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Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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The Eternal Dark Heart of Empire

Adrian Cruden reviews Adam Hothschild's searing indictment of Belgian colonialism in the Congo

"Pygmy hunter-gatherers in Cameroon have been beaten, tortured and forced off their ancestral lands to clear vast tracts of forest for a trophy-hunting company owned by the banker Benjamin de Rothschild, activsts claimed yesterday. At least three forest camps have been burnt to the ground by guards, according to survivors, while Baka pygmies caught hunting bush animals to eat said they were tortured by police guarding the forest on behalf of game hunters." (The Times, 3/11/16)

It must be noted that the Rothschild’s strenuously deny any involvement in the incidents and insist they have good relations with the Baka; but according to Survival International there seems evidence that they happened, whoever was responsible.

For much of Africa, such occurrences are nothing new and indeed the happenings in Cameroon pale in comparison with the imperialist destruction of the Continent that has been airbrushed from western histories, which increasingly recast the Age of Empires as a time of progress and glory as opposed to the squalid exploitation that, in the end, is common to all empires of whatever origin.

Joseph Conrad's best known novel is the comparatively short "Heart of Darkness", published in 1902 and originally serialised in Blackwood's Magazine. Telling the tale of a steamboat captain, Charles Marlow, sailing upriver in an unnamed European colony, whose purpose is to reach a trading station run by a  well-regarded Company Agent by the name of Kurtz, it documents in chilling and graphic narrative the appalling conditions of the indigenous people: chained together as they carry great loads, reduced to bipedal beasts of burden, left to die under trees and by track sides. And, when the clearly psychopathic Kurtz is finally encountered, his hut is decorated by the decapitated skulls of Africans mounted on stakes. Filmed most powerfully as "Apocalypse Now" and transposed to the Vietnamese conflict, what many don't realise is that it is, in fact, founded on the truth.

Conrad, born in Poland as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski spent several months as a steamboat captain in the Congo in 1889 and Marlow is in fact the author himself. What he encountered was enough for him to quit his job and return to his adopted England to write and campaign against the growing horrors of imperialism throughout the colonial world, but especially in the Congo. In this, he worked closely with the great Irish campaigner Roger Casement and the largely forgotten but perhaps most effective human rights campaigner in history, Edmund Morel. Like Conrad, Morel had originally worked on Congo trade, but left his job when he realised that serious abuses were taking place and it was to campaigning against them that he was to devote much of his life.

Their real-life stories and those of many others, not least the previously silent African voices of the Congo basin, are powerfully assembled and recounted in Adam Hochschild's powerful history,"King Leopold's Ghost", originally published in 1998 after years of painstaking and often blocked research. It is essential reading for anyone concerned with the dynamics of imperialism, especially that of a commercial type - for, unlike every other European colony, the Congo was not held in the name of a country, but the personal property of Leopold, King of Belgium, who acquired his private fiefdom nearly eighty times the size of his native country via subterfuge, deceit, propaganda and immense, bloody violence.

Hochschild traces the rise of the ironically titled "Congo Free State" from its pre-colonial days when the verdant rainforest basin was home to millions of Africans organised into several states, some of them highly sophisticated with advanced systems of justice, semi-democratic consultative assemblies and an advanced level of material culture. Their way of life was much attuned to respecting and living within the environmental capacity of what, along with the Amazon basin, has been described as one of the lungs of the world. The only things the indigenous societies lacked were the guile and powerful weaponry of the Europeans.

As France, Britain, Portugal and latterly newly-unified Germany began the imperialist "Scramble for Africa" in the 1870s and 1880s, Hochschild examines how the vain and arrogant Leopold felt Belgium was far too small for a man of his ambition. Under cover of Christian philanthropy, he hired the narcissistic explorer Henry Morton Stanley to open up the one area of Africa at that point unclaimed by any colonial powers: the great basin of the Congo river, which cuts across central Africa from its mouth on the Atlantic coast through to just south of the headwaters of the Nile.

Supposedly carrying the "white man's burden" of improving the lot of the primitive native races and freeing them from the tyranny of Arab slave traders from the eastern coast, Stanley tore a path through the rainforest, his expedition consisting of African porters and several hundred well-armed mercenary troops. He slaughtered thousands who got in their way or did not hand over their food stocks on demand, torched scores of villages and forced African kings and chiefs to acknowledge Leopold's pseudo-charity, the International Association of the Congo, as their overlord. Stanley travelled through the area several times and is remembered in the region today as a white-hatted harbinger of death. But back in London, where he published several tomes on his liberation of the lesser races, even today he is celebrated as the man who found fellow colonialist entrepreneur Dr David Livingstone. He was knighted in 1899 as a member of the Order of the Bath (if he ever took one, the water must have run deep red) and served as a Liberal Unionist MP for Lambeth North before dying in 1904.


Victims of Leopold's "civilising mission".

After Stanley established Leopold's presence in the area, the King, who never travelled to the territory himself, used mercenaries and free booting "entrepreneurs" to open up the area, first to slaughter hundreds of thousands of elephants for ivory and later tap forest trees for rubber. Local men were impressed into brutal service, sometimes by violence, sometimes by the kidnapping of their wives and children, often by both means. Failure to meet quotas often led to the rape and mutilation, or worse, of the hostages. The colonial police, the Force Publique, was renowned for its brutality and its liberal use of a whip called the chicotte claimed the lives of many of their victims, men, women and children. Leopold even established state orphanages run by Catholic clergy for the children of his victims - the boys were raised to be soldiers in the FP; the girls to be servants and in a handful of cases to join the nuns.

