King Leopold’s Soliloquy

Through the filter of time … a repost that may still be interesting to you from two years ago.

I’m reminded of this work of literature owing to a recent discussion on another post. I like to point this text out whenever I get a chance, and since I’ve got a blog, this is an excellent chance!

The text is here.

I first became aware of, and read, King Leopold’s Soliloquy while in the ex-Belgian Congo, where the point of the story takes place. I lived in an area that was at one time a plantation area, but the plantations were long gone. The “road” through this area was passable only with a very tenaceoius four wheel drive vehicle (we had a Land Rover) and grew worse every year. But the road used to be excellent. I knew a guy, an older Efe Pygmy man, with one leg. He had been bitten by a full grown Gabon Viper. The Gabon Viper is one of the scariest of snakes. It’s head is huge, it’s body very stout, and it’s venom is the richest venom known in a snake, both neurotoxic and haemotoxic.

When my friend was bitten by the snake, he was driven by someone to a hospital, to have is leg cut off to save his life. In the days I lived there, this drive required many many hours (or a day or two) to reach, and would beat the hell out of the truck. But in those days, they were able to drive him there in a few hours. At 120 kpm, it would have been a two or three hour drive.

But the reason that the road was so good is because of the sort of policy satirized in Mark Twain’s text on Leopold. In those days, a Belgian Colonial Administrator would drive a vehicle at 100 kilometers per hour down this road with a glass of water on his dashboard. Wherever water spilled form his full glass, he would stop, and his agents would beat and/or maim the nearest villagers. This encouraged the villagers to keep the dirt road in perfect condition.

Eventually, the revolution came, in it’s own way, and the Belgians, guilty of a decades-long holocaust, got their due. They were burned to death in the buildings they hid in, they were shot, strangled, and drowned, and a few got away.

At a later time, I stayed in one of King Leopold’s mansions. Well, not really. We kept some of our stuff in the mansion. The mansion had no roof, and was filled with birds and bats, and their guano. Better to stay in a tent, outside, even though one would risk being trampled by a hippo or hassled by a hyena. This was Ishango, known locally as “The Most Beautiful Place on the Earth.” It is. But they should really tear down those old mansions (Two stood there side by side) and neaten the place up just a little. But no pressure, really.

Comments

  1. #1 llewelly
    June 21, 2009

    Seems to me the post-Leopold rulers of the Congo have been only marginally less awful.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    June 21, 2009

    Marginally less awful in intent, perhaps, but in the twenty years or so of Leopold’s reign, the population of the congo was roughly cut in half. It was a true holocaust, and the estimates of dead range from about five million to up to 22 million. The most likely number is over eight million. This would mean, byt he way, that the best estimate is that through direct and indirect means, Leopold killed about ten percent of THE ENTIRE POPULATION OF THE CONTINENT OF AFRICA. Maybe only seven percent. But not less, and maybe considerably more.

    Everywhere that I have looked both physically and in the literature there is evidence of total wipeouts of the local population, and there is not a single well known language group that does not have a subsequent history of moving into an area where people formerly lives.

    But yes, in many ways, later Belgian rulers simply continued many of the same policies.

  3. #3 Henry Harpending
    June 21, 2009

    Greg those Belgians sure must have been vicious or so you might lead us to think. At about the same time in Bechuanaland a remote chief had the son of a local white merchant flogged for getting his daughter pregnant, this with the agreement of the kid’s dad. Word of the outrage reached the capital at Lobatse, and several hundred troops, dragging a naval gun, set off through the sand to put down the rebellion. Word spread, and soon everywhere the sweating army column was greeted with folks sitting by the side of the road laughing at them. Finally, shamed, they turned around and went back to Lobatse.

    Fast forward to a few years ago. The US State Department gave the Botswana police some radar guns, and one found its way to Maun. The first victims of the radar gun were the district commissioner and the chief of police, who later was quoted as calling his own men “rascals” in the local paper. Meanwhile people in the Congo basin are hunting down Pygmies for supper.

    Do you really claim that this is the difference between Belgians and Brits? I don’t think so. I think those folks in the Congo basin, for whatever reason, must just be horrible people. The light humorous touch of the Tswana is the same as it was a century ago.

    Henry

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    June 21, 2009

    Henry, I’m not at all sure what comparison you are trying to relate to here, or even what point you are making. Are you saying that the Belgians were not significantly worse than other colonists? That would be demonstrably wrong. Are you suggesting that I’m saying that everybody was nice but the Belgians? I’m not saying that. Are you saying that the horrors reported for colonial Africa are made up some how and were all just a joke on the visitors?

    Please clarify. I’m not getting your point.

  5. #5 SteveC
    June 22, 2009

    I’ve found that when looking for interesting books to read, if you come across a book about Africa, you should pick it up. I’m sure Greg has surely already read it, but one I can recommend is Andre Gide’s “Travels in the Congo.” Or, really, almost any book about Africa. Maybe some of the macho Hemingway or Capstick stuff is not quite as interesting for some though, but, I’d say something like 80 or 90 percent of the books I’ve bought about Africa have been excellent, and I can’t say that about any other kind of book. But, it might just be me.

  6. #6 davem
    June 22, 2009

    I visited Zaire some 20 years ago (a 3 week trip on a 4 wheel drive Bedford lorry). We were one of the very few vehicles that could move at all. Nearly every other vehicle was a beer truck.

    The place, is, as you say, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. However appalling the Belgian rule was, one couldn’t help thinking that there is something seriously wrong with the people there. Going through ex-colonial towns, where there are the old buildings still standing, but with trees growing in the living rooms. Did it never occur to any of the men there that was a perfectly good house to be had for free, if only you would weed out the new sapling before it went through the roof?

    Walking up the Ruwenzori mountains, to Hut 3 at the top: a notice still displayed, dated 1930, informing us that only whites were allowed in the hut. I didn’t know what was sadder; that the locals had such an insult to them still posted up decades after independence, that they obviously couldn’t read it, or the fact that the porters were burning the doors of the hut to keep warm.

    Croosing into Uganda was a world away; really friendly people, who didn’t appear to resent us whites, where the men were actually working at their trades.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    June 22, 2009

    Davem, I assure you that there is nothing fundementally ‘wrong’ with the people of the Congo. Is is possible that your particular sensibilities matched more with the Ugandans than with the Zairois. What languages were you using to communicate? Were you speaking to these people in their own langauge? (In that region, English and French are not widely spoken).

    Yes, that region has been decimated and negatively affected by slavery, warfare, and brutal subjugation so one expects to see effects, but I’m certain that a vist of a few weeks, or Dr. Harpending’s impressions from a couple of countries away are in this case more colored by expectations and onreprecuionse’s own form of “political correctness” (read politically motivated bias) than anything else.

    Yes, yes, the Congo is totally fucked up. Are you Belgian or otherwise Euro-American? Are you from the contry that killed the first elected leader there? Do you use a cell phone?

    If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then when it comes to telling us how the people there have something wrong with them, look at yourself first. Yes, blame yourself first, and leave your victims alone.

    The European holocaust was different from the Congolese holocaust in a number of ways. One of those ways is that across most Western countries, we acknowledge that the European holocaust happened, we recognize the Jews and others as the victims, we join in efforts to “never forge” and so on and so forth. We have a clear idea as to who the victims were and who the perpetrators were, and we don’t blame the victims.

    For the Congolese holocaust, we fail to acknowledge that it happened, we deny its significance, and we blame the victims even to this day.

    And we continue to exploit them.

    Do you really think that the Zairois/Congolese are in some fundamental way not the same as you? Seriously?

    There but for the grace of your good luck go you, my friends. You.

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