The capital of the new Congo state was Boma. By the 1890s, Boma had luxurious houses for its administrators, a whites-only hospital, and a trolley. The governor general of the Congo lived in a luxurious mansion, yet didn’t have very many responsibilities—more than any other European colonies, the Congo was governed directly from Europe. European officials in the Congo were usually unmarried, though they took on multiple African wives during their time in the Congo.
Life in the Congo was rigorously segregated; for example, European-built houses and hospitals were usually “whites only.” Congo administrators behaved hypocritically—they claimed to have come to Africa to preach Christianity, and yet some of them entered into multiple marriages, plainly disobeying the rules of Christianity.
By the 1890s, King Leopold personally controlled all the land in the Congo, thanks to Stanley’s intimidation policies in the previous decade. As a result, Leopold acted as a kind of venture capitalist, leasing out his property to private companies. But unlike a venture capitalist, Leopold had his own private army, which he used to protect his territory and consolidate his control over the ivory trade. Throughout the 1890s, Leopold continued to claim that he had no interest in making money in the Congo. Rather, he claimed to be interested in enlightening the people of the Congo and teaching them about Christianity.
Leopold made most of his fortune by leasing out his properties to other companies, and then collecting his share of the profits. Thus, he opened up the Congo to rubber and ivory companies, and made a large fortune in doing so. Leopold’s behavior utterly contradicted his claims of being interested in philanthropy. His practices also contradicted the claims of free trade that he had made to Sanford in the 1880s.
The white colonialists in the Congo enslaved the people of the Congo and forced many of them to work as porters. Porters were forced to carry heavy supplies across the territory, and they were horribly beaten if they failed in any of their assignments; as a result, most porters died quickly. The sight of black children—some no older than seven or eight—being whipped and beaten in broad daylight was not at all unusual in the Congo in the 1890s. For the most part, Europeans who came to work in the Congo didn’t keep records of their shock at the sight of so much cruelty. Rather, the white people who worked as judges, steamboat engineers, and soldiers tended to view whipping and beatings as necessary means of controlling the disobedient people of the Congo.
Conditions in the Congo were brutal: Africans were treated as disposable, and were no more respected than animals. Perhaps most disturbingly, the Belgians’ human rights crimes in the Congo almost always occurred in broad daylight: over the years, many thousands of people witnessed soldiers and guards beating children and murdering innocent people, but did nothing to stop these atrocities. In part, Western visitors to the Congo ignored the cruelty around them because they thought of Africans as sub-human, and therefore undeserving of basic human respect.
How was it possible that educated, “enlightened” Europeans thought nothing of the cruelty they witnessed in the Congo? To begin with, many Europeans didn’t consider Africans to be true human beings; even if they did, they often considered Africans to be lazy, stupid, and uncivilized. Second, the cruelty of the Congo had been approved by the highest Belgian authorities—thus, to be against whippings and beatings was to be against Belgium itself. Finally, as psychologists have confirmed again and again, human beings have the disturbing ability to get used to cruelty and horror very quickly. Indeed, the colonialists of the Congo seemed to think that being cruel and unsympathetic to the people of the Congo was a sign of maturity and machismo.
In part, Western visitors tolerated cruelty to the Congolese because they were “products of their era”—in other words, at a time when many educated people believed that Africans weren’t fully human, Westerners were willing to tolerate human rights atrocities. But Hochschild brings up a second, much more disturbing possibility: the ability to be indifferent to cruelty is timeless, and may even be a part of human nature. Whether in the 1890s or the 2010s, people get used to cruelty, and find ways of tolerating it.
The official military force of the Congo was the Force Publique, troops of African mercenaries commanded by mostly white officers. In spite of the strength of the Force Publique, there were many Africans in the Congo who chose to fight back rather than submit to tyranny. The Sanga tribe, led by the chief Mulume Niama, attacked the Force Publique and then took refuge in caves. The Force Publique retaliated by filling the caves with smoke, suffocating the entire tribe. Afraid that the sight of the dead bodies would make martyrs of the Sanga tribe, the Force Publique blocked the entrance to the caves so that nobody would be able to see what had happened. Other tribes targeted Belgian roads, trolleys, and state buildings; one tribe managed to conduct raids on the Belgians for more than five years before the Force Publique wiped them out.
In this important passage, Hochschild discusses a Congolese tribe that refused to go willingly into slavery. The Sanga tribesmen fought heroically against the Force Publique, eventually dying horrific deaths by asphyxiation as punishment for doing so. Nor were the Sanga unique—many other Congolese tribes rebelled against Belgian tyranny, risking their lives in doing so. By describing the brave actions of Congolese people, Hochschild offers an account of history that doesn’t entirely marginalize the Congolese, or portray them exclusively as victims.
