Modern history

LOOKING BACK: A PERSONAL AFTERWORD

IT IS NEARLY a decade since this book was first published. When I began working on it, it was surprisingly hard to get anyone interested. Of the ten New York publishers who saw a detailed outline of the book, nine turned it down. One suggested the story might work better as a magazine article. The others said there was no market for books on African history or simply felt Americans would not care about these events so long ago, in a place few could find on a map. Happily, the tenth publisher, Houghton Mifflin, had more faith in readers' ability to see connections between Leopold's Congo and today. Macmillan, in Britain, felt the same way. In English and eleven other languages, some half million copies are now in print. The book has given rise to several films (most notably Pippa Scott's documentary King Leopold's Ghost), Web sites on Congolese history in English and French, a rap song, an avant-garde off-Broadway play, and a remarkable sculpture by the California artist Ron Garrigues: a bristling assemblage of ivory, rubber, gun parts, spent ammunition, bones, Bakongo carvings, and medals once awarded by Leopold himself.

And the story continues to stay alive. Overlooking the beach at Leopold's favorite resort at Ostend, Belgium, has long stood a grand equestrian statue of the king in bronze, surrounded by smaller figures of grateful Africans and local fishermen. One night in 2004, some anarchists sawed the hand off one of the Africans—to make the statue better represent, they said in an anonymous fax, Leopold's real impact on the Congo. For a writer who at one point thought he might never get his book published, it's been an interesting ride.

I've sometimes wondered why those publishers said no. It may have had to do with the way most of us have been brought up to think that the tyrannies of our time worth writing about are communism and fascism. Unconsciously, we feel closer to the victims of Stalin and Hitler because they were almost all European. Consciously, we think that communism and fascism represented something new in history because they caused tens of millions of deaths and had totalitarian ideologies that censored all dissent. We forget that tens of millions of Africans had already died under colonial rule. Colonialism could also be totalitarian—what, after all, was more so than a forced labor system? Censorship was tight: an African in the Belgian Congo had no more chance of advocating freedom in the local press than a dissident in Stalin's Soviet Union. Colonialism was also justified by an elaborate ideology, embodied in everything from Kipling's poetry and Stanley's lectures to sermons and books about the shapes of skulls, lazy natives, and the genius of European civilization. And to speak, as Leopold's officials did, of forced laborers as libérés, or "liberated men," was to use language as perverted as that above the gate at Auschwitz, Arbeit Macht Frei. Communism, fascism, and European colonialism each asserted the right to totally control its subjects' lives. In all three cases, the impact lingered long after the system itself officially died.

***

I knew that many people had been affected by the colonial regime in the Congo, but I did not anticipate how the appearance of this book would open up to me a whole world of their descendants. I got a call one day from an American great-grandson of the notorious Léon Rom. E. D. Morel's granddaughter, who had been raised largely by her grandmother, Morel's widow, wrote a long letter. I found a hidden diaspora of Congolese in the United States; almost everywhere I spoke, a few lingered afterward, then came up to talk. Through some of them I was able to send copies of the book's French-language edition to schools and libraries in the Congo. In one California bookstore there appeared a multiracial group of people who seemed to know everything about William Sheppard; it turned out they were from a nearby Presbyterian congregation that was a sister church to his old mission station. I joined Swedish Baptists in Stockholm as they celebrated the life of the missionary E. V. Sjöblom, one of Leopold's earliest and most courageous critics. At a talk I gave in New York City, an elderly white woman came up, leaned across the book-signing table, and said forcefully in a heavy accent, "I lived in the Congo for many years, and what you say is all true!" She disappeared before I could ask more. One day I came home to find an African voice on my answering machine: "I need to talk to you. My grandfather was worked to death as a porter by the Belgians."

Most interesting of all was to see the reaction to the book in Belgium, where it appeared in the country's two main languages, French and Dutch. When I went to Antwerp at the time, the historian Jules Marchal (see [>]) and I found the spot on the city's wharves where E. D. Morel had stood a hundred years earlier as he tallied cargoes of ivory and rubber arriving from the Congo, and had the stunning realization that he was seeing the products of slave labor. Sadly, Marchal has since died of cancer, but not before beginning to get some of the recognition denied him for so long.

In both Antwerp and Brussels, I found audiences friendly, concerned about human rights, and uniformly apologetic that they had learned nothing in school about their country's bloody past in Africa. The newspaper reviews were positive. And then the reaction set in.

