By Adam Hochschild.
New York: A Mariner Book -- Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999.
ISBN # 0-618-00190-5
336 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2004

From the outset this is an unusual history. Typically historical accounts are causal and the dominant causes are large forces – economic trends, necessities of empires and so on. Hochschild has a very different take. The rise and fall of the Belgian Congo is, on his account, dominantly a history driven by exceptional and notable individuals. They range from the arch enemy “king of the beasts” Leopold II of Belgium, to the saintly Roger Casement and the driving crusader Edmund Morel.

This is an informative and entertaining book. While it deals with the gruesome realities of the Belgian Congo, there is a sort of contradictory nearly humorous and light tone to some parts of it. This tone and attitude are rather pronounced at the beginning which deals with the frivolity of the early days of King Leopold II before he became king, and the delightful chapters on the explorations of Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingston, the duo of the famous “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” quote.

In a rather curious happenstance, the book I read immediately before this one and this book of Hochschild’s come together to raise a curious notion about which I had seldom thought: African slavery was in its earliest days not at all concerned with race, but merely the ability to subjugate the would-be slaves. I had just finished reading MOHAMMED AND CHARLEMAGNE. One of the things Pirenne emphasizes is that the Europeans of the 4rd to 9th century traded slaves for African and Asian goods. The slaves were mainly Balkan Slavs and northern European barbarians, and even at times, other Christian Europeans. All of them were white slaves.

Then in Hochschild’s book we read that the Portuguese finally penetrated to sub-Saharan Africa in 1491 and began to develop slave trade at the mouth of the Congo River. The Europeans did not, in the early days, penetrate inland at all and relied exclusively on black African leaders and traders to bring them slaves. In the early days there was no defense of slavery based on race, such defenses began to appear in the 16th century, but black African slavery was simply an extension of the notion of enslaving any weaker or defeated peoples. It was not a question of race, but power.

The immediate story, as Hochschild tells it, begins with Leopold II who envied the colonies of the larger nations and had an exceptional greed for wealth. He realized there was a large portion of central sub-Saharan Africa which was not colonized at that time and he began a scheme to own such a colony, but not for the nation of Belgium, rather for himself.

The path to realizing this dream begins in September 1876 when he formed The International African Association. It was billed by Leopold as a humanitarian group that would both aid and civilize the natives of the Congo River region. With clever political machinations by November 1884 U.S., France and Germany accepted claims on Congo made by Leopold’s organization as the Free State of the Congo. This personal colony of Leopold was 1/13 of Africa and 67 times the size of Belgium!

Once Leopold got control of the colony he had decided advantages in taking control of the native’s lives by sheer force. He had:

In order to get a massive loan from Parliament he willed the Congo to Belgium in 1890, but later, when he had to divest himself of the Congo, he ended up selling it to Belgium even though it was already willed to them.

This book is mainly about the horrors of treatment of the people of the Congo and the phenomenal struggle carried on by humanistic reformers to bring about change in the Congo. Again, rather than following the procedure of so many historians and talking in terms of the dominant institutional forces involved, Hochschild educates us, and amuses us with detailed biographical stories of leading players. He presents both heroes and goats, good folks and bad. Let me review the line-up of the decent folks first.

The story begins with George Washington Williams in 1890. He was a black missionary from the United States. He was horrified by what he found in the Congo and used unusual sources to get his message out and published a quite important exposés of life in the Congo. Unfortunately, however, he died in 1891 and was unable to advance his work to the degree he himself would have liked.

William Sheppard, was another black American missionary. He had the support of Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan who wanted to ship all American blacks back to Africa and thought Sheppard might grease that wheel. Sheppard arrived in the Congo in 1890 when he was only 25. In addition to his mission work, and reformist writings, he did a great deal of significant anthropological work.

Sheppard’s arrival coincided with a major shift in the Congo from ivory being the dominant minter of Leopold’s gold to rubber. 1885 Dunlop in Belfast invented the inflatable rubber bicycle tire. When he opened a factory making them in 1890 it created a huge demand for rubber and rubber quickly surpassed ivory as a cash crop.

Leopold’s managers used forced labor to gather wild rubber from vines that were prolific in the rain forests of the Congo. Quotas were assigned to workers and one means of enforcing the quota was the cutting off of heads or hands of recalcitrant workers.

Shepphard published articles on the practices of the Force Publique (Leopold’s police/army force) and many other missionaries provided a witness of these practices which led to protests.

However, the primary figure in this camp of the reformers was Edmund Dene Morel. As a young man he was working for the Elder Demster Shipping Line. It had the major contract with Leopold to provide shipping to and from the Congo. Morel made three discoveries which, in sum, deeply disturbed him.

