Tuesday, April 5, 2011

'King Leopold's Ghost': Genocide With Spin Control

From the New York Times, September 1, 1998, BOOKS OF THE TIMES, 'King Leopold's Ghost': Genocide With Spin Control, by Michiko Kakutani  --  Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is frequently read as an allegorical or Freudian parable, while its murderous hero, Kurtz -- the renegade white trader, who lives deep in the Congo jungle behind a fence adorned with shrunken heads -- is regarded as a Nietzschean madman or avatar of colonial ambition run dangerously amok.

As Adam Hochschild's disturbing new book on the Belgian Congo makes clear, however, Kurtz was based on several historical figures, and the horror Conrad described was all too real. In fact, Hochschild suggests, "Heart of Darkness" stands as a remarkably "precise and detailed" portrait of King Leopold's Congo in 1890, just as one of history's most heinous acts of mass killing was getting under way.

Under the reign of terror instituted by King Leopold II of Belgium (who ran the Congo Free State as his personal fief from 1885 to 1908), the population of the Congo was reduced by half -- as many as 8 million Africans (perhaps even 10 million, in Hochschild's opinion) lost their lives.

Some were beaten or whipped to death for failing to meet the rigid production quotas for ivory and rubber harvests, imposed by Leopold's agents. Some were worked to death, forced to labor in slavelike conditions as porters, rubber gatherers or miners for little or no pay.

Some died of the diseases introduced to (and spread throughout) the Congo by Europeans. And still others died from the increasingly frequent famines that swept the Congo basin as Leopold's army rampaged through the countryside, appropriating food and crops for its own use while destroying villages and fields.
Mutated Little Girl

Although much of the material in "King Leopold's Ghost" is secondhand -- the author has drawn heavily from Jules Marchal's scholarly four-volume history of turn-of-the-century Congo and from "The Scramble for Africa," Thomas Pakenham's wide-ranging 1991 study of the European conquest of the continent -- Hochschild has stitched it together into a vivid, novelistic narrative that makes the reader acutely aware of the magnitude of the horror perpetrated by King Leopold and his minions.

It is a book that situates Leopold's crimes in a wider context of European and African history while at the same time underscoring the peculiarly modern nature of his efforts to exert "spin control" over his actions.

Map of the Congo

As depicted by Hochschild, the people in "Ghost" emerge as larger-than-life figures, the sort of characters who might easily populate a Victorian melodrama were it not for the tragic and very real consequences of their actions.

Leopold himself comes across as a cartoon-strip megalomaniac -- a mad, greedy king obsessed since adolescence with the idea of running a colony of his own and intent throughout his career on covering his lust for money and real estate in honeyed talk of philanthropy and human rights.

Fallen statue of Henry Morton Stanley

As for Henry Morton Stanley, the world-famous explorer whom Leopold retained as his agent, he is depicted as a Dickensian bully and chronic liar who allowed his own monumental celebrity to be used by Leopold for the worst possible ends. He eventually persuaded hundreds of Congo basin chiefs to sign over their land and their rights to the king of the Belgians.

Congolese mutated for European Wealth

With the sheaf of treaties Stanley had acquired firmly in hand, King Leopold embarked on a worldwide lobbying campaign to win diplomatic recognition of his new colony.

He succeeded in winning this recognition, Hochschild argues, by playing one great European power against another and by portraying his control of the Congo as a kind of benevolent protectorship that would bring a civilizing influence to the continent while thwarting the malign designs of Arab slave-traders eager to exploit the same region.

In actuality, Leopold saw the Congo as his personal domain (his power as sovereign of the colony was not shared with the Belgian government) and as a rich source of rubber, ivory and other natural resources that could fatten his coffers at home.

Native Congolese whipped like photo after photo of "New World" slave tortures

Marchal, the Belgian scholar, estimates that Leopold drew some 220 million francs (or $1.1 billion in today's dollars) in profits from the Congo during his lifetime. Much of that money, Hochschild suggests, went to buying Leopold's teen-age mistress, a former call girl named Caroline, expensive dresses and villas, and building ever grander monuments, museums and triumphal arches in honor of the king.

Those profits came at the price of terrible suffering by the Congolese people. Not only was their land summarily annexed -- most of the chiefs who signed Stanley's "treaties" had no idea what they were signing -- but they were also coerced into the arduous job of gathering rubber for Leopold's men as well.

Dismemberment of native Congolese right hands

Those who refused or failed to meet their quotas were brutally whipped, tortured or shot, Hochschild reports; others saw their wives and children taken hostage by Leopold's soldiers.

According to Hochschild, hostage-taking and the grisly severing of hands (from corpses or from living human beings) were part of the government's deliberate policy -- a means of terrorizing others into submission.

As the "rubber terror" spread through the Congolese rain forest, Hochschild adds, entire villages were wiped out: Hundreds of dead bodies were dumped in rivers and lakes, while baskets of severed hands were routinely presented to white officers as evidence of how many people had been killed.

Enslaved in their own homeland, Congolese men chained by other Africans for European Wealth and King Leopold's insatiable greed for Africa's natural resources.
Hochschild writes about these horrifying events with tightly controlled anger, and he brings equal passion to his account of the small band of protesters who orchestrated resistance to Leopold's rule.

Those protesters include Edmund Dene Morel, a British shipping-company employee, who brought the king's crimes to world attention; George Washington Williams, a black American journalist who chronicled the grisly conditions in the Congo in an open letter to King Leopold; and Roger Casement, an Irish member of the British consular service, who sent home a torrent of dispatches condemning specific atrocities and the entire way the colony was run.

The efforts of these men and others helped bring international pressure to bear on Leopold, and in 1908 he turned over the Congo -- in effect, sold it -- to the Belgian government.

Map of Belgium

Leopold, in the meantime, tried to ensure that his crimes would never make it into the history books. Shortly after the turnover of the colony, Hochschild writes, the furnaces near Leopold's palace burned for eight days, "turning most of the Congo state records to ash and smoke." "I will give them my Congo," the king is reported saying, "but they have no right to know what I did there."

With this book, Hochschild, like other historians before him, ensures that King Leopold has not gotten away with his efforts to erase the memory of his brutal acts.  (From the New York Times, September 1, 1998, BOOKS OF THE TIMES, 'King Leopold's Ghost': Genocide With Spin Control, by Michiko Kakutani)

King Leopold II King of Belgium - King of the Congo

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  1. Updated figures put the figures at closer to 10-20 million. Basically, the world has forgotten or has not been taught what happened in the Congio. All we hear about is the Naziis.

    1. Its so hard to grapple with the staggering body count of King Leopold's Congo genocide. I have posted several articles that are directly related to the Congo atrocities like Ota Benga the Congolese man in the Brooklyn zoo (his entire tribe was massacred by King Leopold), the former Welsh Confederate soldier Stanley Morton, the sinister propaganda of Tintin au Congo, the Rwanda genocide .... it just goes on and on and on and on.

      Thanks for your comments.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

    2. The nazis and the beastiality of slavery. It's not a contest they're both horrendous. Let's not have a comparison between genocide and slavery where millions where also brutally tortured, maimed and killed. This is not a contest. It is suffering. This is an article about slavery not the Holocaust. These are 2 different yet similar cases of racism. The Holocaust was genocide, Jews were not meant to live period. They had no value. As bestial as slavery was a person (3/5) was still a life that could have some value. Jews had no value except for what the Germans could extract from their dead bodies.

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