Friday, May 02, 2008

May 2

Leopold II of Belgium formalized his rule over the "Congo Free State" -- surely one of the great misnomers in the history of imperialism -- on this date in 1885. During the previous six years, Sir Henry Morton Stanley had concluded a series of advantageous treaty negotiations with the tribal chiefs of central Africa, whose lands were given over to the king for his personal enrichment. Stanley, quite famously, observed that "the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision," advice that Leopold surely took to heart as he spent the next 20 years administering the destruction of millions of people whose homelands he would never visit.

The history of the Congo Free State amounts to one of the great mass murders in human history, as a familiar nexus of racism and economic exploitation was condensed into two decades of systematic atrocity carried out with only the barest pretesnse of "White Man's Burden." Leopold opened parts of the Congo to European entrepreneurs, who purchased the rights to exploit the land for rubber and ivory; in exchange for granting monopoly rights, the Belgian ruler asked only for a 50 percent share in the profits. In the regions of the "Free State" that the king ruled directly, he borrowed from 16th century Spanish conduct in the West Indies and demanded annual production and labor quotas from the locals. The quotas were more than mere recommendations. White deputies of the king, known as the Force Publique, brutalized the various Congolese tribes, enforcing the king's authority over nearly a million square miles of land; the FP also punished interference from Congolese or Arab traders who competed with European merchants. During the "rubber terror," recalcitrant or non-productive tribes were tortured, mutilated and shot. FP conscripts were allowed to submit baskets of severed hands to their commanding officers, "tributes" of a different sort than relieved them of responsibility for failing to extract the quotas from the subject peoples.

Villages were depopulated and burnt to the ground. One member of the FP later testified that in one episode,
[w]e fell upon them all and killed them without mercy ... [Our leader] ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and children on the palisades in the form of a cross.
Between five and fifteen million Congolese died during the 23 years of Leopold's rule, while the king himself absconded with 220 million francs in personal profit, an amount totalling more than a billion dollars in contemporary terms.

By the early years of the new century, word of Leopold's savagery leaked to the European public, who reacted in horror at the revelations of journalists like Edmund Morel or novelists like Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness was based on his observations as captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Writing about a decade before the king's death, Mark Twain declared that
Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives with the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there--which will be soon, let us hope and trust.
Investigations by European governments eventually persuaded the Belgian parliament to wrest control from Leopold in 1908. The damage, however, had already been done. Not only had Leopold destroyed tens of millions of lives while depleting the wealth of a continent, but his entrepreneurial imperialism accelerated the European quest for African lands -- a competitive cycle that would bring devastating consequences for hundreds of millions more, including Europeans themselves. By 1914, the bearers of "civilization" -- driven mad by nationalism and imperial competition -- paused for a moment and began slaughtering one another for a change.

Leopold II, sadly, was not around to witness the fruits of his effort to subdue the Congo. By the time the Germans occupied most of his country, Leopold had been dead for five years.

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