Wednesday, March 22, 2006

King Leopold's Ghost

King LeopoldÂ?s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
by Adam Hochschild

I just finished reading this book. It tells the story of the process that reduced the Congo from an African ruled society of 20 million people to a Belgian ruled colony of 10 million people, and of the courageous movement that tried to meliorate European rule (but probably failed to do so). The Europeans killed, tortured, kidnapped, enslaved and terrorized the African populations, extracting great wealth in the process. Since this happened, we have seen the holocaust, Cambodia, Burundi, Rwanda and other atrocities, but the scale of the inhumanity in the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries still has the power to shock.

The book also leaves clues as to why the post-colonial history of the region has taken the form it did. None of this should be news to us today, although the book also emphasizes the huge efforts to cover up the shame, and the process of forgetting that has deleted these events from so much of modern consciousness.

I wonder, however, about the culture of Europe in the time that this happened. How could modern men have thought it was morally acceptable to participate in such things? How could European nations have been partitioned Africa among themselves, and not thought it necessary to involve any Africans in the deliberations? Why would moderns allow a King, indeed one exhibiting sometimes bizarre behavior, to so ruthlessly exploit tens of millions of people for such ignoble ends? Why would the political authorities of the other great powers feel that it was all right to stand silent while all this was happening, simply because it was to their geopolitical interests to do so?

The institutionalization of the kind of colonization that occurred in the Congo begins in the minds of those with the power to colonize. What was it about European culture that allowed these colonial insititutions to develop? How could such institutions coexist with the many admirable institutions of the day? I have no answers! However, I suppose that the traits are still with us. Today we stand by while atrocities are committed on a huge scale in the Sudan, as we have stood by in Rwanda and Kosovo and many other places, and let the horror continue for far too long.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

I recently read "The Inheritors" by Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. The book seems to include a "roman a clef" about King Leopold and his efforts to profit from the Congo. It is also a very early science fiction novel, that I had never heard of before. Most fundamentally, the book suggests that Victorian England was built on foundations that could not survive, and that a colder society would be built on its ruins. Amazing book!