Friday, 24 May 2013

The meek shall inherit the earth. Really? When?

King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild. A story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa. Published 1998 by Pan Books. Pp 366, SB photos.

This is the story of the conquest of Congo by Leopold II of Belgium. The early pages of this book start with the original exploration of West Africa in the 15th century by the Portuguese. This was followed by the rapid development of the slave trade, particularly to Brazil and later to the Caribbean Islands and to the islands and southern states of the North American Continent. The Congo was then a well organised country based on the tribal system, with a central and powerful king and some elements of internal organisation. This well established system was soon destroyed by the depredations of the slave trade and the cooperation and connivance of many Congolese tribal leaders and entrepreneurs. It was not until the early nineteenth century that Europeans began to explore the interior of the Congo, having been largely inhibited from doing so because of the size of the Congo River and the extensive number of cascades within one hundred miles of the estuary which made navigation impossible.

In the middle of the 19th century the scramble for African colonies commenced ostensibly, according to the European powers, to bring civilisation and Christianity to the pagan and primitive hordes. The British and French were particularly to the fore in the scramble and they shared with others the same hypocrisy and greed in their expansive aspirations.

This book is a long and critical account, firstly of Stanley, his origin, life and character, his extraordinary explorations in Africa and how he was lionised by the European powers and the Americans towards the end of his remarkable exploratory career.

The Congo was taken over by Leopold 11 personally without the cooperation or cogniscence of the Belgian people and the Belgian Parliament. While he never visited the Congo, his abiding ambition was to develop a colonial policy for Belgium, not so much for the Belgian people but for his own gratification. Thanks to his prestige and his extraordinary diplomatic skills, and his use of various agents in Europe and in the United States, the Congo was eventually recognised by Congress in the United States and later by the European countries as a Belgian settlement with Leopold as its executive head. He constantly underlined his laudable purpose of bringing trade to the natives, of civilising them and of introducing Christianity. The Belgian people and many of those who encouraged and cooperated with him, such as Stanley and others interested in colonial expansion, were mislead by Leopold's laudable aspirations.

Bismarck was at first opposed to Leopold’s policies, but he eventually succumbed to his influences and, in November 1884, he organised a large assembly of European leaders in Berlin to decide on the division of Africa. At this Congress the Congo was recognised by all the European countries as the particular responsibility of Leopold and as a Belgian possession. It was a vast part of equatorial and Southern Africa, largely unexplored, and with little idea of its vast size and its potential wealth of natural resources. It proved to be 74 times the extent of Belgium.

Hochschild’s story is a horrifying one of how the tribes were treated by Leopold’s representatives in his obsession to make as much money as possible, at first through the ivory trade, which was then a very valuable commodity before the development of plastics and other man-made materials.  Later, following Dunlop’s discovery of the pneumatic tyre, there was an explosive expansion of the rubber trade with the discovery of the rich supply of the wild rubber plant in the rain forests of the Congo. The cruelty in dealing with the local tribes is almost beyond description and one wonders if Hochschild, in underlining the scandal of the terror, has gives an exaggerated account of this appalling period of man’s inhumanity to man.

George Washington Williams
From an early stage rumours of corruption and of cruelty and killings began to emanate from the Congo but it took many years through the efforts of a few dedicated people to bring the scandal to the notice of the world. An early critic was a Negro from America, Washington Williams, who, for an American black, was loudly outspoken about the scandal at an early stage but was largely ignored. The next major critic and the most persistent and most effective was Edmund D. Morel who had been on the staff of the Elder Dempster Line which had the transportation contract carrying the ivory and rubber from the Congo to Europe. He suspected from the nature of the cargoes which were being exported to the Congo that the Congolese got little benefit from trade with Belgium and that the heavy export of armaments suggested to him that, rather than receiving the benefit of trade, the local population was enslaved by the administration. Morel resigned from the shipping company and became a long-term and very vocal advocate of the need to publicise the appalling conditions in the Congo and the need to bring international influence to bear on Leopold and the Belgians.

Roger Casement
Morel was subsequently followed by Roger Casement who had already spent some years as a lowly and poorly paid representative of the British Government in other parts of Africa. As a result of Morel’s campaign and increasing public pressure, Casement was sent out as an official British representative to investigate the conditions in the Congo. Casement confirmed Morel’s charges. He returned to England and joined Morel in his campaign and issued a long and damning report to the British Government. However, those of us living in Ireland to-day will not be surprised to read that interests within the government altered his report and partly frustrated the efforts of Casement to influence world opinion. It is an account of the frustration these heroic and altruistic men suffered from the political leaders and the obloquy they not infrequently met from those who had a vested interest in imperial policies. Like all whistle blowers, they needed all their patience and tolerance to persist in their one sided battles.

