A Legacy of Pain: King Leopold II

15 Apr



 Ntaganda Update: President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has announced that General Bosco Ntaganda should be arrested and face a military tribunal in the DRCongo instead being made to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.  (Washington Post, 4/11/2012)

The term, “colonialism” means “domination of a superior power over a weaker one” and suitably describes the exploitation and indoctrination that occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1885 until World War II. Most of the civil wars that continue to plague East Africa as well the systemized rape of women, torture, and dismemberment regularly practiced by rebel militia groups and even the standing armies in the DR Congo today were initially introduced as effective domination strategies by the most powerful countries in Europe beginning in the late 1900’s as a way to “introduce and maintain order”.

It all began with the birth of “African Colonialism” at the Berlin Conference of 1885.  At this formal gathering, representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, as well the small country of Belgium sat down together to divide up and section off all of the land south of Sub-Saharan Africa except for the lands previously awarded to the countries of Ethiopia and Liberia. Belgium was a relatively new monarchy at the time having only just established its independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830. Great Britain and France clearly were in need of raw materials and trade alliances with which to support their countries’ growing domestic industries while Italy had joined together with Germany in 1871 forming an imposing alliance.

The “Congo Conference” was hosted by Germany and the resulting General Act of the Berlin Conference was established to regulate trade and settlement practices within the colonies. In order to do this a committee of European  leaders agreed to impose new borders onto existing tribal kingdoms – many times separating centuries- old ethnic groups in the process and distorting territorial boundaries that had previously served to divide feuding clans. Each country pledged to launch immediate settlement plans, man and staff their colonial governments, and headed out to take control of their new possessions; completing this task in 10 short years between 1880 and 1890. And as for the claims and the rights of the peoples and ethnic groups already living on these lands, you ask?  Well their rights and claims were never considered at all. The residents of these lands were deemed to be incapable of ruling themselves and so as part of the colonization agreement each nation pledged to “end the slave trade, bring God to the local residents, and establish order throughout the colonies” but it was clear as one Ugandan colleague so eloquently stated that their purpose in coming was “not to elevate but to dominate”.

And no one person managed to do so with as much cruelty or avarice as King Leopold II of Belgium. It is important that the reader understand that by the conclusion of the Berlin Conference Leopold had been granted exclusive rights to the region of the world now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo- not his country, his government, nor his people. The Congo Free State as he called it belonged to him and him alone. He set to work organizing his colony for one purpose only – to  increase his personal wealth. He hired the services of none other than Henry Morton Stanley of, “Dr. Livingston, I presume” to sign treaties with the kings of the most important tribes in the Congo in order to present undeniable evidence that they had accepted his sovereign authority over them and their people.

He then concentrated on building a private army that would enforce his rules throughout the Congo Free State which he named the Force Publique.  He presented commissions to a wide range veteran officers and mercenaries from around the world. His officers had to be white Europeans while his enlisted men, dressed in blue uniforms and red fezzes were selected from among other African tribal groups in North Congo, Zanzibar, and other countries around West Africa like Ghana and Cameroon. Leopold only hired seasoned military officers, who had actually fought in battle and he assembled a force of war- hardened troops accustomed to killing and punishing to accomplish their goals. The Force Publique resurrected a well- known set of military strategies based on the art of intimidation and subjugation. These procedures had been commonly used in European warfare when a smaller force sought to intimidate civilians living in the area into submission in order to eliminate the possibility of a whole -scale rebellion against them. The smaller force deliberately employed terrifying procedures and specific forms of psychological torture known to be so repugnant to their enemies that they would immediately “cease and desist” preventing any further threat of retaliation.

These soldiers were deliberately trained to carry out the most atrocious acts imaginable towards the Congolese people  in order to remove any semblance of self-efficacy or control and to destroy any confidence the villagers’ once had in their ability to strike back.  Lastly, the Force Publique used what was most valuable to their victims such as the threat of harm to wives and children to further control Leopold’s workers. These strategies had first been designed for use in European conflicts where troops had found themselves outnumbered in enemy territory but now they would be customized and reworked by the Force Public in order to allow them to effectively manage large groups of enslaved laborers.

“Colonial regulations” were applied with impunity against a people whom the soldiers had already determined were inferior and replaceable. Despite all of their advanced weaponry and superior military strength the Force Publique did not have the tactical advantage and they knew it. They were a small number of men residing in a foreign country surrounded by a superior force of combatants capable of waging war on them at any time. They had heard reports that some of the villages in the outer bush practiced  Cannibalism and that information further intiminated them. So they took the offense and systematically broke the “spirit of the people” around them in order to protect themselves from the threat of rebellion and to ensure that Leopold’s obsessive demands would be carried out to the letter.

Do these tactics sound familiar then? They should. These are the same techniques used by any number of rebel militia forces in the Ugandan Civil War, the First and Second Congo Wars, Darfur, and in the War for Independence in Rwanda.  Kony and his Lords Liberation Army did not create these methods but they certainly have applied them successfully.  All of East Africa has mastered subjugation procedures especially well and use them whenever they need to render a group of civilians submissive and compliant. Congolese warlords use them  as effectively today as the Force Publique did over a century ago.

