Only 90 years ago, the agents of King Leopold II of Belgium massacred 10 million Africans in the Congo. Cutting off hands as we see in Sierra Leone today, was very much part of Leopold’s repertoire. Today, Leopold’s “rubber terror” has all been swept under the carpet. Adam Hochschild calls it “the great forgetting” in his brilliant new book, King Leopold’s Ghost, recently published by Macmillan. This is a story of greed, exploitation and brutality that Africa and the world must not forget.
This story is actually best understood when told in reverse order. Leopold never set foot in “his” Congo Free State – for all the 23 years (1885-1908) he ruled what Hochschild calls “the world’s only colony claimed by one man”.
It was a vast territory which “if superimposed on the map of Europe”, says Hochschild, “would stretch from Zurich to Moscow to central Turkey. It was bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. Although mostly rainforest and savannah, it also embraced volcanic hills and mountains covered by snow and glaciers, some of whose peaks reached higher than the Alps.”
Leopold’s “rubber terror” raised a lot of hairs in Britain, America and continental Europe (particularly between the years 1900-1908). But while they were condemning Leopold’s barbarity, his accusers were committing much the same atrocities against Africans elsewhere on the continent.
Hochschild tells it better: “True, with a population loss estimated at 10 million people, what happened in the Congo could reasonably be called the most murderous part of the European Scramble for Africa. But that is so only if you look at sub-Saharan Africa as the arbitrary checkerboard formed by colonial boundaries.
“With a decade of [Leopold’s] head start [in the Congo], similar forced labour systems for extracting rubber were in place in the French territories west and north of the Congo River, in Portuguese-ruled Angola, and in the nearby Cameroon under the Germans.
“In France’s equatorial African territories, where the region’s history is best documented, the amount of rubber-bearing land was far less than what Leopold controlled, but the rape was just as brutal. Almost all exploitable land was divided among concession companies.
Forced labour, hostages, slave chains, starving porters, burned villages, paramilitary company ‘sentries’, and the chicotte were the order of the day. [The chicotte was a vicous whip made out of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip. It was applied to bare buttocks, and left permanent scars. Twenty strokes of it sent victims into unconsciousness; and a 100 or more strokes were often fatal. The chicotte was freely used by both Leopold’s men and the French].
“Thousands of refugees who had fled across the Congo River to escape Leopold’s regime eventually fled back to escape the French [in Congo-Brazzaville]. The population loss in the rubber-rich equatorial rainforest owned by France is estimated, just as in Leopold’s Congo, at roughly 50%.”
Hochschild cannot fathom how the reform movement in Europe focused exclusively on Leopold’s Congo when “if you reckon [the] mass murder by the percentage of the population killed”, the Germans did as much in Namibia, if not worse, than Leopold in Congo.
“By these standards”, Hochschild argues, “the toll was even worse among the Hereros in German South West Africa, today’s Namibia. The killing there was masked by no smokescreen of talk about philanthropy. It was genocide, pure and simple, starkly announced in advance.
“After losing much of their land to the Germans, the Hereros rebelled in 1904. In response, Germany sent in a heavily armed force under Lt-Gen Lothar von Trotha, who issued an extermination order (Vernichtungsbefehl):
‘Within the German boundaries every Herero, whether found with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, shall be shot… Signed: The Great General of the Mighty Kaiser, von Trotha.’
“In case everything was not clear, an addendum specified: ‘No male prisoners will be taken.”
By the time von Trotha’s murderous hordes had finished their job in 1906, fewer than 20,000 of the 80,000 Herreros who lived in Namibia in 1903 remained.
“The others [more than 60,000 of them]”, writes Hochschild, “had been driven into the desert to die of thirst (the Germans poisoned the waterholes), were shot, or – to economise on bullets – bayoneted or clubbed to death with rifle stocks.”
Hochschild tries to be fair here by pointing to what the Americans and the British were doing, or had done, elsewhere.
“Around the time the Germans were slaughtering the Hereros,” he writes, “the world was largely ignoring America’s brutal counter-guerrilla war in the Phillipines, in which US troops tortured prisoners, burned villages, killed 20,000 rebels, and saw 200,000 more Filipinos die of war-related hunger or disease.
“Britain [too] came in for no international criticism for its killings of Aborigines in Australia, in accordance with extermination orders as ruthless as Von Trotha’s. And, of course, in neither Europe nor the United States was there major protest against the decimation of the American Indians.”
Hochschild then poses the controversial question: “When these other mass murders went largely unnoticed except by their victims, why, in England and the United States, was there such a storm of righteous protest about the Congo?”