The casual nature of the brutality was endemic: Conrad's Kurtz character was based potentially on several officials of the Free State, the most likely being Leon Rom, who edged his lawn with the severed heads of Africans. Paradoxically, Rom also busied himself sending home his landscape paintings of the rainforest, collecting butterflies and publishing a book on African customs. Another inspiration for Kurtz may have been Guillaume Van Kerckoven, who paid the equivalent of half a shilling for each African head brought to him during a military operation.

As well as body-breaking forced labour on ivory and rubber collection and on constructing dams and railways, Africans were indentured simply to serve the bloated white colonials who arrived in the area. Hothschild recovered one Free State official's diary of a journey where African porters hauled his luggage over inhospitable territory: "A file of poor devils, chained by the neck, carried my trunks and boxes... There were about a hundred of them, trembling and fearful of the overseer, who strolled by whirling a whip. For each stocky and broad-backed fellow, how many were skeletons dried up like mummies, their skin worn out... seamed with deep scars, covered with suppurating wounds... No matter! They were all up for the job."


Nsala of Wala with the remains of his butchered 5 year old daughter, her hand and foot.

To portay this as a great civilising mission, Leopold permitted various Christian missions to be established. Most were content to go along with the "necessary" violence and validate the propaganda of the chicotte being necessary to rouse "lazy" natives to work. Initially at any rate, his efforts paid off with humanitarian awards showered on Leopold. Even Mark Twain was moved to write in defence of the King's great works.

But some opened their eyes and began to challenge. Notably, the first two incomers to do so were African Americans. First, George Washington Williams, a remarkable man who fought in the civil war, studied law, served in the Ohio state legislature and became an author, all before the age of thirty. In his historical work, he became one of the first to use the oral history and memories of ordinary people to find the truth of the past, and it was with this mindset that he travelled to the Congo. There, Willaims soon realised that the Free State was far from the philanthropic paradise portrayed by Leopold and his associates and began to write on the abuses to a disbelieving public back in the USA and Europe.

He was followed by a fellow African American, the Rev William Sheppard, who was sponsored by the Presbyterian church to work in the Congo. He similarly, began to expose the brutality of the regime, leading to Leopold having him arrested and put on trial - though he was ultimately acquitted. Other dissidents, like Hezekiah Andrew Shamu, were less fortunate - executed, murdered or hounded to death by the Free State.


Edmund Morel

But of course, however powerful their testimony, black voices were little heard in 19th century Europe or America and it was not until the British activist Edmund Morel came along that the campaign against the Congo became the truecause celebreof the liberals and socialists of Europe.  After realising that the ships he was auditing carried troops and weapons to the Congo but returned empty, Morel quit his job for a shipping firm, founded the Congo Reform Association and began an international campaign to highlight and end the abuse. At great loss and some risk to himself and his family, he almost single-handedly built a coalition that in 1908 forced Leopold to surrender his private state to the Belgian Government, which was at least slightly more accountable for its actions. The King was of course handsomely compensated for his losses. By this time, however, as many as ten million Congolese Africans had died from the brutality of the free state or the starvation and diseases that followed in its wake - around half of the entire population; a genocide unsurpassed even in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Hochschild however highlights the inconsistency of many of those liberals who campaigned vigorously again the horrors of Leopold's Congo but turned a blind eye to similar, if less blatant, abuses by other colonial powers (Stanley's violence was neither the worst nor an isolated example of contemporary practice). He challenges the narrative of "improvement" that imperial powers allegedly brought to the so-called Dark Continent - the narrative not of truth, but of the victors. This, as he explores, is at least in part because few African voices from the time have been recorded. He was himself able to recover a few second hand, but the thousands of records he unearthed for this erudite and well-written piece of work are nearly exclusively those of white imperialists ornpaternalistic if sometimes sympathetic missionaries and visitors.

This is a striking contrast to what could be almost be a companion volume - Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee", an account of the final destruction of the Native Americans which does draw on scores of first hand accounts set down by survivors at the turn of the 20th century. It too portrays richly diverse cultures deceived and violently destroyed by descendants of European settlers whose concept of the white man's burden was couched in the equally arrogant and racist notion of their god-given "Manifest Destiny" to overcome indigenous peoples. A combination of imperialist historians and Hollywood populism subsequently crafted a very similar narrative to the Victorian tale of philanthropic imperialism kindly bringing civilisation to ingrates. (Notably, in his lengthy genocidal career, Stanley, as well as serving on both sides in the American Civil War, briefly worked as a journalist in frontier country to assist the US Cavalry with its anti-Native American propaganda.

And it is in this spirit, as much of the rich world reinvents its history to look back ever more nostalgically at empire, that "King Leopold's Ghost" should be read as a warning of the here and now as much as an account of the past. The overt imperialism of European powers ruling African and other states is of course long gone. But, in our globalised, neoliberal world, the truth is that private corporations are buying up huge swathes of poorer Latin American, African and Asian countries. Perhaps even more thoroughly than the Victorians' great Scramble, the Rothschild hunting estates in Cameroon are far from an isolated example: in a new African land grab, European, American and Chinese "investors" now own massive estates with the blessing and naked power of the political elites of the host states. Local people are excluded, alienated from their lands and rights removed and force used to ensure it stays that way. As resource scarcity gathers pace, including food and water supplies, this neocolonial pattern is set to spread ever further and its pathology is ultimately unlikely to deviate fundamentally from the template of exploitation set by Leopold and his contemporaries.

The phrase "those who do not learn from history are destined to relive it" may be well overused, but is often true nevertheless. First of all, however, history has to be written and set straight. In this remarkable dissection of privatised imperialism, Adam Hochschild does a great service not only to the past and the millions slaughtered in the forgotten holocaust in Leopold's sadistic state; he reminds us too that no imperialism, of whatever type or origin, is ever benign.

Adrian Cruden us a member of the Green party in England and publishes the blog 'Viridis Lumen'.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Viridis Lumen