In the city of Brussels, there is still a Royal Museum for Central Africa, in which one can find a huge collection of Africana, almost entirely stolen from the Congolese during the reign of Leopold II. Nowhere in the entire museum is it stated that millions of Congolese people were murdered and tortured during Belgium’s occupation of the Congo. The entire city of Brussels is full of relics of Belgium’s time in the Congo: even the beautiful buildings and archways were paid for with funds stolen from Africa.
The legacy of the Belgian occupation of the Congo survives into the 21st century. As has often been the case, the Belgian government was slow and reluctant to officially acknowledge the country’s history of human rights atrocities, or take any concrete steps to apologize. (By the same token, many people have criticized the American government for not taking further steps to apologize for its role in slavery, or provide reparations for the descendants of slaves.)
In short, “the Congo offers a striking example of the politics of forgetting.” Leopold, and many of his successors in Belgian politics, worked hard to erase the records of human rights abuses in Africa. In 1908, the Belgian government spent eight full days burning records of the Belgian occupation of the Congo.
The Belgian government, seemingly well-aware of the brutality of its regime in the Congo, tried to hide its atrocities from the public.
In the 1970s, a man named Jules Marchal was the Belgian ambassador to Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. He recalls a day when, walking down the street in Liberia, he noticed a newspaper story reporting that, under Belgian rule, 10 million people had died in the Congo in the early 20th century. Marchal was genuinely shocked—he immediately telephoned his superiors in order to fix the slanderous accusation, and asked for some historical information about the Congo. Marchal never received the information, so he began to research the history himself. He tried to get into the Foreign Ministry of Brussels to look over old records of the Congo administration, but he was refused entry. After he retired, Marchal devoted himself to researching Belgium’s behavior in the Congo full-time. In the end, he composed a four-volume history of the Belgian occupation of the Congo. The book was praised throughout Europe, but never reviewed or discussed in Belgium.
Marchal is an important figure for historians of the Congo—indeed, if it weren’t for Marchal, very few people would know that Belgians murdered and tortured the Congolese people. Furthermore, the fact that zero Belgian publications discussed Marchal’s important book suggests the ongoing racism of Belgian society: it would seem that, by and large, the country isn’t willing to confront its own shameful history. The same could be said for many other countries that participated in imperialist ventures in the 19th and 20th centuries—including, it must be said, the United States.
In part, Marchal decided to devote himself to studying the Belgian occupation of the Congo because, as a younger man, he’d worked for the Belgian diplomatic service in the Congo and had known nothing of Belgium’s horrific past. In 1948, he was sent to award medals to village chiefs who’d served in World War II. Once, he awarded a medal to a chief who’d collected large quantities of rubber to donate to the war effort; when the chief accepted his medal, he told Marchal, “The rubber this time, that was nothing. But the first time, that was terrible.” It took Marchal thirty years to understand what the chief was talking about.
For most of this book, Hochschild has argued persuasively that European records of the Belgian occupation are far more authoritative and accurate than African records, since Congolese tribes didn’t always have a written language for recording history. The irony of this passage is that, in spite of the Belgians’ record-keeping, the Congolese chief knew more about Belgian history than Marchal, the Belgian ambassador.
Both in Belgium and in the Congo, Belgians wrote the school textbooks—for decades, Belgian and Congolese children grew up believing that Leopold II was a great leader. In many Congolese villages, however, the truth about Leopold II survived. Over time, a legend arose that Leopold had not died, but had been transformed into a Catholic bishop and had come to live in the Congo. But, of course, even without this legend, Leopold had left his mark on Congolese history.
The Belgian administrators in the Congo took great pains to rewrite history to present themselves in a favorable light. Indeed, Congolese schoolchildren grew up, generation after generation, believing that the Belgians were benevolent colonial masters. This is an important transitional passage because it suggests how Leopold’s legacy “carried on” in the 20th century.
