Congo, Then and Now

A father stares at the hands of his five year-old daughter, which were severed as a punishment for having harvested too little caoutchouc/rubber

(This is an unnaturally long post for this blog, but even if you skim, please pay attention to last two paragraphs).

The largest private estate ever ‘owned’ by man in history was perhaps a chunk of Africa as big as Europe acquired by the Belgian King in 1885. Between 1885 and 1908, Leopold II of the Belgians was the de facto owner — not merely an administrator, trustee, company director, colonial overlord or even king, but an owner in his own personal capacity — of over a million square miles of central Africa, in the form of Congo Free State, with its capital at Leopoldville.

Belgium never had interest in joining the so-called Scramble for Africa, but seeing a boom in demand for rubber (which Congo had plenty), Leopold decided to do the job himself. In 1876, he founded the Association Internationale Africaine, a strictly humanitarian organization with the highest ideals (at least in theory) to ‘carry to the interior of Africa new ideas of law, order, humanity and protection of the natives’, according the Daily Telegraph in 1884. In reality, however, its mission was, as Leopold himself confided privately, to carve out a slice of the “magnifique gateau africain“.

From the very beginning, Congo had a certain mystique that appealed to outsiders. The popular magazines Le Congo Illustre, Voyages et Traveaux des Belges dans l’Etat Independent du Congo and Etat Independent du Congo provided the alluring pictures of sights and tribes. Absent from them, however, were shameful realities that Leopold’s greed had wrought: exploitation, mass-mutilations, state-sponsored slavery and murder, genocide.

This reality was uncovered, almost by accident, by Edward Dene Morel, a shipping clerk who noticed that outgoing cargoes to Congo were predominantly arms and ammunition. Morel slowly gathered information from hundreds of eyewitnesses to discover the shocking truth. In his tenacious quest, Morel was aided by a group of missionaries who managed to photograph some atrocities. The most famous photo was perhaps the one depicted above, taken by the Rev. John Harris and his wife Alice, who returned from Congo in August 1905 to tour Britain with their shocking photographs, giving lectures condemning Leopold’s rule.

The general public suddenly realized that this truly was Heart of Darkness evoked in the 1899 novel by Joseph Conrad. The Congo Issue was slowly becoming a media war; Leopold bribed newspapers to dismiss atrocities as ‘old wives’ tales’. When two distinguished travelers on a fact-finding mission went to Congo, they were shown so little that both came back with glowing tales. One of them, Viscount William Montmorres, published a gushing book about hardworking officials and cheerful natives. The other, the publisher Mary French Sheldon, fell in love with the captain of her steamboat, and later wrote in the Times, “I have witnessed more atrocities in London streets than…. in the Congo.” Frederick Starr, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago, was hired to selectively use photos, and write an apologist text, “The Truth about the Congo” in 1907.

However, Leopold finally lost the media war. In November, Congo was confiscated — or rather bought by millions of pounds — by the Belgium government from their king. The importance of news photographs in influencing public opinion was underlined in Mark Twain’s denunciation, “King Leopold’s Soliloquy“, where the aging king complains that the incorruptible Kodak camera was the only witness he had encountered in his long experience that he could not bribe. Fittingly, the book was illustrated with the Harrises’ photographs.

Even after Leopold and its independence the situation didn’t improve; we use coltan from (now Democratic Republic of) Congo in many things, including in the computer or phone you are currently using to read this article. For this lucrative reason, exploitation of Congo remains an undermentioned story in a world where Kodaks are incorruptible but journalists and photographers can be threatened or bribed away. A sobering note is that this is still happening more than a century after Morel founded the world’s first international human rights campaign and the world’s first NGO over Congo. In the last century, the only thing we have succeeded was in transferring Congo from a private property of Leopold into that of many corporations. Leopold would have been very pleased with the successes the latter are having in information blackout.

This is not a shameless plug but rather a heartfelt proposal: I know some photographers and political pundits read this blog, and I request you to explore more about Congo. For the rest of you, I want you to repost/re-tweet this article. I believe the situation there deserves more attention. I have always wanted to go to Congo myself and report it myself, but at last, time and resources do not allow that. This post, however, is the best I can do.

— this post incorporates some text from The Vertigo Years.


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