Leopold II of Belgium
Interesting documentary on last night. Bet none of you saw it. It was on around midnight, on BBC2, and you were probably busy paying back that sleep debt. Well, I watched it. It was pretty good. Considering the subject – systematic atrocities resulting in the deaths of 3 – 20 Million people.
Pretty awful, hmm? But more surprising is the year. We've been getting used to such numbers in the bloody mess of the mid-late 20th century, over the world wars and the famines and so on. But this was in 1885 – 1906. A time where the world population was only around 1.7 billion. 20 Million people is more than 1% of that number. Over that period, 1 in 100 people in the entire world was killed in Congo, because of one man, King Leopold II of Belgium.
When we see such numbers, what strikes us is the insanity of it. Hitler and the rest and in the end somewhat convenient to us. We can say that these people were insane, blinded by crazy ideology. Murderous monsters, irrational creatures of hate. We can say to ourselves – we recognise such evil. We can avoid it, stop it, prevent such atrocities from recurring.
But Leopold's crimes are different. He was very much rational, very much reasonable in his actions. His motivation was simple – personal profit.
And for this profit, under the guise of spreading 'civilisation', he purchased as a private citizen a gigantic area in Africa for himself. To maximise his earnings from the growing rubber trade, he created his private armies to enforce his rule. To cower the people with terror to produce more for himself, he ordered the killings, the rapes, the exterminations.
One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command: "ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross."
It was all very logical. Terror works. Leopold's rule was not threatened by rebellion. The white missionaries and so on mostly kept quiet, happy so long as they were left alone to carry on their tasks of conversion. The victims were black, and the guards were black too, enslaved from childhood or recruited from cannibal tribes. The whites giving the orders kept their hands clean. Who cares if black savages killed black savages? What did it matter, so long as the rubber kept coming?
In the end, a handful of people got the truth out. They forced the issue into the public agenda with photographs and pamphlets. They persuaded the missionaries to put their humanity before their faith and speak out. They persuaded the merchants to put their humanity before their purses and give funding. Leopold, cornered, commissioned a report, hoping to whitewash over the whole thing. But even the loyalists he appointed to write it were horrified by what they saw.
So the King gave up his land to Belgium. He was paid 50 million francs in gratitude. The Congo enterprise had earned him 200 million Euros in today's money, but he was the most hated man in Europe. He died a year later.
And then, Belgium forgot. The King had burned all his papers, and his supporters were now able to rewrite history. Never mind the endless eyewitness accounts – the witnesses were dying now, of old age and of Belgium's own colonialisms. The supporters pointed to the great buildings Leopold had built with his wealth, created the image of the great civiliser. Statues of the King began to pop up. Britain and the rest could have disapproved, but they were busy. The Great War was starting, and suddenly Belgium was plucky little Belgium, holding back the Kaiser. The old rabble rousers were disappearing. Morel, the british champion of the congolese was discredited for his anti-war views. Harris, a priest who spoke out, was executed as an Irish nationalist.
One of the greatest holocausts of history disappeared. Leopold wins.