The Grand Experiment: A Gentler Form of Enslavement

7 May

The savage only ever respects force, power, boldness, and decision.” Stanley, Henry M. (1988). Through the Dark Continent. Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-25667-7

In 1908 the Belgian government officially agreed to manage Leopold’s Free State in central Africa and immediately changed the name of the Kongo and Katanga territories to the Belgian Congo. But not before it paid King Leopold II 50 million francs in compensation for the forfeiture of his authorized claim. Yet, other than renaming the colony not much else changed in way of administrative policies once the paperwork had been signed and sealed. Belgian officials saw to it that their governance policies continued to be supervised by Baron Wahis, previous Governor General of The Congo Free State under Leopold and they did not remove the colonial administrators selected by Leopold but reassigned them to their previous postings. In time Belgian officials would share their administrative power with three of the largest mining corporations in Katanga district, and the Catholic Church. But the Belgian parliament, although far more civilized in its approach than Leopold, did not differ in its utilization of the colony by much. It continued to view its new colony and the people within its borders as possessions that could be rearranged at will- all for the benefit of Father Belgium. And its sole purpose in developing the infrastructure within the colony was to gain better access to the vast stores of minerals and agricultural products such as palm oil, coffee, and lumber and in doing so increase its export production. There was never any mention of  a plan to systematically improve the quality of the people’s lives in any way. In the fifty-two years Belgium managed the Congo in an official capacity there was never any formal course of action taken to provide the Congolese people with the opportunity to develop the administrative, political, military, or business skills needed to govern themselves. Congolese students would not be allowed to study for advanced degrees at their own colleges or universities until the year 1954.

There was a marked shift in marketable Congolese exports even before Leopold surrendered his authority; ivory, then rubber extract, and finally raw minerals became the number export products. The Congo was rich in gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt, tantalite, columbite, cassiterite, uranium, and tin. The first mining endeavors concentrated on the extraction of copper and then on the quest for diamonds. Diamond mines were first opened in 1907 and were so successsful that by 1927 the Congo’s export quota was second only to that of South Africa. Another crucial concern was the need to transport these products out to the coast. During the first few years the Belgians made the creation of a dependable infrastructure a top priority in their Colonial Development Plan so they could more easily move their exports through the country then out for shipment to Europe. The two major modes of transportation they depended on were: 1.  by steamship on the Congo River and 2.) by railroad car. In 1911 The Société Colonial de Construction was established in order to build the first railway from Elisabethville to Bukama. That done, it went on to build a system of railway connections and depots within the colony.

The much unloved Leopold II, King of Belgium died in 1909 leaving a very reluctant King Albert I to take his place. Albert was the second son and as such had been always considered “next in line” to the throne until his older brother Baudoin unexpectedly died of pneumonia making Albert I the next king of Belgium.  The new King was a self-proclaimed socialist who looked for opportunities to implement his favorite  Marxist doctorines. One of his closest friends and advisors was Emile Waxweiler, engineer and noted sociologist who convinced Albert to let him implement his innovative labor theories through ths use of a community model that would be used to build and maintain an exclusive workforce of laborers in the Congo.  These “socially engineered” workers would ultimately employ their superior skills in a such a way that they would boost production and ensure greater revenues for the companies and the government.  After listening to Waxweiler’s compeling predictions about immense profits, Albert was only too willing to grant his request and Emile W. began his “Grand Experiment” in the Congo with the King’s blessing.

In 1906, the Union Minière du Haut Kanga( UMHK), was granted a permit by Leopold to develop its mining operation in its quest for copper. Soon after two more mining companies were formed in the same region: Forminière Société Internationale Forestière et Minière du Congo (FMC) and the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga (BCK). But Leopold’s avarice and brutality had taken its toll. In his ten year rule of the Congo 10-13 million people had died of causes directly related to his corvee system and harsh punishments. By1908 only10 million people were left and many inland areas were very sparsely populated including Katanga District. Once the mine shafts had been secured and the passageways opened companies like UMHK (located in present-dayLubumbashi) needed hundreds of miners to remove the copper ore. In the beginning mining companies like UMHK attracted men from more distant tribes to work in their mines by offering a them a  range of lucrative incentives but they had failed to retain the numbers needed to adequately man the tunnels. But then Emile W. arrived on the scene and proposed that the executives implement his  “population management policies” in order to ensure a sufficient workforce.

UMHK was the first company to agree to implement his policies and a new “age of enslavement” commenced. All candidates were examined by European doctors and only the healthiest and strongest were hired. In the beginning all of the single men resided in barrack-like dormitories and had all of basic their needs looked after by the company. They were fed  a high protein diet, clothed in materials that would keep them warm and dry when down in the mines, and were expected to keep themselves clean. They had to obey every rule and observe the posted curfews or they were dismissed on the spot.  What’s more, they could not leave the mining compound unless they had received formal permission first. The camps were kept clean and comfortable but that did not prevent them from operating like prisons. Once a man agreed to work for the UMHK he relinquished all of his personal rights and freedoms except for what the companydecided to grant him.

Waxweiler went on to perfect his methods based on data from his Institut de Sociologie. One of his studies identified the best discipline techniques to use in order to produce the fastest and long-lasting results. Another strove to identify a range of local food products that could be used to make the most nutritious and the cheapest meals. Every policy Waxweiler introduced helped guarantee that the laborers would work as efficiently as possible in order to extract the optimum amount of copper from the tunnels each day. Unbeknownst to the Congolese workmen his designs ensured optimum productivity levels and the highest percentage of profits.

