Ring Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
Reviewed by Richard Abernethy
Hobgoblin #3 2002
Before Hitler and Stalin, there was Leopold II, King of the Belgians. In his own country he was a constitutional monarch with limited powers. In Africa, without ever going there, he made himself both ruler and owner of a vast empire, the so-called Congo Free State. Leopold's exploitation of the Congo was so inhuman and devastating that the country was depopulated. Measuring the scale of the catastrophe is difficult, but one demographic study estimated that the population was halved, from twenty million to ten million, between 1880 and 1920. Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is a compelling account of the fate of the Congo, written in the conviction that this, one of the greatest inhumanities of the modern world, needs to be remembered and understood.
The main narrative concerns the period from the first European exploration of the upper Congo by Henry Morton Stanley in 1874-77 through to the death of Leopold in 1909. This is set in context by brief accounts of earlier and later events: the arrival of the Portuguese five centuries ago and the Atlantic slave trade; and the CIA sponsored murder of the Congo's independence leader, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961, and the subsequent dictatorship of his assassin, Mobutu.
Before the coming of Europeans in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Congo interior was home to a wide diversity of peoples and societies, ranging from large, highly organised kingdoms to small bands of hunter-gatherers. Land was normally held communally by a village, clan or tribe. The extended family and clan system meant that people lived within a strong network of mutual support and obligation. The art of the Congo, especially woodcarving, would later inspire European artists, notably Picasso. Pre-colonial life also had its violent and oppressive features, including warfare, slavery and ritual cannibalism. Of course, the European imagination seized upon the 'savage' aspects of African life and often failed to recognise its positive characteristics. The region was already suffering from the depredations of slave traders who were taking captives out of Africa via Zanzibar to be sold in the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. Although these slavers were mostly Swahili speaking African Muslims, Europeans invariably called them 'Arabs'.
Leopold, like other European colonisers, would seek moral justification for his own imperialist schemes by denouncing the cruelties of the 'Arab' slave trade. Stanley's epic journey of exploration, crossing Africa from Zanzibar and following the mighty River Congo down most of its length to the Atlantic at Boma, was accomplished by brutality and utter disregard for African lives. Stanley used the whip to keep his porters marching, sick and exhausted, until they died. His party had the latest repeating rifles, and no qualms about using them against local peoples who dared to defend their territories against incursion. 'We have attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages' he wrote in his journal. This trail of violence across the continent was a foretaste of what would follow when exploration was succeeded by colonisation.
Next time Stanley landed in Africa, he was an agent of Leopold II, charged with developing the king's colony in the Congo. A colonial empire was Leopold's lifelong dream and obsession. He had studied Spain's conquests in the Americas and Dutch rule in the East Indies. Unable to persuade the Belgian parliament to take up his plans, he went ahead on his own initiative. Using his personal fortune and privately borrowed funds gave him freedom of action. At the same time, he relied on his status and prestige as a European monarch to obtain international support and recognition. By combining the roles of venture capitalist and king, Leopold was able to achieve his ambition. Leopold's rule over the Congo involved a complex interlocking of private enterprise and state power. In the first place, his operations were carried out in the name of the International Association of the Congo. This Association, independent of Belgium or any other state but completely under Leopold's private control, proceeded to set up a sovereign state in the Congo, with Leopold as king and its own army, the Force Publique. Later on, the Congo State would lease out large tracts of its territory to private companies, which exercised virtual state power in their own zones.
A further twist was that the state (i.e. Leopold himself) held blocks of shares in the companies. Leopold's agents got local chiefs to sign treaties yielding up their sovereignty. The treaties also granted Leopold the land, a trading monopoly, control of roads and waterways, mineral and forest rights and - most ominously of all, the right to labour services. The chiefs had no knowledge of written documents, the French language or the legal concepts of capitalist Europe, and may have been under the impression that they were making treaties of friendship. Moreover, Leopold's men used chicanery such as delivering an electric shock from a concealed battery to convince the Africans that they possessed magical powers. All 'vacant lands' were declared to be state property. This conveniently ignored the reality of traditional land use in Africa. Often, apparently uncultivated land was just lying fallow as part of a farming cycle. Other land was used for hunting or gathering firewood. In any case, the state would determine whether land was 'vacant' or not. To travel around this vast country and extract its resources, the colonisers needed to run steamboats on the River Congo and its system of tributaries. On land, they required multitudes of porters, because draft animals like horses or oxen would not survive the climate. The 220-mile stretch of rapids on the lower Congo meant that steamboats had to be dismantled, hauled overland and reassembled for use upriver. Ivory and rubber had to be carried downriver. The labour was deadly - bearing heavy loads over rugged terrain, on meagre rations, driven by pain and fear. Obedience was enforced by use of the chicotte, a hippopotamus hide whip, and by outright killings.
