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Author Topic: King Leopolds Ghost
Brad-
Nelson
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Brad Nelson
Post King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 8, 2018, 10:19
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My current book borrowed electronically from the local library is King Leopold’s Ghost.

The first few pages (I’m only 4% into it) chronicle the first exploration of the west coast of Africa, primarily by the Portuguese who found the mouth of the Congo river. This led to contact with the Kingdom of Kongo who were keen to trade with the Europeans.

In fact, the early message of this story is that the Congolese were so keen to trade for foreign goods that some were even selling family members to the slave traders.

Noble ambitions existed early-on. One of the central players, King Affonso, was even converted to Christianity and by all outward appearances was a real enthusiast. Affonso was more than glad to engage in slave trading because it was common to his kingdom. But he had no idea of the appetite of the Europeans for slaves and soon his kingdom (according to him) was being depopulated. The king pleaded to this fellow king in Portugal but to no avail.

Tragically, the slavery Genie was so thoroughly uncorked from the bottle that a boatload of the king’s relatives who he sent to Lisbon to be educated went missing. They had been captured as slaves and ended up in Brazil.

Many in his kingdom got in on the riches, apparently even sometimes selling family members. The temptation of European goods was apparently too large:

While begging the Portuguese king to send him teachers, pharmacists, and doctors instead of traders, Affonso admits that the flood of material good threatened his authority. His people “can now procure, in much greater quantity than we can, the things we formerly used to keep them obedient to us and content.”

All hail democracy. In a letter to King Joao II of Portugal, Affonso writes:

Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects . . . They sell them.

I believe in the free market, but it’s clear (as I’ve alway maintained) that it is not the only thing a culture needs. It can not be a universal defining principle as naive libertarians believe. Affonso further writes:

These goods exert such a great attraction over simple and ignorant people they believe in them and forget their belief in God . . . My Lord, a monstrous greed pushes our subjects, even Christians, to seize members of their own families, and of ours, to do business by selling them as captives.

The author writes of some Catholic priests taking black concubines and selling others into slavery. But at least they showed they were not total barbarians. The author writes:

The priests who strayed from the fold stuck to their faith in one way, however; after the Reformation they tried to ensure that none of their human goods ended up in Protestant hands. It was surely not right, said one, “for persons baptized in the Catholic church to be sold to people who are enemies of their faith.”

The author gives the context for all this when he writes:

Nonetheless, the fact that trading in human beings existed in any form turned out to be catastrophic for Africa, for when Europeans showed up, ready to buy endless shiploads of slaves, they found African chiefs willing to sell.

Whether this book as an anti-white screed or a frank retelling of events, I don’t know. At first glance it appears to be fairly objective. And whether or not this is part of an anthology of self-flagellating books designed to inspire virtue signaling and white repentance, I don’t know. Hopefully I’m reading it for the value of learning history.

Timothy-
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Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 8, 2018, 10:58
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People conveniently forget that there were two sides to the slave trade. There were European (and Arab) buyers who then sold the slaves to actual slave-holders. And there were the African tribes who sold the slaves. The Kongo seem to have been especially vile (though Brazil needed a lot of slaves, and this is where it got most of them). At least the Dahomey generally sold prisons captured in their wars with other tribes, not their own. (Flash for Freedom! starts with Flashman caught up in slave-trading with the Dahomey.)

But if you think the slave-trading is bad, wait until you see King Leopold's personal misrule of the Congo. He was probably the worst European colonialist of them all, and eventually his personal rule was replaced by Belgian rule. Bad as they were, they were a big improvement over Leopold.

Brad-
Nelson
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Brad Nelson
Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 9, 2018, 08:56
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But if you think the slave-trading is bad, wait until you see King Leopold's personal misrule of the Congo.

