Posted by: L | July 29, 2007

Mark Twain: the Belgian empire in the Congo…

Apropos some earlier comments from a reader on the Congo and how the best thing that ever happened to it was the Belgian empire (since the Belgians suppressed Congolese cannibalism):

Here’s Mark Twain in an interview in 1905:

(And that should put a dent in the idea that liking Western culture means you have to endorse imperialism)

“Leopold is too well known as a domestic person, as a family person,” said Mark Twain, facetiously, “as a king and a pirate, to believe what he says. He sits at home and drinks blood. His testimony is no good. The missionaries are to be believed. I have seen photographs of the natives with their hands cut off because the did not bring in the requited amount of rubber. If Leopold had only killed them outright it would not be so bad; but to cut off their hands and leave them helpless to die in misery–that is not forgivable.

“We’re interested in all this because we were the first country to give recognition to Leopold’s villainous Congo Free State in 1885.”

Mr. Clemens commented on some of the brutalities perpetrated by other nations on the natives of Africa and cited the Matabele war, in which the English massacred so many thousands of the Matabeles….”

And now some details about Leopold of the Congo:

 

King Léopold II of Belgium

KING LÉOPOLD II OF BELGIUM

Country: Congo Free State (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo) and Belgium.

Kill tally: Five to 15 million Congolese (the indigenous inhabitants of the Congo River basin).

Background: The Portuguese navigator Diogo Cao reaches the Congo River in 1483. Commerce between the coastal Kongo Kingdom and Portugal quickly develops, with the trade in slaves soon coming to dominate all other exchanges. The Dutch begin to arrive in the 17th Century, to be followed by the French and British. As the influence of the Europeans steadily moves inland, the Congo River basin is raised in the imagination of the West, with the exploits of 19th Century explorers such as David Livingstone receiving wide publicity. More background.

Leopold Bio: Born on 9 April 1835 in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. He is the eldest son of Léopold I, first king of the Belgians. His full name is Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor.

Excerpts:

… Léopold continues to advocate his long-held belief that Belgium should become a colonial power. “I believe that the moment is come for us to extend our territories. I think that we must lose no time, under penalty of seeing the few remaining good positions seized upon by more enterprising nations than our own,” he says in 1860.

Over the next 20 years Léopold lobbies the Belgium Parliament to get a colony “in our turn.”

1876 – Léopold sponsors an international geographical conference in Brussels where he proposes the establishment of an international benevolent committee for the “propagation of civilisation among the peoples of the Congo region by means of scientific exploration, legal trade and war against the ‘Arabic’ slave traders.”

“To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress,” Léopold says at the conference.

“I’m sure if I quite openly charged Stanley with the task of taking possession in my name of some part of Africa, the English will stop me,” Léopold says. “So I think I’ll just give Stanley some job of exploration which would offend no one, and will give us the bases and headquarters which we can take over later on.”**Léopold also tells Stanley, “It is a question of creating a new state, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the Negroes. That would be absurd.”

**Over the next 23 years Léopold will amass a huge personal fortune by exploiting the Congo directly and by leasing concessions to private companies prepared to pay him 50% of their profits. The period will witness some of the worst atrocities ever committed on the African continent. However, Léopold will never visit the region, ruling instead by decree from Belgium.

***Ostensibly formed to put down the slave trade, the Force Publique, will quickly be turned on the Congolese.

***The Congolese will be systematically exploited and abused. Their forced labour will build the colony’s infrastructure, transport rubber and ivory from the interior to the river ports, and produce all the territory’s food. At the same time, they will be required to pay taxes to the state (a ‘provisions tax’ and a ‘rubber tax’). However, the remuneration they receive is completely arbitrary and inadequate and little of the revenue from the taxes is reinvested in the state.

***The Congolese are only allowed to trade with approved agents. To ensure that the maximum is squeezed out of each sector, the salaries of the agents are set at a bare minimum, with the bulk of their income coming from a commission on the rubber and ivory they supply. The agents in turn hire and arm African mercenaries, the so-called ‘Capitas’, to force the Congolese under their jurisdiction to work. Communities who refuse to be intimidated or who retaliate are brought into line by military “expeditions”.
**The general act ratified by the conference includes an article binding the signatories to “support and, if necessary, to serve as a refuge for the native populations; … to diminish intertribal wars by means of arbitration; … to raise them by civilisation and bring about the extinction of barbarous customs, such as cannibalism and human sacrifices; and, in giving aid to commercial enterprises, to watch over their legality, controlling especially the contracts for service entered into with natives.”

