Part of The Forgotten Crimes Series
We remind ourselves of the tragedies of our past history not only to keep the remembrance of the victims alive but also to prevent the repetition of it. As the world globalizes and States take a back seat in economic affairs, being supplanted instead by the interest of large corporations, we should not forget that in underprivileged areas that lack an established civil society, commercial interest, free of any constraints, can quickly turn into vile tyranny.
Such is the case in what was known as the Congo Free State, occupying the same area of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Officially disguised as a “humanitarian mission” for the advancement of natives and facilitation of free trade, the state was little more than a personal monopolistic enterprise of a Belgian Monarch, meant to extract the vast untapped wealth of the region. Under his reign, some of the worst atrocities were perpetrated on the locals and bounded them to a brutal system of forced labor in the name of keeping the prices competitive on the international market. Those who resisted were often killed and their villages razed. Any worker, who failed to meet his daily quota, often had his hands dismembered or a member of his family killed in cold blood. This is the story of the African holocaust.
Dissatisfied by the limits put on his reign by the Belgian constitution, the power-hungry monarch looked to Africa for a domain where he would reign absolute. To achieve his aim, he cultivated his image as a selfless humanitarian wishing to help ‘improve and civilize’ the lives of the indigenous people and played the interest of European Powers against each other, promising each of them sweet but contradictory cut in the deal should they accept the legitimacy of his claims to the Congo Basin. Explorers were sent into the Congo to set up treaties with the local chiefs who, unaware of either the importance of written documents in European institutions or the actual content of the treaties, happily signed a cross in exchange for gifts and European guns. In a few cunning maneuvers, the Belgian King had gained effective ownership of a region the two-thirds the size of Western Europe.
The rule of the colony was plagued from the onset, Leopold II ran up huge debts as he tried to administer his new realm. Defaulting risked losing ownership of the land to the Belgian state. To avoid this, his first act was to effectively strip the natives of the right to their own land; seizing any land that was ‘vacant’ e.g. not cultivated and thus granted the state monopoly on the collection of rubber and ivory. Extraction rights on one-third of the land were then granted to private companies, who were also given free rein on how to deal with the natives, which of course, naturally entailed their ruthless exploitation for profit. In return for these concessions, the King was paid annual dividends by the companies. The other two-thirds of the land was the private domain of the king and natives were forbidden to sell their produce to anyone but the state and that too at below market rates. It is here that the worst of the criminal excesses took place, as the King ensured the submission of the natives through sheer terror, using his private army, the Force Publique to enforce his will.
Stripped of their land, their freedom and betrayed by their own rulers for money, the Congolese had become little more than slaves, working their life away to meet often unrealistic rubber quotas on the pain of death. Entire villages were killed off and razed when the quotas were not met. Hands of victims, including children, were cut off and collected as to be given as proof to the officer of the killings. Free of any repercussions, soldiers often acted in excess, engaging in the torment of their victims before killing them or even killing indiscriminately to collect hands for which they earned incentives.
The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. … The collection of hands became an end in itself … a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace … the people who were demanded for the forced labor gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected – Peter Forbath
The true irony is that while all this was taking place, the Belgian King cultivated his reputation as a great humanitarian and builder at home, receiving praise and recognition for his supposedly philanthropic endeavor in Africa and for commissioning great number of urban projects and public works in his country, most of which was paid through profits earned in Congo. Any critic whose silence the King could not buy became a target of his smear campaigns.
One of such critics was an African American named George W. Williams, who first hand witnessed the abuses taking place when he visited the King’s private domain. Writing an open letter to the Leopold II, he condemned the brutal treatment of the Congolese and appealed to the international community to “call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity …” Despite the best efforts of the King and his supporters to discredit him, he continued to speak out about the crimes. Soon, writers and activists on both sides of the Atlantic, including the likes of Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Doyle joined the cause and stirred the international community to the plight of the Congolese people. Finally, it fell to Roger Casement, an Irish diplomat, and future freedom fighter to sound the death knell on the King’s stubborn ambitions. Publishing his report in 1904, it confirmed the long-held accusations against the King’s administration of the Free State and galvanized the international opinion against him. The British parliament demanded a review to the 1885 Berlin Agreement and by 1908 the Belgian state annexed all the King’s holdings in Africa, putting an end to one of the darkest chapters in the history of European Colonialism. Leopold went to great lengths to destroy any potential evidence that would have indicted him of his wrongdoing. The entire archive of the Congo Free State was burned as a result and he told his aide that even though the Congo had been taken from him, “they have no right to know what I did there”.
As we fled, the soldiers killed ten children, in the water. They killed a lot of adults, cut off their hands, put them in baskets, and took them to the white man, who counted 200 hands…. One day, soldiers struck a child with a gun-butt, cut off its head, and killed my sister and cut off her head, hands, and feet because she had on rings. – Account of a Congolese Man, excerpt from the Casement Report.
The damage, however, was done, in a span of a single generation, millions had died from hunger, disease or violence, entire cultures had become extinct and few natives in the region had been left untraumatized, all to enrich a power-obsessed king and a few greedy businessmen. Neither the Belgian monarchy nor the Belgian state to this day has ever apologized for the atrocities that were committed. Monuments in his name still continue to line the streets of the country.
Also worth reading: War Crimes Revisited – The Japanese Cannibals