Lessons in activism from King Leopold’s Ghost


King Leopold’s Ghost

Or: The atrocious crimes of Belgium in Congo, and how they kick-started the humanitarian movement

This book tells the story of the invasion of the Congo and theft of its people and resources by Belgium. It’s presented as just one, truly audacious part of the narrative of the wider scramble for Africa (and world beyond Europe).

Before I read this, all I knew, through my Euro-centric lens, of the Democratic Republic of Congo was as a somewhat complex and depressive zone of perma-crisis, militias, environmental abuse and corruption that no newspaper even prints stories on any more. I did not know anything much about what happened on the way here – so Leopold’s Ghost was an education.

This book is horrifying.

Without sensationalising, it lays out Belgium’s skeletons from the Congo, which include rape, torture, mutilation, enslavement, betrayal, barbarism, and simple cruelty. There are those who would say what happened was genocide. In any case, up to 20% of the population lost their lives.

What makes Belgium’s crimes so glaring is not just the scale (the ‘Congo Free State’ its King Leopold II staked out for himself in the colonial pillage of Africa covered an area of 1,000,000 square miles – 50 times the size of Belgium).

It was the fact that Leopold held the lands, its people and resources hostage as a piece of private property: he was the sole owner and did all he could to obfuscate the true scale of his profits from the Belgian parliament and people, all while building his personal fortune and cachet with palaces, yachts and monuments. He matches entirely up to our stereotypes of despotic leaders – except he was European and got there first. It is this brazenness that contributed to his eventual demise.

The story is pieced together through accounts and letters of officers who served in Leopold’s Congo, along with missionaries, writers and explorers. Hochschild acknowledges that the voices of the oppressed is loud in its absence.  The few written accounts from Congolese that were recorded are the most terrible of all. Each one is like being punched in the gut, leaves you sick and angry. I can’t imagine how I would feel reading this if I were Congolese.

Truth like fiction

The book also tells the story of the campaigners who tried to stop the atrocities in the Congo. It has great heroes- an African American trickster who goes looking for a promised land and finds a hell on earth- and pays for speaking out. A lowly shipping company official who notices something awry about boats coming in loaded with rubber and leaving only with guns – and decides to do something about it. It’s a story of courage, and should inspire us all.

Among my very favourite things to read is non-fiction that reads like a novel and this is a great example (see also American Nations, Nothing to Envy, God Sleeps in Rwanda). Leopold’s Ghost is a truly gripping story – just in this case you wish it were a fiction.

What I learned

This book left me with an urgent sense of the need for our European school curricula to provide an honest education of our colonial legacy. We need the courage to talk about what happened – I think it is outrageous how little I knew about this.

In the UK, I got a bit of education on the slave trade – focused on America. But it’s so much more than that. Reading a book like this you come to understand that the rich countries are rich because they took the resources of other countries for themselves.

Rubber terror

I never knew about the ‘rubber terror’ – the insatiable hunger from America and Europe for rubber once it could be used to make durable tyres and machine parts. Our progress was only ‘affordable’ because people were being held hostage, starved and tortured into collecting rubber all day in the Congo. If they were paid, it was in a few worthless brass rods.

Those who resisted (and the book does tell some amazing stories of those who did) could only do so for so long. Belgium had control of governance, the waterways, the churches, the manpower (including Congolese encouraged into suppressing their own people) and the firepower.

The rise of British humanitarianism

Hochschild lays out how this case of the movement against Leopold’s grasp on the Congo was the birth of the British humanitarian movement, which continues to this day. The oldest surviving international human rights organisation (Anti Slavery International) was set up in this time.

The two central ‘heroes’ of the book are Roger Casement and E. D. Morel. Both British, and working independently before they found each other and worked together, they systematically gathered evidence of the atrocities committed. They were both fantastic researchers.

Morel was a great fundraiser and influencer, getting the cream of British society behind the cause, from Archbishops to Arthur Conan Doyle.