I’m at the point where the United States and France (after some extended lobbying, lying, and light bribing) have recognized Belgian Congo. I’m not sure why the United States did other than that they liked the oranges that one of Leopold’s functionaries was sending to key men. France was afraid (Stanley, of Stanley and Livingston, who was pro-British because even though we was a Welshman playing an American) would cause the Congo to go to the British so they backed Leopold after being given a “first refusal” offer on the Congo should Leopold no longer want it. The French figured he would go broke trying to build a railroad past the cataracts.

Germany recognized Belgian Congo because Leopold promised them free trade, something the Germans knew they would not get from the British or Dutch. Leopold dissembled enough lies to get what he wanted, but only after employing Stanley to do extensive preliminary work in the Congo (building roads, transporting a couple river boats up past the cataracts, establishing stations, etc.).

I don’t know if we have an equivalent of Stanley. I guess you could role together Bill Nye and Al Gore. He was a fraud. And yet unlike those other two, he actually did major exploration of Africa. He wrote about it and what he wrote was probably true, in the overall. But Stanley apparently made a lot of stuff up. After reading these accounts, I think it highly unlikely that he ever said “Dr. Livingston, I presume.” But as a savvy journalist, he knew what would sell. And his books, and his lecture tour, made him gobs of money. I guess throw in P.T. Barnum as well with Nye and Gore and maybe that does it.

Leopold sold his presence in the Congo as a collective humanitarian endeavor. But the committee of various European dignitaries who formed the initial association met once, perhaps twice at most. Leopold took it from there. Most were conveniently wowed with the idea of humanitarian efforts in Africa with one of the primary shticks being that Leopold would battle the Arab slave traders who (if the accounts of this author are accurate) were the bugaboo and catch-all excuse for doing what the white man wanted to in Africa.

What is laughable, in retrospect, is to see all these modern-day humanitarian do-gooders in the EU congregated in Brussels. I’m not sure they’ve learned much.

There are obvious parallels to the “humanitarian” efforts of the Democrat Party who avow such care for third-worlders but care only for their own power as they reck the homelands they were voted in to serve. They would likely have loved Leopold at the time.

I knew there had been a Belgian Congo. It was likely still written on many of the old maps and globes in elementary school, Congo having gained its independence in 1960. What I didn’t know was its unique circumstances of acquisition. Belgium was a tiny country compared to others in Europe and had to walk on eggshells in regards to Leopold acquiring a colony, which he so desperately desired as if only trying to keep up with the Joneses. But any outright grab for land would likely be rejected by the colonial/world powers that be (England, France, Holland, Germany). So Leopold had to basically run a PR campaign to get what he wanted. Incredibly, it worked if only because for most other countries the Congo was a problematic region in terms of making any money from it. Most colonial powers had their hands full already.

Timothy-
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Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 9, 2018, 09:18
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I remember reading in an old (1948; their section on human evolution included Piltdown Man as real) encyclopedia that something similar happened with the Ottoman Empire. Everyone in Europe would have liked to take them over, but none wanted anyone else to do so. Much like the Congo, evidently. Note that the French did get a slice of Congo land, and that Belgium eventually took over from the personal misrule of Leopold.

Kung Fu Zu
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Kung Fu Zu
Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 9, 2018, 09:26
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When I read about the Belgian Congo, I think of "Heart of Darkness" which then makes me think of "Apocalypse Now."

Timothy-
Lane
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Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 9, 2018, 10:13
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I will note here that one of Mike Resnick's future larger-than-life adventures, A Hunger in the Soul, is based on Stanley and especially his search for Dr. Livingstone. It certainly exposes the obsessive nature of his exploring. Note that Stanleyville was named after him.

Brad-
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Brad Nelson
Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 9, 2018, 10:41
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I think at some point, Mr. Kung, there will come a “book of darkness” where I’ve read enough. It’s all the same. We’ll see.

Stanley was a driven character. A bit too driven. But there’s no way a shrinking violet would have started from Zanzibar and made it all the way to the mouth of the Congo River, nor beat the French at building trading stations, roads, and transporting steamships to the Congo. He was a hard taskmaster and nearly succumbed to disease twice in all his journeys. But he had the constitution of a rock and expected that and more from others. He was a hard and cruel man who lived life large.