While the Force Publique brutally suppressed African tribes’ resistance, there were also uprisings in the Force itself. In 1897, a huge mutiny broke out, in which porters and members of the Force Publique joined together against the Belgian governors. The fight lasted more than three years. During this time, a European priest named Father Achte was captured by members of the rebellion. While some of the rebels wanted to kill Father Achte immediately, the group decided not to hurt him, since he was unarmed, preached religion, and had tended to wounded Africans in the past. To Father Achte’s amazement, the rebels fed him goat, brewed him fresh coffee, and released him.
This passage is important for two reasons. First, it establishes that the Force Publique, in spite of being a brutal private army, wasn’t particularly well-organized; many soldiers in the Force were angry with King Leopold, despite their ostensible allegiance to him. Second, contrast the chivalry and magnanimity of the tribesmen who spared Father Achte’s life with the sadism of the Force Publique—Hochschild suggests that the Congolese rebels, despite being characterized as “savages,” were actually far more honorable and “civilized” than their European colonizers.
Throughout the 1890s, as Leopold issued edicts officially banning slavery, not one American or European visitor besides George Washington Williams stated the obvious truth: the Congo depended on slave labor. Administrators in the Congo were careful to speak of “volunteer workers,” rather than admit that these workers were slaves. Many of the slaves that the Belgians acquired for the Congo came from Arab slave-traders—the very people whom Leopold had demonized throughout the 1870s. One such trader, Tippu Tip, became so powerful in the eastern Congo that Leopold asked him to serve as the governor of the area—an offer that Tippu Tip accepted. While Tippu Tip and Leopold parted ways shortly thereafter, Leopold continued to appoint Arab slavers to administrative positions in the eastern Congo.
By 21st century standards, it might seem unbelievable that none of the Europeans or Americans besides Williams spoke out against cruelty in the Congo. In part, visitors may have kept quiet about what they saw because they didn’t want to offend Leopold, or because they considered Africans to be sub-human. But perhaps they chose to remain quiet because people—then and now—are often indifferent to the pain of others. Also, notice that Leopold had no qualms about allying with Tippu Tip, in spite of his decades of rhetoric against Arab slave-traders.
Few African voices had the luxury of describing slavery in the Congo, since African slaves weren’t taught how to read or write, and tended to die early deaths due to their owners’ cruelty. However, one slave, named Ilanga, told her story to an American state agent named Edgar Canisius. Ilanga explained that she had once lived in a tribal village far away. One day, the Force Publique came to the village; frightened, the tribe decided to offer the soldiers food and gifts in the hopes that they would move on. The soldiers did, but they soon came back and they used their guns and knives to capture Ilanga, as well as many other Africans. The Force Publique marched Ilanga and her peers for five days, during which they gave the Africans no food. Many Africans died during the five days march—when this happened, the Force Publique marched on.
Ilanga’s story is one of the few surviving first-person accounts of specific Congolese people. While Ilanga didn’t write her own story, she spoke to Edgar Canisius, who recorded her report. While it’s important to consider possible sources of bias when examining the historical record, it seems likely that Canisius and Ilanga were telling the truth—Ilanga had no clear incentive to lie to Canisius about the Force Publique’s behavior, and the forced march that she described to Canisius is in keeping with the character of the Force’s other actions in the late 19th century.
Leopold ordered that African children should be put to work in the Congo. He donated large sums to Catholic missionary groups, which, unlike most of the Protestant missionary groups in the area, were Belgian and intensely loyal to Leopold. Leopold wanted the missionary schools to indoctrinate African children and train them for a life of obedient slavery. Many of the children were trained to be soldiers in the Force Publique.
Leopold didn’t just try to enslave the Congolese population; he wanted to indoctrinate some of the Congolese and turn them into loyal soldiers. Put another way, Leopold tried to tear children away from their parents and neighbors, destroying the structure of Congolese society itself.
Around the same time, Leopold faced problems with his own family. His daughter, Stephanie, had married an Austro-Hungarian prince who had turned out to be an alcoholic, In 1889, the prince killed himself, and Leopold used the outpouring of sympathy for his daughter to raise funds for the colony in the Congo. Later on, Stephanie married a count, of whom Leopold didn’t approve, and for the rest of his life Leopold refused to speak to Stephanie. At the same time, Leopold’s sister, Charlotte, was becoming increasingly mentally unstable. She spent her time talking to dolls, and continued to believe that she was the Empress of Mexico. Leopold’s main source of happiness, it seems, was running his colony in the Congo.
Leopold seems to have shown no affection for his daughters—instead of concentrating on his family life, he concentrated on running his colony in the Congo.
Throughout Belgium, there were young, ambitious men who aspired to travel to the Congo to make their fortunes. Going to the Congo was widely seen as an excellent career move. Furthermore, young men often spoke of the Congo as a place with “no rules.” Many people who had already had unsuccessful careers in Belgium traveled to the Congo hoping to start over.
The fact that young ambitious Belgians thought of the Congo as the “wild west” suggests that, on some level, they knew that they could travel to Africa and commit acts of cruelty without punishment. In general, Belgian cruelty persisted because many Europeans were eager to inflict harm on African people or celebrate other people for doing the same.