Last updated: March 13, 2019
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The Untold Atrocities of King Leopold’s African Campaign

 

 

 

“Plans for the relief expedition took shape, and donations poured in. The food merchants Fortnum and Mason contributed cases of delicacies; the inventor Hiram Mixam sent the very latest model of his machine gun; also destined for Emin was a new dress uniform. And to lead the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, who was a more suitable choice than Henry Morton Stanley? The explorer eagerly accepted the invitation. He was particularly delighted by the Maxim gun, which he tried out at its maker’s home, satisfying himself that it really could shoot the advertised six hundred rounds per minute. The new gun, Stanley said, would be “of valuable service in helping civilization to overcome barbarism.”

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– from King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild

 

 

In the name of “helping civilization to overcome barbarism,” King Leopold of Belgium was doing exactly the opposite. He helped us see what hideous depths of barbarity and inhumanity that we human beings are capable of sinking into, even in our modern times. Our selfishness and greed are of monstrous proportions, ever insatiable; our civilization is but a veneer. Hochschild’s book is not just a story of King Leopold and his lackeys, such as the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and their ghastly misadventures. This book is an indictment against humanity. We would all like to identify with the greatness of human spirit, with an Edmund Hillary or a Neil Armstrong, for example. But by the same token, when we learn about people such Henry Morton Stanley, we must perforce acknowledge that there is an appalling degree of evil, cruelty and darkness in human heart, to which perhaps we are all susceptible too.

 

Evil can come in two ways: pure and simple, such as Hitler, or covert and disguised, such as King Leopold. The king tried to make himself a hero, but was nothing but an abject and abominable villain. Historian Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost : A story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Africa is an examination of the extreme depravity that human nature is capable of harboring. It is a stunning expose of the murderous crusade carried out by the megalomaniac King Leopold of Belgium around the turn of the twentieth century. Leopold, with the help of his henchmen, managed to utterly devastate the African country of Congo in a span of quarter century.

 

Hochschild details the terror and genocide suffered in Congo in the brutal campaign waged by King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was a cunning and conniving king who managed to cultivate an image of himself as an international humanitarian and an advocate for equal rights. In reality, the evil, hypocritical King Leopold was out on a macabre mission of establishing a rule of terror that would result in the agonizing deaths of up to 10 million native people. It is strange how such massive atrocities were allowed to happen in the modern times, and that too in the name of philanthropy, but it is even more inexplicable how these grave crimes against humanity were so facilely forgotten. Hochschild calls this suppression of Congolese history “The Great Forgetting,” but naming a thing does not explain it. Why did it take about a hundred years for the colossal malfeasance of King Leopold to come into public focus, through Hochschild’s book, when the extent of it has been known all the way anyway, more or less?

 

It all goes to show to that the modern age is not as enlightened as we would like to think it to be. King Leopold and his cohorts were alone not responsible for the gruesome ravages inflicted on the Congolese people, the whole humanity shares the blame, to one degree or another, for letting these monsters have their way in the first place, and then conveniently forgetting it all. Philosopher George Santayana said that “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” And this is the risk we run. Though it is not likely for such barbaric genocidal sprees to happen again anytime in the conceivable future, the darkness that still prevails inside human heart, both in terms of its depravity and forgetfulness, is indeed a cause for great fear.

 

Adam Hochschild was moved to write his book by a sentence read in a footnote about Mark Twain which stated that he had campaigned against the ‘slave labor’ system in the Congo which had taken ‘five to eight million’ lives. Hochschild asked himself: “Why were these deaths not mentioned in the standard litany of our century’s horrors?’ In the end, the much-acclaimed book that he went on to write reckons an even higher death toll.

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It must be noted though that it is impossible to separate deaths caused by brutality and starvation from those due to the pandemic of sleeping-sickness which decimated central Africa at that time. The gigantic disruption of African rural society brought about by forced labor, the destruction of villages and the abandonment of crops left a starving and often homeless population. The people spread the disease as they wandered and further their weakened condition made them all the more susceptible to infection. But though the disaster was a complex and compounded one, the responsibility for the millions of dead lies squarely with Leopold. Looking at the carnage in the Congo Basin, Adam Hochshild reminds us, “Refugee flight, uprisings, and the conscription of most able-bodied men as forced laborers meant few Africans were able to cultivate crops and go hunting or fishing. Famine spread throughout the territory, and millions of traumatized, half starved people died of diseases they otherwise would have survived.” Adam Hochschild’s powerful account of the one man’s colonization and terrorization of the Congo caused certainly much consternation in many of its readers when they learned about these mass killings under European colonialism.

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During the mid nineteenth century, driven by reckless ambition, greed and vanity, King Leopold II of Belgium scrutinized the world map looking for likely colonial opportunities. He reasoned that for the tiny nation of Belgium to be taken seriously it would have to join other major European countries in taking possession of colonies that would generate wealth for him and his country. Even as his ambitions intensified to set up a colony somewhere in the world, he went to Seville, Spain, in 1862, to study records of Spanish colonialism: “I am very busy here going through the Indies archives and calculating the profit which Spain made then and makes now out of her colonies.”

