Memory of Congo: The Colonial Era
La mémoire du Congo: Le temps colonial
Recent decades have seen many battles over historical memory. The Turkish government—and, for that matter, our own—still refuses to speak of an Armenian genocide. Japan’s schoolbooks still whitewash its troops’ atrocities in World War II. And a curious conflict over memory is going on right now in Europe, where the battlefield is a Belgian museum.2
The battle is over Belgium’s past as a colonial power. For half a century it controlled the Congo, one thirteenth the land mass of the African continent. Before that the Congo was also linked to Belgium, as the private, personally owned property of the shrewd and ambitious King Leopold II. Belgians had been initially slow to colonize, but Leopold, who took his country’s throne in 1865, thought differently. Openly exasperated with being king of such a small country, he hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to stake out for him the boundaries of a huge African territory. From 1885 to 1908, when it became the Belgian Congo, the colony was known as l’État Indépendant du Congo, or the Congo Free State. Leopold exercised absolute control, referring to himself as the state’s “proprietor.”
Fearful of tropical diseases, the King never visited his prized possession. Instead, while living in Brussels, on his yacht, or in several luxurious villas on the French Riviera, he made a huge fortune off the Congo, conservatively estimated as at least $1.1 billion in today’s dollars. In the early years, most of the money came from ivory. Joseph Conrad unforgettably depicted the ivory trade in Heart of Darkness in the severed heads of murdered African rebels Kurtz kept as trophies.
From the early 1890s on, the major source of Leopold’s Congo wealth was rubber. The Congo’s equatorial rain forest was rich in wild rubber vines, and the inventions of the inflatable bicycle tire and the automobile set off a worldwide rubber boom. Troops from the King’s private army came into village after village and held the women hostage in order to make the men go deep into the forest to gather their monthly quota of rubber. As demand for rubber soared, quotas rose. Men were forced to search for several weeks out of each month, sometimes having to walk for days to reach vines that were not tapped dry.
Many men were worked to death, while the women hostages were starved. Not surprisingly, the birth rate plummeted. Few able-bodied adults were left in the villages to harvest food, hunt, or fish. Famine spread. During two decades of widespread but unsuccessful rebellions more people died. Others fled the forced labor regime, but they had nowhere to go except to more remote parts of the forest, where there was little food or shelter. Years later, travelers would come upon their bones.
The greatest toll came as soldiers, as well as caravans of porters and large numbers of desperate refugees, moved throughout the country, bringing new diseases to people with no resistance to them. Many illnesses, particularly sleeping sickness, became far more lethal for…
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