In response to:
In the Heart of Darkness from the October 6, 2005 issue
In the Heart of Darkness from the October 6, 2005 issue
To the Editors:
On the eve of the closing of the Tervuren exhibition “Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era,” Adam Hochschild published a long and passionate indictment of the whole project [“In the Heart of Darkness,” NYR, October 6, 2005]. His article does not bother to review most of the issues raised by an enterprise which was breaking original ground. The intention of the organizers was not to claim any moral supremacy, but rather to present a balanced view of seventy-five years of history. They selected, I believe, a fair choice of available photographs, films, objects, texts, and maps, though it should be kept in mind that, in many cases, the exhibition could do no better than making use of public relations photographs which are often the only ones that are available. The accompanying oral testimonies, shown on video, offered diverse perspectives. Throughout the exhibition Africans were presented as active participants and not merely as victims. At the end of the tour visitors were left free to draw their own conclusions. Hochschild believes that this approach betrays lack in moral commitment and yet the formula adopted by Tervuren introduced colonial history into the social consciousness of Belgium on a wide scale. It was appreciated by 140,000 visitors attracted to the exhibition. Furthermore the Congo government showed its welcome appreciation by inviting the show to come to Africa.
The New York Review accusation that the organizers distorted information concerning the demographers’ accepted views on human losses of the early colonial days deserves close scrutiny. The organizers of the exhibition pointed to a consensus of demographic historians on the great movements of population history in Central Africa, an area larger than the Congo properly speaking. Demographers agree that, overall, population losses are a fact of the early colonial period. With the benefit of hindsight, it might have been preferable for the exhibition to rest with that agreement and not to mention 20 percent as a possible population loss for the Congo of those years. Indeed, as a rule, population historians hesitate to commit themselves to any figure. An extenuating circumstance is that our 20 percent suggestion was in line with E.D. Morel’s own estimate (his preface to Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy, English edition, 1907).
I will rest in peace if this is the major mistake committed by the Tervuren exhibition. For more than two years, this enterprise had to work in the face of polemics where, partly thanks to Hochschild’s exertions, the concept of holocaust loomed large. Again The New York Review‘s review compares the Tervuren Museum to a Jewish Museum in Berlin which would ignore the Holocaust. It later brings in the conquistadors of America. After cultivating much confusion, it is easy to blame the press or publishers for associating the Belgian Congo with genocide (see, e.g., Tokyo Yomiuri Shimbun, 14,400,000 press run: “Genocide: Belgium’s Monument to Denial,” by Adam Hochschild, March 15, 2005). It might have been fairer play to understand why the Tervuren exhibition had to confront such accusations.
I’m glad that Professor Vellut now seems to say that, in the Royal Museum for Central Africa exhibit for which he was responsible, claiming a population loss of merely 20 percent for the early colonial period was a “major mistake.” Indeed it was.
If, however, as both Belgian officials at the time and various modern scholars have estimated, the loss may have been in the neighborhood of 50 percent, what do we call this? Does it not constitute reckless destruction of life? That phrase is from one of the definitions, in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, for “holocaust,” with a small “h.” Long before the Nazis, the word came down to us from the ancient Greeks, and it is surely reasonable to apply it to the vast human toll taken in Central Africa.
Professor Vellut excuses other of the exhibit’s shortcomings by saying that “public relations photographs…are often the only ones that are available.” This is a puzzling assertion, given that the museum itself drew on an important alternative source, although in a manner so downplayed that a visitor could miss it. One thing which distinguished the Congo of a century ago from other bloody colonial conquests elsewhere was the presence of outside witnesses: several hundred British, American, and Swedish Protestant missionaries. Photographs of forced laborers, chained hostages, and atrocity victims, principally taken by Rev. William D. Armstrong and Alice Seeley Harris of Britain, appeared in slide shows and newspapers throughout the United States and Europe. Anyone can easily find many of these photos today, on-line at history Web sites such as www.boondocksnet.com/congo/congo_kodak.html or in numerous books, such as the 1999 Broadview Press edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Kevin Grant’s A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926 (Routledge, 2005) contains an excellent scholarly treatment of this remarkable pictorial record and the people behind it.
What happened in the Congo—and the similar, tragically ignored bloodbath in surrounding Portuguese, French, and German colonies—was not genocide. Professor Vellut and I agree about this, and it’s a point I made clearly in both my New York Review piece and in an article reprinted from the Los Angeles Times on which, without my knowledge, the Yomiuri Shimbun apparently put a misleading headline. However, his letter does not respond to a principal criticism I had of the exhibit, namely that it displayed virtually nothing about a major cause of this high death toll, the colony’s pervasive, long-lasting forced labor system.
For a museum exhibit about colonialism almost anywhere in Africa to ignore this is to be like one of those elegant restored plantation houses in the American South where the tour guides avoid mentioning slavery. Great national museums have a higher mission: to recognize and explore, without evasions, all aspects of the past—glorious, shameful, and mundane, life as it was actually lived, not as we might wish it had been lived. The Royal Museum for Central Africa still has that task ahead of it.