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In 1876, Leopold was set on acquiring a colony in Africa, and convened a Geographical Conference in Brussels of experts on Africa and famous humanitarians. He used the meeting to set up an International African Association, supposedly for humanitarian purposes, of which he was the president. Through various guises, such as the Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo and the International Association of the Congo, Leopold established his interest in the Congo region. He also set out to recruit the U.S. explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who had just returned from Africa, as his emissary. In 1879, Stanley sailed Africa, under contract to Leopold to claim as much of the Congo as quickly as possible. In Europe, Leopold sought to legitimize his conquest as a means of controlling slave raiding and bringing Christian civilization to the “wretched” people of the region.

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Leopold’s Congo Free State (his private colony, since the Belgian people and government were not interested) had achieved international recognition and backing as a humanitarian effort: it was to abolish slavery, bring missionaries and hospitals, and open the Congo to free trade. At international conferences, King Leopold always framed his actions in the Congo in humanitarian terms.

 

Thus operating through a series of humanitarian front organizations, Leopold had gained control of the Congo Free State in 1885. Having succeeded in gaining initial support for the Congo Free State, Leopold’s attention turned to the quest for profit, initially with ivory. Not only was ivory available in huge quantities, but it also was a low-weight, high-value commodity that could be exported profitably, despite the rudimentary nature of the transportation system. Leopold’s agents scoured the country for ivory, for which Africans received little and often nothing. Countless thousands of people were forcibly recruited as porters to carry the ivory many hundreds of kilometers from the interior to river stations for export. Large numbers of them died in the process.

 

The horror of the ivory trade, however, pales in comparison to the next phase of exploitation, namely, the rubber trade that started in the 1890s, when wild trees were the only significant source of rubber and the Congo had the largest concentration of these trees. Rubber trees were widely scattered in the forest, and the work of collecting rubber was very difficult. Villagers were recruited by force to collect rubber, and terror tactics were routinely used to ensure compliance. One method was to hold family members hostage, in chains, until the arbitrarily set rubber quota was met. Lashes with a rawhide whip, cutting off hands and feet, and instant executions were used routinely to punish and to terrorize others into submission. Hochschild points out that in the Mongo tongue. ‘to send someone to harvest rubber’ is an idiom which today ‘to tyrannize’.

 

As the “Free State” continued, Africans were increasingly forced to fill ivory and rubber quotas. When indigenous people failed more and more to find these diminishing products, the terrorization was aggravated: the people were sometimes shot, sometimes mutilated. Hands, breasts, and feet were amputated. The wild rubber economy abated only after the supply of cheaper, higher-quality cultivated rubber from other countries began to reach world markets. Rubber and ivory thus became state monopolies, and the government proclaimed all vacant lands state property. In 1896, Leopold proclaimed a huge area (more than 112,000 square miles) the domaine de la couronne (crown’s domain); this was to serve as his private property.

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The opportunity to make a fortune with “no holds barred” attracted many brutal and unscrupulous individuals to Congo. The terrorizing activities of commercial and government agents received support from militias, composed mainly of African recruits. Many missionaries turned a blind eye to what was happening, convincing themselves that the end (the “civilizing mission” and the quest for souls) justified the means.

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Leopold’s brutal conquest of the Congo first came under intense international scrutiny in the early 1890’s itself. In 1890 and 91, the first severe criticisms of Leopold’s governance of the Congo by George Washington Williams, who exposed the prevalent terrible labor practices of coercion and torture, received attention in the European and American press. Many things came into light such as the fact that men were forced to gather rubber under the lash or at gun-point or else in the fear that they may never see their families again. Women also suffered the same fate. Headline coverage in The New York Herald of Williams’ report on the Congo, published as a pamphlet, read: “The Administration of the African Free State Declared by an American Citizen to be Barbarous – Investigation Demanded.” Williams was also one of the first to call for self-rule or international trusteeship of Africa.

 

Because of Leopold’s high humanitarian proclamations, when these conditions were disclosed — including the enslavement of Africans and the practice of chopping off of hands and heads — the irony and hypocrisy revealed were startling. Hochschild quotes a Belgian official, Leon Fievez who decapitated one hundred natives as a motivational tactic, under the pretext of humanitarianism: “I made war against them. One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, there have been plenty of supplies at the station ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people…. but that allowed five hundred others to live.”

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Leopold, however, responded with a desperate campaign to vilify and discredit Williams, who died after he made his reports, and the story faded. (The question remains how a story with huge potential implications could be allowed to fade, when there must have been thousands of journalists around in constant search of news and sensational headlines.) William’s path-breaking story could achieve little in creating awareness about Africa or ameliorating conditions in the Congo. Leopold brazenly continued for another decade to claim humanitarian motives despite evidence of slavery, forced labor, and hostage taking. Leopold had huge incentive to keep the system going, he made huge profits from rubber gathering, which ran as high as 700 percent due to ‘cheap labor’ and high demand.

