Leopold II is best known as the founder and owner of the ill-famed Congo Free State. To most English-speaking readers his name evokes ‘Red Rubber’ and a world of plunder and atrocity: the Congo Reform Association which campaigned against his ruthless exploitation of the Free State has left behind it a notion of an aged, snow-bearded Satan who used black slavery to get money, and money to buy the favours of young girls.
The quotation is from Neal Ascherson’s The King Incorporated, published more than thirty years ago. Many stories deserve retelling for each generation; and the tale of Leopold’s duplicity, lubriciousness and greed, and of the cruelties and depredations with which his hirelings in the Congo Free State fed his appetites and their own, is certainly one of them. Adam Hochschild has taken most of the material for his new book from published sources; but about that I have no inclination to complain. Far from it. The findings of specialist historians have constantly to be ‘translated’ for the benefit of general readers, and Hochschild has done a valuable job in combining a biography of Leopold with a coherent, comprehensible account of how he realised his dream of a vast and ultimately profitable empire in the middle of Africa. Imagine a pathologically avaricious fraudster who is also a monomaniac, a man who never loses sight of his single aim yet never declares it, and you will be on the way to understanding something of Leopold’s character. You will also have a sense of the difficulties facing a writer who seeks to follow his devious footsteps. Hochschild compares the scale of the ‘holocaust’ produced by Leopold’s reign in the Congo with those for which Hitler and Stalin were responsible; if he is to be compared with either of them, I would say that he resembled Stalin rather than Hitler in always cloaking his intentions and deeds with an appearance of public benignity, of fatherly concern for his people, whether at home or in his great colonial possession.
Unfortunately the book has faults which run almost as deep as its merits. Hochschild’s naive zeal for cliché (news ‘flashed over the telegraph wires’, someone’s ‘hurt pride’ is ‘like an open wound’, society women are ‘bejewelled’ and generals ‘bemedalled’) is accompanied by lunges into a general metaphoric confusion (‘In Europe, the thirst for African land had become nearly palpable ... Stanley had ignited the great African land rush, but even he felt uneasy about the greed in the air’). Then there is his insistence that what happened in the Congo between about 1880 and 1910 has long been forgotten, even suppressed. Well, it hasn’t. The fact that he himself has been able to rely so heavily on published sources, some new, some old, in itself reveals how dubious the claim is. Anyone with the least interest in the ‘scramble for Africa’ knows that something terrible and protracted took place in the Congo basin at that time; and so, too, vaguely yet more vividly perhaps, do the ‘millions of readers’ (Hochschild’s phrase) who have encountered the place and period through ‘the most widely printed short novel in the English language’ – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Hochschild devotes an inconclusive chapter to discussing yet another possible ‘original’ for Mr Kurtz (his candidate is an unsavoury murderer and would-be man of science by the name of Léon Rom); but dismisses the informative power of the novel by baldly asserting that European and American readers have ‘cast it loose from its historical moorings’ – and then producing himself as star witness for his case. When he read it as an undergraduate, he tells us, he ‘mentally filed away the book as fiction not fact’. So what did he imagine those chained porters, those dying ‘black shadows of disease and emaciation’, to be – decor?
This is not the only place in the book where Hochschild’s assertions tell us more about him than about his subject. He rebukes the Victorians for their overweening contempt for African society and culture, but it never occurs to him that his attitude to the Victorians might be tainted by an analogous philistinism and incomprehension. He refers slightingly to ‘European maps’ of the period which showed the interior of Africa as ‘blank’ – as if there were African maps or Moghul maps or Chinese maps which did any better. He displays a properly enlightened scorn for the claims of 19th-century explorers to have ‘discovered’ major features of the African continent when the people living at varying distances from them had always known them to be there. But when Livingstone, say, ‘discovered’ the Victoria Falls to be situated approximately at latitude 18°S and longitude 28°E, he forever changed them as a mental and social fact, and hence as a physical fact too. (Go to the Falls today and you will see what I mean: the waters cascade as majestically as ever; but they are surrounded by huge tourist hotels, by bungee-jumpers, para-gliders, helicopter flights and booze-cruises.) He writes disapprovingly of Henry Stanley’s ‘act of appropriation’ in ‘forever measuring and tabulating ... temperatures, miles travelled, lake depths, latitude, longitude and altitude ... almost as if he were a surveyor mapping the continent for its prospective owners’; yet feels no moral misgivings in ‘appropriating’ the findings of such men, and others like them, whenever it suits his narrative to do so. You want to know the height of the drop from Kinshasa to sea-level? How many millions of square miles the Congo River drains? What its hydroelectric potential might be? How much longer than the Rhine is the Kasai River? Why the flow of water at the mouth of the Congo does not vary seasonally? This book will unblushingly tell you.
