king-leopold-II

Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is?

Most people haven’t heard of him.

But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in your stomach as when you read about Mussolini or Hitler or see one of their pictures. You see, he killed over 10 million people in the Congo.

His name is King Leopold II of Belgium.

He “owned” the Congo during his reign as the constitutional monarch of Belgium. After several failed colonial attempts in Asia and Africa, he settled on the Congo. He “bought” it and enslaved its people, turning the entire country into his own personal slave plantation. He disguised his business transactions as “philanthropic” and “scientific” efforts under the banner of the International African Society. He used their enslaved labor to extract Congolese resources and services. His reign was enforced through work camps, body mutilations, executions, torture, and his private army.

Most of us – I don’t yet know an approximate percentage but I fear its extremely high – aren’t taught about him in school. We don’t hear about him in the media. He’s not part of the widely repeated narrative of oppression (which includes things like the Holocaust during World War II). He’s part of a long history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery and genocide in Africa that would clash with the social construction of the white supremacist narrative in our schools. It doesn’t fit neatly into a capitalist curriculum. Making overtly racist remarks is (sometimes) frowned upon in polite society, but it’s quite fine not to talk about genocides in Africa perpetrated by European capitalist monarchs.

Mark Twain wrote a satire about Leopold called “King Leopold’s soliloquy; a defense of his Congo rule“, where he mocked the King’s defense of his reign of terror, largely through Leopold’s own words. It’s 49 pages long. Mark Twain is a popular author for American public schools. But like most political authors, we will often read some of their least political writings or read them without learning why the author wrote them (Orwell’s Animal Farm for example serves to re-inforce American anti-Socialist propaganda, but Orwell was an anti-capitalist revolutionary of a different kind – this is never pointed out). We can read about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but King Leopold’s Soliloquy isn’t on the reading list. This isn’t by accident. Reading lists are created by boards of education in order to prepare students to follow orders and endure boredom well. From the point of view of the Education Department, Africans have no history.

When we learn about Africa, we learn about a caricaturized Egypt, about the HIV epidemic (but never its causes), about the surface level effects of the slave trade, and maybe about South African Apartheid (which of course now is long, long over). We also see lots of pictures of starving children on Christian Ministry commercials, we see safaris on animal shows, and we see pictures of deserts in films and movies. But we don’t learn about the Great African War or Leopold’s Reign of Terror during the Congolese Genocide. Nor do we learn about what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, potentially killing in upwards of 5-7 million people from bombs, sanctions, disease and starvation. Body counts are important. And we don’t count Afghans, Iraqis, or Congolese.

There’s a Wikipedia page called “Genocides in History”. The Congolese Genocide isn’t included. The Congo is mentioned though. What’s now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo is listed in reference to the Second Congo War (also called Africa’s World War and the Great War of Africa), where both sides of the multinational conflict hunted down Bambenga and ate them. Cannibalism and slavery are horrendous evils which must be entered into history and talked about for sure, but I couldn’t help thinking whose interests were served when the only mention of the Congo on the page was in reference to multi-national incidents where a tiny minority of people were  eating each other (completely devoid of the conditions which created the conflict no less). Stories which support the white supremacist narrative about the subhumanness of people in Africa are allowed to be entered into the records of history. The white guy who turned the Congo into his own personal part-plantation, part-concentration camp, part-Christian ministry and killed 10 to 15 million Congolese people in the process doesn’t make the cut.

You see, when you kill ten million Africans, you aren’t called ‘Hitler’. That is, your name doesn’t come to symbolize the living incarnation of evil. Your name and your picture don’t produce fear, hatred, and sorrow. Your victims aren’t talked about and your name isn’t remembered.

Leopold was just one part of thousands of things that helped construct white supremacy as both an ideological narrative and material reality. Of course I don’t want to pretend that in the Congo he was the source of all evil. He had generals, and foot soldiers, and managers who did his bidding and enforced his laws. It was a system. But that doesn’t negate the need to talk about the individuals who are symbolic of the system. But we don’t even get that. And since it isn’t talked about, what capitalism did to Africa, all the privileges that rich white people gained from the Congolese genocide are hidden. The victims of imperialism are made, like they usually are, invisible.

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4

Bloody King Leopold and the Rubber Holocaust,

In 1885 Leopold II became King of Belgium and set into motion his plans for the Congo Free State, at the time an African colony controlled by Belgium. Unlike other colonies, Congo was not actually owned and controlled by the Belgian Government, but was the personal property of King Leopold himself.  Congo is rich in natural resources, most especially rubber, and King Leopold knew that if he developed the country he stood to make an incredible amount of money as the rubber industry was booming.  Over the next two decades, Leopold’s rule over Congo would result in a reign of terror that would result in the deaths of over 10 millions of people.

Leopold divided the country amongst a number of rubber companies which he had ownership or control over.  He enlisted the various native tribes living in the country, often tricking or coercing them to sign contracts that practically bound them into a state of slavery.  In essence, the entire country was quickly transformed into a giant rubber plantation, tyrannically ruled by Leopold’s agents as well as his personal armies and paramilitary groups.  King Leopold rule with an iron fist; doling out harsh punishments while devoting little toward the welfare of his worker.  Native Congolese workers were given little food, shelter, or clothing.  Those refused to work, did little work, or did not meet production quotas were often beaten and whipped.  Those who tried to escape the rubber plantations had an arm or a leg chopped off. Tribes or villages that rebelled against Leopold’s rule were exterminated.

