4/12/13 - the horrors of the congo

In today's selection -- in one of the greatest atrocities of the modern era, Belgian King Leopold II was responsible for the deaths from 1885 to 1908 of ten million Africans in the lands surrounding the Congo River. Determined to acquire a colony from which to extract personal riches, the king had used famed explorer Henry Stanley to trick village chieftains into selling their lands to him for token compensation. To the world, he presented a face of benevolence regarding the colony, professing himself to be anti-slavery and his mission to be charitable. In fact, his personal army forced millions of Africans into de facto slavery to amass a personal fortune from elephant tusks and rubber plants. It was King Leopold's Congo that served as the subject for Joseph Conrad's famed novel Heart of Darkness. Two individuals who were among the earliest to begin reporting the horrors of the colony back to the western world were George Washington Williams and William Sheppard. In enforcing the Africans to work, King Leopold's soldiers often had to shoot those who would not cooperate. To get credit for these actions, as well as to help prevent the waste of ammunition, these soldiers had to show the hands of those they had killed:

"[In his Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, Williams reported that in acquiring lands for King Leopold, Henry] Stanley and his white assistants had used a variety of tricks, such as fooling Africans into thinking that whites had supernatural powers, to get Congo chiefs to sign their land over to Leopold. For example: 'A number of electric batteries had been purchased in London, and when attached to the arm under the coat, communicated with a band of ribbon which passed over the palm of the white brother's hand, and when he gave the black brother a cordial grasp of the hand the black brother was greatly surprised to find his white brother so strong, that he nearly knocked him off his feet. . . . When the native inquired about the disparity of strength between himself and his white brother, he was told that the white man could pull up trees and perform the most prodigious feats of strength.' Another trick was to use a magnify­ing glass to light a cigar, after which 'the white man explained his intimate relation to the sun, and declared that if he were to request him to burn up his black brother's village it would be done.' In another ruse, a white man would ostentatiously load a gun but cov­ertly slip the bullet up his sleeve. He would then hand the gun to a black chief, step off a distance, and ask the chief to take aim and shoot; the white man, unharmed, would bend over and retrieve the bullet from his shoe. 'By such means . . . and a few boxes of gin, whole villages have been signed away to your Majesty.' Land purchased in this way, Williams wrote, was 'territory to which your Majesty has no more legal claim, than I have to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian army.' ...

" 'Your Majesty's Government is excessively cruel to its prisoners, con­demning them, for the slightest offenses, to the chain gang. . . . Often these ox-chains eat into the necks of the prisoners and produce sores about which the flies circle, aggravating the running wound.' 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.' ...

"White traders and state officials were kidnapping African women and using them as concubines.

"White officers were shooting villagers, sometimes to capture their women, sometimes to intimidate the survivors into working as forced laborers, and sometimes for sport. 'Two Belgian Army officers saw, from the deck of their steamer, a native in a canoe some distance away. . . . The officers made a wager of £5 that they could hit the native with their rifles. Three shots were fired and the native fell dead, pierced through the head.'

"Instead of Leopold's being the noble antislavery crusader he portrayed himself as, 'Your Majesty's Government is engaged in the slave-trade, wholesale and retail. It buys and sells and steals slaves. Your Majesty's Government gives £3 per head for able-bodied slaves for military service. . . . The labour force at the stations of your Majesty's Govern­ment in the Upper River is composed of slaves of all ages and both sexes.' ...

"In 1899 the reluctant [William] Sheppard was ordered by his superiors to travel into the [Congo] bush, at some risk to himself, to investigate the source of the fighting. There he found bloodstained ground, destroyed villages, and many bodies; the air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh. On the day he reached the marauders' camp, his eye was caught by a large number of objects being smoked. The chief 'conducted us to a framework of sticks, under which was burning a slow fire, and there they were, the right hands, I counted them, 81 in all.' The chief told Sheppard, 'See! Here is our evidence. I always have to cut off the right hands of those we kill in order to show the State how many we have killed.' He proudly showed Sheppard some of the bodies the hands had come from. The smoking preserved the hands in the hot, moist climate, for it might be days or weeks before the chief could display them to the proper official and receive credit for his kills.

"Sheppard had stumbled on one of the most grisly aspects of Leopold's rubber system. ... If a village refused to submit to the [forced work of harvesting rubber], state or company troops or their allies sometimes shot everyone in sight, so that nearby villages would get the message. But on such occasions some European officers were mistrustful. For each cartridge issued to their soldiers they demanded proof that the bullet had been used to kill someone, not 'wasted' in hunting or, worse yet, saved for possible use in a mutiny. The standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse. 'Sometimes,' said one officer to a missionary, soldiers 'shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man.' In some military units there was even a 'keeper of the hands'; his job was the smoking."


Adam Hochschild


King Leopold's Ghost


Mariner Books


Copyright 1998 by Adam Hochschild


109-111, 164-165
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