This is only one book and once source — and one that downplays Arab slave-traders, casting them off as not even Arab and only a scapegoat. Even this Wiki article notes the problem of the Arab slave traders:

"It is indispensable", instructed Leopold, "that you should purchase for the Comité d'Études (i.e., Leopold himself) as much land as you can obtain." Stanley did not do so, though shortly before leaving the Congo for good, he had witnessed an Arab massacre of hundreds of slaves and this had persuaded him that in order to stop such atrocities, in future Leopold would need to acquire 'the right of governing and of arranging all matters affecting strangers of any colour or nationality.' [34] On seeing 2,300 captives in abject misery, Stanley wished that he had a Krupp gun to kill the Arabs with. 'Would to God I could see my way to set them all free and massacre the fiends guilty of the indescribably inhumanity I have seen today.' [35] But Leopold had denied him such weapons for fear that the French might intervene and annex the Congo.

This aspect may get be included in the book. But the author has very carefully set up the Arab slave trade as a bogeyman, at least so far.

Timothy-
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Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 9, 2018, 11:31
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The Arab slave trade was significant on the east coast of Africa, operating from Zanzibar as well as some states on the Arabian peninsula. It also operated in northern Africa as far south, at least, as the confluence of the Niger and the Benue. The Dahomey probably traded some with them when the Europeans weren't available (which increasingly happened after the English began to wage war against seaborne slave traders). You may recall that the Arab slave trade plays a major role in the movie Five Weeks in a Balloon (which has a fine theme song as well as a lovely attack on the Muslim rulers of Timbuktu).

Brad-
Nelson
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Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 10, 2018, 08:41
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Heart of darkness is an apt description of Leopold’s Congo. I’m 33% into this and we’re getting into descriptions of treatment of the native tribes that might have been inspiration for the Nazis.

It’s easy to call this the result of racism. But it’s not unique to be faced with large numbers of people who are weaker, less powerful, and less intelligent than ourselves. We call them “children.” But we do not automatically treat our children with contempt and murder them (abortion aside).

It’s perfectly understandable that Europeans saw the Africans living near a state of nature and wished, like a natural and good attitude toward children, to provide schools, medical care, and the general nurturance the stronger can give the weak. One might cast this off today as cultural imperialism or whatever. Some of it might even be misguided. But it’s not the same as the systematic and intentional destruction of a people as Leopold did in the Congo.

So maybe we can call that “racism” but it seems to me there was something else going on there. The book describes some of the prevailing attitudes that rationalized the abuse (lazy Africans who needed to be taught to work) but not what propelled these attitudes. It’s one thing to have a general attitude (as the author says of Europeans at the time held) that “Africans were inferior beings, uncivilized, little better than animals.” But even farm animals are treated with more respect and care than the tribes in the Congo were. People don’t whip their cows to death or throw them chained into the river simply because they are considered inferior. And one could say that “profit” was the overriding motive, but it’s not readily apparently at all that Leopold couldn’t have gotten all he wanted for 1/4 the price through simple trade.

Anyway, it’s an interesting story of George Washington Williams (a bit of a rogue himself) who got the idea to give relief to some of his black brothers in America by making them a part of this humanitarian project (so he thought at the time) in the Congo. It was “send them back to Africa” but voluntarily and with the hope of bettering one’s lot.

But the groups that Williams lectured to about this project of making a go of it in the Congo had a lot of questions that he couldn’t answer. So Williams took a trip (one that went eventually completely around Africa) and spent six months in the Congo. And what he found so appalled him that he, with the skill of a lawyer (which he was), wrote an open letter to Leopold articulating his general outrage at the abuse of the natives in the Congo as well as a specific list of charges. He was the first to do so although that situation had been sitting there for some time for anyone to see.

