The Greed of Colonialism
Hochschild begins the story of King Leopold’s greed for the Congo by sketching the earliest colonial history of Africa. Europeans were driven since the fifteenth century to explore, trade, conquer, and colonize the exotic lands they considered “empty” and up for grabs by westerners. What seemed to make Africa empty in their eyes is that it was inhabited by non-Christian indigenous people who had a “primitive” society. Tribal societies were not considered a real civilization with a recognized government. Many tribal people did not have permanent settlements and were perceived as passing through or camping out on the land, since they did not have an idea of land ownership. Hochschild points out that when Leopold ordered Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer, to travel up and down the Congo gathering signatures from village chiefs to turn over their land to Leopold, the chiefs had no idea what it meant. Hochschild tries to counter the idea that the Africans had no civilization by highlighting the Kingdom of the Kongo in the sixteenth century under the African king or ManiKango, Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, who ruled an imperial federation of two to three million people. He also goes into detail about the Kuba people in the nineteenth century, “among Africa’s greatest artists” (Chpt. 10, p. 156) working in masks, sculpture, textiles, and tools.
What was called the Scramble for Africa refers to the idea that Africa was one of the last unmapped and unexplored places on earth for Europeans in the nineteenth century. Other foreign places had been taken, such as India, the Americas, Australia, and Pacific islands. Africa was considered dark, mysterious, and dangerous, but early on, its riches drew the English, Dutch, Germans, French, Portuguese, and finally, the Belgians to risk their lives to tame it. Ivory, rubber, gold, diamonds, and minerals were the rewards that attracted the colonial powers needing more and more raw materials for their own industrial and commercial interests. Hochschild points out how strange it was for the Berlin Conference on Africa in 1884-1885 to host all the European powers for the question of how to carve up Africa, but not a single African was present. In that time of empire, native peoples did not count, and their cultures were not appreciated.
Leopold had been working all his adult life to find and stake out a colonial claim for Belgium, a latecomer to the race for empire. He actually researched prospects and studied the subject by reading How to Manage a Colony by J. W. B. Money, who told how the Dutch had got rich in Java. In that book, monopoly trading concessions and forced labor are mentioned as techniques that Leopold used. Leopold also encouraged explorers like Stanley under the pretext of scientific and philanthropic motives, using Stanley’s expeditions as a way to develop and open up the territory to trading companies. Stanley immediately saw the Congo River as a “grand highway of commerce” (Chpt. 3, p. 55). Leopold’s letters to Stanley “pulsate with his lust for territory” (Chpt. 4, p. 70), says Hochschild. Leopold’s lobbyist in Washington claimed “Leopold’s civilizing influence would counter the practices of the dreadful ‘Arab’ slave-traders” (Chpt. 5, p. 78). The lobbyist also included another one of Leopold’s lies: he was not aiming at “’permanent political control’” but rather “’the neutrality of the [Congo]valley’” (Chpt. 5, p. 78).
Slavery and Racism
Leopold thought the Dutch were justified in using forced labor in Java, as it was ‘”the only way to civilize and uplift these indolent and corrupt peoples of the Far East’” (Chpt. 2, p. 37). This racial opinion reflected his own thinking about the African people. He once told a reporter: “’In dealing with a race composed of cannibals for thousands of years it is necessary to use methods which will best shake their idleness and make them realize the sanctity of work’” Chpt. 8, p. 118). It is astonishing Europeans thought the natives lazy because they did not want to be slaves doing someone else’s work. Rebelling against being yoked by the neck and starved to death doing forced labor was interpreted as idleness. Even intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson believed black people were genetically less intelligent than whites. This was a widespread racist idea of the time that would account for why blacks were not regarded as fully human.
Leopold’s hypocritical rhetoric claimed he wanted to develop the Congo to protect the natives from the Afro-Arab slave traders who still operated in Kenya and Tanzania. Leopold would set up posts in the Congo and hire soldiers to protect the Congo tribes. In reality, he used his army to enforce his own system of slavery. The Africans themselves had practiced slavery by taking captives in war. Hochschild makes clear, however, that African slavery practiced on its own people was relatively benign, limited, and part of a cultural system. European slavery in its colonies was violent to the extreme and based on racism.
The explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, was notorious for his racism and announced it openly in his books. He wrote of his porters, ‘”They are faithless, lying, thievish, indolent knaves, who only teach a man to despise himself for his folly in attempting a grand work with such miserable slaves’” (Chpt. 3, p. 50). In a remarkable logical turn around, Stanley, known for his brutality, makes himself look like the victim of savages who thwart his noble goals. Although Leopold pretended to Stanley that he wanted to establish a confederation of free negro republics, his aides wrote a different story to Stanley: ‘”There is no question of granting the slightest political power to negroes. That would be absurd. The white men, heads of the stations, retain all the powers’” (Chpt. 4, p. 67).