It came from some of the tens of thousands of Belgians who had had to leave the Congo in a hurry, their world collapsed, when the colony won independence in 1960. There are some two dozen organizations of Belgian "old colonials," with names like the Fraternal Society of Former Cadets of the Center for Military Training of Europeans at Luluabourg. A coalition of those groups opened a Web site containing a long diatribe against the book: "sensationalist ... an amalgam ... of facts, extrapolations and imaginary situations." Another attack on the book's "mendacious stupidities" began with a mournful aside addressed to Leopold: "You who believed, after a very full life, that you'd be able to finally enjoy eternal rest, you were mistaken." A provincial old-colonial newsletter said, "The dogs of Hell have been unleashed again against the great king."

The British newspaper the Guardian published a lengthy article about how "a new book has ignited a furious row in a country coming to grips with its colonial legacy." It quoted Professor Jean Stengers, a conservative Africa scholar in Belgium, denouncing the book: "In two or three years' time, it will be forgotten." The Belgian prime minister clearly wanted the row to end. "The colonial past is completely past," he told the paper. "There is really no strong emotional link any more.... It's history."

***

But the history wouldn't go away. At a United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, a journalist noted that many delegates had read the book; one of them asked Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel if his country took responsibility for Leopold's "crimes against humanity." The same year, Michel sent a confidential memorandum to Belgian diplomatic missions throughout the world on how to answer embarrassing questions coming from readers of King Leopold's Ghost and Heart of Darkness. (His instructions: a proactive public relations effort would be futile; instead, change the subject to Belgium's work for peace in Africa today.)

Other events have also helped put the colonial past on the agenda in Belgium. The year after this book appeared, a Belgian writer, Ludo De Witte, published The Assassination of Lumumba, which disclosed a wealth of new, incriminating material about Belgian complicity in the death of the Congo's first democratically chosen prime minister. The next year, a feature film by the director Raoul Peck brought the story of Lumumba's short life and martyr's end to a wider audience. In 2001, a Belgian parliamentary investigation verified many of De Witte's findings, and the government issued an official apology. The U.S. government, however, which also pushed hard for the prime minister's assassination, has never apologized.

All of this raised uncomfortable questions for the institution that I described on [>], the Royal Museum for Central Africa. The museum was under conflicting pressures: from the old-colonial lobby, determined to continue celebrating Belgium's period of rule over the Congo; from many Belgians, including younger members of the museum's own staff, who thought it was time for drastic changes; from government officials worried about the country's image; and, it was rumored, from the royal family. In 1999, a museum official acknowledged that possible changes in its exhibits were under study, "but absolutely not because of the recent disreputable book by an American." Two years later, the government appointed a new director. In a long stream of newspaper interviews he promised a complete revamping.

In 2005, with much fanfare, the museum mounted a large temporary exhibit, "Memory of the Congo: The Colonial Era," simultaneously publishing a lavishly illustrated book of the same name. Both exhibit and book were examples of how to pretend to acknowledge something without really doing so. Among the hundreds of photographs the museum displayed, for instance, were four of the famous atrocity pictures from Morel's slide show. But these were shown small, and more than a dozen other photos—almost all of innocuous subjects, like Congolese musicians—were blown up to life size. Another picture showed a hearing by Leopold's 1904-1905 Commission of Inquiry, which a caption praised as "a pioneering initiative in the history of human rights in Central Africa." But there was nothing about the king's duplicitous efforts (see [>]) to sabotage the release of the commissions findings. The museum's book had a half-page photo of Captain Léon Rom—but made no mention of his collection of severed African heads, the gallows he erected in his front yard, or his role as a possible model for Conrad's murderous Mr. Kurtz. Exhibit and book justly celebrated William Sheppard as a pioneer lay anthropologist, but said nothing about his role as a target of the legal case I've described on [>]. The book contained more than three dozen scholarly articles about everything from the bus system of Leopoldville to the Congo's national parks. But not a single article—nor a single display case in the museum—was devoted to the foundation of the territory's colonial economy, the forced labor system. Nowhere in either book or exhibit could you find the word "hostage." This does not leave me optimistic about seeing the Congo's history fully portrayed by the Royal Museum in the future. But colonialism seldom is, anywhere. Where in the United States can you find a museum exhibit dealing honestly with our own imperial adventures in the Philippines or Latin America?

***

Looking back on this book after an interval of some years has reminded me of where I wish I could have done more. My greatest frustration lay in how hard it was to portray individual Africans as full-fledged actors in this story. Historians often face such difficulties, since the written record from colonizers, the rich, and the powerful is always more plentiful than it is from the colonized, the poor, and the powerless. Again and again it felt unfair to me that we know so much about the character and daily life of Leopold and so little about those of Congolese indigenous rulers at the time, and even less about the lives of villagers who died gathering rubber. Or that so much is on the record about Stanley and so little about those who were perhaps his nearest African counterparts: the coastal merchants already leading caravans of porters with trading goods into the interior when he first began staking out the Congo for Leopold. Of those who worked against the regime, we know the entire life stories of Europeans or Americans like Morel, Casement, and Sheppard, but almost nothing of resistance leaders like Kandolo or Mulume Niama who lost their lives as rebels. This skews the story in a way that, unintentionally, almost seems to diminish the centrality of the Congolese themselves.