He was also a prolific writer and seems to have been a real obsessive personality type. He spent hours writing letters and editing and writing articles for various newspapers, including the West African Mail – his own newspaper started as the focus for his obsessive campaign against the Congo.

Casement was the Foreign Office diplomat whose investigation into the reality of abuses in the Congo provided the evidence the movement needed to grow in momentum.

Remembering Casement and Morel

Of course, neither of them were perfect. You can say Britain’s eventual interest in and supporting of the campaign against Leopold’s Congo was hypocritical. It ignored Britain’s own human rights abuses in its colonies. And it was never so radical as to question the legitimacy of colonialism in the first place, which hardly differs from invasion except in name.

However, both were deeply committed to what was at times an unpopular cause. They were determined, and their efforts eventually put an end of Leopold’s personal stranglehold on the Congo (though it wasn’t the end of the pain for that country). They should be celebrated as two of the most important figures in British humanitarianism.

After finishing the book I wanted to find out how these two men are remembered now. I was expecting there to be statues or monuments, but I haven’t had any luck to identify any to visit. I think this is a real shame.

(Note: It seems there will be a statue erected to Roger Casement in his native Ireland, his radical nationalism eventually being what led to his demise in a jail cell. British Government exposed him as gay, which contributed to his incarceration and meant he hasn’t been remembered as the hero you could argue he should be).

Inspiration for today’s campaigners

I couldn’t read about the way the Congo Reform Association’s campaign was won without thinking about Britain today. In a turbulent and populist political climate, and coaxed by rabid right-wing tabloid leaders,public support for spending on international development, including in countries like Congo is dwindling.

There is a lack of a proper understanding of our own role in the relative poverty and underdevelopment of countries formerly colonised by European powers. However the Morel and Casement campaign skipped over the colonial guilt thing entirely in order to build public support and succeed.

What won the Congo campaign seems to be three things, which should give anyone interested in preserving a fair and decent level of basic investment in developing countries to increase the peace, stability and justice in our world, food for thought:

  1. ‘British values’ and decency

    The British have a powerful and pervasive view of themselves as the good guys. We think we are the scrappy underdog who wins through perserverance and moral superiority. Britain accepted waves of migration from former empires, and then commonwealth states because it had this sense of itself as having some kind of maternal responsibility to the weak. Modern campaigns can probably still tap into this to prick public conscience by talking about British values – at home and abroad.

  2. Celebrities, thought leaders and emotive witnesses

    Morel’s ability to schmooze meant he had a roster of famous and influential faces behind his campaign. These in turn probably encouraged yet more society figures to join what became an increasingly glamourous cause. The Congo Reform Association put on talks featuring these famous people that drew huge crowds. Also highly engaging and shocking were the lantern shows of returned missionaries, showing hundreds of people photographic evidence of the worst abuses: baskets of smoked human hands, mutilated toddlers, people being whipped mercilessly. Some famous faces like Conan Doyle, and Morel himself wrote books about the Congo that were read by huge numbers of people. These things together captured the public imagination. It is not too different from modern media strategies from humanitarian organisations and NGOs, but on a huge scale and high level.

  3. An acceptable baddie

    In King Leopold II, Morel and Casement had their jackpot. By all accounts Leopold was horrible, possibly a narcissistic psychopath. He hid his wealth from his people, his mad sister and even his children. He had perversions about sleeping with virgins and very young girls. He was a gift to caricaturists with his huge nose and white beard. He was the perfect villain. A good campaign offers up a simple solution to stop injustice. It can be illusory if need be, but simplicity allows for a belief change is feasible and realistic and thus building momentum. Here it was put to great use – get rid of Leopold and you could stop the abuse. It gave the rest of the Belgian colonial establishment a way to get out unscathed and continue governing the Congo in a way more acceptable to the rest of Europe (to their credit conditions did improve in the Congo, though it was still a very unjust situation). In the absence of a good baddie, it can be hard to build conclusive momentum a campaign needs to get a palpable ‘win’.

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