Newton said that he saw as far as he did because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Here we have the spectacle of someone standing on the shoulders of giants and kicking them for their pains. It might be argued that this is no less than Stanley deserves, for he was an unscrupulous brute: a flogger, a killer, a liar, a suitable instrument in every way for someone as machiavellian as Leopold. But the counter-example of the equally obsessed Livingstone shows that there were other, less violent ways in which an explorer could go about his task. Both Stanley and Livingstone succeeded in mapping great tracts of Africa. It is childish to suppose that we are now entitled to look down on the private ambitions and public expectations which drove them to be ‘forever measuring and tabulating’; or that in writing about them (and about the culture from which they emerged) our first concern should be to show ourselves as members of a different, ‘non-appropriative’ species.
Which brings me back to the arch-appropriator, Leopold. What emerges convincingly from Hochschild’s account of him is that he was as dislikable a human specimen as could be found; the portrait presented here is enough to make one warm to his great British rival in the south, Cecil Rhodes. At least Rhodes lived in Africa, and in his own fashion came to love those parts of the continent he knew – and not only because he wished to dominate them. Rhodes also put himself in mortal danger at least twice in his life: once at the end of the ‘Matabele Rebellion’ in present-day Zimbabwe, and once when he incarcerated himself in the town of Kimberley just as it was about to be besieged by the Boers. Leopold, on the other hand, never set foot in Africa, apart from a few brief visits to Egypt during his youth. His imperial ambitions remained abstract and indiscriminate throughout his life; so did his notion of the countries he coveted – not to speak of their unfortunate inhabitants, to whose sufferings he always remained totally indifferent. As a young man he had dreamed of ‘purchasing a small kingdom in Abyssinia for 30,000 francs’; also of buying parts of the Nile Delta; the Argentine province of Entre Rios; the whole of Fiji (‘one should not let such a fine prey escape’); bits of Formosa; the Canary Isles; a 99-year lease on the Philippines. Many years later he was investing in railways and buying small parcels of land in mainland China, while eyeing various other ‘cutlets’ that might become available to him there. As these samples of his language reveal, he did not hide from himself or his closest subordinates that his intentions were focused nakedly and unwaveringly on power, and on the spoils of power, never anything else.
In public, of course, he was another person. Some of Hochschild’s most biting pages are devoted to exploring the gap between his protestations and his deeds. No one ever presented himself as possessed of higher motives than Leopold II, or claimed to offer his services to the cause of human betterment in a more selfless spirit. Nor did anyone enter the ‘scramble for Africa’ in quite so oblique a fashion. In 1876 he called a grand conference of African explorers, geographers, missionaries, businessmen and anti-slavers to come together in Brussels; he did not chair the conference but made sure that it would set up an International African Association (of which he was elected chairman) along with various ‘national committees’. None of the latter ever met; the International Committee convened just once, a year later, re-elected Leopold, and disappeared. Not long afterwards, Henry Stanley, more celebrated than ever after crossing the African continent via the Congo River, was in Leopold’s employ – or rather, in the employ of yet another body with another fine name, the Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo. That Committee in turn gave way to the International Association of the Congo which, according to an article anonymously contributed by Leopold to the London Times, was a sort of ‘Society of the Red Cross; it has been formed with the noble aim of rendering lasting and disinterested services to the cause of progress’. His instructions to Stanley struck a different note, however. Stanley was to go back to the Congo and make ‘treaties’ with all the native chiefs he came across. ‘The treaties,’ the King wrote, ‘must be as brief as possible and give us everything.’
Treaties in hand, Leopold’s agents then persuaded the President of the United States to give diplomatic recognition to an entity which had a flag to fly – a gold star on a blue field – but no recognisable name. (The American declaration of recognition actually referred to it by two different titles.) To one audience Leopold declared that he was setting up ‘a confederation of free negro republics’ in the Congo, and to another that his aim was to establish a group of cities on the Hanseatic model – of all unlikely precedents. These independent ‘cities’ or ‘republics’ were then magicked into a single ‘state’, which early in 1885, just nine years after the calling of Leopold’s first conference in Brussels, declared itself to be the Free State of the Congo (l’Etat Indépendant du Congo). Leopold, who had funded the entire operation, and had been the sole subscriber to the International Association in its last known form, naturally became head of state and owner of the entire property. (‘As a private citizen,’ he wrote to Stanley.) After some reflection he styled himself ‘King-Sovereign’ of his acquisition. It was, Hochschild tells us, bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. Some years later, in return for a huge loan from a reluctant Belgian Parliament, Leopold wrote out a will in which, just like a generous private citizen disposing of his assets, he formally bequeathed it to his ‘beloved fatherland’.