He answers the question himself: “What happened in the Congo was indeed mass murder on a vast scale, but the sad truth is that the men who carried it out for Leopold were no more murderous than many Europeans then at work or at war elsewhere in Africa. Conrad said it best [in his book, Heart of Darkness, based on the brutalities in the Congo]: ‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’.”
Kurtz is Joseph Conrad’s lead character in Heart of Darkness. He is “both a murderous head collector and an intellectual, an emissary of science and progress, a painter, a poet and a journalist, and an author of a 17-page report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, at the end of which he scrawls in shaky hand: ‘Exterminate all the brutes’.”
Hochshild believes that Kurtz was Leon Rom in real life. Rom was born in Mons in Belgium. Poorly educated, he joined the Belgian army aged 16. Nine years later, aged 25 in 1886, he found himself in the Congo in search of adventure. He became district commissioner at Matadi and was later put in charge of the African troops in Leopold’s murderous Force Publique army in the Congo.
Rom’s brutality knew no bounds. It was such that even the white people working with him were shocked to their boots.
“When Rom was station chief at Stanley Falls,” Hochshild reveals, “the governor general sent a report back to Brussels about some agents who ‘have the reputation of having killed masses of people for petty reasons’. He mentions Rom’s notorious flower bed rigged with human heads, and then adds: ‘He kept a gallows permanently erected in front of the station’.”
Conrad had himself gone to Congo in 1890 at the time Rom was committing his atrocities. “The moral landscape of Heart of Darkness”, writes Hochshild, “and the shadowy figure at its centre are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy.”
So, how did Leopold come to own such a vast territory, exploited it, killed its people, took away its riches and never set foot in it?
Three things stand out in this sad story – the naivety of the African kings and people; the misfits of Europe sent to subdue the Africans; and the superior weapons of war that the Europeans possessed which the Africans lacked.
When the first Europeans (the Portuguese) arrived in Congo in 1482, they met a thriving African kingdom. “Despite the contempt for Kongo culture,” says Hochschild, “the Portuguese grudgingly recognised in the kingdom a sophisticated and well-developed state – the leading one on the west coast of central Africa. It was an imperial federation, of two or three million people, covering an area roughly 3,000 sq miles, some of which lie today in several countries after the Europeans had drawn arbitrary border lines across Africa in 1886.”
The great fascination of the Congo at the time was its mighty 3,000-mile river, variously called Lualaba, Nzadi or Nzere by the people who lived on its banks. Nzere means “the river that swallows all rivers” because of its many tributaries. Just one tributary, the Kasai, carries as much water as Europe’s longest river, the Volga in Russia and it is half as long as the Rhine. Another tributary, the Ubangi is even longer. On Portuguese tongue, Nzere became Zaire which was adopted by Mobutu when he renamed the country in 1971. Like most things African, the Europeans changed the river’s name to Congo.
In 1482 when the Portuguese sailor Diogo C%o accidentally came upon the river as it emptied into the Atlantic, he was astounded by its sheer size. “Modern oceanographers”, writes Hochschild, “have discovered more evidence of the great river’s strength in its ‘pitched battle with the ocean’: a 100-mile-long canyon, in place 4,000 feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor… It pours some 1.4 million cubic feet of water per second into the ocean; only the Amazon carries more water.”
Thanks to satellite technology, the world now knows that much of the river’s basin lies on a plateau which rises nearly 1,000 feet high 220 miles from the Atlantic coast. Thus the river descends to sea level in a furious 220-mile dash down the plateau.
“During this tumultous descent,” writes Hochshild, “the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves of 40 feet high, and tumbles over 32 separate cataracts. So great is the drop and the volume of water that these 220 miles have as much hydroelectric potential as all the lakes and rivers of the United States combined.”
In all, the river (Africa’s second longest) drains more than 1.3 million square miles, “an area larger than India,” Hochschild testifies. “It has an estimated one-sixth of the world’s hydroelectric potential… Its fan-shaped web of tributaries constitute more than seven thousand miles of interconnecting waterways, a built-in transportation grid rivalled by few places on earth.”
Thus, Congo was a jewel any colonialist would kill for. And the lot fell to Henry Morton Stanley to colonise it for King Leopold II.
Stanley was Welsh but he passed himself round as an American. He had first stumbled on the river on his second trip to Africa. Because the river flowed north from this point, Stanley thought it was the Nile.
Stanley’s background tells a lot about the brutality he unleashed on the Africans he met on his journeys. He had been born a “bastard” in the small Welsh market town of Denbigh on 28 January 1841. His mother, Betsy Parry (a housemaid) had recorded him on the birth register of St Hillary’s Church in Denbigh as “John Rowlands, Bastard”. His father was believed to be a local drunkard called John Rowlands who died of delirium tremens, a severe pyschotic condition occurring in some alcoholics.
