Tuesday, September 8, 2009

King Leopold's Ghost

I have a friend who's Belgian, and when I went to visit her in August she lent me her copy of "King Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild. I know a very little about the Congo- it was a Belgian colony, horrible death toll, and Patrice Lamumba. I read somewhere in the past six months that Roger Casement (the Irish patriot), Kafka's uncle and Joseph Conrad were all there at the same time. Not a whole lot. But I've been thinking about it since I saw "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's play about the civil wars there. It's over three hundred pages, and I was afraid it would be a bit of a slog. I couldn't put it down.
So what follows are the weird and/or shocking "good" parts.
Like some French and German colonies in Africa, the death toll in the Belgian Congo was high. Taking into account direct deaths, disease and a necessarily falling birthrate, Hochschild put it at half the population (and that's not the highest estimate, which is 13,000,000) which would be approximately ten million people. The death toll percentage in Namibia (then German South West Africa) of the Hereros people was worse. German troops had orders, not secret, to exterminate men, women and children.
King Leopold owned much of the Congo- it belonged to him and his shareholders, not the Belgians. Leopold's holdings were so complicated (dummy corporations, etc.) it took years to unravel them. He had a colony because he went colony-hunting for years, and finally settled on the Congo. I told my friend Cheryl this and she said, "Who goes colony-shopping?" For some years the main industry was exporting ivory, which eventually gave way to rubber. They were not originally rubber plantations, but sending workers (who were horribly treated- manacles, savage punishments, holding family members hostage) into the jungle to harvest rubber from wild-growing plants.
Sir Roger Casement served as the British consul in the Congo, and saw what was happening. He resigned from the foreign service in 1913, and went on, with E.D. Morel, to try to bring public attention to the people of Congo's plight. He was was concerned about the Irish people's plight (being Irish) and was executed for high treason (he negotiated with the Germans during World War I) in 1916.
Hochschild points out (and rightly so- I'd never though about it that way before) that much of the Allied propaganda that was generated about Belgium during World War I (cutting the hands and feet off Belgian children, widespread rape, etc.) was precisely what Belgians had done in the Congo ten years earlier. "Heart of Darkness" does not go overboard in its gore of heads impaled on garden stakes, baskets of severed limbs- if anything, Conrad muted it. Orchestrated by the CIA in 1961, Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lamumba was murdered by Belgian officers, and his body was chopped up and dissolved in acid, so there could be no martyr's grave. The Congolese point man for the murder was Joseph Mobutu, who robbed his country for more than 30 years of an estimated $4 billion dollars. Like King Leopold, he acquired large homes in Belgium and France, in addition to Spain, Portugal and Switzerland.
I highly recommend the book.

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