Desire for Fame and Power
Hochschild notes, “African explorers became some of the first international celebrity figures, their fame crossing national boundaries like that of today’s champion athletes and movie stars” (Chpt. 1, p. 27). In the nineteenth century, Sir Richard Burton and John Speke had found Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria in Africa. David Livingstone had searched for the source of the Nile, and Henry Morton Stanley mapped the Congo River. The explorers went to remote areas, like astronauts into the unknown, then came back to tell about their adventures in newspapers and books. Stanley turned every one of his expeditions into print and made a fortune, the most famous explorer of his day. He was compared to Hannibal crossing the Alps.
Hochschild devotes a chapter to Stanley’s life, because he stands for the sort of man who often went to Africa. Stanley was an illegitimate child raised in a British workhouse, having no place in English society. He became a soldier of fortune in America and often passed himself off as American, a place where one could hide one’s identity. In the Congo, he became a big man, supported by a king, and the tyrant of any expedition he led. He rose to the top of society in Britain because of his African fame. Similarly, the agents at the Congo ivory stations were white and often disreputable or powerless at home but found themselves getting rich and exercising complete control of the natives in Africa. This was a formula for abuse, far away from the eyes of society.
Hochschild gives portraits of some of these station agents, such as the provincial Belgian, LÈon Rom, one of the possible candidates for Joseph Conrad’s character, Mr. Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness. Rom, like the other agents, learned you could “leave your bourgeois morality back in Europe” (Chpt. 8, p. 138). Rom trained the troops, wrote a manual on how to take hostages for the forced labor the rubber companies used, and casually killed natives and used their shrunken heads on his garden fence. A photo of Rom standing on a dead elephant holding his rifle triumphantly sends the message of the macho power these Europeans felt in Africa.
The author also gives power as King Leopold’s main motivation. He wanted a colony to compete with other European countries. He felt his country was too small and too new to be taken seriously. He looked always to Britain and its empire as the model he aspired to. Leopold often complained about being a king in a constitutional monarchy, with limited power. In the Congo, however, he could exercise absolute power without restraint.
Moral Responsibility and Human Rights
The second half of the book focuses on the heroes of the human rights campaign against Leopold’s abuses in the Congo. Hochschild tries to give a balanced picture of human nature. For all the acts done out of evil or ignorance, there are always those who stand up to say, “stop,” even at risk to their own safety. Profiles of some main characters who protested include E. D. Morel, Roger Casement, George Washington Williams, Rev. William Sheppard, Mark Twain, Rev. John and Alice Harris, and Rev. E. V. Sjˆblom.
Hochschild has said a stimulus for his investigation was a footnote citing Mark Twain as part of the protest against Congo atrocities. Twain had met Morel and was friends with the members of the Congo Reform Association. He wrote a pamphlet against Leopold. But an even greater catalyst for Hochschild’s book, he has said, was imagining the scene on the docks of Antwerp when E. D. Morel, then in his twenties, had the sudden realization that the Congo cargo was being produced through slave labor. The author says it still sends chills up his spine to think of that electrifying scene. An intelligent and enterprising young man of business, with no religious or philosophical background, suddenly steps forward to spend his whole life fighting for people he has never seen. What was it that made him put his own life and reputation on the line? In this way, the book is nicely structured between two extremes of human behavior: Leopold’s and Morel’s. There seems to be a mystery about both the heart of darkness, and the heart of light.
Morel was not the first to notice the evil in the Congo. Two African-Americans who saw firsthand what was going on spoke up. George Washington Williams had extensive education, had met American presidents and Congressmen, had been a preacher, a lawyer, a soldier, and historian whose preparation for the Congo visit had been to write a history of the black race. With this extensive background, and the fact that slavery had been outlawed in all civilized parts of the world, he was shocked to see the actual condition of the black Congo laborers. He had been told Leopold’s lie of benevolence by Leopold in person. He wrote and published the Open Letter to Leopold that was reprinted around the world and widely read by all the reformers. Hochschild believes Williams was the first to coin the phrase “crimes against humanity” in his letter to the king. Because he was black, his statement and character were easily attacked by Leopold.
Rev. William Sheppard saw his African friends tortured and killed to produce rubber. He published criticism of their plight, and in addition, testified for the investigative Commission sent to the Congo by Leopold. Because he was a black missionary (another outspoken white missionary was excused), Sheppard was persecuted and put on trial for speaking out, barely escaping with his life. E. D. Morel condemned himself and his family to a life near poverty because of his tireless work for the African cause. Both he and British consul, Roger Casement, who had written a report about abuses for the British government, were celebrated for their defense of the Congolese. Yet both went to prison for fighting later for other human rights causes that the British public could not embrace.
One of the most successful tools of the reformers was the photography of Alice Harris, wife of a missionary, who immortalized pictures of maimed Africans. The evidence enraged the audiences that Morel spoke to. The book includes these photos of children without hands and women chained to each other by the neck, being held hostage as their husbands are forced to fill a rubber quota.
Hochschild says that his technique for bringing human rights abuses to life is to tell a story, using the same elements as in fiction: characters, scenes, plot. As in a film, he interweaves the story threads of abuser, victims, and heroes. Though the abuses went on far too long, at last the heroes won the day, and Leopold finally withdrew his claim to the Congo.