At first the main export was ivory, which could end up as anything from piano keys to false teeth in Europe. Then came the rubber boom. As Europe and North America entered the age of the motor car and electric power, rubber was in high demand for tyres and insulation. It would take years for new rubber plantations to mature; meanwhile wild rubber, gathered from the equatorial rain forests, fetched high prices. To terrorise the population into gathering rubber, Leopold's men would take women as hostages until their menfolk brought in a sufficient quantity. Villages that resisted the system were attacked and destroyed. Individuals who failed to reach their quotas were killed, tortured, mutilated. A practice that came to symbolise the cruelty and horror of Leopold's Congo (as it does the chaos in Sierra Leone today) was chopping off hands. As the peoples of Central Africa did not have the use of writing, the victims left no letters or diaries, survivors left no memoirs, rebel movements left no declarations.
The words of the Congolese themselves reach us rarely, and always as reported by others. One individual testimony that has survived is from a woman called Ilanga. She describes life in her village as peaceful, hardworking and prosperous. When soldiers came, the people put out food for them, hoping to be left unharmed. The first time they were. The second time, the soldiers stole their fowl and goats, and tore up their cassava. The third time, Ilanga and others were seized, tied together with cords around their necks, and marched off. On the march she saw babies thrown into the grass to die, and her own husband was bayoneted to death when he refused to march any further. Although the African resistance is almost a lost history and takes up only a few pages of the book, Hochschild is able to give us an overall outline and some illustrative examples.
Many of the Congo peoples fought wars of resistance, some lasting many years and killing many of Leopold's soldiers. On the lower Congo rapids, a chief named Nzansu led an uprising in 1893, killing state officials and destroying military posts. He remained on good terms with Swedish missionaries in the area, one of whom wrote of him that he 'only wanted to become the Engelbrekt of the Congo and the Gustav Wasa of his people. His followers are as loyal to him as Swedes were to their own leaders in those times'. Comparing the revolt to his own country's struggle for independence, the Swedish missionary was recognising Africans as active, reasoning subjects of their own liberation. This was a very rare attitude for a European of that period; even those who bitterly denounced Leopold's atrocities were generally limited to seeing Africans as victims. Some of the most powerful rebellions involved mutinies of Black rank-and-file soldiers of the Force Publique. One such revolt began in 1897 in the far northeast. Rebels from different ethnic groups kept military discipline, flew their own flag and held out against the state's forces for three years before withdrawing across the border into German territory, where they were permitted to settle after giving up their arms. A few people who alerted the world to the atrocities set this in motion.
In the Congo as elsewhere, Black Americans were among the earliest and most forthright critics of imperialism, a natural concomitant of the long struggle against racism at home. (1). George Washington Williams was at various times a soldier, pastor, lawyer, member of the Ohio State legislature, journalist and historian. He wrote 'A History of the Negro Race in America'. Ironically he went to the Congo hoping to found a settlement of Black Americans there. Seeing the actual conditions for himself, he gathered evidence and published the first systematic indictment of the regime. Anticipating developments in international law by more than half a century, Williams called for an international tribunal to investigate 'crimes against humanity' in the Congo. William H. Sheppard, also an African American, went to the Congo as a Presbyterian missionary. He became the first explorer from outside Africa to visit the Kingdom of Kuba, befriending its people and studying their language and culture. For this he was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London. Sheppard witnessed the devastating impact of the rubber terror on the Kuba people, denouncing it in his speeches and writings. Brought to trial for libel, he was defended in court by the Belgian socialist leader, Emile Vandervelde, and acquitted. Hezekiah Andrew Shanu was a wealthy, European-educated African. Owner of a successful trading enterprise, he visited Belgium and received a medal for services to the Congo State, but became a secret dissident, sending information to E. D. Morel in England. After being discovered by the authorities, he committed suicide. At the centre of the international protests was Edmund Dene Morel. From today's viewpoint, Morel is a paradox, a fighter for human rights, yet by no means free of the racist attitudes of his times. Hochschild describes how Morel realised what was going on when he observed vessels arriving at Antwerp with valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory, but taking no trade goods in return - only guns and ammunition. A dynamic researcher, writer, public speaker and organiser, Morel built his Liverpool-based Congo Reform Association into an influential humanitarian campaign, whose celebrity supporters included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain. By singling out the Congo as a special case, and not criticising imperialism per se, the CRA was able to enlist the support of many pillars of the British establishment.
