February 13, 2013

"The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians...."

"Under Leopold II's administration, the Congo Free State became the site of one of the most infamous international scandals of the turn of the twentieth century. The report of the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials who had been responsible for cold-blooded killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903, including one Belgian national for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese natives. Estimates of the total death toll vary considerably. In the absence of a census, the first was made in 1924, it is even more difficult to quantify the population loss of the period. Roger Casement's famous 1904 report estimated ten million people. According to Casement's report, indiscriminate 'war,' starvation, reduction of births and tropical diseases caused the country's depopulation."

The Congo Free State included all of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is our "History of" country today.

22 comments:

As my whimsy leads me.. said...

The book, "King Leopold's Ghost," by Adam Hochschild, details all of the horror of that time.

Toy

MadisonMan said...

This is also touched on in Chocolate Wars, which is the story of Cadbury.

ironrailsironweights said...

While there are many almost surrealistic things about the Congo, quite possibly the most noteworthy is that it has the worst transportation infrastructure of any country in the world. "You can't get there from here" pretty much describes the situation. Only a few rapidly deteriorating roads exist outside the cities, to the point that driving between the different parts of the huge country is impossible, and there are no railroads or airlines to speak of. Boats on the Congo River used to be the main way of getting around the country, but river navigation has largely disappeared. Just about the only way to travel from, say, Kinshasa to the southern city of Lubumbashi is by a very long, very expensive series of flights through South Africa or even Europe.

The Congo is also almost landlocked despite having a short Atlantic coastline. Its main port, Matadi, is located on the head of navigation on the Congo River, connected to Kinshasa by a poor road and by a rail line that may no longer be operational. Most shippers steer clear of Matadi because of its corruption and the very poor condition of its cargo-handling facilities. There also is a second port city, the amusingly named Banana, which handles oil imports; it's not suitable for other uses because it's connected to Kinshasa by pipeline only. Most of the Congo's trade goes through the neighboring Republic of the Congo (presumably tomorrow's entry), which has a somewhat better transportation system thanks to Chinese investments.

Snow report: despite being a tropical country with a very hot climate, the Congo has snow at the highest peaks of the Ruwenzori Mountains.

Peter

Sam L. said...

I heard that Conrad's Heart Of Darkness was written about the Congo. I believe that was in a longish NPR discussion on the book in comment #1. Horrible things done to the people there.

Maguro said...

The horror! The horror!

chickelit said...

I'm sure you're all dyeing to know this, but Congo Red is an old and well known synthetic dye invented in the 19th century by those krafty Germans. It's a crappy fabric dye, but it's widely used for detecting amyloids which present for a whole host of nasty diseases.

The name has nothing to do with being found in the Congo--it was apparently just a marketing ploy in 1884 to make it sound exotic and timely because Africa was being divvied up at the time. There's an article about the naming here.

Michael said...

Then I saw the Congo Creeping Through The Black
Cutting throught he jungle with a golden track.


Memorized fifty years ago.

Michael said...

"Blood River" is another great read. Dilapidated country. Chaos. Definition of Anarchy.

F said...

Another excellent read on Congo is "A Bend in the River" by V.S. Naipul. As with "Heart of Darkness," Congo is not mentioned by name, but it is clearly set there. So, too is "Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver. Congo (or Zaire, as it was known when I lived there) is an accident of 18th Century European geopolitics and remains a country riven with intrigue at all levels. Mobutu Sese Seko could be both charming and vicious. Oh, and there's a restaurant in Banana that makes grilled shrimp that is to die for. That was 34 years ago we were there and my wife still talks about that shrimp.

chickelit said...

80% of the uranium used in the Manhattan Project came from mines in the Belgian Congo. The mines are no longer commercially significant in the highly controlled trade of uranium--but black market sourcing continued:

When the Belgians left the Congo in 1960, they closed the mine by flooding the shafts and placing a concrete slab over the entrance. However, early in 2004, Arnaud Zajtman of the BBC found 6000 people working the mine illegally. Ore from the Shinkolobwe mine is taken to smelters both in Congo and in nearby Zimbabwe.
'They are digging as fast as they can dig, and everyone is buying it,' commented John Skinner, a mining engineer based in the nearby town of Likasi. 'The problem is that nobody knows where it is going. There is no control at all.'
link

furious_a said...