Joseph Conrad’s classic, the novel Heart of Darkness, was based on the horrors of Leopold’s Congo and the people who administered the colony on his behalf. It is a barely concealed account of some of the most notorious figures who were noted for their inhumanity, arrogance and corruption. I cannot recall that I have read Conrad’s novel but, as a follow up to Hochschild’s history of the Congo, I shall endeavour to find it in the local library.

One wonders just how guilty was Leopold for the prolonged atrocities and holocaust of the Congo. Was he in denial about the circumstances which prevailed there or did he really believe that some of his more laudable principles were being followed? After all he did not discourage Protestant and Catholic missionaries and there is little evidence that the missionaries were vocal about conditions among tribes. They may have unconsciously become part of the system and they only became more vocal in their criticism as they became more aware that public opinion internationally was moving against Leopold. They must have been aware of the slave labour, the chain gangs, the widespread taking of hostages of women and children to punish the recalcitrant men, the chopping off of hands and whippings as punishment, and the many beheadings.

Reading the account of Leopold’s Congo and of the many holocausts which have occurred since the 19th century, one wonders despairingly whether Homo Sapiens is naturally corrupt and sadistic. The phenomenon of doubling, as described by Anthony Clare in his book on male behaviour, reminds us that the most virtuous and most moral individual who behaves with the greatest compassion and rectitude in a civilised community may commit the greatest crimes against humanity when he becomes a member of certain political or religious movements. We have many examples of such people when they conform to the norm and for the benefit of the pack. In Ireland we have a less serious but nevertheless relevant situation where an electorate, representing a Christian and moral society, shows little interest in political or corporate corruption and has no compunction in electing corrupt people to parliament although they are elected as guardians of society.

Later, as Morel’s propaganda began to influence international opinion, it appears that the missionaries became an important source of information about atrocities in the Congo. Clearly the change in international attitudes had given the missionaries greater courage and compulsion to report circumstances which conflicted with their religious principles. Or had it simply become easier and more convenient for them to respond to their consciences?

The last few chapters of the book are the most interesting and revealing in relation to the scramble and rape of Africa. In dealing in general with international injustices, Hochschild points out that the same exploitation and injustices, cruelties and exterminations occurred in many other African colonies during and after the scramble. These were rarely if ever mentioned, almost certainly because the more powerful and influential European countries were responsible. Morel, Casement, Washington Williams, Sheppard and the other few voices that eventually shamed an indifferent world into acting on the Congo were rare exceptions. They were the whistle blowers of the local Congo scene and perhaps Belgium and Leopold were more vulnerable to international criticism than their more powerful neighbours. In addition to the European rape of Africa, the author reminds us of the many other exploitations and examples of mass injustice such as the American Indians, the Australian aboriginals, the Spaniards in South and Central America, the Great Hunger in Ireland, and numerous similar examples throughout history. In all cases it underlines the exploitation and destruction of the weak by the strong, and it always involves the grabbing of the land from the indigenous population. It is a recurring part of history where a blind eye is turned by the advantaged about the plight of the disadvantaged. The story of the Congo must be a depressing one for those few who can really claim to be virtuous and who have the courage and inspiration to fight the vested interests of the wealthy and powerful. The widespread abuse of populations over history must leave a sense of pessimism about the future behaviour of the human race. It took years for the whistle blowers of the Congo to influence the leaders of Britain to act on the Congo but these leaders did so with bad grace and only when their own welfare was at risk because of the pressure of public opinion.

This book is an important contribution to our knowledge of human nature, if nothing more. It is a reminder that power corrupts, and that to-day, with the huge military and economic power of the American nation and its fundamentalist tradition which appears to be as strong as ever, and its disastrous foreign policy, the world may well be a dangerous place, not only for humanity but for its very survival. America may now hold the key to survival. Some aspects of recent American history and the principles based on its foundation as a nation give us some hope but American international policies over the past 150 years cannot but leave serious concerns about the world and its occupants. Bearing in mind America’s appalling interventions in Middle and South America, in the Congo after it had gained its freedom in 1960, and in other nations where many corrupt, non-democratic and evil governments were supported by the Americans for economic, military and political reasons, such concern is justified. The population explosion is an added and fundamental factor which, through its consequences of civil and international strife, must be a further threat to humanity and the well-being of the earth and future generations. 

Morel, Casement and the other few who opened the can of worms which was the Congo under Leopold’s rule are the real heroes of this world but, like all whistle blowers, their courage and self-sacrifice does not earn them the credit and the approval of a venial world. They receive less credit and recognition from the masses than those who have achieved wealth through corruption and self-seeking

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