Friday, October 29, 2010

Sleeping with ghosts.



History is a funny thing. Today, you can join the throngs of tourists and schoolchildren who visit the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Turvuren, just outside of Brussels. The museum is housed in one of the many palaces built by the Belgian King Leopold, and it purports to tell the history of Belgian involvement in the Congo. You can see taxidermied animals, the famous Henry Morton Stanley's "Stanley cap" (he of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame), and thousands of pieces of sculpture, art, cooking utensils, outfits, masks, and other objects from the Congo.

What you will not see is a placard, a sign, a brochure, or a video that tells the visitors that under Leopold's very personal direction, approximately eight million Congolese were killed.

You will not see this because Belgian wants to pretend it didn't happen. Yes, little Belgium, the plucky tiny hero country whose invasion by the Nazis finally galvanized the world into starting World War II. Belgium wants to pretend this so badly that, not content with burning much of the official documentation relating to its activities in Africa, it has lost or kept classified what material did survive. In fact, much of the existing documentation was kept secret until the 1980s.

And what a story it is.

Like Meredith's Guns, Diamonds, and War, the conquest and subsequent ravaging of Congo - first for ivory, later for rubber, all harvested by slave labor well after the transcontinental slave trade had been banned - was spurred on by the determined actions of a few driven men with outsized personalities.

The first was King Leopold I, the King of the Belgians. It was under Leopold's aegis, a man who ironically never set foot in the Congo, that it began. Obsessed with owning a colony, Leopold understood that tiny Belgium could not compete with Britain, France, or Spain, and with his own monarchical powers limited by Belgium's government, Leopold began to orchestrate one of the biggest and most skillful swindles in history.

The man who would be responsible for the deaths of several million Congolese, the displacement of countless others, and the maiming of a vast swath of the continent so successfully dressed up his interest in Africa in philanthropic language that he became known as the "humanitarian king." Hiding behind the facade of several shell organizations with names like the "International African Association," Leopold told observers that his motivation was to "pierce the darkness" in a "crusade worthy of this century of progress" and claimed that his ambition was to civilize the Congolese and in no way benefit materially from his activities in Africa.

Through the skillful manipulation of other monarchs, elected officials, the co-opting of the efforts of several well-known explorers" and a simply brilliant use of the press, Leopold managed to gain control of a massive amount of land. Leopold dispatched Belgian administrators, and money from ivory began pouring back to him - yet not actually enriching Belgium, as Leopold very neatly kept the profits hidden, instead using the money to build massive public works, particularly palaces and architectural oddities.

King Leopold's Ghost also details the exploits of the era's most famous explorer, Henry Morgan Stanley.

Stanley is a lie. Henry Morgan Stanley invented himself, in more ways than one. Born illegitimately in Wales as John Rowlands, the man who would become Stanley spent the rest of his life desperately trying to escape the ignominy of his beginnings. Foisted onto unwilling relatives by his mother, he was later taken to a workhouse and abandoned (his mother would reappear with two of his siblings in tow, which she also dumped at the workhouse), John became a shipboy, ending up in New Orleans, where he experimented with a number of different identities before renaming himself Henry Morton. He appropriated the last name of Stanley from his new employer, a cotton broker, claiming that the man loved him like a son and demanded that Henry adopt his last name. Actually, Stanley's relationship with his employer was fractious and he was eventually fired, but this didn't prevent him from putting his fictionalized account in his memoir. Stanley would later go on to claim to be a native-born American, which he often referred to when trying to gin up support from American sources.

The image of Stanley, intrepid in his slightly goofy looking Stanley cap, trekking along the rivers with a trusted retinue of natives in tow, is equally false. Stanley's expeditions were only saved from disaster by luck, he was a vicious and temperamental boss whose porters were essentially enslaved and often worked to death, and he cheerfully used Africans encountered along his trip up the Congo River for target practice, as apparently encountering someone wandering along with a spear or large stick is sufficient provocation to have to open fire with your repeating rifle from your boat in the middle of the river.

As Leopold's interests emerged from their tissue-thin humanitarian and philanthropic veil, he began dispatching adminstrators to the Congo, charged with keeping order over massive plots of land. As the popularity and need for ivory waned and the demand for rubber grew, Leopold rushed to capitalize on the presence of wild rubber in the Congo before his European competitors could mobilize in their own colonies. As with the ivory trade, the rubber trade demanded the use of forced labor, and his administrators expanded their campaign of terror that included the enslavement, murder, and mutilation of millions of Congolese.

At the same time, missionaries from Europe and American began arriving, and again, a few outsized personalities began attempting to expose the atrocities committed against the Congolese. These men included Richard Casement, an Irishman who served as British consul, and E.D. Morel, a writer and agitator, who would become lifelong friends. Both men dedicated their lives to 'Congolese reform,' and both would be imprisoned in the same jail, and Casement hanged. Their efforts, along with those of other missionaries, activists, and writers, including George Washington Williams, a black American who was one of the first to report on the slaughter and systematic abuse of the Congolese, would eventually focus global attention on the Congo and the ire of an international group of reformers against King Leopold.

Adam Hochschild's book is fascinating and alternately enraging, terrifying, and incredibly sad. Hochschild, the author of similar works of historical excavation, including The Unquiet Ghost: The Russians Remember Stalin makes a number of unorthodox but thought-provoking comparisons between the activities of the Belgians in the Congo - not just Leopold in distant Europe, but the actual men who wielded the whips, shot the guns, and maimed the Congolese - with the concentration camps of the Nazis and the men who ran them and between the dissolving of the lines between callous brutality and outright sadism with the actions of Americans in Vietnam.

What emerges in an examination of both a system that enabled such horror and a look at the individual men, revealed in their letters, diaries, and other records, who committed the acts.

In understanding the "sick soft blob" of Zaire, as Martin Meredith calls it, and the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, you have to go back to where the seeds of such a systemic brutality were sown, and as Hochschild reveals, it originated in Leopold's Congo.

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