King Leopold’s Ghost still haunts Congo

Over 30,000 people have fled eastern DR Congo into Uganda after a rebel group attacked a border town this week. Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces, driven into the jungle after a violent campaign in the late 1990s, overran the town of Kamangu on Thursday. The ADF are one of many foreign proxy groups causing mayhem in eastern Congo for over 20 years.

The country survived two devastating wars after the Rwandan genocide and Rwanda still backs rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and his RCD-Goma faction. The ongoing eastern conflict since 2006 is destabilising this large, underdeveloped and fractious country.

The fact it is a country at all is the fault of a megalomaniac European who never visited it. Congo was created out of nothing 120 years ago by the greed of one infamous energetic monarch: King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was responsible for the death of ten million Congolese as he built his private empire. The story of Congo and Leopold is told in Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost” published in 1998 and released in 2006 as a greatly condensed film.

The story starts with a different king: a black one. King Afonso I was ruler of Kongo (western Congo and parts of Angola) in the 16th century. Afonso was influenced by Portuguese traders bringing in European ideas including the church, literature, medicine and trade skills. Afonso didn’t want European rule of law nor mineral prospectors invading his lands but could not prevent the slave trade for coffee plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean.

When Afonso died, Kongo’s power diminished. In 1665 the Portuguese beheaded his successor though European domination was slow to grow. For 200 years, the vast inland remained mostly off-limits to white eyes. The only route through the thick malarial jungle was the fearsome Congo River. Most of the river lies 300 metres high on the African plateau. It descends to sea level in 350 kms tumbling down 32 waterfalls.

The white man who crossed this natural barrier was born John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales in 1841. Rowlands was an orphan who grew up in the workhouse. He was a good scholar fascinated by geography. Aged 16, he sailed to New Orleans where he used his wits to get a job. Rowlands also changed his name to Henry Morton Stanley. He reinvented his past and passed himself off as a native-born American.

Stanley signed up for the Confederates in the civil war but Union soldiers captured him after two days at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. To escape a disease-ridden POW life, Stanley enlisted with the Union Army and then the Navy until deserting in 1865. He found his metier as a journalist covering the Indian wars for a St Louis newspaper. His vivid reports caught the eye of New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr.

Bennett sent him to cover the British war in Abyssinia. Stanley was resourceful and bribed a Suez telegraph clerk to give his reports priority, scooping his rivals with news of the conflict. In London, Stanley thirsted for more success. Bennett gave him a new brief: find David Livingstone.

Livingstone was a Scottish missionary driven by anti-slavery zeal whose wanderings took him across Africa for 30 years. He looked in vain for the source of the Nile, found Victoria Falls, preached the gospel and denounced slavery. In 1866 Livingstone went missing on a long expedition and hadn’t been heard from in three years. It took Stanley two years to get a 150 man party together and then another eight months before he found his man near Lake Tanganyika. Stanley supposedly greeted him with the immortal four words: “Dr Livingstone I Presume?

We have to take Stanley’s word, as Livingstone died shortly afterwards. Stanley’s version became history and made him an American hero. His book “How I found Livingstone” was an international best seller and one man in Brussels eagerly read every piece of news about Stanley’s African adventures. That man was 37-year-old Leopold II.

Leopold had travelled across Europe, Egypt, India and the Dutch East Indies whetting his appetite for empire. When he became king in 1865 he was determined Belgium would take part in Europe’s colonial adventures. He convened a conference in Brussels which founded the International African Association. It purported to be dedicated to African exploration and the exposure of the slave trade but was a front for Belgian expansion in Africa. It tried to buy an African colony but none were for sale. It had to claim its own.

Stanley was also hunting for further African glory. In 1874 Bennett and the London Telegraph sponsored him to cross Africa east to west. His expedition set off from Zanzibar and arrived at Buma at the mouth of the Congo in 1877. His second best seller “Through the Dark Continent” described the great arc traversed by the Congo River that took in both sides of the equator. The arc exposed the river to a continuous rainy season that contributed to voluminous water flow.

Leopold avidly followed Stanley’s journey. He was especially interested in descriptions of Congo rich in rubber and ivory. On Stanley’s triumphant return to Europe, the king lured him to Brussels. Leopold signed Stanley onto a five year contract to lead a Belgian expedition to the Congo and navigate the river. They would construct a road to get past the fearsome rapids and establish trading posts inland.

For the next five years, Stanley was Leopold’s man in the Congo. It took two years to haul boats and equipment to the top of the plateau before sailing inland. Stanley was a hard taskmaster and treated Africans with contempt. When he arrived at the opening in the river later called Stanley Pool (now Malebo Pool), he was shocked to find the French had beaten him and had signed a deal to take the lands north of the Pool. Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza had landed north of the river and made his way inland. That land became French Congo and is now the Republic of Congo with the capital Brazzaville.

Stanley redoubled his efforts on the south bank of the Congo where he signed deals with 450 Congolese chiefs. Each “treaty” gave away sovereignty of their lands to the International African Association. The treaties also committed their people to “assist by labour or otherwise” any “improvements” the Association might suggest. When Stanley was finished bargaining in 1884, he had a million square miles for Belgium. Leopold needed the world to recognise the claim.

The king pulled American strings to lobby President Chester Arthur. Arthur was vice president to James Garfield who was assassinated six months into office in 1880. Arthur was in poor health and ill prepared for the job. He was flattered into recognising the International African Association’s ownership of Congo. The European powers rubberstamped the takeover in the Berlin Congress of 1884. Leopold sent Stanley as his representative to the congress where the explorer was the star attraction. Leopold got his way on the assumption the Congo became a free trade zone.