King Leopold’s bloody rule over Congo ended in 1906 when word of his tyranny spread across Europe and the Americas after a number of journalists and travelers published accounts of what they had experienced. Around 1900, the Belgian government decided to take action to end the brutality.  However, there was little they could do as Congo was the personal property of King Leopold.  In 1904, the Belgian government decided to buy the country.  King Leopold made out very well, earning a profit of 220 million francs.  In addition, Belgium purchased all of Leopold’s debts in the Congo venture, which amounted to around 110 million francs. The people of Congo were not so fortunate.  During Leopold’s rule over the country, it is estimated that 10 million Congolese people were either murdered, or died of exhaustion, disease, and starvation.

Letter from King Leopold II of Belgium to Colonial Missionaries, 1883 "Reverends, Fathers and Dear Compatriots:

[The letter which follows is Courtesy of Dr. Vera Nobles and Dr Chiedozie Okoro]

The task that is given to fulfill is very delicate and requires much tact. You will go certainly to evangelize, but your evangelization must inspire  all Belgium interests. Your principal objective in our mission in the Congo is never to teach the niggers to know God, this they know already.They speak and submit to a Mungu, one Nzambi, one Nzakomba, and what else I don’t know. They know that to kill, to sleep with someone else’s wife, tolie and to insult is bad. Have courage to admit it; you are not going to teach them what they know already. Your essential role is to facilitate the task of administrators and industrial, which means you will go to interpret the gospel in the way it will be the best to protect your interests in that part of the world. For these things, you have to keep watch on dis-interesting our savages from the richness that is plenty [in their underground. To avoid that they get interested in it, and make you murderous] competition and dream one day to overthrow you.

Your knowledge of the gospel will allow you to find texts ordering, and encouraging your followers to love poverty, like “Happier are the poor because they will inherit the heaven” and, “It’s very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” You have to detach from them and make them disrespect everything which gives courage to affront us. I make reference to their Mystic System and their war fetish-warfare protection-which they pretend not to want to abandon, and you must do everything in your power to make it disappear.

Your action will be directed essentially to the younger ones, for they won’t revolt when the recommendation of the priest is contradictory to their parent’s teachings. The children have to learn to obey what the missionary recommends, who is the father of their soul. You must singularly insist on their total submission and obedience, avoid developing the spirit in the schools, teach students to read and not to reason. There, dear patriots, are some of the principles that you must apply. You will find many other books, which will be given to you at the end of this conference. Evangelize the niggers so that they stay forever in submission to the white colonialists, so they never revolt against the restraints they are undergoing. Recite every day-“Happy are those who are weeping because the kingdom of God is for them.”

Convert always the blacks by using the whip. Keep their women in nine months of submission to work freely for us. Force them to pay you in sign ofrecognition-goats, chicken or eggs-every time you visit their villages. And make sure that niggers never become rich. Sing every day that it’s impossible for the rich to enter heaven. Make them pay tax each week at Sunday mass. Use the money supposed for the poor, to build flourishing business centers. Institute a confessional system, which allows you to be good detectives denouncing any black that has a different consciousness contrary to that of the decision-maker. Teach the niggers to forget their heroes and to adore only ours. Never present a chair to a black that comes to visit you. Don’t give him more than one cigarette. Never invite him for dinner even if he gives you a chicken every time you arrive at his house.

— “The above speech which shows the real intention of the Christian missionary journey in Africa was exposed to the world by Mr Moukouani Muikwani Bukoko, born in the Congo in 1915, and who in 1935 while working in the Congo, bought a second hand Bible from a Belgian priest who forgot the speech in the Bible.” - Dr Chiedozie Okoro…

In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium declared himself the dictator of DR Congo, then called the Congo Free State. Leopold was supported because his people bought into propaganda that he would Christianize and modernize the country, while his true intent was to force men, women, and children into labor for rubber and ivory. When the Congolese people failed to meet quotas set by the king, their hands would be cut off or they would be killed. The population declined due to these practices and the new European diseases. In 1908, the king sold the colony to Belgium. The Belgians couldn’t stop the deaths of 5-8 million Congolese people over the course of two years (1908-1910) because of Leopold’s army. By 1903, the rubber industry fell through, so they looked to the Katanga province for copper, diamonds, and oil. Again, labor was forced and taxes were high. Families were torn apart. During WWII, the demand for copper rose, creating markets for household goods like soaps and sugar. During this time, the economy and education improved, but the Belgians were still authoritarian and used local chiefs as figureheads. In 1960, the Congo gained independence.

King Leopold and the Congo

September 15, 1904

King Leopold II of Belgium has set up a three-man commission to investigate continuing reports of atrocities in the Congo. The British have been the most persistent critics. The question of treatment of natives in the Congo was raised in Parliament in 1897, and again last year. Lord Landsdowne, the Foreign Secretary has complained to other great powers, who expressed little interest.

Criticism of the system in the Congo began to appear in the 1890s. Although individual missionaries have reported atrocities, many missions are reluctant to criticize their host government. Humanitarian complaints revolve around the labor practices of concessionary companies, eager to profit from the market for rubber, who compel Congolese natives to tap rubber trees in the jungle for extremely low wages under harsh conditions. Also the Belgian government has been accused of abuses involving the Congolese natives who are forced to work on public projects, such as roads.