"The horror! The horror!" - the dying of words of Mr. Kurtz, the ivory trader, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Between 1880 and 1920, under the Colonial control of Belgian King Leopold II, the population of the Congo was slashed in half: some ten million people were victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, disease and a plummeting birth rate. Leopold had a monopoly on trade into and from the Congo, maintained an Army to suppress rebellions and insubordination called “Public Force” whose patrol units (seven year enlistments) were referred to as “reconnaissances pacifiques.” He claimed all unoccupied land in addition to the crops of occupied lands to feed the Army.
In August 1890, Joseph Conrad, went upstream on the Congo as a pilot on a riverboat and his experiences inspired “The Heart of Darkness.” Joseph Conrad that he “was so horrified by the greed and brutality among white men he saw in the Congo that his view of human nature was permanently changed.”
George Washington Williams (An Afro-American Lawyer, reporter, entrepreneur) in 1890-1891 was the first person to report of the tragedy of slavery, mutilation and devastation of the Congo by Europe’s purported civilizing agents working for Leopold of Belgium “An Open Letter” - published in Europe probably by the Dutch and widely circulated accused the Congo State of “crimes against humanity” by detailing abuses, wanton killing, enslavement, destruction of villages, and the bad reputation of Henry M. Stanley among the indigenous Congolese.
William Sheppard, an African American Presbyterian minister from Virginia, spent a decade in the Kuba region of the Congo up the Kasai River noting the customs and artistic productions of the peoples before and after the rubber exploitation of the region that led to the systematized mutilation, death and slaughter of nearly three to five million inhabitants of the Congo. Native resistance to Belgian demands in rubber extraction led to a gruesome discovery by Sheppard when he came across a large number of human right hands cured by smoke - 81 in all! Sheppard was not the first foreign witness to see severed hands in the Congo, nor would he be the last. But the articles he wrote for missionary magazines about his grisly find were reprinted and quoted widely, both in Europe and the United States, and it is partly due to him that people overseas began to associate the Congo with severed hands.
At around the same time, Edmund Morel, a shipping clerk in Antwerp discovered a nearly five to one (5:1) disparity regarding the wealth that was exported from the Congo as opposed to the value of the imports of goods going to the Congo that could not account for how the labor was being remunerated in the Colony. It must be forced labor – institutionalized slavery, he deduced! At the time E. D. Morel made his discoveries, most people in Europe and the US knew surprisingly little about Leopold’s apparatus of exploitation. Few Europeans came home from the Congo.
Morel was an official for Elder Dempster, (a Liverpool based) the corporate trade monopoly, of the dependency. Having confronted his boss and the president of the steamship line, EDM was relegated to being ignored, then offered raises, and eventually bribed to say nothing. In 1901 he quit his job and took up his pen full-time, filled with determination ‘to do [his] best to expose and destroy what [he] knew to be legalized infamy and unimaginable barbarities responsible for a vast destruction of human life’. The missionaries provided some of the most horrifying accounts published by Morel as he documented torture, starvation and hands being severed.
Morel also exposed the web of deceptions, large and small continually spun by Leopold and his allies. “A party of men had been detailed with torches to fire every hut in rebellious villages. As we progressed, a line of smoke hung over the jungle for many miles, announcing to the natives far and wide that civilization was dawning. We had undergone six weeks of painful marching and had killed over nine hundred natives, men, women and children all for 20 tons of rubber.”
By 1903 the English Parliament began to take up the “Congo question” Leopold’s rule had been thoroughly exposed for what it was, but it remained in place. In May 1903, Parliament passed the “Congo Resolution.” HM Consul Roger Casement, an Irishman, was ordered in the Congo to “go upriver.” As E.D. Morel, Roger Casement, and their allies caught Europe’s attention with reports of the holocaust in central Africa, newspapers and magazines ran pictures of burned villages and mutilated bodies, and missionary witnesses spoke of the depopulation of entire districts.
In 1905, the American writer Mark Twain added his voice to the growing condemnation of King Leopold’s Colonial rule in the Congo by publishing a satirical tract titled “King Leopold's Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule.”
In due course, the British Consul Roger Casement was transferred to Brazil where he made further similar horrific disclosures about the treatment of the indigenous peoples by the colonial regime. In a report to the British foreign secretary, dated 17 March 1911, Casement detailed the rubber company's use of stocks to punish the Indians: “Men, women, and children were confined in them for days, weeks, and often months. ... Whole families ... were imprisoned--fathers, mothers, and children, and many cases were reported of parents dying thus, either from starvation or from wounds caused by flogging, while their offspring were attached alongside of them to watch in misery themselves the dying agonies of their parents.”
After his return to Britain, he repeated his extra-consular campaigning work by organising Anti-Slavery Society and mission interventions in the region, which was disputed between Peru and Colombia and eventually took up the cause of Irish Independence. After seeking an alliance with Germany, he was exposed and discredited as a homosexual, stripped of his knighthood and charged with treason. At Casement's highly publicised trial, the prosecution had trouble proving its case as Casement's crimes had been carried out in Germany and the medieval Treason Act 1351 seemed to apply only to activities carried out on English (or, arguably, British) soil. A close reading of the medieval Act allowed for a broader interpretation: the court decided that a comma should be read in the text, crucially widening the sense so that "in the realm or elsewhere" referred to where acts were done and not just to where the "King's enemies" may be. This led to the claim that Casement was "hanged on a comma".