The new empire was 76 times the size of Belgium. Leopold called himself the “King Sovereign” of the Congo and by royal decree he renamed his asset the Congo Free State in 1885. It was a private asset which Leopold controlled outside the Belgian parliament. All profits went to him alone.

Leopold sent Stanley back to Africa on another mission. The governor of Sudan’s southernmost province, Emin Pasha, asked Europe for help against the threat of a Muslim fundamentalist group known as the Mahdists. Despite his exotic title, Pasha was a German Jewish doctor born as Eduard Schnitzer and a white hero in Africa. Stanley’s relief mission went from Leopold’s Congo through unexplored rainforest. By the time they reached Pasha, the crisis was over and Pasha was no longer eager for help.

Leopold’s empire slowly consolidated. He established military bases along the river and sent Belgians to administer his new kingdom and tap into the rubber trade. It relied on slavery and shot villagers if they didn’t obey orders. By the 1890s, American historian George Washington Williams condemned Leopold’s colony as an “oppressive and cruel government” guilty of crimes against humanity. But Williams was black and his warnings were ignored.

Leopold declared “all vacant land” in the Congo as crown property. He ignored the free trade edict and his administrators collected tariffs along the river. They conscripted porters to carry ivory past the treacherous rapids until the railway was built to the port. Thousands died of overwork as white overseers enforced discipline with the dreaded chicotte (sjambok) – a hippopotamus hide cut into a sharp-edged corkscrew whip.

When a curious 32-year-old Polish seaman named Konrad Korzeniowski visited the Congo in 1890, he sailed up the river to see the horrors first hand. The visit shattered his belief in Leopold’s ennobling mission. He spent six months in the Congo and transformed it under the pen-name of Joseph Conrad as the scene of his great short novel “Heart of Darkness”. Conrad’s unforgettable portrait of the deranged Kurtz was based on Belgian overseers.

Matters worsened for the Congolese in 1890 after Belfast-man John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre. It set off a craze for bicycles and the world developed an insatiable appetite for rubber. Wild rubber vines were abundant in the equatorial rain forests of the Congo and Leopold partnered with rubber companies to extract the sap.

The rubber boom gave impetus to construction projects and Leopold finished the railway up the rapids adding to the state’s wealth and power. But it also exposed his empire. Missionaries spoke of the price locals paid for Leopold’s enormous wealth. The king denied these claims. But he was undone by someone who noticed something was wrong, from thousands of miles away. His name was E.D. Morel.

Morel was a clerk in Antwerp for British trading company Elder Dempster. He noticed the only trade into the country was arms while all the material coming out was hardly ever paid for. He realised only forced labour could account for this. Morel became a full-time advocate against the slave trade in the Congo. He set up his own newspaper the West African Mail to expose the problem.

Through murder, starvation, disease and plummeting birth rate, Congo was the killing fields of the 1890s and early 1900s. Belgian soldiers launched punitive expeditions and massacres were commonplace. Thousands were held as hostages and many died of starvation. Smallpox and sleeping sickness killed many more and the birth rate dropped considerably. Morel exposed it all.

In 1903, his cause was helped by Irish diplomat Roger Casement. Casement travelled to the Congo as British Consul to understand the problem. He spoke to overseers, missionaries and natives and documented his findings in a parliamentary report. The report showed abuse, slavery and murder were commonplace. Belgium put pressure on an embarrassed British government to delay publication of the damaging report. Morel kept up the pressure on Britain to act. The world’s press turned on Leopold and sexual indiscretions lost him popularity at home.

Leopold launched a massive counter operation using a network of paid spies, politicians, businessmen and journalists. But when his effort to bribe a US congressman was exposed by Hearst’s New York American newspaper, his rule began to crumble. Under pressure, Leopold launched an independent Committee of Inquiry which issued a damning 150-page report into the colony.

Leopold negotiated for the state to take the indebted and scandal ridden colony off his hands. In 1908 it was renamed “Belgian Congo”. Leopold died a year later, unmourned and booed at his own funeral. He never set foot in the colony he ruled despotically for two decades. Forced labour in the Congo continued under the civil administration though there was some improvement. Belgium tried to brush Leopold’s misdeeds under the carpet.

The winds of change blew in the 1950s as black Africans began building tribal political bases. In 1960 Congo won independence. Patrice Lumumba, the country’s new leader, wanted a national non-tribal approach. But his words threatened western interests in the country. US President Eisenhower regarded him as a “mad dog” and CIA chief Allen Dulles authorised his assassination. They used Belgians in the Congolese army to support an anti-Lumumba faction and he was arrested, beaten and shot dead in 1961.

After a few years of chaos, the CIA installed army chief Joseph Desire Mobutu as Lumumba’s replacement. The anti-communist Mobutu renamed the country to Zaire and installed a cult of personality while hiving off billions to his Swiss bank accounts. Mobutu was helped by the Organisation of African States’ charter that stated the borders at the end of colonialism would be maintained and he curried favour with American presidents.

His importance to the US ended when the Cold War ended in 1991. His corrupt rule was undone by hundreds of thousands Rwandan Tutsis who fled across the border to avoid the Hutu genocide. It led to the bloody revolution of 1997 supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Mobutu fled the country with $5 billion he had embezzled. Congo descended into eight years of wars involving all of its neighbours and four million people died. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world with 45,000 deaths a month. A Congo peace deal signed in Ethiopia in February by 11 countries remains the best hope of exorcising King Leopold’s ghost.

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