1891 – The price of rubber begins to increase following the invention of the inflatable rubber tire. The agents and concession holders exploiting the Congo’s wild rubber vines now stand to make enormous profits, with returns of up to 700% per year being reported.

To cash in on the opportunity, the Congolese labourers are squeezed further still. Local chiefs are required to supply men to collect the so-called ‘rubber tax’, with wives and children being held hostage and chiefs imprisoned until the men return with their quotas. The amount of rubber needed to meet the tax requires the men to work for up 25 days each month harvesting the wild rubber vines in the Congo forests. Failure to supply the quotas results in floggings, torture, and death.

**Resistance to Léopold’s rule again mounts and is again crushed, with local chiefs organising many uprisings. The Babua tribes revolt in 1903, 1904, and 1910, and the Budja in 1903 and 1905. In 1895 and 1897 the Force Publique mutinies.At its peak, the Force Publique numbers about 19,000 African conscripts, led by about 420 European officers. The force commits many atrocities to terrorise the Congolese into complying with Léopold’s ever-increasing demands. Villages are burned, and men, women and children are indiscriminately slaughtered or forced into slavery.

**To prove the success of their patrols, Force Publique soldiers are ordered to cut off and bring back a dead victim’s right hand for every bullet fired. The soldiers resort to cutting off the hands of the living to ensure that the number of spent cartridges tallies with the number of preserved hands. They are also reported to engage in cannibalism.

The headquarters of Force Publique leader Leon Rom exemplifies the gruesome nature of the regime. The fence surrounding Rom’s office bears a severed native head on each slat, and the garden contains a rockery full of rotting heads.

The terror campaign succeeds and Léopold’s profits soar….”

More here.

Comment:

First, using abhorrent cultural practices to justify the colonial invasion of a country is nothing new: it was a justification used by the British over the veiling of women. The treatment of women (for eg. the stoning of adultrous women) in Islamic countries today was also used as one of the many pretexts for the invasion of Iraq and for current neocolonial policies there.

Second point, cannibalism occurs in different contexts. You notice that two of those contexts (famine and mental illness) still obtain in modern Western societies, even if the others don’t.

I added this research on cannibalism from wiki:

“Care should be taken to distinguish among ritual cannibalism sanctioned by a cultural code, cannibalism by necessity occurring in extreme situations of famine, and cannibalism by mentally disturbed people. ”

Third point. There is some evidence that cannibalism may have been a practice common in the human past. It has been practiced by cultures all over the world, in ancient and in modern times. And memories of it remain in religious practices even in the major religions.

According to wiki (which also gives examples of Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Liberian, Aztec, and even American anthropophagy), a British tribe reportedly practiced it:

  • St. Jerome, in his letter Against Jovinianus, tells of meeting members of a British tribe, the Atticoti, while traveling in Gaul. According to Jerome, the Britons claimed that they enjoyed eating “the buttocks of the shepherds and the breasts of their women” as a delicacy (ca. 360 AD). In 2001, archaeologists at the University of Bristol found evidence of Iron Age cannibalism in Gloucestershire.[11]

Charges of cannibalism were common in the blood libel against Jews, and evidence of cannibalism among tribal people was often exaggerated to dehumanize them and win popular support for mass killings, expropriation of their land and enslavement. If you tot up the deaths from cannibalism (it was frequently ritualistic and occurred in a cultural context that lent meaning to the practice — so it can’t be seen as solely murderous) among the Congolese at the hands of their own against deaths at the hands of their civilizers, there’s no doubt what the numbers would show.

An analogy. Reportedly there are around 5000 honor killings (not exact) a year around the world. But using those 5000 killings to initiate wars and economic policies that kill or mutilate millions and ruins tens of millions more sounds like a pretty flimsy and immoral pretext.

Apart from that, if you were to balance those 5000 honor killings against the innumerably greater number of rapes and other forms of street crimes against women in Western countries (there are almost no street crimes of that nature in Saudi Arabia, for example) — you would get a clearer idea of the disingenuousness of such arguments.

As a further example, the US has among the highest rates of infanticide (a practice that was widely prevalent in many cultures until the advent of birth control)

[Update: According to Laila Williamson, for infants less than one year, the American homicide rate was 11th in the world in 1998, while for one through four it is 1st, and for  five through fourteen it was fourth. From 1968 to 1975, infanticide of all ages constituted nearly 3.2% of all reported homicides in the United States].

Now, would some foreign country have been justified in bombing American civilians en masse because of this? I think not…

But that’s the power of propaganda. It gets otherwise rational people to swallow patent absurdities and go charging off the cliff because some government/corporate hack told them to on TV…

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