The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of widespread, normalized racism in Europe and America. Many of the most powerful people in the Western world believed that the native peoples of Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas were second-class human beings, or not human beings at all. Even some of the liberals of the era adopted a condescending attitude (an attitude that, by 21st century standards, would seem downright racist) when discussing minorities and native peoples. The international controversy surrounding the Belgian regime in the Congo brought out the racism of Westerners on both sides of the debate. However, it also pushed many liberals of the era to become more inclusive in their thinking and embrace a doctrine of universal human rights.
As Hochschild shows in his book, the international controversy over the Congo reform movement was not a case of racists arguing with tolerant people: rather, it was a case of extremely racist people arguing against more subtly racist advocates (with the perspective of the Congolese largely ignored on the international stage). On one extreme, the Congo controversy involved powerful, wealthy people, such as King Leopold II, who believed that Africans were no better than animals. Leopold, as well as many of his administrators in the Congo, saw the people of Africa as chattel, to be enslaved and put to work for his own benefit. Furthermore, Leopold was able to gain control of the Congo because he successfully manipulated the deep racism of white supremacists, such as the American senator John Tyler Morgan, who supported Leopold because he wanted the Congo to become a resettlement colony for African Americans. For many years, Leopold was able to exploit the people of the Congo, not only because he was a master of publicity and deception, but because a large chunk of the European population believed that Africans were sub-human, and had no rights worth protecting.
Even on the other side of the Congo reform movement controversy, many of the advocates for the Congolese people took a condescending, paternalistic stance on rights. For most of his career, Edmund Dene Morel (arguably the most important advocate for Congolese rights) made statements in which he treated the Congolese people like children. Furthermore, many of Morel’s allies believed that the Congolese, despite deserving the basic human rights of life and liberty, lacked the intelligence to take care of themselves. In other words, these late nineteenth century liberals objected to Leopold II’s cruelty, but did not question the underlying appropriateness of European imperialism. In general, even though the Congo reform movement viewed African slaves as human beings, it still thought of them as lesser human beings who needed the help and charity of sophisticated Europeans in order to survive. A famous quote from the missionary and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer epitomizes the “soft racism” of the liberal position on the Congolese: “The African is my brother, but he is my younger brother.”
But even if racism existed on both sides of the Congo controversy, the debate over Congolese slavery pushed some liberals to move past some of their racism and advocate a program of universal human rights. While Morel made many condescending and racist statements about Africans in the 1890s and 1900s, his views on the matter evolved throughout his life. Toward the end of the Congo reform movement controversy, Morel regularly argued that Belgium had no right to the land of the Congo—a statement that implied that Africans had a right to their own land, not just the right to be free. At the end of his life, Morel went further, arguing that Africans and other non-Western peoples should have the right to govern themselves, instead of relying on European governance. In general, the Congo controversy inspired Morel, and many other activists of the era, to stop thinking of the Congolese as immature, second-class human beings, and start thinking of them as human beings who had the right to be free, own property, and govern themselves. In this way, the Congo controversy was an important milestone in the history of human rights, encouraging many thinkers to push past their own soft bigotry and embrace the notion of true human equality.
Racism and Human Rights ThemeTracker
Racism and Human Rights Quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost
For Europeans, Africa remained the supplier of valuable raw materials—human bodies and elephant tusks. But otherwise they saw the continent as faceless, blank, empty a place on the map waiting to be explored, one ever more frequently described by the phrase that says more about the seer than the seen: the Dark Continent.
Underlying much of Europe's excitement was the hope that Africa would be a source of raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution, just as the search for raw materials—slaves—for the colonial plantation economy had driven most of Europe’s earlier dealings with Africa. Expectations quickened dramatically after prospectors discovered diamonds in South Africa in 1867 and gold some two decades later. But Europeans liked to think of themselves as having higher motives. The British, in particular, fervently believed in bringing "civilization" and Christianity to the natives; they were curious about what lay in the continent's unknown interior; and they were filled with righteousness about combating slavery.
By the time Stanley and others working for the king were done, the blue flag with the gold star fluttered over the villages and territories, Stanley claimed, of more than 450 Congo basin chiefs. The texts varied, but many of the treaties gave the king a complete trading monopoly, even as he placated European and American questioners by insisting that he was opening up Africa to free trade. More important, chiefs signed over their land to Leopold, and they did so for almost nothing.
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.
With great fanfare they were brought by train to Brussels's Gare du Nord and then marched across the center of the city to take the tram for Tervuren. There, in a park, they were installed in three specially constructed villages: a river village, a forest village, and a "civilized" village. A pair of Pygmies rounded out the show. The "uncivilized" Africans of the first two villages used tools, drums, and cooking pots brought from home. They danced and paddled their dugout canoes around a pond. During the day they were on exhibit in "authentic" bamboo African huts with overhanging thatched roofs. European men hoping to see the fabled bare breasts of Africa went away disappointed, however, for the women were made to wear cotton dressing gowns while at the fair. Clothing, a local magazine observed, was, after all, "the first sign of civilization'"
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.
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.
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.
It is an oversimplification to blame Africa's troubles today entirely on European imperialism; history is far more complicated' And yet, consider Mobutu again. Aside from the color of his skin, there were few ways in which he did not resemble the monarch who governed the same territory a hundred years earlier. His one-man rule. His great wealth taken from the land. His naming a lake after himself. His yacht. His appropriation of state possessions as his own. His huge shareholdings in private corporations doing business in his territory. Just as Leopold, using his privately controlled state, shared most of his rubber profits with no one, so Mobutu acquired his personal group of gold mines—and a rubber plantation.
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.