Monday, 2 September 2013

A phenomenal look at a forgotten massacre in King Leopold's Ghost

From The Week of August 26th, 2013

Of colonialism's many sins, the degree to which it encourages humans to separate the strong from the weak, the momentarily superior from the disadvantaged inferior, must be its most grievous. After all, by dint of being both the planet's apex predator and foremost intelligent species, humanity is already predisposed to a self-centered view of the world, skewed to favor the viewer at the expense of all else. To then exacerbate this existing trait with all of colonialism's criminal enticements is akin to pouring gasoline upon a fire, an inferno of injustice, exploitation and degradation from which few ever recover.

Worse yet, though, is what this mental sense of otherness does to the victims who, starved, beaten and destroyed, having no culture or resource left to fall back upon, cultivate the victimizer's toxic tactics in hopes of lifting themselves out of the mire into which their fellows have been plunged. Abused becoming abuser creates the most pernicious vicious cycle imaginable, one in which peace and justice are made foreign concepts to entire generations. This Adam Hochschild exquisitely and passionately captures in his valuable investigative work.

Positioned in the heart of Africa, the war-torn and resource-rich country we know today as The Democratic Republic of the Congo has had a long and tragic history. Though claimed by the Portuguese in the 15th century, it was virtually inaccessible to European imperialism until the nineteenth, when Henry Morgan Stanley successfully traversed its dangerous terrain in hopes of locating Dr. David Livingstone, the missionary doctor and explorer who had famously vanished into this strange and foreign place. Until this time, and despite the Portuguese's unenforced claim, the Congo was an organized, self-sufficient kingdom ruled from present-day Kinshasa by a lord known as the Manikongo. But once Stanley's expedition proved that Westerners could withstand the dangers of the Congo, albeit with an excess of luck and endeavor, this kingdom would fall to the voracious hunger of Western appetites.

By the late nineteenth century, most of the world had been claimed in one way or another by the major western European powers of France, Germany and england. When Stanley's expedition proved that the Congo could be a prize to be won, tiny Belgium, lead by the ambition and hunger of its king, Leopold II, leaped at the opportunity to conquer it and, in a stroke, vastly expand its power and prosperity. Though this conquest would take many years to complete and be recognized by the international community, King Leopold II, with a combination of guile and relentlessness, would eventually prove victorious, creating the Congo Free State which began to export large amounts of priceless ivory and rubber to Belgium in exchange for relatively worthless items like glass and beads. But however horrendous this economic exploitation, the human cost was far worse. For in order to create this trade, Leopold's men instituted one of the most ruthless and degrading administrations in history, one in which women and children were systematically starved, beaten and murdered to encourage Congolese men to labor for Belgian gain.

The tale of these abominable crimes and how they came to light, King Leopold's Ghost is a mesmerizing and moving work of non-fiction. Mr. Hochschild, a first-rate historian who rarely disappoints, has set his nimble pen and sharp mind to detailing an all-but-forgotten chapter of western imperialism, one made all the more shocking for its darkness. For make no mistake. The crimes of King Leopold II and his men are at least as grave and despicable as those of the holocaust. The only difference here lies in Leopold's motives which were not forged by ethnic hatred but by greed, made no less potent by its simplicity. Step by cautious step, Leopold convinced the western powers that his intentions with the Congo were humanitarian, even pious, all while implementing, throughout this conquered land, a rule so foul, so cruel, that it inspired the writing of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a work which was, in no way, forced to exaggerate for effect.

Of King Leopold's Ghost's many virtues, the most memorable is the way in which it it reveals the role bias plays in the lives of man. Belgian crimes in the Congo were brought to light by a series of brave men, white and black, European and American, who, thanks to first-hand experience with the systematized beatings, shootings and rapes of the Congolese people, saw through leopold's lies and began declaring them to the public. However, these individuals were only few in number, a tiny fraction of the thousands of Europeans who had been to the Congo under Leopold's reign and watched the hands of the disobedient chopped off, looked on while entire villages were wiped out and the survivors forced into chaingangs, and observed the punishments with the vicious chicotte which often left its victims mortally wounded. This vast majority were silent. They were content to steal from an oppressed and brutalized people. They were content to earn and look the other way.

Even more troubling, though, are the biases amongst the social crusaders, all of whom believed in the rightness of British imperialism. The queen's justice was righteous and true, a light that should be shone upon the whole of the savage world. But Belgian imperialism was another story, the sins of which had to be exposed. This narrowness of thinking, this inability to recognize the universal despotism and criminality that arises out of colonialism, is utterly arresting, but no moreso than the will of the Belgian people to deny that their little country was complicit in the deaths of nearly ten-million people. Not until the 1980s were the records of this time revealed. And even then, no one was encouraged to read them. This is a crime against humanity they would just as soon bury.

But while there are in this tale no clean skins, there is this. When others forget, we can remember. We can read great books and remind ourselves that all crimes have been executed before, in one form or another. And in this way, when they are tried again,we can recognize them. We can be there to say "stop," "no," "this will not be allowed to pass."

A work as riveting as it is valuable... (5/5 Stars)

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