Monday, July 09, 2007

The tragedy of the Congo

The history of European colonialism is replete with examples of extreme cruelty. The decimation of the American Indians in South America and the United States is but one example. What was done to the natives of Africa is no less barbarous. The British, the French and the Germans were all guilty of slaughtering native populations. Among the less well-known examples is what the Belgians and their King did to the people who lived in the Congo river basin.

Adam Hochschild wrote a book in 1999 describing the rape of the Congo. King Leopold's Ghost is his attempt to document the atrocities of Belgian rule over the Congo, starting from about 1875 to 1908. Among other things, the book is a remarkable account of the chicanery of Belgium's monarch. However, its most disturbing aspects are the stark descriptions of the inhuman brutality of European rule. It is also startling in its revelation of the magnitude of the inhumanity - Hochschild estimates that nearly 10 million people died due to unnatural causes during the period ranging from the 1880s to about 1920. The Congo basically underwent a holocaust in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.

It all started with European penetration of the interior of Africa through the famous geographical expeditions of Livingstone and others. The crowning glory of these expeditions was Henry Morton Stanley's charting the course of the Congo. Leopold II, the constitutional monarch of the small country of Belgium, was desperate for a colony. He found the ideal opportunity in the Congo. He swindled the Europeans into believing that he was merely heading an International Africa Association with philanthropic aims, among which were the laudable ones of bringing civilization and Christianity to the natives - aims that no one in Europe could find fault with.

With Stanley acting as his agent, Leopold convinced European nations into accepting the "Congo Free State" as being a territory under his control. The European powers were more interested in carving up Africa than in ensuring legitimate government in the Congo. There was, in fact, no government to speak of. Leopold's soldiers, known as the Force Publique, unleashed a regime of extreme brutality. From the very beginning, forced labor was the order of the day, with the Congolese being led in gangs with chains around their necks. Brutal whippings with a hippopotamus-hide whip called the chicotte were commonplace. Any resistance was met with the full force of European weaponry, with entire villages being burnt down for minor offenses.

Leopold's goal was to exploit the Congo's natural wealth as much as possible. First, it was ivory. Then when the demand for rubber exploded in the 1890s, the Force Publique wreaked havoc. Villagers were assigned fixed quotas of rubber, to be collected from vines growing in the wild. Punishments for failing to meet one's quota were severe. In addition to the whipping, killing of children and rape were also used to terrorize the population. It was during this time that the innovation of chopping off hands began to be used widely. The casual, inhuman brutality was sustained by a monetary incentive. Leopold's soldiers were paid commissions by the pound for the rubber collected.

The world was not entirely unaware of what was going on. Missionaries, among them African Americans like George Washington Williams, began writing about the barbarism starting in the 1890s. Unfortunately, this had no effect until the early years of the twentieth century, when E. D. Morel and Roger Casement in Britain highlighted the continuing cruelty in the Congo in a campaign that lasted several years. Finally, in 1908, the Belgian government took over the colony from Leopold. By that time rubber from plantations in Asia was plentiful and the easily available wild rubber in the Congo was nearly exhausted. Nevertheless, Belgian rule in the Congo lasted until 1960.

Hochschild's book is a remarkable piece of investigative journalism and narrative history. There is still a strong desire in Belgium to suppress this history. Given the lack of historical material from the Congolese side, Belgium has had a monopoly on the history of the Congo Free State. Despite that monopoly, Hochschild's book is destined to become the preeminent history of Belgium's depredations in Africa.

Unfortunately, the tragedy of the Congo has continued into our times. After independence from Belgium in 1960, the country has not known much peace or development. The nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba, a target of the CIA due to his "mad dog" ideas of wanting to use the country's resources for its people, was assassinated in early 1961 after being deposed in a coup. The coup leader, Joseph Mobutu, became president in 1965. Propped by the US as an anti-communist dictator, he renamed the country Zaire, stole several billions of dollars over the years and survived into the 1990s. In 1997, Mobutu fled from the Congo, to be replaced by the rebel leader Laurent Kabila. Kabila had sought assistance from Rwanda and Uganda to oust Mobutu, who agreed to help with the ostensible motive of breaking up the Hutu militias that had assembled in the Congo after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. After becoming president, Kabila tried to get rid of the Rwandan and Ugandan troops, but they refused to leave, having become addicted to the gold, diamonds and coltan. Kabila then enrolled Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe on his side, leading to a multinational war.

Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and was succeeded by his son Joseph. Joseph Kabila entered into a set of partially successful peace agreements, including one in 2003 that seems to have held. The neighbors' interest in the country has also declined along with the price of coltan. Most foreign troops seem to have withdrawn substantially, though Rwandan troops were reported in the eastern provinces in 2005 as well. There are estimates that about 4 million people died as a result of the conflict.

While the intensity of conflict has diminished somewhat since the 2003 peace agreement , there still are several well-armed militias in operation in the country, so the outbreak of wider war and conflict is always a distinct possibility. The cruelties perpetrated by the militias are beyond belief. As this stomach-churning account reveals, the mineral wealth of the country has been the main motivation for many of the sponsors of the fighting.

1 Comments:

Anonymous TheMan said...

This article was a great help on my research project, thank you, Merry Christmas.

12/11/2007 8:20 PM  

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