Thieves Planting Flags, Murderers Carrying Crosses
A book review of – King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
When reading Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”, one is struck not only by the enormity of the crimes committed in the Belgian Congo, but also with the puzzling and somewhat uncomfortable realization that this should not be news. It seems incredible that such events could be relegated to the ash heap of forgotten history. In the case of Leopold’s Congo, the ash heap was more than metaphorical. Officials destroyed as much evidence as they could before the Congo was turned over the Belgian government, and according to Hochschild, “the furnaces burned for eight days, turning most of the Congo state records to ash and smoke in the sky over Brussels.”
While there has been a growing acknowledgment over the past few decades of the whitewash given to much of Western history, there has also been much criticism of “revisionist history”. To acknowledge that ones country has blood on its hands in the past is seen as being unpatriotic or anti-Western. At best, such history is dismissed as “ancient” or simply lived by people who were “a product of their times”. It is difficult, however, to dismiss Leopold’s Congo as such. This is not “ancient history”. Those who participated are not far removed from today’s young generation, and were contemporaries of our grandparents and great grandparents. As for such men being products of their times, this is hard to reconcile with those living a generation or two after slavery ended in the United States, and more than a century after slavery had been outlawed in much of Europe.
And for what did these atrocities take place? What was the driving force behind such barbarism? Ivory at first, but what really turned the Congo into a slaughterhouse seems almost trivial when looked at in comparison to the murderous lengths undertaken to exploit the resource in question: Rubber. For this millions died and countless others were mutilated.
This is a good example of the laws of unintended consequences. Certainly Scotsman James Dunlop had no idea of the misery that would result from his invention of the pneumatic rubber tire. The Congo just happened to have the right resource at the right time in its abundant supply of rubber vines. “The industrial world rapidly developed an appetite not just for rubber tires, but for hoses, tubing, gaskets, and the like, and for rubber insulation for the telegraph, telephone, and electrical wiring now rapidly encompassing the globe. Suddenly factories could not get enough of the magical commodity…” As with oil in later decades, rubber, a resource that the world had little use or need for a few short years earlier, suddenly became essential to the economies of the industrialized world. Even if the Congo had had any chance of relatively benign treatment by the West, the rubber boom would have sealed its fate regardless. Also, Leopold, with undeniable business acumen, knew that cultivated rubber, from trees rather than vines, would eventually cause a drop in price when rubber plantations in South America and Asia reached maturity. In the meantime, he decided to squeeze the Congo for every last drop before this happened, and “voraciously demanded ever greater quantities of wild rubber from the Congo…”
One might have expected Leopold’s agents to pay Congolese natives a pittance to gather rubber, and still reap huge profits, but the reality was that human greed knew no bounds in the Congo. The natives were not paid at all. In fact, they were not even allowed to handle money. Instead they were forced to gather rubber by a variety of means, most of them violent or terroristic. In most cases, women and children were held hostage until the men met their rubber quotas. Those who resisted were simply killed. Even many who didn’t resist were killed for not meeting quotas. Others died of disease and starvation, especially those in detention. Some died in the dangerous job of harvesting the rubber vines high in the trees. Those caught cheating by cutting the vine open, which yielded more rubber but killed the vine, were killed as well.
In other cases, Force Publique forces simply rampaged through entire regions, wiping out villages and massacring men, women, and children alike without distinction. In many instances, to prove that they hadn’t wasted ammunition hunting, they were required to show a left hand to their commanders for every round of ammunition used. Uprisings, of which there were many, were dealt with quickly and severely. Huge areas were left depopulated through a combination of punitive massacres, terrified villagers abandoning the area, or communities that could not remain viable because the men spent so much time gathering rubber while their women and children were interned.
An English explorer at the time, crossing a huge 3,000 square mile area of the northeast Congo, was horrified at the “depopulated and devastated” wasteland he witnessed: “Every village has been burnt to the ground, and as I fled from the country I saw skeletons, skeletons everywhere; and such postures — what tales of horror they told!”
If any one object symbolized the brutal cruelty of the Congo State, it would be the chicotte. “…a whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged corkscrew strip. Usually the chicotte was applied to the victim’s bare buttocks. Its blows would leave permanent scars; more than twenty-five strokes could mean unconsciousness; and a hundred or more — not an uncommon punishment — were often fatal.” Chicotte beatings were meted out for every offense imaginable — and often for no offense at all or for something as trivial as native children laughing in the presence of a white man.
