Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, discusses the terrible human toll of Congo's colonial period.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention. Today’s episode is part of a special series on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For more information about the entire series, please visit our website at www.ushmm.org/genocide.
I’m very pleased to have with me today Adam Hochschild, who is a writer, notably for today’s conversation, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Good to be with you.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: So I’d like to start by asking you, what made European colonization of Congo different from colonization elsewhere in the world?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think there was, all told, more bloodshed involved, not because the Europeans were any more ruthless there than they were in taking over other parts of Africa, but because the territory was so large.
In 1870, roughly 80 percent of Africa south of the Sahara was under indigenous rulers, chiefs, kings and so forth. By 1910, virtually the entire continent, except for Liberia and Ethiopia, were European colonies or protectorates or white settler controlled colonies like South Africa. It was a very rapid land grab and it was pretty brutal wherever it happened.
I think it was especially brutal in the area of central Africa that includes Congo, because that area was very rich in wild rubber, and the method of extracting that rubber which, from the early 1890s on became what the European colonists really wanted, was extremely ruthless. It was pioneered by King Leopold II of Belgium, who was the owner of the Congo for the first 23 years of its existence as a recognized territory. This was before it became the Belgian Congo. It was Leopold’s private territory.
He would send his army into village after village. He had a large army of black African conscripts under white officers. They would hold the women of the village hostage in order to force the men of each village to go into the rain forest to work as forced laborers, gathering wild rubber. Many of these male rubber gatherers were in effect worked to death. A lot of the women hostages starved. When you have men turned into forced laborers and women held as hostages, it means there are very few able-bodied adults left to plant and harvest crops or go hunting, go fishing, do all the things for which a community feeds itself.
So as a result, population of the territory-- and it’s roughly the same boundaries as today’s Democratic Republic of Congo-- shrunk by about half between 1880 and 1920. Absolutely catastrophic loss of population. The same thing happened in other nearby European territories that also had wild rubber. The French Congo on the other side of the Congo River, northern Angola under the Portuguese, Cameroon, which Germany then owned. It was really the nature of the crop that determined this enormous death rate.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: How did King Leopold, as you mentioned, a single person who owned this enormous tract of land, how did he make his engagement in Congo palatable to his own subjects in Belgium, and to the other imperial powers?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, he was an extraordinary man, enormously brilliant, charming, ruthless, greedy. He became king of Belgium in 1865 at a time in history where it wasn’t so much fun to be a king anymore, because you had to worry about parliaments and voters and that kind of thing. So he wanted a colony where he could exercise absolute power, and he got in right at the beginning of the European scramble for Africa by hiring Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer, the man who found Livingstone.
He had Stanley go back to central Africa and act as his agent for roughly five years, essentially staking out the boundaries of this vast territory, bamboozling African chiefs into signing over their land to the king. Then Leopold very shrewdly, diplomatically maneuvered and got first the United States and then all the major countries of Europe to recognize this territory as belonging to him personally. Under international recognition, it did, from 1885 to 1908. During that time, mainly from the wild rubber we were talking about, he made a fortune estimated at worth well over a billion in today’s American dollars. In 1908, the year before he died, it then became the Belgian Congo.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And in your book on Leopold’s engagement in Congo, you’ve introduced us to some of the people, the characters that we see, with Stanley, with Leopold. What are some of the other voices that we can hear today about this time period? Who are the people writing and communicating about what was happening?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, when I wrote King Leopold’s Ghost, my book about this extraordinary case really, where this whole mass territory belonged to one man, I didn’t want to just talk about the villains of the story. For me, King Leopold himself is the greatest villain. He had many equally ruthless people carrying out his policies in the Congo, to which he never traveled, incidentally. He stayed in Europe the whole time, ran the place at a distance, made this enormous fortune. Didn’t want to go there because of the prevalence of tropical diseases, which in fact killed a sizable number of the Europeans that did go there.
But this is a story not only with villains in it, but with heroes as well, because a succession of people rebelled against his rule over the territory. There were a number of great African rebel leaders about whom we know remarkably little, because we know them only through the documents left behind by the European soldiers who fought them. But there were rebel chieftains named Nzanzu and Kandolo who led rebellions that went on for years against Leopold’s colonial regime. In the end, not successful, but they are people who really do need to be honored for their resistance.