The book, "King Leopold's Ghost," by Adam Hochschild, details all of the horror of that time.

I used to think the Portuguese were the king bastards of European colonial powers until I read that book.

kentuckyliz said...

Belgians are bitches. Nice beer though.

Wally Kalbacken said...

At least they were using rubbers.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

It is difficult to figure out which African nation has been most thoroughly screwed over by European imperialists. But Congo can't ever have been out of the top five.

(The US may have made an awful mess of other parts of the world, but most of the plight of African nations is not our fault. OK, we do sort of own Liberia ...)

John said...

Samuel Clemens wrote "King Leopolds Soliloquy" which was highly critical of the King. I read it in the 70's and it was published under the S.C. name not Mark Twain. I was on a Mark
Twain jag at the time and although I liked the book and was appalled by the treatment of the Congolese, I think that was the last book of his I read.

John said...

Samuel Clemens wrote "King Leopolds Soliloquy" which was highly critical of the King. I read it in the 70's and it was published under the S.C. name not Mark Twain. I was on a Mark
Twain jag at the time and although I liked the book and was appalled by the treatment of the Congolese, I think that was the last book of his I read.

Smilin' Jack said...

Well, I'm sure things have improved a lot there since the Belgians left them to themselves.

Illuninati said...

The Arabs had been using Africa as a source of cheap slaves long before the Europeans arrived. The Muslim slavers were some of the most cruel, ruthless people who have ever lived. The entire continent of Africa was already on its knees when the Europeans came.

King Leopold was supposed to manage the Congo on behalf of the Africans and to protect them from the Muslim slavers, but he was just as evil as the Muslims. He exploited the Africans instead of protecting them.

All Belgians are not responsible for King Leopold. He himself was responbsible. Perhaps he should be placed in the pantheon of evil along with Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Pol Pot, and Mao. Because they have been so evil, there is no reason why the royal family of Belgium should be allowed to exist.

The British did a much better job in Africa. There were some bad actors, but many of them cared deeply about the welfare of the Africans. They actively supressed the Arab slavers, introduced the rule of law into their colonies, and built infrastructure which the Africans are still using.

Chuck Currie said...

So appropriate that Belgium is the capitol of the EU.

Cheers

Mitch H. said...

Just finished reading a book on the great Congo war of the last two decades, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. Kind of left-wing bias, there's a lot of glossing over the communist mis-education of the political classes who fought the rolling wars in the Congo, and he says stupid-nice things about Che Guevara. If you can get past that, it's not a total waste of time.

And, of course, King Leopold's Ghost, although it's been a while since I read that - I think I gave my copy to a late friend over ten years ago, at least, I can't find it now.

While there are many almost surrealistic things about the Congo, quite possibly the most noteworthy is that it has the worst transportation infrastructure of any country in the world.

One of the distinct characteristics of the Great War of Africa was how often the battles were fought at a walking pace, while also seeing sudden leaps across the whole length of the continent. This is because all land movement was no better than what you'd get from shank's mare, while certain privileged units were able to command airlift sufficient to move battalions. The economic sacking of the mining provinces were likewise done by airlift, as the roads were either missing or impossible, and the river and whatever remained of the railroad were impassable or controlled by enemy forces. So, they packed their stolen ore on little puddle-jumpers that would land on short strips converted from the blacktop or concrete remnants of the old colonial roads, and fly their loot out of the country.

hamcentral said...

The link below details a Belgian couple's trek through DRC by Land Rover. It was a fascinating read. The story is told in multiple posts to a thread at Expedition Portal. It's a bit of a pain to navigate, but well worth the effort.

http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/50799-Democratic-Republic-of-Congo-Lubumbashi-to-Kinshasa

Foobarista said...

If you want a candidate for the Nastiest Imperialist of All Time, you would hardly do "better" than Leopold.