One could say (this author does) that groupthink and narrow self-interest kept most people from saying anything. Here’s an excellent passage from the book on a universal truth:

”Monsters exist,” wrote Primo Levi of his experience at Auschwitz. “But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are . . . the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

That reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s quote: “Don’t be afraid to see what you see.” There’s also an interesting quote from John Stuart Mill, perhaps one of the most over-rated philosophers of the West:

Even John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of human freedom, had written, in On Liberty, “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.”

The cat was not completely out of the bag with William’s open letter. He died fairly soon after from tuberculosis. This put his attacks somewhat in the background but it was the thin end of the wedge.

It’s certainly possible that Leopold’s handling of the Congo unleashed the sociopaths who are always among us. I found this to be an interesting summation:

These were years when, to the distress of many a young male European, Europe was at peace. For a young man looking for battle, especially battle against a poorly armed enemy, the Congo was the place to go. For a white man, the Congo was also a place to get rich and to wield power. As a district commissioner, you might be running a district as big as all of Holland or Belgium. As a station chief, you might be a hundred miles away from the next white official; you could levy whatever taxes you chose in labor, ivory, or anything else, collect them however you wanted, and impose whatever punishment you liked. If you got carried away, the penalty, if any, was a slap on the wrist. A station chief a Manyanga, on the big rapids, who beat two of his personal servants to death in 1890 was only fined five hundred francs. What mattered was keeping the ivory flowing back to Belgium. The more you sent, the more you eared. “Vive le Congo, there is nothing like it” one young officer wrote to his family in 1894, “We have liberty, independence, and life with wide horizons. Here you are free and not a mere slave of society . . . Here one is everything! Warrior, diplomat, trader!! Why not!” For such people, just as for the humbly born Stanley, the Congo offered a chance for a great rise in status. Someone fated for a life as a small-town bank clerk or plumber in Europe could instead become a warlord, ivory merchant, big game hunter, and possessor of a harem.

One might define civilization as the set of institutions, laws, beliefs, and restraints that keep the sociopaths — who are always among us — from being empowered. Leopold’s system (complete with romantic notions of adventure) empowered and rewarded the most violent, lawless, and cruel. Whatever one thinks about how boring it is being a small-town banker and to instead seek adventure in a foreign land (a natural and healthy impulse), that’s not automatically the same thing as being a serial murderer of indigenous people. There may have been something particularly murderous and dark in the European man at the time, for I assume that not just the sociopaths ventured to the Congo.

Brad-
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Brad Nelson
Post Re: King Leopolds Ghost
on: July 12, 2018, 09:52
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I’m 49% into “King Leopold’s Ghost.” The author has outed some of his biases. Granted, against the backdrop of Leopold’s Congo you can hardly expect anyone to praise Europeans. But it’s a little thick at times, especially when Edmund Morel (a major whistle-blower) enters the scene. The author wonders where this mild-mannered bureaucratic functionary got the gumption to take on Leopold. After all, he has no socialist background.

Mr. Goodyear accidentally dropped some sulfur into his rubber and solved the problem of rubber getting too soft in the heat and too hard in the cold. Rubber tree plantations were being planted but they would take a decade or two to mature into trees large enough from which to extract the rubber. The race was on for Leopold to harvest what he could before then.

Everyone has heard of rubber trees. But I had never heard of rubber vines. These were some type of creeper (the big ones a foot across or more at the base) that wound around trees and up into the canopy and were spread all throughout the Congo jungle. They would even grow tree-to-tree once in the canopy (and very hazardous to get up there to tap). You could get rubber from them. Technically, you weren’t supposed to cut the vines all the way through (killing the vine) but if you did so you could get more rubber from them. Apparently such was the thirst for profits by Leopold that a lot of vines, as well as African lives, were cut in the quest for the substance.

It’s interesting the apparent total disregard for human life that was unleashed. It’s not unlike the total disregard many have for the unborn. There is much effort, especially through language and ideas, to dehumanize the Africans. Slavery is wrong, but slaves can be valuable. The absolute willful mistreatment of their slaves revealed a very dark heart indeed.