Then there were a remarkable array of Europeans and Americans who did their best to expose the nature of this forced labor regime, for that’s what it was. There was a black American journalist named George Washington Williams, who went to the Congo in 1890, and wrote the first comprehensive exposé as to how this forced labor regime worked. Very sadly, he died on his way home from Africa and was not able to write the full book on the subject that he hoped to. But the article he wrote about it, an open letter to King Leopold, created quite a storm when it was published in many European and American newspapers.
Other people followed later. The most influential one was a British journalist named Edmund Dean Morrell, who found out about this in a remarkable way. He was not a journalist to start with. He was a minor official, a junior official of a shipping line, a British shipping company that had the monopoly on all the trade between the Congo and Europe. Every couple of weeks, because he spoke French fluently, the shipping company would send him across the English Channel to Antwerp, the big Belgian port, to check in the company’s ships when they arrived from the Congo.
He noticed that these ships were arriving in Europe filled to the hatch covers with enormously valuable cargos of wild rubber and also ivory, also very expensive and valued. But that when they turned around and sailed back to Africa, they carried no trading goods in return. No merchandise was being sent to Africa to pay for all this wealth flowing into Europe. Instead, what the ships carried was mostly soldiers, firearms and ammunition.
Morrell stood on the dock at Antwerp, watched this and realized that he was seeing evidence of a forced labor system, thousands of miles away, because that was the only way that could explain how all this wild rubber was being gathered without goods being sent to Africa to pay for it. He quit his job and in the space of three or four years, turned himself into the great British investigative journalist of his time, and worked 12 hours a day, trying to put this story on the world’s front pages. In that, he really succeeded.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And how do we see the legacy of this initial colonization remaining in Congo’s history, well after Leopold cedes control to the Belgian government and into Congo’s independence?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think what we see is a more extreme version of what is the pattern all over Africa. When, for the better part of a century, which was how long their colonial era lasted, from the late 1800s until around 1960 or so, for the better part of a century, territories like the Congo experienced government largely as an organized system of plunder, with absolutely no democratic voice allowed for people at all.
This was very much the case in the Congo where the plunder was extremely bloody and ruthless in King Leopold’s day. By the 1920s, the population was dropping so fast, the numbers, that the Belgian colonial officials who were running the place then realized that they had to make the forced labor system less Draconian or otherwise they were going to have no labor force left. And you can actually find them saying this on paper.
They kept the forced labor system, but it did become less severe. Still, no votes for anybody. This continued, this sort of less brutal, more orderly, but still totally controlled form of colonialism until rather suddenly the Congo became independent in 1960. Well, when you’ve got a heritage which has absolutely no shred of democracy or free speech in it, it is very hard to build an honest democratic regime on top of that heritage and a lot of African countries have had trouble doing this.
Furthermore, I think the Congo further suffered because the first democratically chosen prime minister in 1960, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated with strong encouragement from the United States and Belgium. Then a couple of years later, the country fell under the rule of the dictator Mobutu, who was utterly ruthless, pillaged the country to an even greater extent than King Leopold had. Although he had a much more developed economy to steal from, amassed a personal fortune estimated at more then four billion in today’s US dollars, and was lock, stock and barrel supported every step of the way by the United States, which saw him as an ally during the Cold War. And that added to this heritage of government as plunder, which is all that Congolese have known now for several generations.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And one final question: you’ve written in this book not only about an anti-colonial, an anti-Leopold campaign; you’ve also written about abolitionist movements and the anti-war movement during World War I. You’ve become quite a chronicler of international, what we would call today, international human rights campaigns. And I’m wondering what lessons you think can be drawn from these historical cases, particularly for an emerging anti-genocide movement, which has sprung up, really in response to what happened in the Darfur region of Sudan, but is now trying to continue and grow moving forward?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think the main reason that I like to write about these historical struggles is that I think everybody working for social justice of all kinds in the world today, whether it’s working to prevent genocide, whether it’s working for a more just world trade system against racial discrimination, any number of other things, I find that people like it when they have a chance to get acquainted with people who fought some of these same struggles a couple of generations back.
When I wrote my book, Bury the Chains, for example, which was about the movement against slavery in the British Empire, where slavery actually ended in the British Empire a quarter century sooner than it did here in the United States. It did so in part because of a remarkably vibrant, energetic popular movement that sprung into life in a quite dramatic way in England in the 1780s. Well, it delights that this is a book that is read by many organizers today, community organizers, social change organizers and I hear from them all the time. I’ve gotten to know some wonderful people working for social change today, and it’s a great joy to be able to introduce them to ancestors from a couple of hundred years ago.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Adam, thank you very much for your time today.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, thank you, Bridget. It was a pleasure.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.