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A Dearth of Empathy

January 18, 2015

Shortly after starting to write this post I experienced a few days without television or Internet access. The television was no real loss, but the Internet has become a lifeline to me. It is my main access to information. I use Skype as my primary telephone. I am not a “texter”; I depend on email. It is the Internet that gives me access to you.

Limited to working offline, I sorted through some files I don’t regularly access. In the process I stumbled upon the ebook King Leopold’s Ghost misfiled among some unrelated items. I had no idea what the book was about, but decided to look at it. I was drawn in from the first page. As I read on, I could see how this material fit like a glove as an illustration of my original thesis.

The author’s references to Joseph Conrad and his powerful novella Heart of Darkness made me consider revisiting that classic; it has been years since I read it and I had never considered it in its historical context. In the interest of time, I opted to take another look at the movie instead. During my search for a copy of that, I fortuitously unearthed Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, a well-done BBC documentary by Peter Bate that includes some of the very disturbing photographs taken by English missionary Alice Seeley Harris. I then remembered I had a copy of the 1993 made-for-television adaptation of Conrad’s book, starring Tim Roth and John Malkovich, and watched that.  I went on to read Edmund Morel’s meticulously documented Red Rubber, as well as his King Leopold’s Rule in Africa, also featuring Harris’ photographs.  I still had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo waiting for me, but decided I had sufficient background material to write this post.

I make no apologies for its length; some subjects do not lend themselves to brevity. I do, however, warn you that parts of what I wrote about are violent and may be disturbing to some.  


Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was dissatisfied with ruling a little nation surrounded by countries that could boast empires. He was desperate to have a colony of his own. Like his father before him, he made several attempts to purchase or even rent one, but was frustrated at every turn. Then in 1877, Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh explorer who masqueraded as an American citizen, succeeding in getting into the Congo by the back door, shooting his way down the Congo River, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. Stanley had demonstrated what many believed but had been unable to prove—that the river indeed was an artery flowing from the vast unexplored heart of the Dark Continent. Leopold saw the opportunity to realize his dream at last.

The colonial nations of Europe showed little interest in the Congo; they already had enough on their plates with their existing territories. Neither did the Americans have any enthusiasm for acquiring an African colony. In fact some, like white supremacist Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan, were doggedly trying to cobble together a plan to ship former slaves back to Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese, who much to the chagrin of the abolitionists still sanctioned slavery in their colonies, seemed content to lie at anchor at the mouth of the Congo River to load the human cargo delivered to them by Africans willing to sell their compatriots. Enlisting Stanley’s help, as well as that of General Henry Shelton Sanford, a former American minister to Belgium who had remained in Brussels after his tenure expired, Leopold launched an ingenious clandestine plan to lay claim to the massive drainage basin of the Congo River.

Stretching almost 3000 miles from its headwaters in the highlands and mountains of the East Africa Rift to its estuary, the great river flows first north across the equator, then scribes a sweeping counterclockwise arc through dense tropical rainforests on swampy floodplains, crosses over the equator once more and widens to 14 miles as Pool Malebo (formerly Stanley Pool) before spilling over the western rim of the plateau. Its tumultuous final 220-mile dash to the sea, called Livingstone Falls, descends almost a thousand feet in a raging torrent of 32 waterfalls, 34 violent rapids and enormous whirlpools, the current in places reaching 30 miles per hour. Finally, each second it empties an average of 1.4 million cubic feet of water (enough to fill 15 Olympic-size swimming pools) into the Atlantic, a flow that has carved a 4000 foot deep canyon into the sea floor that extends 500 miles offshore. Because its drainage basin includes areas both north and south of the equator, its flow is stable, as there is always at least one part of the river experiencing a rainy season. It is probably the deepest river in the world, with soundings to 720 feet. Its basin spreads over nearly 1.6 million square miles, and the river and the tributaries that fan out from it constitute 7000 miles of navigable waterways.