At the same time, naive Europeans (have they ever been anything but?) willingly bought into Leopold’s PR that he was helping the Africans and that any bad things being reported were either born of hyperventilating human rights advocates (we have the type in our day who would shut down whole industries to save some small fish) or were isolated incidents that he would look into and take care of. At one point the pressure mounted and Leopold appointed what amounted to a phony and powerless commission to look into things.

Not particularly explained well at this point is the story of Edmund Dene Morel who worked for Leopold’s transport company, the one who had a monopoly on all cargo movements. Morel noticed the shipping records did not match what was being shipped. A lot more rubber and such was coming back to Belgium than was officially recorded. What really caught his eye was that there was very little trade goods or money (natives were forbidden from having money anyway) going out to the Congo in return for all the ivory and rubber. This clearly meant something as nefarious as slavery was going on. And what was going out from Belgium ports tended to be a lot of guns and ammunition.

Morel was right, of course, but the author does not explain the obvious possibility that trade goods to the Congo were coming out of some other port outside of Belgium and outside of Morel’s notice. It’s a big operation, after all. Whatever. Morel was right, he quits his job at Elder Dempster transport company and starts a newspaper centered on Africa which gives him a forum. Once he starts on the topic he touches a nerve. Many people start smuggling information and documents out of the Congo and give it to Morel. Some key retired Congo operatives also filter information to Morel.

The evidence is pretty damning. There are even official internal manuals that were leaked that gave instruction to various officials how to use the technique of kidnapping wives and children and holding them hostage to induce the men to tap the rubber. There were even forms to fill out in this regard.

The author also tells the story of William Henry Shepherd, an accomplished black man who became a missionary to Africa for the Presbyterian Church. He publicized the atrocities committed against the Kuba who were a tribe in the deepest part of the Congo and who had mostly avoided the slave trade either from the west or the east.

The location of this main city or village of this tribe was a secret. They tried to keep all foreigners away. Sheppard persisted and eventually found it. The King was going to kill him and his men but because Sheppard was black and spoke their language, he decided that Sheppard was one of their spirit ancestors and became an honored guest. Sheppard stayed with the tribe for four months. He eventually wrote Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo which is substantially about his time in the Congo with this tribe.

Sheppard, unlike probably everyone else, looked at the natives not as savages but saw them (good and bad) for what they had as a culture. The Kuba were supposedly particular good artists:

The area where Sheppard was working bordered on the homeland of the Kuba people. The Kuba are among Africa’s greatest artists, working in masks, sculpture, textiles, and elaborately carved tools: Shepard’s collection of Kuba art, much of which ended up at his alma mater in Virginia, was the first significant one acquired by an outsider.

When Leopold’s men eventually found the Kuba villages, they were burned. There were legends amongst the Kuba that the are descendants from a great civilization. Sheppard writes:

”Perhaps they got their civilization from the Egyptians—or the Egyptians got theirs from the Bakuba!”

The author writes:

Sheppard was fascinated when he saw a Kuba ceremonial cup for drinking palm wine; carved on it was a face with features strikingly similar to those on ancient Egyptian artifacts. “The cup is made of mahogany,” Sheppard wrote, “and the face on it seems to verify their tradition that many, many years ago they came from a far-away land.”

There’s an elements of Battlestar Galactica to that story. Whatever the case may be, Sheppard was one of the first (if not the first) to engage with an African tribe as if they were people from which something could be learned.

Stanley, on the other hand, was said to be the model of the brute that was followed by most others entering the Congo. Roger Casement (a British consul sent by the Foreign Office to look into Morel’s charges and who will have a major role…the very point I’m at in the book) traveled with Stanley for a week on his Emin Pasha Relief Expedition:

”A good specimen of the capable Englishman,” noted the explorer in his journal, not noting that Casement was Irish. Casement was a better judge of Stanley, for although the explorer remained something of a hero to him, Casement recognized Stanley’s sadistic streak. A dog-lover himself, Casement later learned, to his horror, that Stanley had cut off his own dog’s tail, cooked it, and fed it to the dog to eat.

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