John Rowlands Bastard was the first of his mother’s five illegitimate children. After an exceptionally difficult childhood spent with foster parents and in juvenile workhouses, John Rowlands Bastard moved to New Orleans (USA) in February 1859 where he changed his name several times – sometimes calling himself Morley, Morelake and Moreland. Finally he settled on Henry Morton Stanley which he claimed was the name of a rich benefactor he lived with in New Orleans.
Stanley would become a soldier, sailor, newspaperman and famous explorer feted by the high and mighty on both sides of the Atlantic. He was knighted by Britain and elected to parliament.
Though records show that Stanley wrote love letters to at least three women, he himself confessed despairingly in 1886: “The fact is, I can’t talk to women”. He eventually married “the eccentric high-society portrait painter” Dorothy Tennant on 12 July 1890 in a lavish wedding ceremony at Westminster Abbey in London, attended by the good and great of Britain, including Prime Minister Gladstone. Yet, Hochschild provides evidence showing that Stanley’s “great fear of women” prevented him from ever consummating his marriage.
After his honeymoon, Stanley himself wrote in his dairy; “I do not regard it wifely, to procure these pleasures, at the cost of making me feel like a monkey in a cage”. To which his biographer, Frank McLynn adds: “Stanley’s fear of women was so great that when he was finally called upon to satisfy a wife, [he] in effect broke down and confessed that he considered sex for the beasts.”
Hochschild adds his own telling comment: “Whether this inference is right or wrong, the inhibitions that caused Stanley so much pain are a reminder that the explorers and soldiers who carried out the European seizure of Africa were often not the bold, bluff, hardy men of legend, but restless, unhappy, driven men, in flight from something in their past or in themselves. The economic explanations of imperial expansion -the search for raw materials, labour and markets – are all valid, but there was pyschological fuel as well.”
Here Stanley had a common link with his ultimate employer, King Leopold II. Hochschild tells how the “loveless marriage” of Leopold’s parents affected the young prince. “If Leopold wanted to see his father, he had to apply for an audience”. The cold atmosphere in which he grew up haunted him in later life. He became an “ungainly, haughty young man whom his first cousin Queen Elizabeth of England thought ‘very odd’ and in the habit of ‘saying disagreeable things to people’,” says Hochschild.
Like his parents, Leopold and his wife, Marie-Henriette “loathed each other at first sight, feelings that apparently never changed”, Hochschild continues. “Like many young couples of the day, the newlyweds apparently found sex a frightening mystery.” Queen Victoria became their sex-educator. She and her husband, Prince Albert, gave Leopold and his wife (visiting from Brussels) tips about how to consummate their marriage. Several years later, when Marie-Henriette became pregnant, Leopold wrote to Prince Albert thanking him for “the wise and practical advice you gave me…[It] has now borne fruit.”
When Leopold finally ascended the throne in 1865, his undying desire was to own colonies. He tried everything under the sun to get a colony to no avail, including offering to buy the Philippines from Spain, buying lakes in the Nile and draining them out, or trying to lease territory on the island of Formosa.
He despised Belgium’s small size. “Small country, small people” was how he described his little Belgium that had only become independent in 1830. The brutal expeditions of Stanley in Africa finally offered Leopold the chance to land his prized jewel, Congo.
Stanley had made two “journalistic” trips to Africa, first in 1869 to find David Livingstone. The second was in 1874 where, starting from Zanzibar with 356 people (mostly Africans), he “attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages” (his own words) as he plundered his way down to Boma and the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic coast.
In 1879, Stanley was off again to Africa, this time under commission from King Leopold to colonise Congo for him. Stanley used the gun, cheap European goods and plain-faced deceit to win over 450 local chiefs and their people and take over their land.
Stanley apparently remembered how the 22-sq-mile Manhattan Island in New York Bay had been “bought” from the Native Americans by the Dutch colonial officer, Peter Minuit, with trinkets valued at just $24.
If Minuit could do it in Manhattan, Stanley could do it, too, in the Congo. Only that in his case, he just asked the Congolese chiefs to mark Xs to legal documents written in a foreign language they had not seen before. Stanley called them treaties, like this one signed on 1 April 1884 by the chiefs of Ngombi and Mafela:
In return for “one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand, they promised to freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever…give up to the said Association [set up by Leopold] the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories…and to assist by labour or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories… All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association.”
With treaties like this, Stanley set forth to colonise Congo for Leopold. But the French would not let them have all the laugh. They sent Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza on their own colonising mission. De Brazza landed north of the Congo River, curved out an enclave for France and had a town named after him (Brazzaville). The enclave eventually became known as Congo Brazzaville, where the French too unleashed their own brutality on the local people.