The land route around the rapids wound uphill through the rough, rocky country of the Crystal Mountains, cut through with deep ravines with treacherous cliffs. Some Capuchin missionaries twice made it to the top of the great rapids. A Portuguese expedition died trying.   Fifty-four men set out from England in 1816 to attempt the ascent, only to turn back after 150 miles, the men so exhausted and wracked with tropical diseases they were unable to go on. Twenty-one never saw England again. The interior of Africa remained a blank spot on the maps of the day.

Nineteenth century Europe was hungry for raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution and many were eager to cash in on the profit potential of what came to be known as the Scramble for Africa. The cunning silver-tongued Leopold, however, vigorously denied he was looking to the Congo for material gain. He was, he insisted, serving “the noble cause”, the motives for his interest in the region purely philanthropic. Any revenues he might realize would go toward improving the lot of the people; he didn’t want a single franc for himself he sanctimoniously declared. Addressing the 1876 Brussels Geographic Conference, he ably deployed the rhetoric of Victorian humanitarianism: “To open to civilization the only part of our globe where it has yet to penetrate, to pierce the darkness that envelops whole populations, it is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.” Capitalizing on the missionary zeal of the time he vowed to bring Christianity to the region. Riding the waves of anti-slavery fervour and anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, he pledged to bring a halt to the lucrative slave trade being carried on by Afro-Arabs in the markets of Zanzibar.

But his motives were not nearly so altruistic as he professed. He secretly coveted the Congo’s lucrative ivory trade, and saw the Arab traders as inconvenient competition in that enterprise.  To the later embarrassment of the world leaders of the time, he played his cards admirably, cleverly managing to garner international support for his dream. On July 1, 1885, the Congo Free State, a nation as large as the entire United States east of the Mississippi, came into being not as a Belgian colony, but the private fiefdom of the King of the Belgians.

Leopold immediately asserted rights of proprietorship, decreeing that everything in the country, the land and all it produced, belonged to the State (himself). In direct violation of his guarantees of free trade, he slammed the door in the face of the world. He pronounced the natives tenants upon his property, and therefore subject to taxation in the form of corvée labour. Any “unauthorized” use of his colony’s resources would be considered poaching and would be severely punished. He wasn’t about to share the wealth of his newly acquired state with anyone.

In his bestselling historical account King Leopold’s Ghost, American author Adam Hochschild unfolds an eloquent and grizzly story of horror, Leopold’s men terrorizing and brutalizing the Africans of the Congo. Atrocity was heaped on atrocity, fueled by greed and Victorian ideas about race. Hochschild stated his purpose in writing the book was to raise awareness of the history of the Congo, a history that has long been suppressed, what little once known largely forgotten. It certainly raised mine.

The author devotes a section of his narrative to Konrad Korzeniowski, the Polish author the world would come to know as Joseph Conrad. Conrad had dreamed of going to the Congo since childhood, and in 1889 had secured a position as ship’s officer on the sternwheeler Roi de Belges plying the waters of the Congo River. He spent six months on the river until he became ill with malaria and dysentery (from which he never fully recovered) and returned to his adopted country of England. Neither did he fully recover from his experience in Africa. Hochschild writes of Conrad, “Finally, he was so horrified by the greed and brutality among white men he saw in the Congo that his view of human nature was permanently changed.” In his Last Essays, published posthumously, Conrad would characterize Leopold’s Congo as “The vilest scramble for loot that every disfigured the history of human conscience.”

In 1899 he wrote Heart of Darkness, literature’s most scathing indictment of colonialism, and “probably the most widely reprinted short novel in English.” Although written as a novella, Conrad himself wrote, “Heart of Darkness is experience … pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case.” Hochschild gives Conrad full credence, carefully verifying those facts from letters, diaries, journals and official documents of the time describing the actions of the men who terrorized the Congo, many of those directly paralleling Conrad’s portraiture in his novel of the ivory company’s star agent, the brilliant and ambitious Mr. Kurtz.

