In theory the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) should be among the richest countries on earth. Its vast territory virtually brims with cobalt, copper, cadmium, oil, industrial and gem diamonds, coltan,gold, silver, zinc, manganese, tin, germanium, uranium, radium, bauxite, iron ore, timber, coal, and hydroelectric potential. And yet the DRC consistently ranks in the bottom ten of the Human Development Index. In its northeastern region the deadliest conflict since WWII continues to claim about 1,000 lives a day. Not inappropriately then, the name of the capital Kinshasa, where nearly 80% dwell in slums or squatter settlements, comes from the word ‘kinsasa,’ meaning “why are things happening this way?”
This series of entries on Congolese history seeks to shed some light on the reasons why. The second installment looks at the forgotten holocaust that played out between 1885 and 1908, when the equitorial rain forest became the private labor camp of a European playboy king – the so-called Congo Free State.
A rerun from dKos. This series will eventually have four parts.
In February this year a bizarre incident was reported in news media the world across: a 20-foot statue of King Léopold II (1835-1909) on horseback was reerected near Kinshasa’s central station after having spent four decades in an open-air dump. The statue was removed a few hours later, but will, according to the Culture Minister, be restored to a prominent location in a ‘grand ceremony’ sometime in the near future.
That is one way of looking at it. Another was succintly put by Richard H. Davis in his book The Congo and Coasts of Africa (1907), based on travels in the country that was then King Léopold’s personal fiefdom: “Happy is the country without a history!”
The Congo has had no such luck. As recounted in the first installment of this series, four centuries of slave trade had already left a devastating impact on the societies of the Congo at the dawn of the colonial period. Yet the worst was still to come. The historian Robert Egderton:
Who then was this tyrant of the rain forest, now to be honored with statues by the descendants of his hapless victims? Léopold II of Belgium, a first cousin of Queen Victoria known for his sly and deceitful nature, was an unlikely imperial ruler. He was, after all, the purely titular monarch of a tiny country barely four decades old, composed of two ethnic factions and faced with a constant threat of annexation by greater powers. Despite this, or perhaps rather because of it, he kept harping on the boons of overseas expansion: “[S]ince history teaches that colonies are useful, that they play a great part in that which makes up the power and prosperity of states, let us strive to get one in our turn.” But his countrymen flatly refused.
For the Parliament, colonies meant huge investments in administration, education, infrastructure, and health care, with at best uncertain prospects of return, especially as economic analysis had shown free trade to be as profitable. Leopold’s dreams of empire by purchase – buying land on Fiji and Formosa; buying lakes on the Nile and draining them out; buying an island from Argentina; buying land in China, Vietnam, and Japan; buying the Philippines – all came to nought. Until, that is, he on January 7 1876 came across a brief note on the bottom of page six in The Times, which cited the explorer Verney Lovett Cameron on the ‘unspeakable richness’ awaiting an ‘enterprising capitalist’ in the Congo.
To get “a slice of this magnificent African cake,” which due to its inaccessability had still escaped European conquest, Léopold concocted a plan in three steps.
The first step came later that year as he hosted a conference in Brussels, gathering the leading explorers, scientists, and geographers of the day. Proposing to “open to civilisation the only part of our globe where it has yet to penetrate, to pierce the darkness that envelopes entire populations,” he secured the founding of an international philantropic society to be known as the ‘Association Internationale Africaine’ (AIA). Léopold became the chair and only shareholder of what was in effect a private holding company with its own flag – a bright star shining in the center of a dark blue surface – and funded by a multinational banking consortium.
The next step, undertaken in 1878, was to hire as his agent the legendary Henry M. Stanley, just returned from his epic quest for David Livingstone. Stanley had for some time been trying to interest the British government in colonizing the land he had been mapping, without success. The King’s instructions were clear: “It is not a question of Belgian colonies. It is a question of creating a new State, as big as possible, and of running it [without] granting the slightest political power to the negros. That would be absurd.” Stanley, a ruthless man considered by the notorious Tippu Tip a worse slave driver than any Arab, set to work using trinkets; even cheaper tricks like an electric handshake to suggest supernatural strength; and as a last resort, naked force. Thus he persuaded 450 chiefs to sign away their lands, and the labor of their peoples, “for all posterity.”
Five expeditions later, in 1885, the AIA had established a string of trading stations along the Congo River. The uppermost one, the ‘Inner Station’ in Joseph Conrad’s immortal novella Heart of Darkness, was located at Stanley Falls by agreement with Tippu Tip who had his own bases there. Tip, the last of the great Zanzibari slave traders, would in fact be made a district governor of the entity created by Leópold’s final step.
In this brilliant move, Léopold had the AIA morph into a sovereign state with himself as chef d’état. By deft maneuvers centered on free trade guarantees, the ‘treaties’ collected by Stanley, and a vow to combat the slave trade, he won diplomatic acceptance for this absurdity. (Portugal’s claim to the Congo based upon Cão’s 1482 ‘discovery’ was defused by a public campaign in Britain highlighting the crimes of the past, and the other powers were pitched against each other.) In April 1884, after relentless lobbying in Washington, the US recognized the AIA’s flag as that of a friendly government. 13 nations followed suit at the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, where most of Africa’s current borders were drawn up with a pen and a ruler.