I wrestled with this problem repeatedly while writing the book and have no better solution to it now. There are fine anthropological studies of various Congolese peoples, but the biographical record on individual Africans from this era is scanty. A history based on characters must be mainly the story of King Leopold and those of his supporters or opponents who were European or American. If we are to enter deeply into the personal lives of individual Congolese in this period, it may have to be done in fiction, as novelists like Chinua Achebe have done for the colonial era elsewhere in Africa, or as Toni Morrison has done for the life experience of American slaves.

One set of African voices remembering the Leopold era, however, is now available in a form that it was not when I wrote the book. The quotation on [>] comes from an article based on interviews, in the 1950s, with dozens of Africans who survived the rubber terror of half a century earlier. A Belgian missionary, Edmond Boelaert, conducted these conversations and then translated them along with another missionary, Gustaaf Hulstaert, and a Congolese colleague, Charles Lonkama. The priests were anticolonialists of a sort, frequently in trouble with Catholic authorities. The Centre Aequatoria, at a mission station near Mbandaka, Congo, and its Belgian supporters have now placed on the Internet the full French text of these interviews, which run to some two hundred pages. All are, unfortunately, far too short to give us a full picture of someone's life, but they still offer rare firsthand African testimony.

For the book I wrote after King Leopold's Ghost, I spent several years living, intellectually, in the company of the Protestant evangelicals who played a crucial role in the British antislavery movement of 1787-1833. That experience made me think I had understated, in this book, the importance of the evangelical tradition in the appeal of Congo reform to the British public. A recent study by Kevin Grant, A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926, reinforced this impression. 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. He has also unearthed some disturbing material about how Morel's single-minded focus on his Congo campaign led him to whitewash the plight of forced laborers in Portuguese Africa who harvested the cocoa beans used by his friend and benefactor, the chocolate manufacturer William Cadbury. By contrast, Grant's account of Morel during the First World War makes one admire the man's courage even more. Not only did he suffer prison for his antiwar beliefs while his former missionary allies got shamelessly swept up by patriotic fever, but he was almost alone, during the war and after, in advocating for Africans' rights to their own land.

Thanks to letters from sharp-eyed readers, for this new edition of King Leopold's Ghost I've corrected some misspellings and other minor errors from earlier printings. But one place where there has been no need for any changes is the account of the death toll in chapter 15. This huge loss has always been the hardest thing for Leopold's defenders to face. Without accurate census data, assessing it will always be a matter of estimates. But both at the time and today, the most knowledgeable estimates are high. In addition to those that I cited, I could have mentioned many more. Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem, a Congolese scholar whose Histoire générale du Congo was published the same year as King Leopold's Ghost, put the death toll at roughly thirteen million, a higher figure than I've suggested. Defensive Belgians sometimes point out that there were catastrophic death rates in other colonies in central Africa, and an even larger toll among American Indians. Both points are true. But this does not negate or excuse the enormous human loss in Leopold's Congo.

***

This book first appeared just after the longtime dictator Mobutu fell from power. During his time in office, most public services had ceased and government had become, as it was under Leopold, merely a mechanism for the leader and his entourage to enrich themselves. In health, life expectancy, schooling, and income the Congolese people were far worse off at the end of Mobutu's reign than they had been at the end of eighty years of colonialism in 1960. His soldiers had supported themselves by collecting tolls at roadblocks, generals had sold off jet fighters for profit, and during the Tokyo real estate boom, the Congo's ambassador to Japan sold the embassy and apparently pocketed the money. Surely, it seemed, any new regime would be better than this.

At the time Mobutu's rule ended, in 1997, many hoped his long-suffering people would at last be able to reap some of the benefits of the country's natural riches. But this was not to be. News from the misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo in the past few years has been so grim as to make one want to turn the page or change the TV channel in despair: mass rapes by HIV-infected troops, schools and hospitals looted, ten-year-old soldiers brandishing AK-47s. For years after Mobutu's fall, the country was ravaged by a bewilderingly complicated civil war. Across the land have ranged troops from seven nearby African countries, the ruthless militias of local warlords, and rebel groups from other nations using this vast and lawless territory as a refuge, such as the Hutu militia responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The Rwandan army later pursued these soldiers into the Congo, carried out something of a counter-genocide of their own, and then helped themselves to more than $250 million worth of the Congo's natural resources in one two-year stretch alone. Various of these forces, plus the Congo's nominal government and several opposition groups, have been connected or riven by a constantly changing array of alliances.

