The Rape of the Congo and the Ghost of Neo-colonialism
C R Sridhar
For the people of Congo Free State created by Leopold II in the nineteenth century, the chicotte was the most feared symbol of oppression. This whip made of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide and cut into a long sharp-edged corkscrew strip was used by the minions of King Leopold II to instill terror among the blacks in the rubber plantations of Congo. Those who would like to disabuse themselves of the notion of the 'White Man's Burden' in Africa should look no further than the old archive photographs to see chicotte in action. The victim always a black lies on the floor on his stomach with his feet and hands bound. Then the chicotte is applied on the bare buttocks of the victim. The blows were so severe that it left permanent scars on the flesh. Twenty-five strokes of the chicotte meant unconsciousness for the victim and a hundred or more strokes resulted in his death.
The system of forced black labor instituted by Leopold II in Congo was under the cover of the "civilizing" mission, which was used to justify imperial domination during the scramble for Africa. In 1876, King Leopold of Belgium founded the International African Association in Brussels. The conference was opened with fanfare attended by famous explorers and the crème de la crème of European society. Leopold II who delivered the keynote address couched in high moral purpose said, 'To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress....". The objective of the International African Association was again impeccably noble. It was to abolish "the [Arab] slave trade, establishing peace among the chiefs, and procuring them just and impartial arbitration."
Voracious appetite for overseas territorial expansion
King Leopold II had a voracious appetite for acquiring overseas territorial expansion. As the King himself wrote, 'No country is complete without overseas possessions.' Under the cover of philanthropic motives he set out to grab territories in Africa. 'Between 1880 and 1884,' writes J. Stengers in King Leopold's imperialism, 'the king sent out expeditions, led mainly by Stanley, which established a fairly loose occupation of territory in the Congo by means of outposts.'
Stanley and his white assistants proceeded to hoodwink the Congo chiefs into believing that whites had supernatural powers so that the chiefs would hand over their land to Leopold. One of the bizarre tricks, notes Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold's Ghost, was to attach batteries to the arm under the coat by a band connecting the palm so that the current would flow from the white man's hand to the Black man's hand causing a powerful shock. This trickery established the myth that the white man was so powerful that it was useless to resist them. Another trick was to light the cigar with a magnifying glass and claim proximity to the Sun God! Apart from supernatural tricks, boxes of gin were given to Congo chiefs. As a result, in the Congo, whole villages were signed away to Leopold.
At the Berlin Conference held during 1884-85, Leopold laid claim to a huge tract of the Congo region (80 times the size of Belgium) and formally declared a Congo Free State in 1885 with himself as sole owner (The Scramble for Africa, Congo under Leopold II and later developments). Leopold shrewdly realized that he had to obtain the consent of Bismarck of Germany, as one of the conditions laid down by the iron man of Germany was that any European nation, which occupied an African coast or declared a 'protectorate', had to notify such action to the signatory powers. Even though Leopold's claim on Congo alarmed Bismarck, he soon capitulated for he thought that giving Leopold elbowroom in Black Congo would widen the scope of Leopold's altruistic activities to humanize the blacks in Congo.
Fresh from the heady success of negotiations and obtaining concessions from Bismarck, Leopold negotiated with the French in January 1885 for permission to extend his control over Congo. Apart from the northern and eastern boundaries already recognized by Germany, Leopold driven by greed for territorial expansion when he expanded his control to the south as far as the watershed between the Congo and the Zambezi. In 1884 he had already obtained recognition for Congo by the United States.
The frontiers of the free State of Congo thus defined ' turned out to be a territory,' says Stengers, 'monstrously disproportionate to the resources at its disposal. Its slender finances did not at first allow the establishment of more than a rudimentary government.' The mismatch between resources available to occupy such a large territory in Congo did not curb the monomaniacal ambitions of Leopold to expand the territories outside Congo.
Free state of Congo
The free state of Congo was established in 1885. Its capital was established in the port town of Boma. The transportation system was established to exploit and plunder the rich natural resources of Congo. A complex system of transportation connected Atlantic coast to Stanley Pool (later Leopoldville, now Kinshasa). From there onwards, Africans were brutally used as human mules to relay heavy loads of supplies including maxim guns for another 250 miles. From there, steamers could cruise along the Congo River for 900 miles to Stanley Falls (Kisangani). Thereafter, the river, renamed Lualaba, was navigable for another 500 miles deep into the rainforests of the southern Congo. Leopold financed the building of a substantial river fleet of steamers. (The Scramble for Africa, Congo under Leopold II and later developments). Historians note that thousands of Africans died as porters serving their colonial masters.
