Saturday, February 23, 2008

King Leopold's Ghost

Fishermen catch 16 foot
shark, hang it by its tail,
wallet falls out.

I have just finished King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hockschild, 1998, Houghton Mifflin. This is probably the most illustrative example of the greed, hypocrisy, and horror of European colonialism. The area once known as the Belgian Congo is the setting. King Leopold II of Belgium the chief villain.

Leopold II found himself King of Belgium, a small, relatively powerless nation surrounded by much stronger ones. Being unusually greedy, he dreamed of having a colony just like the other nations of Europe were developing. So desperate was he to realize his dream he actually tried to buy colonies in South America, Africa, and the Pacific (he once tried to buy Fiji). Frustrated by his failure, and fascinated by the adventures in the Congo of Henry Morton Stanley, he sought out Stanley and entered into a secret agreement with him to develop a colony in what was then the huge, unknown, and neglected heart of Africa. Knowing he would meet opposition for attempting to develop a commercial venture, he cleverly and dishonestly passed off his endeavors as being purely altruistic. He would put a stop to Arab slavery and bring the word of god, as well as civilization, to the black heathens in the Congo. He managed to con the U.S. and Britain into recognizing his claim to the Congo for these noble purposes, and other nations then followed suit.

Of course once he had control of this huge and distant land, where there was no one to witness or monitor what he was doing, he set about systematically looting it of its valuables, particularly ivory at first. He built a small railroad and a system of roads to make it easier to transport ivory from the interior to his shipping points on the coast. This took several years and in the meantime the ivory had to be transported by native carriers, thousand and thousands of them. They were provided by native chieftains who owned and provided them, but also by simply capturing them, chaining them together, and forcing them to carry heavy loads over long distances. Thousands of them died. If they refused to work or misbehaved they were severely beaten with special whips made or raw, sharp edged, twisted, dried Hippopotamus hide. Twenty five lashes could cause unconsciousness, 100 lashes, which were common, could result in death.

Leopold created an army that eventually grew to 19,000 troops, mostly Africans under the command of European officers. This was the largest army in Africa and operated not only as an antiguerilla unit, but also was in charge of labor. As you might surmise, officers and troops with little supervision and absolute power did not hesitate to use it. Natives were shot indiscriminately, raped, beaten, tortured, and treated abominably in every way, all in the name of civilizing them, while at the same time collecting all the ivory as fast as they could. This was mild compared to what happened next.

Rubber became a highly desired commodity at just this time. The Congo was blessed with wild rubber vines that could be tapped for their precious juices. But this required even more labor and the natives did not want to spend days and weeks scouring the forest for rubber. No problem, they were conscripted and forced to do it. If some resisted entire villages were destroyed to warn others. Natives who refused were beaten and shot. Their women were captured and held hostage to force the men to work. Women, like men, were chained together and sometimes just disappeared. Some became concubines and; some were tortured if they resisted.

The worst feature of this unbelievably greedy enterprise came when officers in the army decided they needed proof that someone had been killed for each of the cartridges they issued their black troops. They were made to produce the right hands of their victims. Hands were produced and handed over by the thousands. Often they were smoked to preserve them long enough to deliver them before they spoiled. Heads, too, were taken. Officers were apparently proud of this as they had their pictures taken with them, one officer standing in a ring of heads, another sending a head packed in salt to his taxidermist in Europe, still others being displayed on posts. Another officer was known for paying his troops for each head they produced after battles he fought, “to stimulate their prowess in the face of the enemy.”

All of this, like the rest of European colonialism, because of European beliefs about race, evolution, and the necessity to bring civilization to the heathens. Read this book, and re-read Joseph Conrad’s, The Heart of Darkness, that was based on Conrad’s own experience in this unfortunate land. The meaning of “the horror, the horror,” becomes much more understandable.

"Why shouldn't things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together."
George Santayana

1 comment:

slfisher said...

It's an amazing book. I'd love to see them make a movie out of it (aside from Apocalypse Now).