Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Adam Hochschild — ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’

Last July I read a piece of family history written by a cousin of my mum’s, about the time his grandparents (my great-grandparents) spent in the Congo as Baptist missionaries. The start of their time there (they stayed from 1906 — 1916) coincided with the end of King Leopold II of Belgium’s rule over the territory, which he gave up following a decade long campaign by E. D. Morel and others. The campaign sought to bring an end to Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo’s wild vine rubber, from which he drew enormous profits by a system of forced labour, under which it is estimated that the country was de-populated by around ten million. It is the kind of figure which is impossible to get around: critical faculties go to the wind, and moral outrage and horror are the only possible response. My mum’s cousin felt this acutely, and consulted mum, her sisters, and a cousin of mine who works in Sudan before letting anyone else read the document. To be complicit in such a regime would be a terrible thing, and they concluded that there was complicity on the part of the Baptist Missionary Society, but not from Frank and Daisy as individuals. Coming now to Adam Hochschild’s book, I found this in the afterword (added in 2005; the book was published in 1998), which would seem to mitigate that somewhat:

[Kevin] Grant shows how virtually everyone who has written about Morel, myself included, has overlooked the way Baptist missionaries had already started to draw large crowds in Scotland to ‘magic lantern’ slide shows about Congo atrocities two months before Morel founded the Congo Reform Association. (p. 314)
It’s a minor point, though, in the scheme of things. Missionaries are not central to Hochschild’s story, being neither the administrators nor the victims of brutality, though they can be useful as witnesses. Some (like William H. Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian) did speak out against the atrocities they encountered, and the horrific photographs upon which much of Morel’s campaign relied were mostly taken by Alice Seeley Harris, a Baptist missionary. Several are reproduced in this book, including one with the following caption:
Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (A.B.I.R.) militia.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more shocking photograph, and it is easy to see how a campaigner’s polemic could, and should, be built around images like this. King Leopold’s Ghost itself, though, is an incredibly measured book; certainly compared to Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo, which I tried to read last year, but gave up, finding it too upsetting. The books have different purposes, of course: Conan Doyle’s cause has gone now, and Hochschild’s is to do with not forgetting history. Several times he compares events in Leopold’s Congo to the more familiar holocaust of World War II (with its lower death count of six million). He doesn’t labour the point, but isn’t it incredible, and shameful, that one event is so much less well known than the other, though they are separated by fewer than forty years? At times, too, Hochschild expresses regret that so much of his story has to come from the points of view of Europeans and Americans. Where victims’ testimonies exist, he uses them, but they never amount to a life story. It could well be that the names in the caption above are all that is known of Nsala and Wala: in narrative terms, there is no competition between that and the minutely documented life of a king.

There are three or four fascinating, interdependent stories here, nonetheless, only one of which revolves around royalty. Leopold himself is emblematic of the dangers of disconnecting effort from consequence: all that ‘targets’ stuff I got so worked up about last time. ‘Encapsulation’ is another term for it; ‘friction free’ another. He appears to think himself absolutely benign: one version of Leopold has him importing The Times from London by express train, having it ironed to kill any germs, then reading it in bed every night. When the paper began to criticise him, he cancelled his subscription, but still sent a servant out to buy it for him in secret. This is not a Hitler-like figure: Hochschild reminds us that the deaths he caused were not a genocide, technically, because it wasn’t ideology which lay behind them, but greed. Elsewhere he can be far more worldly, especially in his manipulation of the press and public opinion. He claimed his activities in the Congo were philanthropic, and / or (depending on whom he was trying to convince) scientific. On the one hand he took advantage of public anti-slavery feeling by targeting, in his rhetoric at least, Arab slave traders; on the other, he used Henry Morton Stanley to map out the territory he was to exploit, in the name of exploration. On the world stage, he gradually achieved recognition of his anomalous, personally owned state of Congo, by having his millionaire friend Henry Shelton Sanford wine and dine the big wigs of Washington: once America had recognised the Congo, Germany followed, and then the rest of Europe.

Stanley and Shelton are both interesting characters (Hochschild barely has a good word for Stanley: a bully, an emotional cripple and a relentlessly inaccurate self-publicist), as are E. D. Morel, future MP for Dundee no less (OK, that’s the least interesting thing about him), and Roger Casement, a British diplomat whose report on Leopold’s regime was instrumental in bringing it to some sort of account. Casement was Irish and gay, a mesmerising talker and as bold as he was foolhardy: he was knighted and executed by his adopted country, for a second exposé of atrocities he wrote in South America, and for Irish nationalist activities respectively. Throughout his adult life he kept diaries of assignations, almost deliberately undermining his work by providing information about his (then illegal) sexual activities which could be, and was, used against him. In the last few chapters, the achievements of Morel, Casement and others is placed in a bleak context. ‘Why the Congo?’ (p. 279) is a startling question after all that has gone before, but it seems that what happened there under colonialism was far from unique: for all his public relations expertise, Leopold was vulnerable in the end because he made too good a story, too good a target (and here we are back at encapsulation). The after-history of the Congo is sobering, too, and includes the US / Belgian sponsored assassination of a democratically elected prime minister, Lumumba, in 1961. He was followed, after a 1965 coup which had ‘United States encouragement’ (p. 302), by the reassuringly militaristic Mobutu, whom Hochschild compares to Leopold:
His one-man rule. His great wealth taken from the land. His naming a lake after himself. His yacht. His appropriation of state possessions as his own. His huge shareholdings in private corporations doing business in his territory. [...] ‘Those who are conquered,’ wrote the philosopher Ibn Khaldūn in the fourteenth century, ‘always want to imitate the conqueror’. (p. 304)

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