While accepting European rule, Morel did call for Africans to be left in possession of the land so that they could trade its produce for European goods. In the First World War, Morel became a leading figure in the Union of Democratic Control, opposing the war (at a time when this took real physical and intellectual courage) and exposing the secret diplomacy of the Allies. For this he was sentenced to six month's hard labour in Pentonville Prison. In 1922 he was elected Labour MP for Dundee, defeating Winston Churchill, a member of the government that had jailed him. Hochschild clearly admires the man and emphasises his positive side. Although he notes Morel's belief 'that African men had a higher sexual drive than white men and could pose a danger to white women', he does not refer to the campaign where this was most manifest - his protest in 1920 against France's use of African soldiers in the occupation of Germany. Morel's sensational article 'Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose By France on the Rhine' appeared in Britain's leading left-wing paper, the Daily Herald. A counterblast to Morel came from the Black revolutionary Claude McKay, writing in Sylvia Pankhurst's 'Worker's Dreadnought', who denounced this 'obscene, maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of Black men in a proletarian paper', and pointed out the inflammatory nature of such writings at a time of race riots. (2).
Freedom ideas do not come into the world fully formed, but have to develop through such contradictions and battles of ideas. Roger Casement's investigations into rubber slavery in the rainforests of the Congo and Amazon contributed to a deepening opposition to imperialism, which would lead to his execution for his efforts to overthrow British rule in his own country, Ireland. As British consul in the Congo, Casement was ordered by the Foreign Office in 1903 to investigate conditions in the interior. He undertook a journey of three and a half months, hiring his own steamboat so that he could travel around without relying on the authorities. He produced a carefully documented report packed with evidence of atrocities. Casement became a close friend and ally of Morel, supporting the CRA with advice and money. In 1910 the government sent him to report on conditions in the remote Putumayo region of Peru, controlled by the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company. There he uncovered a system of terror and enslavement of the indigenous Amerindians that matched what he had seen in the Congo. Casement linked his experiences in the tropics with his growing commitment to Irish national liberation: 'it was only because I was an Irishman that I could understand fully, I think, the whole scheme of wrongdoing at work on the Congo'.
There was another factor in his affinity with the oppressed. He was, secretly, a gay man in an age when discovery could mean prison as well as social ruin. At the outbreak of World War I, Casement made his way to Germany where he tried (with little success) to recruit Irish prisoners of war into an Irish brigade to fight against Britain. We don't know what misgivings Casement may have had about his tactical alliance with German imperialism, but few of the Irish POWs were prepared to go back into the war on the German side. Returning to Ireland by submarine in April 1916, he was arrested within hours of landing, tried for treason, and hanged in Pentonville Prison in August 1916. Hochschild fittingly remarks 'Like far too few nationalists, Casement's passion for freedom applied to all peoples, not just his own. For his time he was rare, perhaps unique, in proclaiming something in common between the struggle for freedom of Europeans like the Irish and of Africans like the Egyptians and the Congolese'.
The Congo Free State came to an end in 1908, when Leopold sold the land (and its people) to the Belgian state. The worst atrocities, massacres and amputations, were curtailed. More rubber was being grown in plantations and the rulers came to realise that, if the old methods continued, there would be no population left to exploit. The CRA disbanded in 1913, claiming success. However, the forced labour system continued, chicotte and all, and was extended into the new industries of the Belgian Congo - copper, gold and tin mining. Ironically, the Great Depression was a lifesaver for many Congolese. The Congo was singled out as a target for moral outrage. It may well have suited the interests of imperialists in Britain and elsewhere to point an accusing finger at another, evidently worse, imperialism, and as the private venture of a minor European monarch the Congo was a relatively easy target. Hochschild shows that the same lethal system was imposed on other colonies where the wild rubber vine grew, whether ruled by France, Germany or Portugal. Although these were far smaller than the Congo, the loss of population was also around fifty percent. Colonial bloodbaths elsewhere aroused far less protest. Hochschild refers to the German extermination campaign against the Hereros of Namibia, the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, and in the British Empire, the massacres of Australian Aborigines. Hochschild writes of 'the Great Forgetting', whereby the destruction of millions of lives in the Congo was excluded from memory. Leopold himself began the process, burning the records of the Congo State in 1908.
History as taught in Belgian schools and the Royal Museum of Central Africa suppressed all mention of this African holocaust. With the onset of World War I, it became important to the Allies to elicit sympathy for Belgium as a small country occupied by Germany. The Germans were accused (falsely) of cutting off the hands and feet of Belgian children. In conclusion, the author praises the work of contemporary human rights organisations such as Anti-Slavery International and Amnesty International. The perspective offered by such organisations is an influential one, attracting many people who desire a more human world, are disenchanted with political parties (including the left) and often see the idea of revolution as too distant or unrealistic. Hochschild closes his work with the observation that the idea of full human rights is a profound threat to the established order. This is both true and important, but it is necessary to go further. Is the realisation of full human freedom compatible with the continued dominance of capital (private or state)? What kind of social system can make freedom a reality? What human forces have the potential to reconstruct society? When we achieve a new human society, we will at last exorcise King Leopold's ghost. #