On this day in 1885 The Congo Free State was established by King Leopold II of Belgium. Now that we live in a more or less post-colonial world (some would argue that we’re completely free of it. Me? I’d argue that it’s just taken a different form, but I guess we can tackle that another time), we can acknowledge how bloody and vicious colonialism could be. It’s fair to say that Leopold’s Congo Free State took that viciousness to whole new levels.
Leopold had control over the state from 1885 to 1908. During that period we know that a huge number died under his regime, but because of the lack of census information it’s hard to be certain quite how huge that number was. There are debates about the percentage decrease of the population, with figures ranging from 15% – 50%, and debates on the numbers dead. We can only be reasonably certain that the number was somewhere between 5 and 10 million. And how did this come about? Well, there is a question and a half.
Leopold had got himself into the Congo with talk of fairness to the native Congolese and as an opponent to slavery. The veracity of this position wasn’t hard to tear apart, given this statement from Christian de Bonchamps, an explorer who served Leopold:
“The treaties with these little African tyrants, which generally consist of four long pages of which they do not understand a word, and to which they sign a cross in order to have peace and to receive gifts, are really only serious matters for the European powers, in the event of disputes over the territories. They do not concern the black sovereign who signs them for a moment.”
To be fair to Christian and Leopold, these views were hardly rare among European colonisers of Africa, but the situation in the Free Congo State was a little unusual. Although Leopold was King of the Belgians, the CFS wasn’t the colony of Belgium; it was his own personal fiefdom. Leopold was, in effect, an autocratic monarch in Africa. He was the government, the state, the ultimate arbiter of law; what he wanted, he got. What Leopold wanted was profit and lots of it. In the earliest period of his control this was to be found in ivory, but then the trade turned to rubber. This is a very simplified version of the economy of the state, but as we only have so much in the way of time space and attention spans, I’ll keep it short. The Congo Free State had no major cities, it was divided into districts, in the first few years of Leopold’s “reign”, it was losing money, but this was sorted by turning to rubber and executing a number of financial deals that relied upon the supply of rubber. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw a huge demand for rubber and a subsequent rise in prices. The “humanitarian” King Leopold, the man who abhorred slavery, made the most of it.
The long and the short of it was that each area had rubber quotas to meet. They also had a Force Publique, who would ensure that
they met the quota, because their (the PF’s) livelihood also depended on it. Their technique was quite simple. If you did not produce enough rubber, you died. But, it was not as simple as purely killing someone, there had to be proof that you’d killed. The officers of the PF did not want any bullets wasted. Each bullet should result in one dead worker and the proof of that was to be the worker’s hand. Hands were often cut off without taking the bother of shooting. Some workers ended up dead, others lacking a hand or two as this crazy world became crazier and rubber quotas were made up with rubber and hands. Of course shooting to kill and dismemberment didn’t always quite cut it, so there was also some beheading, rape and torture to keep the FP entertained and the workers in line. Oh and of course the occasional destruction of whole villages who just weren’t “pulling their weight. The quotas, as one would expect in such a humanitarian regime, kept going up, but because of the particular genus of rubber in the region – in South America there are big rubber trees that you tap, in the Congo, the rubber is in vine form, more delicate and as such there was far less of it – yields were going down. The less rubber there was the more hands were collected.
This was kept under wraps for a while, but slowly it started to get out. At first, Leopold pooh-poohed the whole thing, declaring that it was propaganda on behalf of other nations who wanted a bit of his rubber action. But more and more voices rose against the regime. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about it, Mark Twain wrote about it, Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness. The Congo Reform group was formed, including in its membership Twain, Conrad, Booker T Washington and Bertrand Russell among others. Roger Casement (who we will definitely return to one day soon) inspected the area for the British government and brought back reports of the horrors. It took a few years but finally in 1908, Leopold lost control of his “kingdom” and Belgium took over.
It took time for things to get even a little better and the truth is that in nearly 25 years that King Leopold controlled the area, he destroyed it. The whole area still suffers from the heinous wrongs done to it then, in terms of retarded development, deforestation, etc. Now, just because Leopold was one of the most disgusting fucks who ever lived, doesn’t mean that all the other African colonies were tickety-boo. They weren’t. A lot of the problems we see on the continent to this day have their roots in the decisions made by colonisers at the time and the wholesale mistreatment of the native population. That said, Leopold does hold a really rather special role when it comes to being an inhumane bastard who didn’t care how many people had to die in order for him to line his ermine-lined pockets with filthy lucre. Genocide has many faces. Leopold’s was made of latex and severed hands.
Today is the birthday of the utterly delicious metrosexual husband of the preternaturally thin Victoria, David Beckham.
I do love Mr Beckham and have long entertained a fantasy about him that is too filthy to sully your tender ears with. Suffice it to say, it does not involve me in an active role of any sort, because, dear readers, as the delightful Tallulah Bankhead once said, I’m as pure as the driven … sludge. Anyway!
He’s handsome, he has a fine, fine, f-hh-hine body. He’s sweet, self-deprecating (at least he manages to appear so, which is pretty good going), talented and has grown from a bit of a bratty boy (1998 World Cup, he should not have given Diego Simeone a delicate kick in full view of the referee, even though Simeone deserved it, and in fact deserved far harder) to a mature sportsman who’s a great role model for anyone when he’s on the pitch. He’s also funny as shown in some of the Sport Relief sketches he’s done and recently he’s got even finer by wearing glasses and stuff. *Swoon*.
So there you go. A bit of an adolescent elegy, straight out of the pages of Jackie or Oh Boy or My Guy or Just Seventeen. I don’t care even one little bit. He’s just so damned hot! Happy birthday David. One day you and Ronnie O’Sullivan will act out my fantasy for me. Oh yes. It will be so.