Meanwhile Stanley was doing a “good” job across the river for Leopold, building a railway and a dirt road to skirt the 220-mile descent of the river. This was to facilitate the shipping of Congo’s abundant ivory and other wealth to Belgium to enrich Leopold and his petit pays. In 1884, Stanley finally left for home in England, his work for Leopold done.
Leopold next sent in his hordes, including Leon Rom, to use absolute terror to rule the land and ship out the wealth.
It was the brutality of Leopold’s agents that would catch the eye of the world and lead to his forced sale of Congo to the Belgian government in 1908.
Ivory had been the initial prized Congo export for Leopold. Then something happened by accident in far away Ireland that dramatically changed the fate of Leopold, his Congo and its people. John Dunlop, an Irish veterinary surgeon, was tinkering with his son’s bicycle in Belfast and accidentally discovered how to make an inflatable rubber tire for the bike. He set up a tire company in 1890 named after himself, Dunlop, and a new major industry was up and running. Rubber became the new gold, and Leopold was soon laughing all the way to the bank.
The huge rainforest of Congo teemed with wild rubber, and Leopold pressed his agents for more of it. This is when the genocide reached its peak. Tapping wild rubber was a difficult affair, and Leopold’s agents had to use brutal force to get the people of Congo to go into the forests and gather rubber for Leopold. Any Congolese man who resisted the order, saw his wife kidnapped and put in chains to force him to go and gather rubber. Or sometimes the wife was killed in revenge.
As more villages resisted the rubber order, Leopold’s agents ordered the Force Publique army to raid the rebellious villages and kill the people. To make sure that the soldiers did not waste the bullets in hunting animals, their officers demanded to see the amputated right hand of every person they killed. As Hochschild puts it, “the standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse. ‘Sometimes’, said one officer to a missionary, ‘soldiers shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man’. In some military units, there was even a ‘keeper of the hands’, his job was the smoking [of them].”
Fortunately for the people, Edmund Dene Morel, a clerk of a Liverpool shipping line used by Leopold to ship out Congo’s wealth, discovered on his several journeys to the Belgian port of Antwerp in the 1890s that while rubber and ivory were shipped from Congo to Antwerp, only guns and soldiers were going from Antwerp to Congo. This marked the beginning of his massive newspaper campaign to expose Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo.
Morel’s campaign in Europe and America finally forced Britain to ask its consul in Congo, the Irish patriot Sir Roger Casement, to make an investigative trip all over Congo and report. Casement’s findings were so damning that the Foreign Office in London was too embarrassed that it could not publish the original.
Casement’s description of “sliced hands and penises was far more graphic and forceful than the British government had expected”. When the Foreign Office finally published a sanitised version of his report, an angry Casement sent a stinking 18-page letter of protest to his superiors in the Foreign Office, threatening to resign. He called his superiors “a gang of stupidities” and “a wretched set of incompetent noodles.”
In the end, the Belgian government was forced to step in and buy Congo from Leopold in 1908. Negotiations for the buy-out started in 1906. Leopold dragged his feet for two years, but finally, in March 1908, the deal was done.
“The Belgian government first of all agreed to assume [Congo’s] 110 million francs worth of debt, much of them in the form of bond’s Leopold had freely dispensed over the years to [his] favourites”, says Hochschild. Nearly 32 million franc of the debt was owed to the Belgian government itself through loans it had given years earlier to Leopold.
The government also agreed to pay 45.5 million francs towards completing Leopold’s then unfinished pet building projects. On top of all this, Leopold got another 50 million francs (to be paid in instalments) ‘as a mark of gratitude for his great sacrifices made for the Congo.’
“Those funds were not expected to come from the Belgian taxpayer.”, Hochschild writes. “They were to be extracted from the Congo itself.”
He finishes his book on a very high note: Calling this bit The Great Forgetting, Hochschild writes:
“From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left for Africa was not democracy as it is practised today in countries like England, France and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder. On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.
“When independence came, the country fared badly… Some Africans were being trained for that distant day; but when pressure grew and independence came in 1960, in the entire territory there were fewer than 30 African university graduates. There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists or physicians. The colony’s administration had made few other steps toward a Congo run by its own people; of some 5,000 management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans.”
Yet on the day of independence, King Baudouin, the then monarch of Belgium, had the gall to tell the Congolese in his speech in Kinshasa: “It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that you are worthy of our confidence”.
No cheek could be bigger! And you could well imagine how mad the Congolese nationalists like Patrice Lumumba were jumping.
Hochschild has written an excellent book. Africa owes him a huge debt of gratitude. New African highly recommends the book for compulsory reading in African schools and universities.