803-9, retrieved 2021-03-17
  3. ^ "Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l'Industrie. CCCI", Africa Museum (in French), retrieved 2021-03-17
  4. ^ a b Williams, Susan (2016). Spies in the Congo. New York: Public Affairs. pp. 76–77, 289. ISBN 9781610396547.
  5. ^ Robert Kovar, "La congolisation de l'Union minière du Haut-Katanga" in Annuaire français de droit international, 1967, No. 13, pp. 747–748
  6. ^ "Business & Finance: Copper's Travail". TIME. 10 August 1931. Archived from the original on February 11, 2005. Retrieved 6 July 2009.
  7. ^ [1] Archived 21 December 2004 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Tomczak, Matthias (2004). "From nuclear science to the nuclear bomb". Archived from the original on 16 September 2009. Retrieved 6 July 2009.
  9. ^ Nichols, Kenneth D. (1987). The Road to Trinity. New York: Morrow pp. 47. ISBN 0-688-06910-X
  10. ^ [2] Archived March 25, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Dennis Pohl (August 31, 2021). "Uranium exposed at Expo 58: the colonial agenda behind the peaceful atom". History and Technology. 37 (2): 172–202. doi:10.1080/07341512.2021.1960074. S2CID 239761222. History and Technology, 37:2, 172-202, DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2021.1960074
  12. ^ "Dag Hammarskjöld: evidence suggests UN chief's plane was shot down". The Guardian. August 17, 2011. Retrieved August 17, 2011.
  13. ^ I have no doubt Dag Hammarskjöld's plane was brought down, Göran Björkdahl, The Guardian, August 17, 2011

Further reading