leopold and the congo -- 9/26/23

Today's selection -- from Once Upon a Time World by Jonathan Miles. King Leopold II of Belgium was one of the most heinous, rapacious tyrants in world history:

"[King] Leopold II of Belgium, who owned villas in Beaulieu and Cap Ferrat … bankrolled his building on the Riviera by what Joseph Conrad called 'robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale' -- the spoliation of the Congo. A sexual predator, Leopold's selfishness and immorality saturated his personal and political life, providing a grotesque example of how to finance a paradise. Visiting the Riviera on his yacht in the mid-1890s, he found the climate so agreeable that he started to buy up land.  He would 'bully, threaten and intimidate' until he got the plot he wanted.  Among his purchases was an Italian-style, stuccoed villa at Beaulieu, next door to La Bastide, owned by Lord Salisbury, a politician who detested Leopold's regime in the Congo.

“The Belgian king's project for colonization was presented to the 1876 Conference de Geographie in Brussels as a philanthropic, humanitarian initiative to bring civilization to a backward people. When the new independent Congo Free State was proclaimed February 1885, it was clear that Leopold had duped diplomats and politicians. By the early 1890s, ivory for piano keys, cutlery, fans, false teeth and billiard balls, along with rubber for bicycles and car wheels, was highly profitable.  Other African countries had a degree of freedom in selling these commodities, but in the Congo Free State hunters and producers were tied to the Belgian king whose regime 'became a byword for exploitation and genocide.’ Not only did Leopold stifle private initiative, his brutality in stimulating production levels was notorious. Slavery, sexual abuse and murder were the order of the day, and inhabitants were sometimes shot if they did not agree to produce rubber. An English businessman witnessed 'brutalities and mutilation'. Others reported hangings. Men, women and children were punished with the chicotte -- a hippopotamus-hide whip whose strands were cut to the sharpness of a knife blade. Sir Roger Casement -- diplomat and, later, Irish revolutionary -- had known the Congo as a flourishing territory in its pre-Free State days. Under the new order, he saw women -- some pregnant, some with their babies -- chained together in detention til their husbands produced sufficient rubber to set them free. Casement met with Joseph Conrad, who had spent six months in Congo as a captain of a riverboat and who, in 1899, wrote Heart of Darkness. Casement was shown the limbs of children that had been amputated to punish their parents for not achieving their official quota. It was not as if the British, or the French or the Americans, were blameless in their dealings with colonial countries, but they all protested against the horrors of Leopold's Congo -- which the king treated as his personal possession.

A political cartoon pillorying Leopold's affair with Caroline Lacroix.
The Abbot: Oh! Sire, at your age?
The King: You should try it for yourself!

“Meanwhile, Leopold was sunning himself on the Riviera, tucking his white beard into a rubber pouch when he went swimming and generally upsetting people. Xavier Paoli found him as 'uncommunicative as it was possible to be'  and observed his 'excessive egotism or supreme indifference' at close quarters. At a luncheon at Leopold's 'huge, ugly villa at Cap Ferrat', Princess Daisy von Pless watched her host peel grapes with his abnormally long fingernails. She felt there was 'a look of satisfied cruelty on his face as if he were gleefully skinning alive the President and all the members of the Aborigines Protection Society'.  Leopold's cousin Queen Victoria found him disagreeable. Edward, Prince of Wales did not like him. Theodore Roosevelt, the American president, forbade the 'dissolute old rake' from attending the St Louis World's Fair. When Leopold was received by Victoria at Balmoral in 1897 Marie Mallet observed the 'unctuous old monster' believed 'a visit to the Queen might give him a fresh coat of whitewash'.

“Two years earlier, when the Pall Mall Gazette exposed child prostitution in the British capital, a former servant of a brother=l testified that Leopold paid a standing order of £800 a month to maintain a constant supply of young virgins aged 10-15. This predator was also frequently mocked for his endless array of mistresses. He followed the famous courtesan Cleo de Merode all over Europe. On one occasion, Kaiser Wilhelm II -- not known for his wit -- said, 'I don't see Cleopold.' Emilienne d' Alencon, a famous courtesan and lover of Liane de Pougy, was another of Leopold’s indulgences. Otherwise, ‘the Old Excursionist' was caricatured with common prostitutes with names like 'Miss Beaunichon' (Miss Pretty Tits), 'La Belle en Cuisses' (Beautiful Thighs) and 'Nini Pattes en L'Air' (Nini, Legs in the Air). Then, in 1900, Leopold met a vulgar, busty sixteen-year-old, Blanche Lacroix. He was sixty-five and the girl already 'had a past'. After the death of the consort in 1902, Blanche visited the Riviera frequently. She became pregnant, was given the title of Baronne Vaughan, and was installed in Victorien Sardou's old villa in Nice, where she bore Leopold a second son. The baronne and the king remained together, even marrying five days before he died in 1909, the year in which -- after much international pressure -- the Congo was opened up to free trade.”

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Jonathan Miles


Once Upon a Time World


Pegasus Books


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