Casement made an unsuccessful appeal against the conviction and death sentence. Among the many people who pleaded for clemency were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was acquainted with Casement through the work of the Congo Reform Association, the Anglo-Irish poet W. B. Yeats and the playwright George Bernard Shaw. On the other hand, the author Joseph Conrad, who had a son serving at the front, could not forgive Casement for his treachery towards Britain. Casement was hanged by John Ellis and his assistants at Pentonville Prison in London on 3 August 1916, at the age of 51.
In the closing years of the Congo reform movement, Morel saw how much his cause was being hindered by the Entente Cordiale between Paris and London, studded with secret clauses, in which the two countries subordinated everything to preparations for a coming European war. Morel was among the handful of people on either side in Europe who said openly that the war was madness; he was sent to Pentonville Prison in 1917 for pacifism.
Part of the population loss in the Congo resulted when families, terrorized and torn apart by the rubber companies, simply stopped having children. Daniel Vangroenweghe, a Belgian anthropologist who worked in a former rubber area in the 1970s, found persuasive evidence that large numbers of men had been worked to death as rubber slaves or killed in punitive raids –and he discovered the evidence in the regime’s own statistics. An official Belgian government Commission in 1919 estimated that from the time Stanley began laying the foundation of Leopold’s state, the population of the territory ‘had been reduced by half’ or about 10 million souls.
It is estimated Leopold made $1.2 Billion from his looting of the Congo.
Despite the death of 10 million people in the Belgian Colonial administration in the Congo between 1880 & 1914, the world’s momentary sense of moral outrage subsided. After all, after all, the victims were black Africans and the intrigues which soon led the WWI took precedence of all other concerns. King Leopold’s unimaginable genocide prompted Kurtz to mutter “the horror, the horror” quickly became a forgotten footnote in history, lost somewhere next to the comma that hanged Roger Casement.
By the 1950s, revolution was brewing in the Belgian Congo. Africans living in colonized countries felt the winds of change swirling as their mother countries in Europe struggled to stand back up after suffering often devastating defeats in World War II, championing the ideal self determination and freedom while continuing to oppress their colonies. Change began to accelerate after the riots in Leopoldville, Congo’s capital, on January 4, 1959. Thirty-four Africans were killed in riots that broke out after members of the political party ABAKO, or Alliance des Bakongo, were not allowed to assemble by the Belgium administration. This spread and agitated already high discontent to new levels, as the rural populations began protesting Belgian rule like never before. Over the next few months, the Congolese felt empowered to resist. They ‘tested’ the Belgian administrators, daring them to punish the colonized people. And often, because of the bureaucratic restraints, little was done, only empowering the people more. Families did not show up for the census. Congolese would refuse to stand at attention before administrators, or would purposely respond slowly to them, or even speak back and engage in altercations or fights with Europeans. There was a tremendous psychological shift happening, one that prepared the Congolese for political parties to channel and organize that rage and newfound courage. In 1959, the Belgian government decided to hold an election that would give Congolese puppets formal power over the governance of the Congo. The Belgian intention was to take the relevance from the radicals’ lips by appeasing the people with a moderate puppet government, and erase the calls for independence. Only men were allowed to vote. The Parti Solidaire Africain urged its members and the Congolese people to boycott the elections, by not registering and not participating in the election. The Belgian government continued with the elections, not only underestimating the clout the political parties, but also the passion of the people. Many people were tempted by the idea of an election that promised genuine self-governance, so the Parti Solidaire Africain had to work extremely hard explaining the deception. While Belgium tried at first to arrest Congolese men who tried to avoid registering for the election, they soon found that it was difficult to catch everyone, since so many Congolese men were complicit in the protest. The Belgium administration issued the threat of seven days in prison and a fine of 500 francs.
Although many were arrested, especially in rural areas, the boycott persisted and was enormously successful. Approximately 5.27 % of the 397,086 people in Bas-Congo district voted, and 1.2% of the 1,157,112 in the Kwilu district. In some areas there were much higher rates of participation, ranging from 30 to 60%, but these numbers were primarily limited to areas with large European populations or where ABAKO and Parti Solidaire Africain did not have as much influence. The overwhelming success of the boycott proved to the Belgian administration that Congo was ungovernable for them. Deciding against a bloody and possibly drawn out and politically costly affair to make the Congolese comply, like the war in Algeria, the administration chose to cut the increasingly unprofitable colony. Moreover, international pressure was against them, as the United States was pressuring European nations to give up their colonies, aligned with the idea of self-determination.
On January 20, 1960, the Belgian government invited members of 13 different political parties – 96 different Congolese – to the month-long Brussels Round Table talks. At the talks the Congolese demanded immediate independence while the Belgian government preferred a process spanning three to four years. Putting up a united front and completely unwilling to back down, the Congolese representatives got their demand, and the date for Congo’s independence was set: June 30, 1960. Free elections for the government were set for May.
On 11, February 1961, the CIA is said to have covertly pulled off the assassination of Patrice Lamumba the first elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo. Apparently the spilling of Congolese blood then was merely the more recent in a long series of imperial intrigues that had cost the Congo dearly in lives, treasures, and self-respect.
[The above is cobbled together almost entirely by cutting and pasting from various sources, including generous unattributed extracts from “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild and several other sources, so clearly I take no credit for any of the content in this post. Barry Grossman]