Thus Léopold had pulled off what reason would suggest to be impossible: acquiring a region the size of India as the only private colony in history, for good measure baptized ‘The Congo Free State.’ Generous loans from Belgium enabled the new absolute monarch to get his enterprise up and going.
The Berlin Act called for ‘effective occupation’ of the territory, a requirement to which Leópold had no objection. The key to this was the creation in 1886 of the ‘Force Publique,’ a mercenary-led ‘conscription army’ based upon levies placed on local chiefs and on forced recruitment of children it rendered orphans. Led by European officers, armed with modern weaponry and peaking at nearly 20,000 men, it brutally quashed all resistance (‘pacification’), forcing the Congolese to do their new master’s bidding. Between May and October 1887 alone some 60,000 porters carried almost 1,000 tons of freight, mostly disassembled steamers, the 250 miles from Boma to the capital Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). Thousands died from the strain. In 1890 the slaves started on a railroad over the Crystal Mountains, completed eight years later. Now the Congo was open for business.
Hitherto the chief commodity pursued by Léopold’s men had been ivory. Unforgettably described in Conrad’s novella, which is inspired by the author’s stint as a steamer captain on the river in 1890, this trade was not all that profitable; the King ran up a troubling deficit. Over the next decade, however, the red numbers would turn a shiny black as the focus shifted to another natural resource of the Congo’s forests. The invention of the inflatable tire led to an insatiable demand for the sap from rubber wines.
This rubber boom would bear out a wry observation made by some American in 1885: Léopold related to the Congo just as Rockefeller did to Standard Oil. Incidentally, Rockefeller capital was itself involved via the American Congo Company, one of the numerous private contractors granted local monopolies on extracting rubber in return for half the proceeds. Such concessions were Léopold’s way of circumventing the Berlin Act’s ban on “a monopoly or favor of any kind in matters of trade.” Though trade was nominally free, Léopold declared by fiat that all rubber belonged to ‘the State’; thus there was nothing to buy or sell. He controlled many of the private companies himself and even reserved the better part of the Congo for his exclusive exploitation.
Yet this was by far the least unethical side of his operation. Influenced by a book called Java, or How to Manage a Colony by a British attorney named Money, he had realized from the start that only a liberal use of slavery would return a handsome profit. He therefore unleashed a reign of terror upon his 20 million subjects to, as he put it, instill in them “a higher idea of the necessity of labour.” The slavery was imposed in the guise of ‘taxation.’ Bertrand Russell sums it up well:
In the words of a stunned missionary, Léopold had created “a system of devilry hitherto undreamed of by his victims.” A late 19th century native song goes like this: “We are tired of living under this tyranny. We cannot endure that our women and children are taken away and dealt with by the white savages. We shall make war…. We know that we shall die, but we want to die. We want to die.”
The royal slave army, with its artillery and machine guns, unfailingly fulfilled such wishes. It even found the time to defeat the forces of the remaining Afro-Arab slavers, on whom it waged ferocious wars concluded by 1894. This was not necessarily to the advantage of the Congolese, however:
One of said blacks is on recording as lamenting: “No, we are not even slaves.”
On the bright side, profits could reach up to 700%. Léopold’s exorbitant returns, which he reinvested to make at least a billion in present-day dollars, financed lavish villas for his prostitute teenage mistress. He spent the equivalent of $6 million to enhance his palace at Laeken. To the 1897 World Fair in Brussels he contributed three artificial villages showcasing 267 Congolese who would sing, dance and conduct mock ‘tribal battles’ for the spectators. By the toil of their countrymen the site of this human zoo would eventually become the sumptuous Cinquantenaire park with its Triumphal Arc, one of many public works that now grace the EU capital and have earned their donor a nice cognomen: ‘the Builder King.’
His underlings in the Free State had their own decoration projects. Like Conrad’s Kurtz, Force Publique commander Léon Rom ornated the fence posts around his flowerbeds with human heads on poles; he also had a rock garden full of rotting heads. An agent named Moray recounts the butchery of a village deemed insufficiently busy at work: “Thereupon [the officer] ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, and to hang the women and children on the palisades in the form of a cross.” This was, after all, a Christian civilizing mission.
As mentioned above, troops were ordered to bring back a right hand for each cartridge fired. American missionary Joseph Clark reports in a letter of April 12 1895 that “it is blood-curdling to see them returning with hands of the slain and to find the hands of young children, amongst bigger ones, evidencing their ‘bravery.'” Indeed, hands and other limbs were routinely hacked off the living, smoked, and brought forth in baskets at the feet of officers to extract more bullets or prove that native ‘sloth’ had been duly punished. Many units on patrol had a designated ‘keeper of the hands.’