On July 12, 1890, Henry Morton Stanley finally got married. His bride was a high-society woman named Dorothy Tennant, to whom he had sent letters during his expedition to the Sudan. However, Stanley remained intensely insecure around women. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that he and Tennant never consummated their marriage. Nevertheless, the marriage brought Stanley a new level of respect in Britain. A wealthy man, he traveled the world to give speeches and interviews, and to receive honorary degrees. Eventually, he was knighted.
The chapter begins with a quick update on Stanley’s life. Stanley, in spite of his world-fame, was eager to ingratiate himself with European high society, and Hochschild strongly implies that Stanley married a wealthy heiress in part because he thought it would help raise his social standing.
Shortly after Stanley got married, an African American man named William Sheppard traveled to the Congo. Sheppard was an explorer and an intensely religious man; he believed that by journeying to the Congo, he could inspire other African Americans to join him, creating a resettlement colony. The racist Senator John Tyler Morgan had supported Sheppard’s expedition, since he liked the “back-to-Africa” plan, too.
Amazingly, the “back to Africa” proposal, popular in the U.S. in the late 1800s, had backing from both African American activists and white supremacists. William Sheppard’s activism in the Congo was, in part, inspired by his own experience as a black man in the U.S. at a time of widespread prejudice—he was sympathetic to the Congolese in part because he knew what it was like to be treated as sub-human.
Sheppard was born in 1865, and distinguished himself as a theological student and a minister. In the late 1880s, he started a petition to travel to Africa as a missionary; after two years of trying, he set out with a young white missionary named Samuel Lapsley. Lapsley and Sheppard arrived in the Congo, along the Kasai River, in May of 1890, and immediately began plans to build a mission station. In 1892, Lapsley decided to travel to Boma alone, leaving Sheppard in charge of operations on the Kasai River. Afterwards, Sheppard began to bond with members of the Kuba tribe. Though he sometimes thought of the people of the Congo as ignorant and heathen, Sheppard wrote that he was glad to be around “my people.”
In part, Sheppard identified with the Congolese people on racial grounds; he considered the Congolese to be “my people.” In general, it’s important to notice that many of the earliest advocates for Congolese rights were African Americans who had experienced racism and prejudice in the United States, and therefore were in a unique position to sympathize with the Congolese.
Toward the end of 1892, the Kuba tribe took Sheppard to visit their king. While, at first, the king was furious that his subjects had helped a foreigner, he relaxed when he saw that Sheppard was black and could speak some Kuba. Sheppard remained at the king’s court for months, learning about Kuba society and politics. Shortly after his visit, Sheppard left the Congo for London, where he was celebrated for his lectures on the Kuba. He was later made a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.
Again, Hochschild emphasizes the civility and honor of the Congolese people—the Kuba tribe, for example, didn’t try to hurt Sheppard, even though he was working on behalf of European and American sponsors. Hochschild notes that the Kuba tribe respected Sheppard in part because he was black, suggesting that Sheppard’s racial identification with the Kuba tribe was mutual—both Sheppard and the Kuba felt that they belonged to the same “people.”
In the eight years following Sheppard’s visit to the Kuba, rubber became a central part of the European economy. The invention of the rubber bicycle wheel in 1890 launched a worldwide “bicycle craze,” and suddenly European corporations needed rubber for factory equipment, creating a huge demand for the rubber vines that flourished in the Congo. By the mid-1890s, rubber had surpassed ivory as the Congo’s main source of revenue. The sale of rubber made Leopold huge profits because he paid nothing for the labor of Congolese slaves. But harvesting rubber was extremely difficult work—it involved the Congolese slaves smearing rubber sap on their bodies, waiting for it to harden, and then tearing it off their skin. While Leopold officially denied that he used slave labor to make rubber, he privately instructed his governors in the Congo to torture and intimidate the Africans into harvesting rubber. Léon Rom wrote a book in which he gave tips for how to take hostages and coerce Africans into obedience. Thus, by the late 1890s, there were thousands of slaves wandering through the forests of the Congo, harvesting the sap from rubber vines. If they failed to meet their daily quota, they’d be beaten or shot.
The rise of rubber as a major industrial resource was ruinous for the people of the Congo, and highly lucrative for their Belgian overlords. King Leopold II personally made huge sums of money by forcing the Congolese to work at extracting sap from rubber plants. The Force Publique and the governors in the Congo territory clearly didn’t care about working conditions or the well-being of their slaves—they wanted to maximize their profits in as little time as possible.
William Sheppard returned to the Congo in 1899, and immediately set out for the Kuba kingdom. When he arrived, he was stunned to find bloodstained ground and burning villages. A Force Publique officer showed Sheppard a severed human hand, explaining that, when soldiers executed a slave, they were required to cut off the dead slave’s hand to prove that they’d really done the deed. Sheppard went on to write articles about the carnage he’d witnessed in the Congo, which were reprinted and widely quoted in Europe and the U.S.
William Sheppard’s experiences in the Congo led him to pen a series of articles in which he criticized the Force Publique and the Belgian occupation of the Congo. One of the most notorious aspects of the Belgian occupation was the Force Publique’s tactic of cutting off Congolese people’s hands—in fact, several years ago, a Congolese activist group cut off the hand of a statue of King Leopold II, alluding to his sadistic policies.