Belgian bully

Mar 8, 2000 at 12:00 am

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa
by Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin Company, $15, 367 pp.

The year is 1898. You are a young shipping clerk for a Liverpool-based firm that has the exclusive contract to carry cargo to and from the Congo in Africa.

The company sends you to Antwerp, Belgium, to supervise the unloading and loading of the ships. Before long, you notice that while the boats leave the dock loaded with arms and nontrading goods, they return crammed with ivory and rubber. You also discover that someone is shamelessly cooking the books.

Your employer stands to lose a lucrative contract if you blow the whistle. He tries to buy your silence with promotion and a big check. But the evidence is unmistakable: slavery.

Such was the dilemma for Edmund Morel, the hero of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, a sprawling, novelistic account of exploitation and slavery in turn-of-the-century colonial Africa. What made Morel heroic, according to Hochschild, was that he refused to turn a blind eye to what fortune had allowed him to see.

"It was as if, in 1942 or 1943, somebody who began to wonder what was happening to the Jews had taken a job inside the headquarters of the Nazi railway system," he writes.

Granted, King Leopold II was no Hitler, but he was a greedy codger with a big ego and a small country.

Leopold schemed to build himself a forced labor camp on a massive expanse of central Africa. Possessing a genius for both public relations and psychology, Leopold enlisted the fearless yet insecure explorer Henry Morton Stanley to chart the territory and set up a rudimentary infrastructure of posts and pathways, at great expense, of course, to the native guides and porters.

Realizing that his European counterparts were just as covetous of Africa, Leopold began lobbying America to officially recognize his colony. President Chester A. Arthur, who had other things on his mind, granted recognition to Leopold’s turf in 1884. In due course, troops were dispatched, the Congo was militarized and the money started rolling in.

As compelling as Hochschild renders Leopold’s adventure in slavery, he makes it clear that time was not on the king’s side. Leopold was an old-school despot trying to run a medieval swindle in a world hurtling toward modernity.

True, the unflattering descriptions of atrocities in the Congo, written by black journalists from America, made little dent in Europe, where abolitionist rhetoric had had its day.

But when Morel, a master of public relations in his own right, began to tell of the hacking off of hands and forced chain gangs, he found high and mighty supporters, including Joseph Conrad, who himself journeyed up the Congo river and returned to write Heart of Darkness. Thus was born the first human rights movement of the 20th century.

Hochschild, a renowned journalist who took on Stalin and the Russian psyche in a previous book, is on a mission in this text. Histories are easily forgotten, particularly when they take place far from us. The Africa we see (or don’t see) in the news today carries the marks of Leopold and his fellow plunderers. And before Leopold were native and Arab slave traders, unwittingly laying the groundwork for what was to come.

The America that legitimated Leopold in the Congo, Hochschild points out, continued its bumbling during the Cold War by recognizing the anti-Communist dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who proceeded to siphon $4 billion out of the country, renamed Zaire, while imposing a police state on his long-suffering people.

Those unfamiliar with the little man with the leopard-skin hat can find him looming large in When We Were Kings, the documentary account of the prize fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, held at Mobutu’s invitation in Zaire to showcase how modern he had made his country. Clearly, he had made it something quite else.

Uncovering atrocity

Rather than bringing stability, the 1997 overthrow of Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko set off a conflict engulfing states surrounding what has been renamed Congo. Tim Dugdale recently spoke to author Adam Hochschild about the region’s past and Africa’s future.

Metro Times: One wonders what might have happened in Leopold’s Congo if an earlier version of the United Nations had existed. Any thoughts?

Adam Hochschild: Even if there had been a U.N. at the time, I suspect it would not have intervened in Leopold’s Congo. For the same reason that, despite the impassioned, strenuous efforts of E.D. Morel and the "Congo reformers," the United States, Britain and France never intervened ... they, too, were exploiting colonies at the time. ... France practiced the exact same system as Leopold – forced labor for gathering rubber, hostages in chains, the whole business – in the French Congo, across the river from Leopold’s.

MT: Stanley is a fascinating creature of self-invention. And Leopold, wily old coot that he was, seemed to understand the neurosis that drove Stanley on as an adventurer. Indeed, a profound subtext of your book seems to be the deconstruction of the late 19th century "gentleman" explorer. Could you elaborate?

Hochschild: Nineteenth century European explorers of Africa were heroes in popular culture of the day. They were stars on the lecture circuit, authors of best sellers, recipients of love letters, pundits asked for their opinions of everything ... I think the popularity came because the image of the "explorer" was one that combined the ideals of personal bravery and fearlessness – which, one has to admit, these guys had – with an undercurrent of racism, a faith that European science and technology could overcome anything, and the pretense that the European takeover of Africa was benevolent and altruistic.

MT: How pessimistic or optimistic are you about the future of Africa, nearly a century after Leopold yet still full of war and coups?

Hochschild: I’m afraid I’m not too optimistic about the near future in Africa. Its people deserve a vastly better fate, but I don’t think they’re going to get it soon. For the last several hundred years, much of Africa has known little but plunder, first by the European, American and Arab slave traders and the many local leaders who cooperated with them, then the murderous forced-labor colonialism of the Leopold era, then the more orderly but still exploitative colonialism in the decades leading up to 1960, and then an unhappy mixture of continued neocolonialism vis-a-vis European countries and multinational corporations.

With this kind of heritage, no one should be surprised that Africa is having trouble making democracy work. Both Zimbabwe and South Africa settled their long conflicts with deals that basically said blacks get the vote, whites keep the money. Given the distribution of political and military power, I don’t think better deals were possible.

I do feel moderately optimistic about South Africa, though. Economically, the distribution of wealth and power is still wildly and unfairly imbalanced, but I think that freedom of speech, political democracy and a commitment to come to terms with the past are all firmly in place in South Africa – and those things matter.

MT: Jules Marchal (a previous researcher) had a devil of a time getting at the archives. What about you? Did you have to indulge in trickery and cunning?

Hochschild: When Marchal began doing his extraordinary work – and he is the scholar of this period – one key archive in Belgium was still closed. But it finally opened in the mid-1980s, and I had no trouble finding the material that I needed ... The raw material is there, and many scholars have bitten off various pieces of it. But what still baffles me is why on earth haven’t there been 1,000 books on this subject before?