The rape of the Congo was facilitated by relatively new technology—the steamship, the railway, the repeating rifle and the Maxim gun. Equipped with these, the Force Publique, Leopold’s private army of white officers and conscripted Africans (themselves de facto slaves, the rubber company agents paid a bounty for capturing and pressing them into service) was a law unto itself, intent upon wringing as much profit out of the Congo as possible for their royal master. The entire state was deliberately and systematically founded on slave labor. Africans were forcibly enlisted as porters to make the trek up the lower Congo. Often chained or roped together by the neck, they carried supplies, trade goods, guns and ammunition, as well as disassembled steamships to be reassembled at Stanley Pool to ply the lakes and rivers beyond. On the return trip they carried elephant tusks. Thousands starved, succumbed to injuries and disease, or were shot, beaten to death, or simply worked to death. Just as my research of Haiti revealed, it was considered more economic to replace slaves than to care for them.

In less than a decade, John Dunlop’s development of the pneumatic tire, the growing popularity of the automobile, and the necessity of insulating the wires that were rapidly electrifying the world sparked a sudden spike in demand for rubber. Leopold’s Congo Free State had the largest supply of wild latex producing vines in the world, and rubber soon surpassed ivory as the state’s most valuable commodity. Rubber plantations were being established in Indonesia and South America, but rubber trees take about six years to grow to maturity. For a time the Congo had a near-monopoly on the trade. (I found it puzzling that in almost all of the Internet articles I found on the history of the rubber trade, African rubber is rarely even mentioned.)

Now the thousands of slaves became hundreds of thousands. Harvesting rubber was difficult and dangerous, not something Africans wanted to do. The tappers often had to travel far from their homes and families to find enough vines to meet their quotas, and it was necessary to climb to heights of over a hundred feet to tap them. To dry the sap into rubber, tappers spread it onto their bodies. When the rubber was peeled off, it took body hair and often skin with it.

The strategy the rubber companies employed to coerce men into working in the rubber trade was codified in a manual distributed by the Congo government to the agents of the various tightly controlled rubber companies operating in the country. It involved capturing wives and children and holding them hostage until the men delivered the prescribed quota of rubber to the European company agents. Leopold even issued licences to agents officially authorizing the internments. Frequently young women held hostage were raped by their guards. Others, chained together in squalid stockades or remote hostage houses with little or no food, died of disease and starvation. Failure to deliver enough rubber resulted in not only extending the detention of a man’s family, but also in an appointment with the chicotte—a whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged corkscrew strip that cut into flesh. It was not uncommon for a man to receive a hundred or more lashes. Cutting off the hands of children was also used as a penalty for a father’s failure to deliver enough rubber. A village’s refusal to collect rubber saw men, women and children alike being shot, the village burned, the crops destroyed so there would be no food available to any villagers who managed to escape the onslaught. The fiendish viciousness ratcheted up as the production quotas imposed by agents, spurred by the system of escalating bonuses put in place by the State, approached the impossible.

It was common for soldiers and sentries to raid villages, helping themselves to crops and livestock, and murdering anyone who tried to resist. Some people, especially women, were forced to produce large quantities of food for the government. Often the ‘tax’ demanded left little or nothing to feed the people themselves.

The practice of cutting off hands came to be identified with the Congo rubber trade. The soldiers of the Force Publique and the paramilitary “sentries” of the rubber concession companies were issued limited quantities of ammunition, and were required to account for every bullet. To prove success of their patrols, for each bullet fired, soldiers had to deliver the right hand of a victim to their commanding officer. Since the penalties for not turning in enough hands were severe, soldiers sometimes resorted to severing the hands of living victims to make up shortfalls. The hands were smoked over a fire to preserve them until the soldiers could return to their base.   When some officers accused soldiers of killing more women than men, the soldiers brought back male genitals in addition to the hands. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz has topped the posts of the fence around his yard with severed heads. Records were found that showed collecting heads was not uncommon.

The burgeoning industry demanded a more efficient means of delivering the rubber to the ships that would carry it to Antwerp. The Matadi-Leopoldville portage railway, a 241-mile narrow gauge line to skirt the unnavigable western section of the Congo River, took eight years to build and cost thousands of lives. Along with African forced labour, men were brought in from China, Sierra Leone and Barbados.