  1. Huge amounts of weapons and military goods were shipped regularly to the Congo but not invoiced.
  2. There was massive profit skimming. He saw records of a disparity of:
    1. Ship manifests
    2. Reported income to the Congo company.
  3. Very few trade goods were shipped in, only out.

This demonstrated to him that no significant trade was going on and there was forced labor and stealing of natural resources.

In 1901 he quit his job and began to work to expose these practices in the Congo. By 1903 he had founded his own journal: West African Mail. Morel strove for accuracy. He was barred from the Congo, but as he became known he was the place to leak source material.

In 1903 the paths of Roger Casement and Edmund Morel met and they established a powerful team. Casement became the British consul in the Congo in 1903. He had first arrived there in 1888 at age 19. In 1892 he went into British Foreign Service in what is now Nigeria. In 1900 he moved to the British consulate office in the Congo.

He took a long trip to the interior to investigate claims coming from Morel. In 1903 he returned to England to prepare his report. Leopold’s political machine tried to stop the report, but Casement gave lots of interviews which leaked enough material to ensure the government had to release the report.

Casement and Morel met and founded Congo Reform Association. Casement, given his job, remained a silent member.

Between 1907-1909 Morel did 50 lectures. He belonged to a top-down tradition of humanitarian reform which believed in the “civilizing” power of British values. He was a brilliant publicist and he used other speakers who had direct experience. John and Alice Harris, former missionaries to the Congo, made 600 public appearances in 2 years.

Another important figure enters the picture about this time, Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, an African born in 1894 in today’s Nigeria. He worked in Leopold’s service until 1893 and then left it to form a private business. He was very pro-Leopold until about 1903, and then the changed his views and gave important and damaging information about Leopold’s Congo system to Casement and Morel. He was discovered to be an informant and Leopold’s minions drove him to suicide. However, the information which he provided in the two years was extremely valuable to Casement and Morel’s case. The author Conan Doyle also joined in this reform movement and helped in the fight against forced labor.

The battle raged but was not decisively won until two more important players, one an individual and the other a set of judges, enter the picture First there is the story of Colonel Henry I. Kowalsky, a shady lawyer from San Francisco. In 1904 he was hired by King Leopold to help with positive propaganda inside the United States to counteract the work of those calling for reform. But Leopold made a misjudgment and spurned Kowalsky’s work. In a fit of anger and revenge (and profit) he sold his entire secret correspondence on the Congo to Randolph Hurst. Hurst then ran streams of anti-Congo stories in all his papers. This was a disaster for Leopold. It even seems to have been the turning point in the propaganda bubble.

In the wake of the Kowalsky disaster Leopold made some attempt at decent reforms, but little was changed. Banking on making hay of these minimal reforms in 1905 Leopold commissioned a hand-picked group of 3 European judges to do a report from the Congo. Leopold won that battle. The report itself was devastating. The day before its public release he had a fake “Missionary Society” release and “official” resume of the long report. It was a total white wash and the mass of newspapers picked it up and used it instead of the very long actual report.

However, too much was coming too fast and Leopold was losing the battle. Morel was pounding him constantly and more and more skeptics around the world were crying foul.

Before moving to the final denouement of Leopold’s Congo, I want to take a look at a leading figure within Leopold’s camp. Again, one of the most attractive features of Hochschild’s account is his focus on the key individuals. In the paragraphs above I have presented some of the most humanitarian folks and then the curious cross overs of both Kowalsky and the three hand-picked judges.

On the side of the foes of decent humaneness and minions of Leopold are:

There was Henry Shelton Sanford, a wealthy American from Connecticut with assumed title of General. He linked up with Leopold and worked hard to advance his cause within the United States Congress and with the president to help bring about U.S. recognition of the Congo in the beginning.

However, the dominant thrust that made Leopold’s system work was the willingness of his functionaries to simply embrace the system of privilege and power and use it for Leopold’s (and their own) interest.

“’Monsters exist,’ wrote Primo Levi of his experience at Auschwitz. ‘But they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.;” (121)

Ironically, and perhaps discouragingly to this story, one event that has nothing to do with the vigorous reform measures also enters the picture and my have nearly an equal weight in bringing about the eventual collapse of Leopold’s colonial world.

Leopold was a skillful manipulator of people and had convinced many that he was a genuine humanitarian with the interests of Africans at heart. It was a time where many people believed in the “white man’s burden” to bring civilization to the people of color in Africa and other places in the world. Thus Leopold’s very character made a great difference.

He became involved with a very young prostitute mistress, some 40 or more years his junior and had children with her. That totally non-related activity may have done more to hurt him than the Congo story itself. It attacked his character and made the criticisms of Morel and others easier to accept than when Leopold was viewed as the great moral man.

