Friday, January 20, 2012

Forward to the Past in the D.R. Congo: Part 1, Le Roi-Souverain of the Congo Free State

Forward to the Past in the D.R. Congo

Part One, Le Roi-Souverain of the Congo Free State

by Mac McKinney

The Congo River (source: Photobucket Commons)
It has always been such some might argue, the ongoing abuse of humanity within the area designated “Congo”, first as a vast rainforest partially under the control of the African Kingdom of Kongo with its plentiful internecine skirmishes, battles and factional wars as well as its defensive wars with the domineering Portuguese, and already cursed with the plague of slavery both as tradition and outside imposition; then as the very “Heart of Darkness” European colony that Joseph Conrad described in his writings; and finally as the modern dysfunctional and blood-splattered state that is making international headlines regularly as a yet another gaping wound in the body-politic of Africa. 

It was named, originally, after the dominant river running through it, the Congo. Congo is a Bantu word meaning “mountains” because this deep and monstrously long river often flows through elevated terrain, down into canyons and over great river falls, its sources actually beginning in the mountains and highlands of the East African Rift. And this was terrain covered by rich rainforests and jungle, or “bush”, the mountains and rainforests themselves laden with rubber trees, minerals, gold and diamonds that have become, to the modern industrial world, an endless source of avarice, and it was populated, by the late 1800s, by millions of black Africans largely living in towns, villages and river settlements, with lineages traceable back to Neolithic times.

These millions had the misfortune to be in the worst place at the worst time during the last great surge of European colonialism in the race to carve up and subjugate the vast continent of Africa in the Nineteenth Century. Actually, if only Great Britain had colonized the Congo, things might have turned out better, because London had already largely figured out, to some extent at least, that it is short-term folly to simply bleed a colony dry, that if you are going to successfully colonize a territory then you must also make money for the colony, not unlike launching any business, investing in it, properly administrating it, showing at least a modicum of respect to the inhabitants rather than reverting to the savagery of the 15th Century Conquistadors of Spain, who simply came, saw and plundered lands, slaughtering the multitudes as they went. Indeed, even the Spanish had moved beyond that blood-soaked stage by and large.

But the established powers weren’t counting on the frenetic and vain ambitions of one small European colonial wannabe, Belgium, whose King Leopold I had vigorously sought, and failed, to join “the Club” in the first half of the 19th Century, but whose tall and imposing son, Leopold II, even more determined than “Dad” to the point of egomaniac obsession (“Belgium MUST have a colony” was his mantra), managed to achieve the near impossible. After years of also hunting for colonial footholds around the globe, he finally came up with a viable strategy for penetrating the territories of Africa. 

Already showing a budding propensity for duplicity and manipulation, in 1976 he calculatingly organized what was ostensibly a philanthropic and scientific association, the International African Society, with a mind for steering it toward his imperial ambitions, but which, however, soon became, to Leopold’s chagrin, a snake-pit of competing European colonial interests, which ultimately led to its fracturing. Ever enterprising though, Leopold had meanwhile organized the International Congo Society in 1878, which, although also spouting noble philanthropic and humanitarian ideals for Africa, was even more compliant toward Leopold and his rapacious royal and personal ambitions.

Statue of King Leopold II in Belgium. Those in the Congo have been pulled down. (source)

In 1978, Leopold also hired the famed Welsh writer, explorer and exceedingly colorful character (read: scoundrel) Henry Morton Stanley, who had only several years earlier completed his epic African journey to find the lost Dr. David Livingstone. Leopold commissioned him to now sojourn forth and explore the vast Congo region while secretly “staking out” as much land as he could in Leopold’s name as part of the King’s grand acquisition strategy to be played on the chessboard of European political intrigues, a strategy cynically Machiavellian to the hilt.

19th Century etching of Stanley in Africa (source: Photobucket Commons)
As events would subsequently unfold, King Leopold II could actually be characterized as an arguable prototype for various 20th Century, disreputable political stereotypes such as egomaniac dictators, racist imperialists, and Orwellian Double-Speakers several decades before Orwell was even born (let alone having written his masterpiece “1984”), while also setting the mold for obscene PR propagandists with international tentacles, not to mention mass-homicidal sociopaths.

Thus by 1884, with such instincts at his disposal, Leopold had skillfully wined, dined, bribed and lied his way through European diplomatic circles (while Stanley, back in Africa, was similarly flimflamming Congolese tribal chiefs) to the point of introducing the surrealistic proposition to the famous Berlin Conference on Africa of 1884-85, organized by no less than Otto von Bismarck himself, that HE, King Leopold II of Belgium, should be granted personal title to administer and control the lands recently delineated by Henry Stanley in what should hence be called the Congo Free State. His only goals, he pontificated, were to bring the light of civilization and Christianity to the benighted black man, while, incidentally, enabling all countries to bask in free trade for, and equal access to, the Congo’s then and future riches. 

His peers swallowed this like school boys, hook, line and sinker. He had already so manipulated the naivety, narcissistic sense of racial superiority as well as confused impulses to elevate humanity of both Europeans and Americans alike that in that very same year the London Daily Telegraph could write that "Leopold II has knit adventurers, traders and missionaries of many races into one band of men under the most illustrious of modern travelers [Stanley] to carry to the interior of Africa new ideas of law, order, humanity and protection of the natives." (source)

Understanding geopolitical rivalries, Leopold also played on Bismarck’s concerns about France and Great Britain, arguing that to check their advances into the Congo, it would be best to declare it a free trade zone, managed by Leopold of course. He also pledged to “suppress the East African slave trade; promote humanitarian policies; guarantee free trade within the colony; impose no import duties for twenty years; and encourage philanthropic and scientific enterprises.” (source)

Otto von Bismarck (source: Photobucket Commons)

Thus charity, philanthropy, Christianity and free trade were Leopold’s pious sops to the Conference, his version of Satan’s temptation speech to Christ atop the pinnacle of the Temple the subconscious subtext. However, unlike Jesus, the patronizing “White Man’s Burden-prone" leadership of Europe conferring in Berlin quickly took this devil’s bait. King Leopold alone, not Belgium, was hence granted sole proprietorship of the newly declared Congo Free State, as if the attendees at the Berlin Conference had any legal and moral right in the first place to bequeath a territory somewhat larger than Mexico and 75 times larger than tiny Belgium to just one man, while placing the some 20,000,000 hapless black souls within it under his thumb. 

But in effect, that did not matter to these current de facto masters of Africa’s fate. The die was cast and the hungry Belgian lion, quickly seconded by the Belgian Parliament as the Roi-Souverain de l’√Čtat Ind√©pendant du Congo in the wake of the Berlin Conference, tragically unleashed.

Next time:
Part 2: The Horror Begins

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