Although he realized profits estimated at perhaps a billion and a half in today’s dollars, Leopold never travelled to his private country. Instead he created his own version of the Congo in Belgium. He worked hard to sell the world on his carefully orchestrated fairy-tale version of his beloved Congo Free State, portraying what he was doing there as benevolence.   He stubbornly maintained, “What I do there is done as a Christian duty to the poor African.” Adjoining his palace he had constructed six acres of greenhouses to showcase among other flora, a miniature rainforest. He built the Royal Museum for Central Africa to display his prodigious collection of Africana; it is still one of the largest in the world today. At the 1897 World’s Fair in Brussels he put not only African animals on exhibit, but also 267 Congolese natives. Estranged from his daughters and determined not to leave his fortune to them as required by Belgian law, he undertook grand projects throughout Belgium—palaces, monuments, museums, gardens, a seaside resort, a racetrack and a golf course—and gifted them to the Belgian people.

But in spite of his elaborate attempts at duplicity, almost from the very beginning ugly rumours of the violence of Leopold’s rule were gaining currency. In 1889, George Washington Williams, an African American Civil War veteran, during an informal audience granted him by Leopold, stated his intention to travel to the Congo Free State. Leopold objected, but Williams made the trip anyway, in all likelihood the first African American to visit the new nation. The following year he sent a highly critical open letter to the king from Stanley Falls addressing the trickery used by Stanley to secure the land for Leopold and the inhumane treatment of the Congolese people by the king’s agents. Williams pointed out that since the colony was the king’s personal property and these men employed by him, Leopold was as guilty of the crimes as the men who perpetrated them. This letter was followed up by a report to President Harrison of the United States. Thus Williams sparked the first whispers of international protest against conditions in the Congo.

Leopold had invited missionaries to the Congo to give the appearance that his motives were “Christian”. Most maintained silence, likely out of fear of expulsion, but a few would not hold their tongues. William Sheppard, an African American Presbyterian missionary, arrived in the Congo in 1890. Over the next 20 years he regularly reported the abuses he saw to his superiors, emphasizing those he knew to be contraventions of European law. His boldness encouraged other missionaries to do the same. Swedish Baptist minister E. V. Sjöblom was also a painful thorn in Leopold’s side. Alice Harris, a British Baptist, wielded her Kodak Brownie as a weapon, photographing the atrocities she saw, sending them to magazines and touring extensively, especially in the United States, to exhibit them in “magic lantern” shows. The Presbyterian church in the United States and the Baptist church in Scotland became very strong opponents of Leopold’s officially sanctioned terror.

Leopold, displaying remarkable media prowess, countered the mounting criticism with a vigorous disinformation campaign. He flooded newspapers in Europe and America with articles impugning the accuracy of prejudicial reports and the motivation and character of his detractors. He frequently induced those beholden to him to write fictitious glowing reports of conditions in the Congo. His deep pockets were able to buy the allegiance of many.

In 1895, one of Leopold’s army officers made a pivotal blunder. Attempting to enforce the king’s orders to uphold his monopoly on slave trading in his state, he drew international attention to slavery in the Congo. He hanged Charles Stokes, a British trader working for the Germans, for operating in Congo territory. A cry immediately went up in both Britain and Germany, and compensation was demanded and paid. Stokes’ hanging made the world suspicious of what was going on in the Congo. I think it tragic that while the deaths of thousands of Africans drew little notice, the death of a single white man could provoke an international incident.

Gradually, as more and more voices were added to the hue and cry against the barbarism, the world began to wake up to the Congo government’s misdeeds. Mobilized by British newspaperman E.D. Morel, who had been a senior clerk with the British shipping company holding a monopoly on transport between Belgium and the Congo Free State, and Irish diplomat Roger Casement, who was sent as British Consul to investigate conditions in the colony, and bolstered by the Congo Reform Association and the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, the opposition eventually developed into the first major international human rights movement of the twentieth century. When Leopold’s attempts to influence American government policy through bribery of high-level public officials were exposed, an international explosion of bad publicity resulted. In an attempt to turn the tide, the king appointed a handpicked commission to travel to the Congo to investigate the charges against his state and prepare a report that, he expected, would exculpate him. But the testimony the commissioners heard, especially from the Congolese themselves, was too much for them to ignore. At times some were moved to tears. They issued a damning indictment.

