rubber terror-- 9/6/22
Today's selection -- from Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History by Alex von Tunzelmann. King Leopold of Belgium made untold millions exploiting rubber and other natural resources of the Congo. His exploits killed ten million inhabitants of that land:
"In 1899, the author Joseph Conrad serialized his novel Heart of Darkness, inspired by his own experiences as a steamboat captain in the Congo Free State. The Congo he portrayed was no happy land of free trade and liberated Africans, but an inhuman hellscape of violence and exploitation. The novel's Africans may be depicted as primitive (it has often been criticized for its racial attitudes) but, in Conrad's tale, savagery is found among European colonizers. Conrad wrote that his time in the Congo had left him with 'the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.' …
"The African American journalist and politician George Washington Williams traveled to Leopold's domain in 1890, and was horrified by what he saw. He wrote an open letter to Leopold detailing failures and brutalities committed in the name of the Congo Free State, including the enslavement, torture, and murder of Congolese people. 'Your Majesty's Government has sequestered their land, burned their towns, stolen their property, enslaved their women and children, and committed other crimes too numerous to mention in detail,' he wrote. Williams found that the existing language was inadequate to describe what he had seen. He had to invent a new term for what Leopold was doing -- 'crimes against humanity' -- which was later used to describe the Nazi holocaust, and is now part of international law.
|Alice Seeley Harris' photo of a father looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter. Her photos helped to expose the human rights abuses in the Congo|
"In 1904, a Congo Reform Association was formed, pushing back against Leopold's propaganda with testimonies and photographs of real life in the Congo. Perhaps the most striking images were of men, women, and children without hands. Leopold's regime set rubber quotas for workers, which were enforced on pain of death. The paramilitaries sent by the regime to enforce them had to prove that they had killed inadequate rubber workers by presenting chopped-off right hands to their European supervisors.
"The rubber quotas were impossible to fill, so the paramilitaries regularly had to provide buckets full of severed hands instead. In practice, they would hack these off anyone they could catch. Some survived the injury, some did not. A British missionary, Alice Seeley Harris, took one of the most haunting of the photographs of that time. It shows a rubber worker, Nsala, sitting on the veranda of a house, staring at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter. Nsala's little girl and his wife had just been murdered by men acting on behalf of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company as a punishment for him failing to meet his quota.
"Outrage spread across the world and was picked up by writers, including Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Professor Felicien Cattier of the University of Brussels investigated Leopold's administration in the late 1890s and early 1900s, concluding that it was 'the clear and indisputable fact that the Congo Free State is not a colony in the proper sense of the term; it is a financial speculation.' Its only purpose, Cattier said, was to make money for Leopold. 'The colony is administered neither in the interests of the natives, nor even of the economic interests of the Belgium; the moving spirit is the desire to assure to the sovereign King the maximum of pecuniary benefit.'
"It is impossible now to produce a remotely accurate figure for how many Congolese people were killed under Leopold's rule, let alone how many were maimed, raped, or traumatized. Excess deaths in the Congo between 1885 and 1908 have been estimated between five and thirteen million. Historians such as Jan Vansina and Adam Hochschild have agreed approximately with the Belgian government's own commission of 1919 that the population of Congo had been reduced to about half of what it was in 1879 -- implying an excess death toll of around ten million.
"Leopold died in disgrace in 1909, a year after losing his colony. Such was the anger at that time at his behavior over the Congo Free State that his funeral cortege was booed by crowds."