Hochschild sort of underplays the role of Leopold’s young mistress in this whole story, yet even he hints that it may have done more to damage Leopold and made the public more amenable to the criticisms of his running of the Congo than all that the social critics and humanitarians together could contribute. If we add to these passages those in which he claims that another major impact on the horrors of the Congo were affected by the shifts away from wild rubber to cultivated rubber, and the use of taxes rather than cutting off hands and heads to enforce labor, we uncover a certain tension in Hochschild’s account.

At the out set of these comments I delighted in claiming that this was a history from the perspective of the individuals involved, and that the likes of Morel, Casement, Sheppard and others were crucial in bringing about the later changes in the Congo. Yet in the paragraph above I suggest that Hochschild seems to take a good deal of that away in these (albeit underplayed) passages.

My own guess it that BOTH played an important role, and that Hochschild chose to emphasize the roles of the reforming individuals, as well as on those who helped Leopold hold on, and to downplay these less direct influences, or more systemic factors. There isn’t any inconsistency in seeing both sets of factors (personal and directly relevant as opposed to tangential and systematic) played their roles. Since most histories tend to downplay the roles of individuals, I did prefer this slant in Hochschild’s account.

Pressures mounted but what appealed to most reformers was for Belgium to take over the Congo. Leopold wouldn’t give it away. He wanted to sell it. He persevered and got all the debt assumed and a massive amount of money in addition.

Leopold’s own person “colony” lasted from 1885-1908, 23 years. The new Belgian Congo was to last from 1909 to 1960, 51 years.

After the colony became the Belgian Congo in November 1909, not much changed!

In early 1909 the Congo tried Shepphard for libel after he wrote a strongly critical essay. Morrison published it. It was a show trial. The U.S. threatened not to recognize the Belgian Congo unless there was a fair trial. Emile Vandervelde, a famous Belgian lawyer and socialist went to Leopoldville to defend him, and did so pro-bono.

There was no decision against Shepphard for libel, but there was a political resolution. The case was thrown out without affirming or attacking the claims of Shepphard.

Leopold died in 1909. It is especially ironic that at this time Belgium would have inherited the Congo, but Leopold had been able just one year prior to sell it to the Congo at great personal profit.

By 1913 Britain had recognized the Belgian Congo, and astonishingly Morel was still only 39. There were improvements in life in the new Belgian Congo, but the most important of these changes had little to do with the reform movement. Rather they were because of:

  1. Switch in the rubber industry from wild to cultivated rubber.
  2. Taxes replaced severed hands as mode of forcing labor.

The Belgians didn’t do a great deal better job managing the colony than Leopold did and when the liberation movement took place in 1960 there were fewer than 30 African university graduates, no officers in the army, no agronomists and no physicians.

Patrice Lumumbo declared that the country could not remain a European ECONOMIC COLONY. This was a threatening position for the west and the U.S. arranged his overthrown by rebels. Joseph Desire Mobutu took over until he was overthrown in 1997. Mobutu was very friendly to western economic interests.

In general I found this to be an informative and even delightful book to read despite the difficult theme. There was, however, one tension that played itself out in the entire work. One might ask: why a concentration on the Congo? There is a quite plausible reply in that Hochschild, in the very last chapter, brings to our attention the work of Jules Marchal, a Belgian citizen and former diplomatic worker for Belgium. He was once asked about the history of the Belgian Congo, and not knowing much about it looked into this question. He was surprised at the secrecy surrounding Congo documents even in the 1970s He used his considerable research skills to dig up a huge amount of material and eventually even forced the Belgian government to release some of the Congo documents to him. It seems to be that work of Marchal which provides the basis of Hochschild’s book though he never directly tells us that. Could the reply, then, be as simple as: there was a great deal of material available on the Congo that made this book possible?

Perhaps. Yet Hochschild seems to have bigger fish to fry, yet there are tensions. He seems to flit back and forth between two views: First, his seemingly dominant view – the Belgian Congo is sort of a worst-case scenario for the damages of the colonial period. At other times he seems to suggest that this is more a model of what colonialism was in almost every place, and one even gets the sense that a similar book could probably be written about each and every European and America colony/protectorate. But which is it? Perhaps it is actually both. That is, a similar case may apply to virtually all colonies, and yet this is to some slight degree the worse-case of colonialism, at least on Hochschild’s view. I was just unsure as to where he came down on this issue in the end.

My only other reservation is with his (delightful) emphasis on the individuals who carried on the reformist work. Like Hochschild I WANT them to be central, and like him, I like such people very much, honor them and am moved by their acts and intentions, and finally, like him, can overlook some flaws of characters in the reformers in tilting of the moral scale in their favor because of this important work. Yet in the end was it that work that was the major cause of reform, or other accidents of history – technological changes, changing markets, or even relatively unrelated things like Leopold’s scandal in marrying the young prostitute and having children with her? It is all very complex, and while Hochschild raises many of these questions, he never comes clean on where he stands on these issues. I wish he had.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett