Throughout King Leopold’s Ghost, Hochschild tries to answer a profound question: why did millions of educated, “civilized” people who had heard about the cruelty in the Congo sit back and do nothing? Hochschild offers many different reasons: the racism of America and Western Europe at the time, the “mythology” of imperialism, the sophisticated publicity maneuvers of King Leopold II, etc. In the end, though, Hochschild keeps coming back to the same disturbing truth: ordinary humans beings have the ability to ignore the suffering of other human beings.
Hochschild shows that many people—perhaps even most—are willing to overlook cruelty if it doesn’t concern them personally. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the history of the Belgian Congo is that thousands of Westerners visited the Congo in the 1880s and 90s, and almost none of them spoke out against the atrocities they witnessed. King Leopold’s Ghost further shows how human beings can be enlisted to do evil themselves. Most of the officers and soldiers who committed human rights atrocities in the Congo were young, idealistic Europeans who thought that traveling to the Congo was a good career move. While few of them had a criminal record or any history of cruelty, the fact that their superiors were ordering them to torture and kill Congolese people was enough to convince them to obey barbaric orders (a reaction that Hochschild compares with that of the genocidal Nazis who claimed that they had only been following orders). Bizarrely, many of the officers who tortured and murdered Congolese people claimed that they didn’t like hurting other people, or even said that they didn’t “feel like themselves” when they hurt their victims. This might suggest that human beings have the power to “dissociate” themselves from their own acts of cruelty, in effect ignoring their own evil deeds.
Edmund Dene Morel, one of the key crusaders against King Leopold II’s regime in the Congo, wasn’t a particularly extraordinary man either: he was a humble, working-class business employee who decided to stand up for justice rather than simply continue to follow orders. During his years with the Congo reform movement, Morel became increasingly supportive of African property rights, and, as an older man, he fought for a variety of great humanitarian causes around the world. Furthermore, Morel’s activism inspired other people around the world to stand up for human rights. This suggests that witnessing injustice can bring out ordinary people’s virtue and talent, as well as their indifference. In all, the history of the Congo reform movement paints an ambiguous view of human nature. On one hand, it is depressingly clear that human beings can be cruel and sadistic if pushed by their superiors. Furthermore, many humans will remain apathetic to cruelty, as long as the cruelty doesn’t affect them directly. However, Hochschild also shows that ordinary people can summon the courage to become activists and fight for their fellow human beings. In the 21st century, the world is full of cruelty and injustice—it’s up to us to choose whether we want to tolerate it or fight it.
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Indifference and Activism Quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost
As he was winning congressional support for Leopold’s claim to the Congo, Sanford discovered an unexpected ally. Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, a former Confederate brigadier general, was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Like most white Southern politicians of the era, he was frightened by the specter of millions of freed slaves and their descendants harboring threatening dreams of equality … Morgan fretted for years over the "problem" of this growing black population. His solution, endorsed by many, was simple: send them back to Africa!
By the time he went to the Congo in 1890, close to a thousand Europeans and Americans had visited the territory or worked there. Williams was the only one to speak out fully and passionately and repeatedly about what others denied or ignored. The years to come would make his words ever more prophetic.
Few Europeans working for the regime left records of their shock at the sight of officially sanctioned terror. The white men who passed through the territory as military officers, steamboat captains, or state or concession company officials generally accepted the use of the chicotte as unthinkingly as hundreds of thousands of other men in uniform would accept their assignments, a half-century later, to staff the Nazi and Soviet concentration camps.
In 1887, the king asked him to serve as governor of the colony's eastern province, with its capital at Stanley Falls, and Tippu Tip accepted; several relatives occupied posts under him. At this early stage, with Leopold's military forces spread thin, the bargain offered something to both men. (The king also contracted to buy the freedom of several thousand of Tippu Tip's slaves, but one condition of their freedom, these "liberated" slaves and many others quickly discovered, was a seven-year enlistment term in the Force Publique.) Although Leopold managed for most of his life to be all things to all people, the spectacle of this antislavery crusader doing so much business with Africa's most prominent slave-dealer helped spur the first murmurings against the king in Europe.
We do not know whether Rom was already acting out any of these dreams of power, murder, and glory when Conrad passed through Leopoldville in 1890 or whether he only talked of them. Whatever the case, the moral landscape of Heart of Darkness and the shadowy figure at its center are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy.
For Leopold, the rubber boom was a godsend. He had gone dangerously into debt with his Congo investments, but he now saw that the return would be more lucrative than he had ever imagined. The world did not lose its desire for ivory but by the late 1880s wild rubber had far surpassed it as the main source of revenue from the Congo.
Due to the missionaries, from the mid-1890s on Leopold had to deal with scattered protests, like Sheppard's articles, about severed hands and slaughtered Africans. But the critics at first captured little attention, for they were not as skilled at public relations as the king, who deployed his formidable charm to neutralize them.
Significantly, Morel's humanitarian political ancestors, unlike his socialist contemporaries, had firmly believed that improving the lot of downtrodden people everywhere was good for business … Such humanitarians never saw themselves as being in conflict with the imperial project—as long as it was British imperialism. … This was the tradition in which Morel felt at home, and it was a tradition that perfectly suited his organizational talent.
Because Shanu was a British subject, the Congo authorities did not want to risk an international incident by arresting him. Instead, they harassed him unremittingly, even rescinding the medal he had been awarded for his work for the state. They then ordered all state employees not to patronize his businesses. That guaranteed that these would fail. In July 1905 Hezekiah Andrew Shanu committed suicide.
Just as he had done in Britain, Morel smoothly shaped his message for different American constituencies. Most of his allies were progressive intellectuals like Mark Twain, but he was willing to sup with the devil to help his cause. He made shrewd use of Senator John Tyler Morgan, the former Confederate general who had helped to engineer U.S. recognition of Leopold's Congo twenty years earlier. Morgan, still thundering away about sending blacks back to Africa so as to make an all-white South, wanted the abuses in the Congo cleaned up with no delay. Otherwise, how could black Americans be persuaded to move there?
Despite the report's critical conclusions, the statements by African witnesses were never directly quoted. The commission's report was expressed in generalities. The stories were not published separately, nor was anyone allowed to see them. They ended up in the closed section of a state archive in Brussels. Not until the 1980s were people at last permitted to read and copy them freely.
"I realized that I was looking at this tragedy [in the Congo] with the eyes of another race of people once hunted themselves."
Morel was locked in a double race against time: against the inevitable British recognition of the Congo as a Belgian colony, which finally came in 1913, and against the waning fervor of his supporters. Even Casement felt that "the break-up of the pirate's stronghold [was] nearly accomplished" and urged Morel to declare the campaign over. Despite some doubts voiced in his private correspondence, Morel decided to publicly claim victory. "I do not wish to paint the present in roseate hues. The wounds of the Congo will take generations to heal. But . . . the atrocities have disappeared. . . . The revenues are no longer supplied by forced or slave labor. The rubber tax has gone. The native is free to gather the produce of his soil. . . . A responsible Government has replaced an irresponsible despotism." The one major goal not achieved, he acknowledged, was African ownership of land.
With the start of the Second World War, the legal maximum for forced labor in the Congo was increased to 170 days per man per year. More than eighty percent of the uranium in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs came from the heavily guarded Congo mine of Shinkolobwe. The Allies also wanted ever more rubber for the tires of hundreds of thousands of military trucks, jeeps, and warplanes. Some of the rubber came from the Congo's new plantations of cultivated rubber trees. But in the villages, Africans were forced to go into the rain forest, sometimes for weeks at a time, to search for wild vines once again.
When these other mass murders went largely unnoticed except by their victims, why, in Britain and the United States, was there such a storm of righteous protest about the Congo? The politics of empathy are fickle. Certainly one reason Britons and Americans focused on the Congo was that it was a safe target. Outrage over the Congo did not involve British or American misdeeds, nor did it entail the diplomatic, trade, or military consequences of taking on a major power like France or Germany.
At the time of the Congo controversy a hundred years ago, 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.