Monday, 6 February 2017

Leopold II: the murder and exploitation of Congo

The story of the Congo is one of the most fascinating stories about European greed and lust for the vast African resources in the era of the expanding European colonial empires. It was an inspiration for the famous novel "Heart of Darkness", written by Joseph Conrad, which was later on an inspiration for the 1979 movie hit "Apocalypse Now", starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen (just in case you did not know).

Since the 16th century, the Congo River estuary had been a slave port, and most of the country was colonized by the late 1800s.  However, the rule of Belgian King Leopold II would be the most oppressive and terrorizing rule that Congolese people had ever seen. In the early years of his reign, he displayed an interest in African territories, which would eventually result in calling a conference in 1876, when he summoned famous humanitarians and travellers to come to Brussels. The conference had to show Leopold’s alleged philanthropic intentions, which served as a veil for his notorious desire for power and wealth. The participants of that conference established the International African Association, whose first chairman was the king himself. That organization would become his means to seize a new territory which would become the main source of his wealth. Leopold even employed a famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley as the main agent of his organization, whose aim was to open the Congo State for trade. Meanwhile, Leopold established a new organization called the International Association of the Congo, whose real aim was finding the rich source of ivory, which was the more expensive counterpart of today’s plastics.  In the following decades, Leopold’s greed would quickly reach its peak, causing the destruction of thousands of innocent lives.
After the Berlin conference (1884-1885), Leopold succeeded in gaining recognition from the major European powers, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Congo Free State by king’s royal decree in 1885. It is interesting that Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness in 1897, thirteen years after the Berlin Conference, when European powers partitioned Africa without consulting its inhabitants or concerning the ethical consequences of their decision.  Those consequences would be evident in a form of one of the bloodiest genocides in the human history.
In the following years, the minor white population began to drain ivory resources of the Congo, while the black people were forced to work hard as porters, including the children. This practice was based on the Victorian idea of white superiority in comparison with uncivilized and primitive black beings. The terror spread all over the country, black people were mutilated and hanged if they failed to fulfil the norms set by their superiors. Even Joseph Conrad himself acknowledged what he had seen during his travel towards the new workplace in Leopold’s state: “A great melancholy descended on me. Yes, this was the very spot. But there was no shadowy friend to stand by my side in the night of the enormous wilderness, no great haunting memory, but only,… the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.“ (Conrad) After this testimony of the circumstances in the Belgian Congo, Conrad saw more evidence of “the vilest scramble for loot”: “Met an officer of the State inspecting. A few minutes afterwards saw at a camping place the dead body of a Backongo. Shot?” (Conrad ) Skeletons, graves of the white men, and similar terryfing scenes throughout the Congo Free State convinced Conrad that intentions of whites in Africa are not as humanitarian as they were presented in Europe, because the only thing white people brought to Africa was indeed “the vilest scramble for loot”. However, the terror was not spread only by the officials and traders, because Leopold’s state was organized as a military one, with its own powerful military force.

The reign of Leopold’s terror was supported by the main military force formed in 1888, which was called “The Force Publique” whose members were from different parts of Europe.  Different companies which operated in the newly established privately run Leopold’s state were under protection of the Force Publique. It supplied them with firepower, even most of them had their own military forces. The horror-state formed in front of the European and American eyes, would eventually come to an end (at least in the form of the privatized company led by Leopold’s officials) in 1908, after becoming a Belgian colony under the rule of the Belgian government. 
In the end, Leopold's bloody African reign killed more than 10 million Congolese people, while leaving an enormously negative impact on the Congolese future, making that area unstable for decades.
INTERESTING FACTS: This picture was taken in 1958 in Brussels, the capital of Belgium (nowadays the capital of the European Union). The Congolese village was displayed in the form of the human zoo.

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