The Rule of Chicotte
Leopold ruled Congo with a brutality that numbs our senses. The colonial over lords viewed Congo as a land meant to establish white supremacy over a land not populated with human beings. Contrary to the careful spin of a humanitarian Sovereign, Leopold unleashed a brutal exploitation that bears eerie similarity of the death camps of Hitler. In fact to mentally image the excesses of Leopold's minions, one has to keep in mind the sheer brutality of the SS under Hitler's regime. Not unlike the death camps of the Third Reich that had the foreboding sign in front, Arbeit macht frei(work makes you free) Leopold also believed in the civilizing influence of hard work in his infamous rubber plantations. In his less charitable moments he observed that the lazy natives deserved hard work to strengthen their character.
In a masterly study of Leopold's monstrous colonial enterprise Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold's Ghost notes: " Leopold's claim that his new state was providing wise government and public services was a fraud. There were no schools and no hospitals except for a few sheds "not fit to be occupied by a horse". The use of the dreaded chicotte was routine. In a particularly revolting account of the whipping administered on the black Africans, a missionary E J Glave wrote in his diary, 'we persuade ourselves that an African's skin is very tough. At the first blow, the victim yells horribly; then quietens down into a groaning. After 25 or 30 blows, the victim loses his senses. This punishment is far worse when inflicted on women and children. Small boys of 10 or 12 working for hot tempered masters are often most harshly treated.' Stanislas Lefranc, a Belgian prosecutor in Congo, was sickened at the brutal whipping of some thirty urchins whose crime was to laugh at the presence of a white man.
The terrible carnage of the people of Congo coincided with the rubber boom. In 1887, the demand for rubber grew as rubber was used increasingly for inflatable cycle tubes for bicycles. Motorcars also became popular and the tyres for motorcars required rubber. In 1891, Leopold issued a decree creating a monopoly of trade in rubber and ivory to himself. 'Joint ventures ensued between Belgian, British and Dutch firms,' says Stuart Nolan in Belgium's imperialist rape of Africa, 'the astronomical profits saved Leopold's colonial empire. An example given is the 700 percent profits of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber and Exploration Company (ABIR).'
A private army called the Force Publique was used to brutally extract from the native labor rubber without any payment of money. Adam Hochschild, provides an insight into the terror tactics employed by an officer known as Fievez against those who refused to collect rubber or failed to meet their quota: "I made war against them. One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people... but that allowed five hundred others to live." Another Belgian Captain Rom had ornamented his flowerbeds with the heads of 21 natives murdered in a punitive expedition. Those who failed to supply the required rubber quota to the Belgian masters had their villages burnt down, children murdered and hands cut off as punishment. Some historians have observed wryly that the Belgian way of promoting progress in Congo was indeed quaint.
If an estimate of the death toll were to be made on account of the slavery inflicted by Leopold the figures would be in the region of 10 million. The Congolese historian, Prof Ndaywel e Nziem estimates the death toll at a staggering 13 million.
For the Belgian King Leopold the return on brutal exploitation in Congo was enormous.
'He spent the equivalent of $6 million to upgrade the Royal Palace at Laeken, and several more millions to build monuments like the Chateau d'Ardennes, Brussels' Arcades (Arch) du Cinquantenaire, Ostend's seaside arcade and the golf course. He funded universities and museums. Millions more went into secret purchases of more properties through his doctor or architects. Leopold turned the Congo into a major 'off shore' money-laundering center. Investments (exceeding a billion dollars) were made in Asia, Latin America and the Near East. His Congo-based companies pursued construction deals in China, fishing rights off Morocco, mines in Greece and the Philippines and rubber concessions in Bolivia.' (The Scramble for Africa, Congo under Leopold II and later developments).
Public outcry and human rights movement against the Belgian King Leopold forced the parliament to assume control of Congo in 1906. The change of hands did not change the fate of the Congolese as they suffered forced labor and heavy taxation. The Congolese were used as cheap labor for Belgian mines and agricultural firms. The exploitation was so mind boggling that by 1950 the profits from the rape of Congo was more than twice the domestic average in Belgium itself.
In 1960 Congo became independent from Belgium. But the ghost of King Leopold haunted the free nation again. In the elections that followed a charismatic leader Patrice Lumumba became the first prime minister of Congo. 'When on the first day of independence, the Belgian King, Baudouin,' writes Osei Boateng 'made an ill-judged patronizing speech praising the genius and courage of Leopold II whose reign of terror had seen the death of an estimated 10 million Congolese.' (Confessions of a CIA Agent...How the imperial powers control Africa by remote control in New African-April 2007). The speech incensed Lumumba who went to the podium and trashed the Belgians' colonial record. He also spoke of the need 'to bring an end to slavery imposed on us by force.'
Lumumba realized that after the depredation of Belgian colonial rule, Congo had fewer than 20 university gradates with no cadres of doctors, lawyers or engineers. While Brussels planned to allow Congolese their political freedom, they were interested in retaining control of military, economic and commercial levers of power in their hands. The task of guiding Congo to safe shores was an uphill task for Lumumba.