Even by the standards of the day the Congo Free State was a peculiar affair; and not only because it was so much of a one-man holding. All vacant lands in the territory were declared to belong to the Crown; naturally the Crown itself decided which lands were vacant. No attempt was made to develop the colony in any way that did not bear directly on the brutal business of extorting ivory and (subsequently) wild rubber from the desperate indigènes. These activities were carried out on a commission basis by the administrators of the state, or by concessionary companies in which the state usually held a substantial share. As if the act of turning officials into profiteers was not in itself sufficient encouragement to cruelty and recklessness, the African population was denied the right to handle money. Instead they were paid in kind – cloth, beads, rations – or in lengths of brass rods which were declared to be a form of currency appropriate for them. The Africans thus had every motive to withhold their labour, if they could, and Leopold’s agents to obtain it by the cheapest means open to them: by way of raids, press-gangs, floggings, the taking of hostages (women and children especially), the destruction of villages and cultivated fields, the wholesale murder and mutilation of those who attempted to flee from or rebel against the regime. To such effect were these policies carried out that Hochschild’s sources estimate that 25 years after the coming into existence of the Free State, its population had dropped by some ten million – i.e. to a half of what it had originally been. Readers may or may not be sceptical about the accuracy of this figure, which depends largely on guesswork as to the size of the Congo’s population before colonisation, together with an acceptance at face-value of the figures yielded by the first formal Belgian census. What is certain is that by 1908, when Leopold finally surrendered his territory to the Belgian state, disease, starvation and mass killings had resulted in the virtual denudation, humanly speaking, of immense stretches of Central Africa. That the territory’s natural resources of ivory and wild rubber had also been wiped out goes without saying.
Contrary to his original intention, Leopold was forced to hand over the Congo to his ‘beloved fatherland’ before his death, not after it. By then the true nature of his reign had been exposed to the world by a handful of courageous and extraordinarily effective campaigners. Of these E.D. Morel of the Congo Reform Society and Roger Casement, first British consul to the Congo Free State, are much the most famous. Hochschild also writes generously of the labours of several other, less well-known campaigners, among them two pioneering, eccentric American blacks, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard. The intensity of international opprobrium heaped on their king was just one of the factors which led the Belgian Parliament to insist on annexing his empire. For bestowing on Parliament this enforced ‘donation’ (Leopold’s term for it), he demanded – and got – many millions of francs. He also made sure that the massive Congolese profits he was already holding were transferred into a series of secretive, interlocking foundations, trusts and limited companies of which he maintained control.
He died less than two years later. On his death-bed he married Caroline Lacroix, the most enduring of the innumerable mistresses and call-girls with whom he had indulged himself over the years. Some time previously he had done as much as was permitted under Belgian law to disinherit his three daughters, of whom only the despised youngest was available to pay her last respects to her dying papa. (Their mother, who had hated him quite as much he hated her, had long predeceased him.) Given the King’s wealth and cunning, his vindictiveness and habits of secrecy, it is not surprising that many years passed before his estate was finally unravelled by the country’s Parliament and legal institutions. He had spent huge sums on the aggrandisement of parts of Brussels and Ostend, and on his palace at Laeken, and these remain, as he had intended them to be, Europe’s most visible monuments to him. In Africa the present-day borders of the Congo, established by incessant diplomatic manoeuvring on Leopold’s part and campaigning in the field by his agents, must be considered his most significant memorial. I would not like to guess which will last longer – the borders in Africa or the buildings in Belgium.
The rulers of the Congo today can either struggle to overcome the past or choose to remain its home-grown accomplices and perpetuators. Having opened with a quotation from Neal Ascherson’s The King Incorporated, I might as well end with one too. The ‘system’ he speaks of was Leopold’s: but how would one distinguish it from Mobutu’s or Kabila’s?
The Congolese system was too viciously wasteful, too recklessly short-term in its conception, to deserve even the term of exploitation. It was no more than a prolonged raid for plunder.