Leopold’s first economic endeavor was the accumulation of ivory. His marksmen, in their quest for wealth, slaughtered thousands of male and female elephants just to hack off their tusks. The ivory itself would be eventually fashioned into jewelry and other decorative objects such as pipes, billiard balls, and piano keys. There are reports that his hunters trapped and slaughtered upwards of two hundred elephants at a time leaving their carcasses to swell and rot in the intense, tropical sun.  The train that Stanley had built had not been completed so Leopold needed a way to transport his ivory tusks to the coast. He began using local tribesmen as porters to hand-carry these tusks along dangerous pathways that had been cut through the thick rain forests in order to deliver them to his seaport where they would be loaded on ships and taken back to Belgium.  If a man became sick or overcome with exhaustion on the trip he would be left to die on the path while his friends were forced to move on without him. Leopold demanded that his ivory shipments be transported in the dry and wet seasons causing his porters to die from a host of life-threatening maladies such as mud slides, snake bites, malaria, blood infections, and wild animal attacks.

 At the dawn of the 20th century the vulcanization of rubber helped establish the bicycle and automobile industry. There was an immense need for raw rubber from which to make things such as tires, hot water bottles, and rain coats. Leopold intended to capitalize on his second opportunity to increase his wealth.

As enormous region of the Congo Free State was covered by a vast tropical rainforest that contained rubber trees. These trees could be harvested by laborers for the sap they contained.  Leopold found himself doubly blessed with an unlimited supply of raw rubber to export and an enormous work force  of tribesmen that could be used to collect the sap.  He ordered his native populations into the rain forests and if they objected he killed them and/or maimed their wives and children sometimes putting entire villages to the torch. Within a decade Leopold’s rubber extraction operation became a especially lucrative business so much so that the French in their colonies in the northwest Congo, the Portuguese in Angola, and the Germans in Cameroon developed similar rubber extraction enterprises based on Leopold’s use of enslaved labor.

Leopold was such a severe taskmaster that even his own troops were subject to stringent quota systems.  Each soldier was made to account for the use of every bullet fired by submitting one hand from the villager he had killed as proof. Many soldiers were unable to account for all of their spent bullets and so feared that their salaries would be docked for these omissions. They solved this problem by cutting off the hands of live villagers instead then turning those in to balance their accounts. Over time mutilations became the accepted mode of punishment for even minor infractions. Hands and feet were cut off in retribution for real as well as imagined offenses or because the workers had not met their rubber quotas for the month. One of the most painful photographs I have ever seen from that period was of a Congolese worker who sits looking down at five hands that have been laid out in front of him, one hand had been amputated from each one of his five daughters as punishment for not meeting his rubber quota.  

One of the reasons the Force Publique became so outrageous in the number of people it killed was the fact that it never lacked for more laborers; if one man died, another could replace him. It has been reported that when Leopold was finally made to sell the Congo Free State  to the Belgium government, a mere 10 years later between 10 and 13 million people were dead from murder, mutilation, starvation, exhaustion, or disease. 

The deliberate use of mutilation to subdue a larger group should also sound familiar. The use of torture, mutilation and rape  is currently being used by rebel armies, guerillas, and terrorists throughout East Africa. “There is nothing that crushes the human spirit so irrevocably as having to endure a piece of your body being hacked off,” stated one of my dear Ugandan friends. “I would like to see just how well Mandela (referring to Nelson Mandela) would have carried on after they hacked his nose and lips off! These are primal fears that overwhelm the simple people who have have been subjected to such atrocities. Things like that change you forever and you would do anything at all to stop it. Those soldiers know this and still they do it to innocent men, women, and children. Damn them! May they never be forgiven!”

And as one of my other sources confided, “What better way to crush a woman for good than to impregnate her with the enemy’s child?”

What should scare us even more is the reason these atrocities were committed in the first place. If I could get Kony to speak truthfully about why he harms the people of his Acholi villages, I am sure that he would not mention emotions such as hatred or revenge- he only ever acted out of fear. He struck first just as the Force Publique did a century ago.  He knows that he does not have a sufficient number of men to fend off an attack by all of the people living in an area at once so he prevents that from happening by systematically crushing them before the group realizes that it had the power to retaliate all along. But the subjugation techniques so well developed and applied  by the Force Publique never really went away.  They were perserved in detailed accounts passed down from grandfather to son to grandson around the village campfires in the evening. The horrendous tortures and brutal massacres of the Congolese people were never really forgotten and eventually were remembered best by the young men; the ones who most recently ressurected the violence and intimidation in order to wage their own unique brand of  civil war. 

I truly wish I could reassure you that once King Leopold II had been removed from power and the Belgium government took control conditions improved for the people of the Belgian Congo but that did not happen. Although the name of the colony changed- the lives of the people did not. But that explanation will have to wait until my next post

Kat Nickerson    Kingston       RI       USA

For those of you who would like to know more about this topic read  

King Leopold’s Ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa

By  Adam Hochschild, ©1998,  Pan MacMillian    ISBN – 0-330-49233-0



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