More on King Leopold, genocidal capitalist

King Leopold Congo stock certificateContinuing on from our previous post, "And the worst genocidial killer in history was…"

The image is of a stock certificate for a Belgian Rubber company operating in the Congo in 1901, almost certainly one of King Leopold’s companies. Many millions, yes millions, of  Congolese died and were tortured so he could enrich himself. (The stock certificate is for sale here.)

This was predatory capitalism, and racist to the core.

Under Leopold II’s administration, the Congo Free State was subject to a terror regime, including atrocities such as mass killings and maimings which were used to subjugate the indigenous tribes of the Congo region and to procure slave labor.

He set in train a brutal colonial regime to maximize profitability. The first change was the introduction of the concept of terres vacantes  "vacant" land, which was anything that no European was living on. This was deemed to belong to the state, and servants of the state (i.e., any white men in Leopold’s employ) were encouraged to exploit it.

To enforce the rubber quotas, the Force Publique (FP) was called in. The FP was an army whose purpose was to terrorize the local population. The officers were white agents of the State. Armed with modern weapons and the chicotte, a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide, the Force Publique routinely took and tortured hostages (mostly women), flogged, and raped the natives. They also burned recalcitrant villages, and above all, took human hands as trophies on the orders of white officers to show that bullets hadn’t been wasted.

Finally, activism – and results.

Edmund Dene Morel, a clerk in a major Liverpool shipping office and a part-time journalist began to wonder why the ships that brought vast loads of rubber from the Congo returned full of guns and ammunition for the Force Publique. He left his job and became a full-time investigative journalist, and then (aided by merchants who wanted to break into Leopold’s monopoly or, as chocolate millionaire William Cadbury who joined his campaign later, used their money to support humanitarian causes), a publisher. In 1902 Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness was released: based on his brief experience as a steamer captain on the Congo ten years before, it encapsulated the public’s growing concerns about what was happening in the Congo.

Heart of Darkness wasn’t the dark allegory into the human condition that it is portrayed as today, it was stone-cold political. (This is a favored deception of the Right, by the way, rationalizing savagery and greed as being an unchangeable part of the human condition.) It was Joseph Conrad and Edmund Morel who mobilized public opinion and finally, after too many years, the governments of Europe acted against Leopold.

Finally, on 1908-NOV-15, four years after the Casement Report and six years after Heart of Darkness was first printed, the Parliament of Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and took over its administration.

Too little, too late. But at least Congolese were no longer being murdered so this moral cripple could amass more wealth.

  • Joe Hartley

    While the brutality of Leopold’s hold on the Congo is well-established fact and was unquestionably racist (like in 1900 you were going to find anything else anywhere in American-European culture!), describing it as merely capitalist isn’t terribly helpful analytically. The Congo was Leopold’s private property, not even a colony by typical standards. Feudal, perhaps, suffused with relatively modern extractive technology and an ability to reduce the natives to a state of squalid terror, to be sure. The system was so unique that it almost defies comparison to any other system, except perhaps to some of the totalitarian states of the 20th century where, removed from world vision, the darker side of man is allowed to run amok.

    Conservatives, I imagine, would argue that it is the LACK of market forces that made things so difficult, that there were barriers to entry that made it impossible for less rapacious companies to enter and offer a better deal to the natives, since Leopold controlled everything (i.e., had a monopoly not only on the land and resources but on the law and government, with no substantial protections to any native). While this strikes me as being somewhat naive, it is interesting to note that the general worldwide inflation between 1896 and 1914, with the increase of gold supplies due to better extrative technology and the opening of the gold fields in Russia, South Africa, and Yukon, gave farmers and debtors throughout the world the relief they had been demanding for almost 30 years, showing that even under a repressive monetary system (the gold standard), market forces can ameliorate harsh conditions.

    The real problem is that countries whose wealth is founded on agriculture and extractive sectors (e.g., mining precious metals or oil) never function well within any international system of trade. The examples of the 20th century do not lead one to think that socialist countries, when searching for raw materials, are any less rapacious than capitalist countries. Indeed, as Jared Diamond’s most recent book points out, most humans, regardless of when they lived, have a seemingly endless capacity to trash their environment in search of higher living standards. The examples of the Homeric Greeks, the modern Nepalese, and the ancient Maya in denuding their native lands of trees and other renewable resources does not auger well for the species as a whole.

    Conrad, being a great writer, was able to write a novella that was both lifted from the headlines AND a dark allegory into the human condition. Having the one doesn’t exclude the other!

  • Bob

    Leopold’s plunder happened during an era when Africa was being plundered for its resources by Europe and the US, under a system of imperialism which demanded that these subjected areas and countries be stripped of their resources, which were then set back to the mother country. That this could of happened under another system of government isn’t really the point, it happened under imperialism.

    While Conrad’s boook can certainly be taken both ways, today it’s viewed almost entirely as a dark allegory, not as the political broadside it was meant to be, certainly a serious bit of historical revisionism!

    PS I always appreciate you well-reasoned comments. Keep them coming (Joe and I are old friends!)

  • Joe Hartley

    The hunger for raw materials, alas, transcends all social systems. Although enormous inequities were done under imperialism, how does one analyze the Russian despoilation of the Aral sea, now a shrunken lakebed filled with fertilizern and insecticides from the diversion of the rivers to produce cotton in an unsuitable area? The Central Asian winds are choking the citizens of at least three republics to death, quite literally, as the insecticides from the former shoreline are nicely deposited into their lungs. The Russians were ostensibly socialist, yet their behavior matches that of the Russian imperialists who originally invaded and subdued the khanates of that area.

    Other examples are available in large number. The point is that while caling something imperialist may make one feel better about things, it’s not a helpful analytical tool, unless we consider socialist as well as capitalist systems to be imperialistic, something the socialist systmes are historically loathe to do.

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