Multinational corporations have also been in on the take. What protects their interests now is no longer the old Force Publique but rather under-the-table agreements with the different national armies and Congolese factions. Just as ivory and rubber drove the search for profits in the old days, today these companies have been eagerly extracting the Congo's diamonds, gold, timber, copper, cobalt, and columbium-tantalum, or coltan, which is used in computer chips and cell phones. Coltan has at times rivaled gold in price per ounce. The fighting has been over riches, not ideology; the worst combat sometimes shifted location with the rise and fall of relative commodity prices.

The war has caused an immense loss of life. Precise statistics are unknowable and estimates are much debated, but the direct and indirect death toll may well be a million ore more. Few of the dead have been soldiers. Most are ordinary men, women, and children, caught in crossfire, unlucky enough to have stumbled onto land mines, or forced to flee their homes for forests or for crowded refugee camps that turn into fields of mud in the rainy season. Just as in Leopold's time, by far the greatest toll has been taken by the diseases that ravage a traumatized, half-starving population, some of it in flight. Despite periodic truces and power-sharing agreements, the deaths seem likely to continue.

The rebel militias, the Congo's African neighbors, and many of their corporate allies have little interest in ending the country's Balkanization. They prefer a cash-in-suitcases economy to a taxed and regulated one that would give all citizens a real share of the profits from natural resources. For the Congo, the combination of being a great mineral treasure house and in effect having no working government has been catastrophic. When there is no money in the public till, armies become self-financing networks of miners and smugglers. When there are few schools or jobs, they can easily recruit children. When the millions of small arms circulating in Africa can be bought at street bazaars or from policemen who've received no pay, there are guns for all.

Tragically, no powerful outside constituency, like Morel's Congo reformers, exists to lobby for measures that would help. Nor, to be sure, is it clear what the most effective help would be. But some things should still be tried. One would be to stop pouring arms into Africa so thoughtlessly. During the 1990s alone, the United States gave more than $200 million worth of equipment and training to African armies, including six of the seven that have had troops in the Congo's civil war.

A sufficiently large and empowered United Nations peacekeeping force could also make a huge difference. We should have no illusions that such a force would solve the Congo's vast problem of having no functioning central government. International intervention in the country is like asking security guards to patrol a bank in mid-robbery. The guards may end up robbing or running the bank, whether at the level of a sergeant smuggling diamonds or a major power contributing troops while demanding favors for its mining companies. But the alternatives are worse. A strong intervention force could ultimately save lives, millions of them. And finally, for all of Africa, ending the subsidies and trade barriers that make it so difficult for farmers in the world's South to sell crops to Europe or North America would be one step in leveling an international economic playing field that remains tilted against the poor.

***

One reason I wrote this book was to show how profoundly European colonialism has shaped the world we live in. And, remembering how the United States and Europe have protected their investments by supporting rapacious African dictators like Mobutu, we must speak of neocolonialism as well. But I want to end on a note of caution. Despite the thievery of Leopold and his successors, it is wrong to blame the problems of today's Africa entirely on colonialism. Much of history consists of peoples conquering or colonizing each other. Yet, from Ireland to South Korea, countries that were once ruthlessly colonized have nonetheless managed to build reasonably just, prosperous, and democratic societies.

The reasons most of Africa has not done so go far beyond the colonial heritage. One factor is the abysmal position of women and all of the violence, repression, and prejudices that go with that. Another is the deep-seated cultural tolerance and even hero-worship of strongmen like Mobutu, for whom politics is largely a matter of enriching themselves and their extended clan or ethnic group. Finally, perhaps above all, is the way the long history of indigenous slavery is still deeply and disastrously woven into the African social fabric. These same handicaps exist elsewhere. Discrimination against women retards social and economic progress in many countries. Many societies, from the Balkans to Afghanistan, have had trouble building nation-states when power-hungry demagogues inflame ethnic chauvinism. And Africa is not alone in its heritage of slavery: Chekhov, knowing the weight of his own country's history of serfdom, spoke of how Russians must squeeze the slave out of themselves, drop by drop. Russia's continuing troubles show how long and hard a task this is.

Even without the problems of being colonized, the birth of a viable, truly democratic civil society is usually a slow and difficult business. For western Europe to move from the Holy Roman Empire and the panoply of duchies and principalities and mini-kingdoms to its current patchwork of nations took centuries of bloodshed, including the deadly Thirty Years' War, whose anarchic multisidedness and array of plundering outsiders remind one of the Congo today. Africa cannot afford those centuries. Its path will not be an easy one, and nowhere will it be harder than in the Congo.

September 2005

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