Eventually researchers at the Institut de Sociologie determined that married men were: less volatile, happier, healthier, and lived longer than single men. These findings caused the Board of Directors to issue an order requiring  “all black miners to marry” in order to keep their jobs with the company. Mining executives combed the region visiting native families in search of eligible brides. The company established a marriage brokering service and even bought the goats and cows needed for the marriage dowry exchanges. Medical doctors thoroughly examined all potential brides and approved only the healthiest ones who they determined would make “the best wives and breeders” and who would ultimately supply the mines with the next generation of workers. If a man was already married his wife still had to undergo a physical exam and if she was not accepted the man was dismissed. The mine enforced all of its policies and would not tolerate tribal customs such as keeping more than one wife, supporting a concubine, or what the Catholic authorities defined as any “adulterous behavior” within the compound.

If a family passed their examinations they were admitted into the domestic section of the compound. They lived in identical houses equipped with a small garden on pleasant tree-lined streets along with their neighbors. The company provided the food used to prepare each meal but the wife/ mother’s food rations were docked if any infractions of the rules occurred within the household. The husband’s food rations were never touched because he needed to be kept in optimum physical shape in order to work in the mines each day. All children were required to attend school from kindergarten to the end of primary school and all families had to comply with this expectation. Boys were trained to become efficient workers and girls were trained in the skills used by good wives and mothers. Education beyond primary school was not provided because the company had already determined there was no call for advanced education in a population of miners and mothers- the last thing company administrators wanted, was to create a workforce capable of thinking for themselves or challenging the company’s policies.

Females had been identified by the sociologists at the Institut as the most rebellious members of the family group so their lives were structured most carefully. The overseers made sure that every woman complied with the rules or suffered the consequences. Women were not allowed to leave the compound unless they applied for and were granted a pass. Logs were kept on the number of outside excursions per woman and the gatekeepers denied petitions from any female who had made too many outside visits regardless of the reason. Breastfeeding was also discouraged because the company administrators wanted to keep the women pregnant and thought that while breast feeding women would not conceive as easily. Women who chose to breastfeed after their child was a year old were punished by having their food rations lessened. Mining companies trained an exceptional corps of midwives/ nurses who helped deliver the miners’ babies and the infant mortality rates in these compounds decreased significantly. The mining corporations also established exceptional medical infirmaries equipped with European doctors who provided some of the best medical care and treatment in all of East Africa. These improvements were only made in order to meet specific objectives listed in Waxweiler’s productivity plan.

Over the years the social engineering experiments escalated until at last Belgian sociologists sought to create their own special  race of Congolese laborer. They did this  in response to the age-old feuds and constant tensions that played out in the mines each day among workers from different tribes who were forced to toil together in exceptionally close quarters.  Belgian scientists reported that this new race had been named “Tshanga- Tshanga” by the Congolese people. Tshanga- Tshanga really means “Neutral or Inbetween” but I believe that the word Tshanga meant “The Unaffiliated” to the Congolese people of that time because they recognized that these “neutral” individuals would never be part of a real tribe and it was only by being affiliated with the Kongo tribes that a person could develop his/her sense of self. According to the Belgians, who could not have had the word homestly translated for them, Tshanga- Tshanga meant “The Great Equalizer”. I believe it had to have been hopeful thinking on the Belgian’s part because no East African would have interpreted the word “Tshanga” as meaning “The Great Equalizer” or would have even understood the context in which the phrase had been used. No Congolese man or woman would have approved of the Belgian’s attempt to create a new race either.

 Before they had finished with the Tshanga- Tshanga Plan,  Belgian researchers in the Congo had deliberately coerced  hundreds of young men and women into mating with one another in hopes that they would eventually produce the perfect worker for the copper mines. According to Dr. Van Nitzen, a well-known racial constructivist of the time, their objective was to “create a strong, healthy, disciplined workforce of devoted laborers.”

What they actually created was a group of social outcasts resented by the rest of the  tribes, who were only accepted in the artificial environments established in the mining camps around Katanga and Kasai. Eventually in spite of how well they had been cared for the native miners rebelled and a series of violent labor strikes occurred which only infuriated the mining authorities and the colonial administrators that much more. Eventually the colonial Governor had no choice but to capitulate and grant the workers’ demands. Actually the native miners received only slightly higher wages and a few more rights but for the first time Congolese workers had established themselves as “men capable of self-government”. The Tshanga – Tshanga experiments eventually ceased, Emile Waxmeiler was mysteriously hit by a car while crossing a London street in 1916, and“ The Grand Experiment” was abandoned once and for all.

In statements made to the world press by certain members of the Belgian Parliment  in the 1920’s it was clear that Belgium’s  primary responsibility was to “tend” to the people of the Congo and to make decisions for them like a father does for his children. The Belgian officials bristled when European journalists challenged their use of specific colonial policies especially social experimentation and criticized them for managing their workers as if they were mere “sheep or cattle”. The politicos regrouped and reassured skeptical members of the press that they had only ever worked in the best interest of the Congolese people. By the time the 1920’s ended the Colonial Governor had never once stated in any documentation that a plan existed to help the native population assume control of their own country one day. By the 1950’s members of the Belgian parliment were outraged when their ungrateful colonists began to riot and demanded the right to rule themselves and the official powers in  Belgium swiftly removed all Belgians from the Congo leaving their colonists ” high and dry” when their authority was ultimately challenged in 1960.

Kat Nickerson   Kingston   RI      USA


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