Refusing to publish the report, but grudgingly admitting defeat, the king brokered a deal to sell his interests in the Congo to the Belgian government for 155.5 million francs (the equivalent today of over $750 million dollars by my calculation) in November of 1908. Just over a year later, he was dead. Over the twenty-three years Leopold held sway over his Congo Free State, its population was reduced from 20 million to 10 million. The actual death toll is difficult to determine; the deaths of Africans were considered of little consequence, and many of the records that were kept were destroyed when the Congo Free State collapsed.

Leopold was determined that the truth about his Congo would never see the light of day. “I will give them the Congo,” he told an aide, “but they have no right to know what I did there.” Immediately after transferring control to the Belgian government he had the State’s archives burned; the palace furnaces roared for eight days. He also ordered his subordinates in the Congo to destroy all records there. The documents that escaped the fires were later locked in underground vaults by the Belgian government and declared out of bounds to researchers until late in the twentieth century. Belgians created a national mythology of events in the Congo, a version that portrayed conquest as benevolence, Belgians as heroes building a paradise for Africans, the Congolese people as grateful recipients of Belgian largesse, Leopold as a great humanitarian, and his critics as maleficent liars. The denial was so strong that even many Belgian officials were completely unaware of the truth. It was those who worked tirelessly to inform the world of what was happening in Africa who preserved for us some modicum of it. But the reality is that, as Morel wrote in Red Rubber, “Nothing even approximating the whole truth will ever be known.”

When Leopold ceded the Congo, many who had fought to bring an end to the abuses celebrated. But perhaps the celebration was premature. Leopold’s ghost lived on. The system he set up would not easily be dismantled; it was too profitable. As Morel pointed out, “As long as there was big money to be made from rubber, white men, with the help of the gun and the chicotte, would force black men to gather it.”

Just as slaves in the United States were released from the chains of chattel slavery only to be clamped into those of wage slavery, the Congolese moved from forced labour to taxation slavery. In order to pay the head taxes imposed after the Belgian government took control of the Congo they had no choice but to continue to work at gathering rubber for the white traders until at least 1920. The lucrative concession-company system continued with few changes. Forced labour, driven by the chicotte (now regulated rather than outlawed by the government), also became the tool of other enterprises. During World War I it provided the thousands of porters needed to supply the expanded Force Publique in its invasion of German East Africa. It maintained the workforce for the emerging mineral exploitation industry in its copper, zinc, gold, cobalt, diamond and uranium mines (most of the uranium used to build the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was mined in the Congo) and built the railroads to haul ore for foreign markets. The methods of recruitment of miners were very similar to those employed in the rubber trade. Village chiefs were induced to sell men they disliked or feared to the mining companies. The families of miners who ran away could be imprisoned.

Sadly, Leopold’s men were no more murderous than those of other nations carrying off the wealth of Africa. Similar atrocities took place in neighbouring colonies—France’s equatorial African territories, Portuguese-ruled Angola, and the German-controlled Cameroon. In German South West Africa, today’s Namibia, things turned even more sinister. In 1904, General Lothar von Trotha, sent to quell a rebellion sparked by the German confiscation of their lands, ordered the extermination of the Herero people. Within two years, three quarters of the population died in the genocide.

Marlow, the protagonist-narrator of Conrad’s novel, muses, “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” Marlow, my man, it is not a pretty thing if you look into it at all.

Did it never occur to Europeans of the day that they were stealing the lands from the people who occupied them? What makes some feel superior, seeing others as somehow “less than”, or even more disturbingly, not human at all? What makes civilized men, many claiming Christian faith, devoid of either compassion or mercy, capable of treating others as things rather than people, of denigrating them, abusing them, injuring them, even killing them? Are they monsters?

I think not. As Hochschild quotes Primo Levi speaking of his experience at Auschwitz, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are … the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” I believe it comes down to an unwillingness to die to self, a failure to love one’s neighbour. It is men being so full of themselves and their own interests that they are either unable or unwilling to put themselves in the shoes of another. Then and now, the world suffers from a dearth of empathy.

And so again and again we find ourselves whispering with Kurtz,

The horror! The horror!

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