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.