King Leopold Ghost : Essay Questions

What is the difference between slavery and forced labor?


Slavery is the practice of one person owning another as legal property. Slavery has been a common institution throughout world history, accepted by ancient and medieval cultures. Slaves were taken by the victor after battles, taken in slave raids, purchased, or inherited as property. Greece, Rome, Israel, China, Japan, India, Africa, the Arab countries, and the Scandinavian countries all integrated slaves into their societies, or used slave trade to gain wealth and power. Europeans used slavery to run their overseas colonies during the colonial period. The best known example is the enslavement of millions of Africans who were sent to the Americas, Asia, or Europe, and whose descendents also inherited the slave status.


Forced labor includes hard labor for convicts, a punishment for British criminals sent to Australia and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Forced labor has also been inflicted on persecuted minorities or political prisoners, as in Nazi Germany or the Gulag camps in Stalinist Russia. The Japanese used prisoners in World War II to build railroads. Leopold’s use of Congolese as forced labor in his colony to produce wealth was shocking because it was another form of slavery, which he had openly condemned, and which was illegal. He added a new twist to forced labor with the taking of hostages or family members, blackmailing the men to work. Historically, forced laborers do not live long because of the severe conditions. 


Unfree labor can also describe the fate of migrant workers who are far from their homeland, and because of their different ethnic identity, are mistreated or underpaid and without legal protection. Indenture is a form of debt slavery where a worker signs a contract for a specific period of time and works for sustenance only. Many immigrants became indentured servants to get to America. Peonage is a form of debt slavery that was practiced in the south after the Civil War, keeping blacks and poor whites in an economic bondage they could not escape. Serfs in Russia and medieval Europe were not owned but were bound to the land and had no freedom to do anything but work for the landowner.


Military institutions have used conscription or impressment to fill their labor needs, forcing men to go to war or to sea by kidnapping or coercing them. Trafficking of women and children for forced prostitution presently goes on in all parts of the world. Slavery is illegal everywhere today, yet the International Labor Organization of the United Nations reports there are still millions of unfree laborers of one kind or another. 



What are other important books and films on Africa?


Works written during the colonial period of Africa by the colonizers reflect their points of view. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899), for instance, portrays Africa as a dark and primitive world capable of drowning the moral integrity of a white man. H. Rider Haggard wrote stories about whites and blacks in South Africa. His novel She (1889) tells of a mysterious white queen in black Africa, and King Solomon’s Mines (1885) romanticizes white adventurers in Africa looking for lost worlds and jewels. Out of Africa (1937) is Danish author Karen Blixen’s (Isak Dinesen) memoir of her colonial coffee farm in Kenya where she was one of the Europeans living outside Nairobi from 1914 to 1931. Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897) was a best-selling but controversial book in England, because it told of a white woman traveling alone in safety among supposed savages. She denied that African natives were inferior peoples and criticized the missionaries for destroying their way of life. 


Novels on later African history include the following. Nobel prize winning V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1978) describes the terrorism of Mobutu’s Congo. Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji, (2008) is a novel about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin, through the eyes of an Indian family. 


African voices are heard in the following books. George Nzongola-Ntalaja, a Congolese academic, has written The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila: A Peoples History, (2002). He tells of the struggle for democracy from the point of view of the Congolese. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, 1959, is an important Nigerian novel describing pre-colonial tribal civilization. Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2004, Wangari Maathai, is the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Africa and the first woman Ph.D. in biology in East Africa. Her book, Unbowed: A Memoir, (2007) details her environmental work with the women of Kenya, planting trees.


Notable films on Africa include. “Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death,” Peter Bate’s 2005 documentary on King Leopold, and “King Leopold’s Ghost,” a 2006 documentary based on the book, directed by Pippa Scott. “Invictus” (2009) gives hope that African countries can move ahead in terms of racial and economic equality through greater understanding. In the film Nelson Mandela uses sports to create South African unity. The 1996 documentary, “When We Were Kings” concerns the boxing championship Mobutu sponsored in the Congo in 1974 between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The acclaimed 2007 documentary “War/Dance” shows three African children in a Ugandan refugee camp using the arts to heal the wounds of war. 


What is the origin of modern human rights movements?


Throughout history, noble individuals, societies, religions and philosophies have championed human justice and mercy. The idea of inalienable human rights, however, as belonging to every human being, despite country, race, gender, or legal status, is an idea that emerged with the philosophy of Humanism. Humanism is a secular point of view that arose in the Renaissance, celebrating the freedom of the human spirit. It was particularly expressed in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment that gave birth to the modern idea of democracy.


Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Paine spoke of a secular social contract between government and governed. If the government broke the contract to uphold the liberty of the citizens, citizens were no longer bound to obey. The government did not exist for the benefit of the few, but for the benefit of all. This ran counter to the idea of the divine right of kings who had absolute power, an idea that Leopold still clung to. Locke developed the idea of natural rights, that people are born free and that to violate that freedom is a criminal act. These ideas fuelled the American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789). These revolutions declared all citizens to be equal in their rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 


One of the most famous human rights movements is the abolitionist movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The abolitionists realized the moral evil of slavery and worked in the United States and Britain to abolish the institution. The British declared slavery illegal in 1833, and the United States, in 1865. This successful anti-slavery campaign in Britain is what gave E. D. Morel courage to attack King Leopold in 1890.  Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the model advocates for peaceful civil disobedience in order to secure human rights. Their philosophies of non-violent protest are currently being practiced today in the Middle East, in countries like Egypt. 


Eleanor Roosevelt’s work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), adopted by the United Nations, was the first international legal effort to uphold human rights. During the 1970s, many human rights activist groups were formed, including Amnesty International, which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. Other famous human rights groups include Human Rights Watch, One World Online, Center for World Indigenous Studies, and PEN, the writers union that promotes freedom of expression. 


What is the history of the Congo after King Leopold?


The Belgian government ruled the Belgian Congo from 1908 to 1960. Although some laborers were paid wages, forced labor was still employed in copper, cobalt, diamond and gold mines, as the government gave private companies a free hand. The Congo was a leading copper, uranium, and rubber producer. After World War II, when former colonies were becoming independent, Belgium was pressured by the United Nations to liberate the Congo. By 1958 the demands for independence had gained momentum, with such leaders as Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasa-Vubu. Belgium quickly relinquished the Congo to its independence in 1960 to avoid a war, but there had not been enough preparation, since there were not many educated Congolese at that time, or working coalitions. Kasa-Vubu became the first president and Lumumba the first head of government. 


A series of rebellions followed Congolese Independence and the assassination of Lumumba. The army under the command of Joseph Mobutu (Mobutu Sese Seko) put down the rebellion, took power, and stabilized the government. Mobutu renamed the country Zaire and ruled from 1965 to 1997. He nationalized foreign-owned firms and became a dictator with a personal cult designed to purge the country of its colonial past, siphoning off millions of dollars of the country’s wealth while the people starved and the infrastructure collapsed. He was backed by Western powers, especially the United States, because of his anti-communist stance.


After the Cold War ended, Mobutu lost support in the West. In 1997 during the First Congo War, he was thrown out by a rebel force of foreign troops from Rwanda, Uganda, and Angola led by Laurent-DÈsirÈ Kabila, who became President and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1998 Kabila thanked the foreign military forces for their help and then ordered them out of the country. 


Thus began the Second Congo War (1998-2003), known as Africa’s World War, involving eight countries, 25 armed groups, and killing 3,900,000. Ethnic conflicts and a continuing scramble for the Congo’s rich resources fuelled the hostilities. When Kabila was assassinated in 2001, his son Joseph Kabila became president of the Congo Republic. The region remains in conflict with neighboring countries and military groups illegally exploiting the diamond, cobalt, gold, and other resources, using violence and forced labor. Congolese are currently suffering from displacement, starvation, rape, and disease, with an estimated death rate of 45,000 a month and 2,700,00 deaths since 2004. Western human rights groups advocate that Western countries limit their use of “conflict minerals,” those Congo minerals mined for use in computers and electronic products but produced through military conflict and human rights abuses. 


What contribution has Africa made to the western arts?


Instruments like African drums, rattles, rain sticks, wood sticks, and flutes are cherished for their special effects in contemporary music. African American spirituals and the blues were inspired by African work songs. Street jive, hip-hop, and rap also derive from African verbal rhyming games and verbal insult games. In the 1970s, Remi Kabaka initiated the drum patterns for Afro-rock, incorporated by such groups as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. On his album Graceland, American folk musician Paul Simon uses contemporary African bands, rhythms, and melodies, combined with his own lyrics.


African visual arts are extremely sophisticated to the modern eye for their formal qualities, expressiveness, colors, and imaginative designs. Wooden masks were ceremonial, depicting animal or human spirits. They had sacred power. Statues of wood and ivory, inlaid with metals or shells had similar religious purposes. They seemed distorted in features to the colonizers, but the masks and sculptures were recognized by such western artists as Picasso, Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin, Modigliani, and architects like Le Corbusier as fresh and powerful in their abstraction and simplification of form. African art influenced Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Expressionist art.


African textiles and clothing styles have influenced the western fashion industry. The colors and designs, derived from strip-woven Kente cloth of Ghana, Batik dying, and mudcloth have been adopted in modern African fashion designs. The untailored wraparound dress and turban, worn by African women has been adopted or adapted in western countries. The Dashiki, or loose tunic, became popular in the United States in the 1960s. Designer Yves St. Laurent has used African styles in many of his collections. Africa continues to be rich in innovative art today that continues to inspire western artists in the fields of music, literature, visual arts, and dance.