As for these Force Publique men enforcing Leopold’s will in the Congo, they were not soldiers or officers, at least not officially, but called, in rather bland corporate terminology, “agents”. Such a mild and businesslike title hardly fits someone having the power of life and death over virtually every native in his area of operations. Not only did these men have such power at their disposal, but were more than willing to use it. Some did so because it fit their notion of necessary discipline. Others used such fear and intimidation to increase their profits. And still others seemed cut from a different cloth — the kind of men who seemed to actually enjoy killing for its own sake. Among the most notorious of these was Captain Léon Rom, who displayed the severed heads of natives in his garden. He and several other Force Publique agents who went far beyond the bounds of an already cruel and brutal regime were the inspiration for “Mr. Kurtz” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Another, Léon Fiévez, was still clearly remembered in local oral histories some fifty years after the “rubber terror”. Said one local named Tswambi:
All the blacks saw this man as the Devil of the Equator… From all the bodies killed in the field, you had to cut off the hands. He wanted to see the number of hands cut off by each soldier, who had to bring them in baskets… A village which refused to provide rubber would be completely swept clean. As a young man, I saw [Fiévez’s] soldier Molili, then guarding the village of Boyeka, take a big net, put ten arrested natives in it, attach big stones to the net, and make it tumble into the river….Rubber caused these torments; that’s why we no longer want to hear its name spoken.
These were not aberrations. Nor were they were isolated instances of excess by a handful of agents. Such inhuman viciousness was widespread and accepted company policy. Few Europeans were ever held accountable for their actions in the Congo, and the few instances of punishment amounted to a show hearing and a slap on the wrist for those charged.
There is one man who is, if not ultimately responsible for the devastation of the Congo, the one person who set the stage for Leopold to carve out his personal African fiefdom, and he deserves mention: Henry Morton Stanley. Best known for finding Dr. David Livingstone, whom had been missing for years deep inside the continent, he was one of the most celebrated adventurers of his time, and even today most who have heard of him would simply say he was a great explorer. However, regardless of his feats in Africa, he held the people of that continent in utter contempt. He boasted about shooting anyone who got in the way of his expeditions, which were practically small armies tearing through the countryside. General Sherman, of American Civil War fame, likened Stanley’s journeys in Africa to his own scorched-earth march through the South. Explorer and writer Richard Burton noted that Stanley “shoots negroes as if they were monkeys.”
Much of what is “great” about Stanley comes straight from Stanley himself. There were few corroborating witnesses to many of his exploits, though by his own words it is clear that he, like many Europeans, saw native Africans as little more than beasts of burden rather than as participants in his expeditions. The native porter, a familiar icon when one thinks of African exploration, was not the healthy, well muscled black extra seen in countless Tarzan films, but a broken, suffering native driven like a team horse, often given inadequate food and rest, and often simply left on the side of the trail to die when he reached the end of his endurance.
The use and abuse of native porters, while not as graphically cruel as other excesses in the Congo, was nonetheless a brutal and destructive practice. Perhaps portage does not get the attention of other atrocities by its sheer “ordinariness”—in addition to being a relatively slow and subtle road to death, it was a practice simply accepted and expected in Africa. And as was the case in so many other aspects of exploitation in the Congo, porters were rarely paid employees selling their services, but forced labor with little choice in the matter. As just one example, “Of the three hundred porters conscripted … for a forced march of more than six hundred miles to set up a new post, not one returned. Stanley made extensive use of these men, and left a string of dead across half the continent. This in addition to those who were encountered and shot along the way—one imagines a native was just as likely to be shot approaching the expedition out of curiosity as he was with hostile intentions.
Admirers of Stanley would hardly think he could be compared to those who later raped and devastated the Congo, but it was men like Stanley who paved the way; not just by cutting out paths through the jungle, but by doing so with the mind-set that these lands were theirs for the taking and its inhabitants fit only to serve their ends, be it gold or glory—or ivory and rubber. Rather than being venerated, Stanley should be relegated to the ranks of those explorers and colonizers whom Peter S. Beagle invoked when he wrote “We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers—thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses.”
“King Leopold’s Ghost” is a shocking, often gut-wrenching, and horrifying read. It is also a story that needs to be told, and more importantly, remembered.
- Harry Belafonte, Martin Scorsese Team up For Miniseries on Leopold II’s Massacre of Millions in The Congo
- The importance of conserving the King’s rubber vines
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