“History is life’s teacher” is a saying that is no longer wise and has become an empty slogan. The inability to read events in their historical context leads to condemnations and creates worst repetitions of the same mistakes. Rwanda, Rohingyas, Armenia, and how many more! (Translated from Spanish by Alissa D’Vale)
The anti-racist demonstrations against the death of George Floyd, with the demolition of statues of personalities involved in slavery or racism, have brought once again Leopold II’s performance in the Congo Basin to the front page.
A skilled diplomat, the king managed, at the Berlin Conference (1885), to establish a private colony, the Independent State of Congo (ISC). He, thus, became the monarch of a small country, Belgium and of the ISC – a territory of 2.5 million km2 whose soil he never set foot on.
When Livingstone and Stanley explored the Congo Basin (1871-1879) its population was about 42 million people. Ten years later, the population had dropped to a third.
This reduction had two ambivalent readings. For some, it was the result of the cruelties committed by ISC agents and concessionary companies against indigenous people in order to maximize the exploitation of ivory and rubber, which was highly valued by the flourishing automobile industry. Adam Hochschild, in The Ghost of King Leopold (1998), talks about the genocide, one of the greatest crimes against humanity. Writers like Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain spoke of “red gold” or “blood rubber.”
For others, this demographic decline is the result of a combination of several factors: tropical and venereal diseases, tax pressure, or military expeditions that led indigenous people to abandon their villages to take refuge in the jungle. It is necessary to add the forced labor and the construction of the Leopoldville-Matadi railway, along with the slave raids at the hands of Afro-Arab sheikhs like Tippo Tip.
The need for significant capital to make the territory profitable in the short term led to the over-exploitation of the native population and the establishment of an archaic system of depredation.
For Jean Stengers, Hochschild’s work is a “grotesque caricature of Leopold II”, who is in favor of the fight against the Afro-Arab slaveholders, along with the “civilizing colonization.”
Many of the works published in the last 20 or 30 years stand out for their sensationalism and lack of historical rigor. The fundamental criticism that can be formulated against these works is that they generalize – throughout the entire territory of the ISC and throughout the period of Leopold II – crimes and abuses that were limited in space and time. The silence on similar crimes committed by other colonial powers in Africa is striking. In this sense, the denunciations against Leopold are part of the vendetta of British imperialism, which had never digested the loss of Katanga. It was annexed in 1892 by the monarch, with the purpose of holding the second Berlin Conference to proceed to a new distribution of the Congo Basin among the great powers.
What happened in the ISC, more than a genocide it is a “democide” (population reduction), which resulted from various factors that had a disastrous demographic impact. It was not genocide because there was no deliberate and planned will to eliminate a racial, ethnic, or confessional group.
Leopold was responsible for that violence, but he was not guilty for this catastrophe. The king himself complicated matters by burning, in the summer of 1908, the archives of the ISC. He said, “I will give back my Congo, but they will not have the right to know what I did there.”
The drama is that post-colonial Congo continues to suffer from the “Berlin syndrome”: the culture of violence and depredation, or the legacy of the Bula Matari – the nickname by which the indigenous communities called a Stanley – Leopoldian. The misfortunes of rubber, gold or ivory have been followed by those of coltan.