It is time to ask a sobering question: what was the death toll in Leopold’s Congo territory? It’s difficult to answer such a question, because King Leopold’s policies continued for a long time after his death. It’s also important to keep in mind that, while the death toll in the Congo was enormous, the killing in the Congo was not, technically speaking, a genocide. Leopold was not trying to wipe out one particular ethnic group; he was trying to exploit African people for labor.
In this disturbing chapter, Hochschild estimates how many Congolese people died unnecessarily under Belgian rule. While the Belgian occupation of the Congo wasn’t a genocide, the effect was similar: soldiers murdered a huge chunk of the native population, and entire Congolese tribes vanished.
In order to calculate the death toll in the Congo, we should begin by counting the number of murder victims. Murder wasn’t the leading cause of death in the Congo, but it was the most clearly documented. Force Publique reports discussed the organized killings of hundreds or thousands of Congolese people over the course of six months to a year. When the Congolese resisted or tried to rebel against the Force Publique, the rebels were executed, and other Africans were murdered to send a message. Another major cause of death in the Congo was starvation and exhaustion. Soldiers burned Congolese villages, forcing the residents to wander through the jungles and starve to death. Also, the Force Publique marched thousands of Africans to rubber facilities, during which many of the marchers collapsed from malnourishment.
One of Hochschild’s most challenging duties as a historian of the Belgian occupation of the Congo is to write clearly and dispassionately about highly disturbing things—here, for example, he writes about socially accepted murder in the Congo. Taken together, the human rights atrocities of the Belgian occupation of the Congo stand as some of the most appalling events in recorded history. The fact that more people don’t know about the Belgian occupation suggests the need for books like Hochschild’s—historians have a responsibility to tell the truth, especially about historical events that are this unpleasant.
Disease also decimated the Congo. Together, smallpox and “sleeping sickness” (a parasitic disease spread by the tsetse fly) killed far more Africans than bullets did—for instance, it’s estimated that half a million Congolese people died of sleeping sickness in 1901 alone. While smallpox and sleeping sickness had existed in Africa for centuries, they didn’t cause major epidemics because the different people of the Congo were largely isolated from one another. Belgian rule in the Congo moved different tribes together, spreading disease at a much faster rate. While it’s probable that the Belgians in the Congo didn’t realize that their actions were causing an epidemic, it’s also true that the Congolese became more susceptible to disease because they were being worked to death. A final cause of death in the Congo was the plummeting birth rate. Because many Congolese women were starving, exhausted, or imprisoned, they gave birth to few children.
Belgian administrators can’t be blamed entirely for the deaths from smallpox and sleeping sickness in the Congo. However, they are indirectly to blame, since overworking made the Congolese people more susceptible to sleeping sickness and smallpox, among other diseases. Much the same is true of the birthrate in the Congo—the constant toil and fatigue of slavery made Congolese women very unlikely to have children.
In all, it’s difficult to estimate the death toll of the Belgian occupation of the Congo. However, some Belgian government officials in 1919 estimated that the total population in the Congo was “reduced by half” in the years following Henry Morton Stanley’s colonization. The estimate has been supported by contemporary historians, who cite information from missionaries, oral tradition, genealogical maps, etc. So it’s possible that King Leopold’s Congo regime claimed ten million African lives.
It’s very difficult to estimate the total death toll of Belgian imperialism—as we’ll see, this is partly true because Belgian administrators destroyed some of the records of their own actions, making it difficult for historians like Hochschild to do their jobs. However, it’s possible to estimate the death count. Furthermore, even if the “real” number were a quarter of what Hochschild guesses, the Belgian occupation would still rank as one of the worst human rights atrocities of modern times.
It’s time to ask another unpleasant question: why did Leopold allow such brutal practices? Isn’t it bad business to kill one’s own workers? In fact, many Belgian businessmen worried about losing money because of a shortage of slave labor. However, it’s also true that “mass murder had a momentum of its own” in the Congo: the soldiers of the Force Publique were given a lot of freedom over the Congolese, and they took advantage of their enormous power. Some of the soldiers seem to have enjoyed torturing Africans and thinking of elaborate killing methods. One soldier, for instance, killed a man by lighting a fire underneath him and cooking him to death. Hochschild concludes, “the list is much longer.”
Hochschild hypothesizes that soldiers tortured and killed Congolese people because they enjoyed doing so—the torture served no practical purpose (and was, in fact, extremely unpractical). As the history of the Nazis has shown, ordinary people have the capacity to hurt and kill other people without showing any apparent signs of guilt or shame.