For the rest of the 20th century, the Congo fared badly. The Belgian administrators hadn’t built many schools for the Congolese, nor had they tried to train Africans for elite administrative jobs. In the 1950s—the decade when the Congolese independence movement gained significant strength—there were fewer than thirty African university graduates in the entire Congolese territory, and there were no trained Congolese doctors or engineers. The new democratically-elected leader of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, promised to restore the people’s control over their own country’s resources—a claim that frightened many Western powers, who had major stakes in Congolese rubber, copper, gold, and zinc. Two months after Lumumba’s election, the CIA authorized his assassination, arguing that Lumumba “couldn’t be bought” and needed to be eliminated to protect American business interests. Lumumba was imprisoned, beaten, and shot.
One reason that the Congo fared badly throughout the 20th century was that Western imperialists in the 19th century didn’t treat the Congolese people with dignity. In spite of their claims to be spreading Christianity and civilization to the Congo, the Belgians didn’t pass along much of their language or technology. Partly a result, Congolese politics has been fragmented and, at times, disorganized. Instead of being led by educated, arguably more reasonable people (Congolese doctors, lawyers, or professors), Congolese politics has mostly been controlled by generals and tyrants. But another, more direct reason why the Congo fared badly in the 20th century is that the Western world continued to interfere. The U.S. murdered a charismatic Congolese leader and allowed Western powers to rob vast amounts of natural wealth from the Congo, with the support of a U.S.-backed dictator.
Lumumba’s U.S.-backed replacement, Joseph Mobutu, remained the dictator of the country for thirty years. He accepted more than one billion dollars of military aid from America, in return for which he allowed American business to continue mining the area for resources. Mobutu murdered and tortured his political opponents; American presidents praised him as an honorable, reasonable leader. In many ways, Mobutu resembled King Leopold II: he was a tyrant, obsessed with money and power, and capable of incredible cruelty.
Hochschild suggests that Mobutu may have been inspired by Leopold in some ways—perhaps he modeled his cruel tyrannical regime off of Leopold’s. Hochschild doesn’t explore this point in very much depth; however, even if it’s not true, it’s a fact that Leopold’s colonial legacy set a dangerous precedent for corruption and cruelty.
To return to a previous question—what, in the end, was the legacy of the Congo reform movement? First, and most obviously, Morel, Williams, and Sheppard succeeded in preserving a huge amount of information that the Belgian authorities would otherwise have censored and erased from history. But second, and more importantly, the Congo reform movement succeeded in keeping alive “a human capacity for outrage at the pain inflicted on another human being, no matter whether that pain is inflicted on someone of another color, in another country, at another end of the earth.” Morel changed the structure of humanitarian movements by focusing not only on the specific acts of cruelty in the Congo but also the fundamental violation of rights implicit in the Belgians’ theft of Congolese land.
Although Hochschild is critical, in some ways, of the Congo reform movement, he respects it in its historical context. Thus, even if Morel may have been too limited in the scope of his thinking, the Congo reform movement advanced the cause of human rights itself, inspiring human rights advocates in future decades to risk their safety for the greater goods of freedom and equality. And, in some ways, Morel was a radical figure—he was one of the first Europeans to argue that the Congolese didn’t just deserve their freedom—they deserved control over their own land.
The Congo reform movement has provided inspiration to human rights activists around the world, encouraging them to fight against all odds for peace and freedom. Overall, we need to remember that, “at the time of the Congo controversy … the idea of full human rights, political, social, and economic, was a profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth. It still is today.”
In this final section, Hochschild addresses another important question—why is it important for us to learn about the history of the Congo? It’s important to do so, he implies, because the evils engendered by the Belgian occupation haven’t gone away. Even in the 21st century, powerful countries continue to steal natural resources from weaker countries, promote instability in order to strengthen their own political position, and violate other peoples’ right to self-determination. In short, we shouldn’t only focus on what happened in the Congo a century ago—we should learn from Hochschild’s book and fight for justice and equality in the 21st century, too.