Smarting under the rebuff given by Lumumba, the Belgian government began to foment trouble for independent Congo. On 11 July 1960, the province of Katanga- home to the bulk of Congo's copper, cobalt, uranium, gold and other mineral wealth- announced it was seceding. Belgium was the principal owner of the wealth and it was perceived in Brussels that resource rich Katanga tied to Belgian interests might not be a bad idea. Moise Tshombe, a quisling and a traitor, led the secession.
No coffin for Lumumba
Meanwhile, US policy makers viewed the political developments in Congo through the tainted glass of cold war politics. Increasingly, Washington grew uneasy at the prospect of Congo charting her independent future away from imperial interests. As Congo was a country with rich mineral wealth, US became uneasy with the fiery nationalism of Lumumba and the Soviet influence in Africa.
The CIA in Congo was asked to get rid of Lumumba. President Eisenhower reputedly gave assent for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and things began to unravel for Congo as the destabilization game was put into action.
Soon on 2 December 1960, Lumumba was arrested in Kasai province and transferred to Leopoldville by air. In full view of television cameramen Congolese soldiers beat Lumumba. Finally, he was murdered after being extensively tortured along with his two companions Maurice Mpolo (information minister) and Joseph Okito. Under the supervision of Belgian officers their bodies were sawn up and doused in drums of acid to destroy any evidence of foul play.
In a game of musical chairs played for the leadership of Congo, Moise Tshombe, a quisling and a traitor, who led the secession Katanga, headed the government in 1964. At that time there was a virtual civil war in Congo with the supporters of Lumumba ranged against the government of Tshombe. The private army of Tshombe, consisting of white mercenary soldier including South Africans was pressed into service to crush the insurgency. US also aided Tshombe by calling in their animals- a vicious band of Cuban exiles, white South African mercenaries to fight the insurgency. CIA pilots bombed the rebel positions and escalated the conflict. Finally, the insurgency was weakened in November 1964 with the help of US and Belgian paratroopers who were air dropped in Stanleyville. The fortunes of the rebels declined and died thereafter. (Killing Hope - William Blum).
Ghost of neocolonialism
The Ghost of neocolonialism stalked Congo again when Mobutu, an army strongman, came to power in November 1965 backed by US and Europe by over throwing Tshombe and Kasavubu. Mobuto became a puppet on a string and guided his country's destiny to suit the interests of his European masters and US. Congo was bled again and its wealth worth billions of dollars was siphoned off to US and Europe.
Under the tyrannical rule of Mobutu for three decades, there was widespread abuse of human rights and arrests without trial for most of his political opponents. Torture became an instrument of state policy. This was put to ruthless effect on Pierre Mulele, a pro Lumumba rebel leader, who had his eyes were gouged out, his genitals ripped off, and his limbs amputated one by one. For the Congolese there was no respite from rampant abuse and corruption even after eighty years of colonial repression.
Meanwhile, Mobutu sporting trendy leopard skin toque and glasses looted Congo. Western attire and ties were banned, and men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost. In 1971 Congo was renamed Zaire. He also renamed himself as Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga ("The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake and arising from the blood and ashes of his enemies like the Sun which conquers the night.").
Mobutu acquired properties all over Europe and stashed around $5 billion in foreign banks. In 1997 Mobutu met his nemesis when after years of economic mismanagement he was overthrown in a popular uprising led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Mobutu died of prostate cancer while in exile in Tangiers (Morrocco) on 7 September 1997.
The painful lessons of history
There is an African proverb, which says 'until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.' The proverb is deeply ironic and sad because it is true. African history was largely written from the standpoint of its Colonial masters. Colonizers wrote textbooks and books were banned expressing a different perspective. The press was also censored. The written record of the devouring of Africa by colonialism was excised from memory. Memories of the rubber era exploitation did not find its way into official history.
'In particular, little effort is made,' says Mark Curtis in Web of Deceit, 'to explain the background to conflicts, with struggles often portrayed simply as the result of tribal passions. Television audiences therefore have in general very little understanding of events in the developing world or of major international institutions or relationships. Much reporting promotes the view of the innate faults of Africans.'
The Western press with few exceptions has reinforced the stereotype of Africans as post-colonial failures destined to tribalism. Niall Ferguson, an empire enthusiast and an ideologue with intellectual pretensions, heaps calumny on Africans by saying that they cannot rule themselves. This canard has to be firmly rejected by writing history from the standpoint of its victims. Ideally, this should exhume the dark history of its colonial past to understand the link between the policies of the Western countries and the conflicts that breed in Africa.
It is only then, as the African proverb gently reminds us, the lions would have their historians.
The Rape of the Congo and the Ghost of Neo-colonialism
- » Published on May 14, 2007
- » Type: Opinion
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