 

A few did speak out, putting themselves and their families at considerable risk, but as a result helping to inform the European public of the dark secrets of Leopold’s Congo. Eventually an international commission of inquiry was established to investigate. Leopold’s dominion over the Congo lasted from the early 1880s to 1908, when international protest and the Belgian parliament finally forced the King to surrender his colony. In 1908, the Congo was taken from Leopold and given to the Belgian government. However, even after the Belgian government stepped in, forced labor continued into the late 1920s. It is indeed saddening that even when Leopold was forced to cede title to the Belgian government, Africans continued to suffer under the new administration.

 

Interestingly, the brutal lawlessness of the Congo Free State of the 1890s was chronicled in the famous novel Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad after he made a six-month trip to the country. However, as Hochschild says, the Heart of Darkness is most often read as a parable “loose from its historical moorings.” People generally “filed away” Conrad’s classic novella “under fiction not fact,” even as he himself had done in his youth. European and American readers were somehow not “comfortable with acknowledging the genocidal scale of killing in Africa at the turn of the century,” and the amnesia about the Congo holocaust was perpetuated.

 

It was indeed a holocaust by any standards. Historical demographers now estimate that between 1880 and 1920, half the population – amounting to 10 million people – perished from the ivory and rubber trades, and from other direct and indirect effects of colonial subjugation.

 

In his concluding chapters, Hochschild reminds us that what happened in the Congo – the forced labor, pillaging of resources, and huge losses of population, all done in the name of civilization and development – was proportionally just as severe in several other colonies ruled by other powers, and continued well into the 1930s. Hochschild, in fact, sees Leopold’s exploits in the Congo as the beginning of a murderous century of wide-scale opportunistic and genocidal violence. Leopold’s rule may not be the worst case of colonial subjugation in Africa, and could in all probability be a typical one. And Hochschild asks again: why the world has almost totally forgotten about what was certainly one of the “major killing grounds of our modern times.” The point here is that if we have forgotten about the most nefarious events we in fact knew about, then how about those evils we even do not know about.

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The heroes in this dismal dark tale of Africa were the human rights campaigners who started actively fighting against the system in Congo, even at a time when the concept of human rights was still in its nascency and when it was still almost taken for granted that the white man was superior to the black and natives. Hochschild says “At the time of the Congo controversy a hundred years ago, the idea of human rights, political, social, and economic, was a profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth. It still is today.” He chronicles the activities of Roger Casement and E.D. Morel that led to the founding of the Congo Reform Association in 1904. Casement was the British consul in the Congo who publicized the cruelty and helped to bring it to an end.  Morel was a shipping-line official who discovered, from his observations in Europe, what Belgian trade with the Congo really involved. Morel noted that weapons went into the Congo and ivory and rubber came out. He wrote, “These figures told their own story… Forced labour of a terrible and continuous kind could alone explain such unheard of profits… forced labour in which the Congo Government was the immediate beneficiary; forced labour directed by the closest associates of the King himself.” Whereas Morel had previously criticized the humanitarians and been a supporter of colonialism, at the turn of the century he began to work with anti-colonial critics in teh Aborigines Protection Society in England to expose and promote reform of Leopold’s practices. Morel left his company Elder Dempster in 1901 and began a full-time career as a journalist and Congo reform activist, publishing in the space of a few years three books on the Congo.  Morel not only intended to expose but also to destroy the ‘legalized infamy’ of Leopold’s regime.

 

Hochschild’s book traces the careers of the long-forgotten reformers who exposed Leopold’s depredations, such as Casement and Morel. Hochschild linked their moral lineage as revolutionaries to the tradition of “the French Revolution and beyond.” They selflessly dedicated their lives and fortunes to the human rights of people they scarcely knew. And the human rights violations that were carried out in Congo and elsewhere during colonialism were of gargantuan proportions indeed.

 

Hochschild’s narrative of the brutality in the Congo, for example, contains the account and photograph of a destitute Congolese father, Nsala fo the Wala district. He disturbed the completion of a breakfast for Europeans when he appeared in tears on their veranda holding the foot and hand of his five-year-old daughter, Boali. She had been mutilated as punishment for failing to meet her quota. Hochschild describes the piles of hands and feet, as well as decapitations and various mutilations,  that observers noted on their travels through Leopold’s African kingdom.

 

King Leopold established a regime of terror, mass murder and all kinds of conceivable atrocities, all perpetrated in the name of philanthropic venture. But he could do so, because he was not alone, and merely an integral part of the colonizing movement that went on for hundreds of years well into the middle of the twentieth century. We should not be surprised too much if more such bold and harrowing accounts as Hochschild’s were to emerge in the coming years concerning other parts of Africa and the world during the long European colonial era.

 

 

 

Reference:

 

All quotations in the essay are from

Hochschild, A. 1998. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in

Colonial Africa. New York : Houghton Mifflin Company

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