Summary of Chapter 6: Under the Yacht Club Flag
Leopold had an enormous task to develop the large Congo territory, but fortunately for him, the technological tools were there. The Congolese had only old-fashioned muzzle-loaders for weapons, while Europeans had the repeating rifle, and soon, the machine gun. Medical knowledge produced quinine to combat malaria. The steamboat and railway became major instruments of colonization.
By 1889, Leopold’s white agents in the Congo included traders, soldiers, missionaries, and administrators. He first set the task of building a railroad around the 220 miles of rapids. Leopold had sunk all his money into the investment and was running out of capital. He began to sell bonds, using the moral urgency of saving African souls as his advertising gimmick. He got private investors for the railroad.
Still, he needed a loan and decided to approach the Belgian Parliament, and for this, he used his human rights disguise. Holding an anti-slavery conference in Brussels in 1889, Leopold urged his development plans for the Congo as a plan to defeat the Arab slavers with a series of fortified posts, roads, and railways. He offered his newly established Congo Free State for this purpose, asking only that he be able to use import duties to finance troops to fight the slavers. Leopold promised his Parliament if they gave him a loan, he would leave the Congo to the government in his will. He got the loan, interest-free, on the basis of his philanthropic work.
Leopold’s ability to charge import duties was an amendment to the Berlin Conference of 1885, which had agreed to free trade in the Congo. Henry Shelton Sanford, who had lobbied for Leopold with the American Congress, felt betrayed. He had sold the idea on the basis of free trade.
The Congo had not been enough for Leopold’s ambition, however. He also wanted the Sudan, the valley of the Nile, which bordered the Congo. When there was an Islamic uprising in the Sudan in the 1880s, the governor, Emin Pasha, was cut off and besieged. From 1886 to 1889, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition was led by Henry Morton Stanley, who tramped through the Congo with his Maxim gun and army.
Leopold let Stanley go on this expedition on the condition that he would take his rescue party through the Congo, and that once he found Emin Pasha, he would ask him to remain as governor of the Sudan, but as an annexed province of the Congo. Financing of this anti-Islamic war came from other people, so Leopold did not have to lift a finger.
In reality, this famous expedition was a bungled disaster. Stanley raided villages and killed natives, while half his men died of disease and starvation. When Stanley’s survivors reached Emin Pasha, they had to ask him for help. Emin no longer had need of rescue and declined to become part of Leopold’s growing empire. Stanley was afraid to return without the pasha and finally convinced him to leave the Sudan. They arrived at an east African German post in Tanzania where Emin decided to work for the Germans instead of returning to Europe as Stanley’s prize.
Commentary on Chapter 6: Under the Yacht Club Flag
Surprisingly, Stanley carried into battle the banner of the New York Yacht Club, at the request of the New York Herald publisher, James Gordon Bennett. Stanley got another best-seller out of the Emin Pasha Rescue Expedition, though he was not able to carry out Leopold’s plans for annexing the Nile valley. Stanley’s expeditions sound somewhat comic and inept except for the tragic consequences. His desire for glory was easy for Leopold to manipulate for his own purposes. The Emin Pasha Expedition did allow for exploration of the Ituri rain forest in the Congo and subduing of the tribes there.
Stanley’s expeditions stirred up controversy in England over his methods and loss of men, but Hochschild notes, “compared with the bloodshed beginning just then in Central Africa, it was only a sideshow” (100).
Hochschild also brings in more of Leopold’s personal life, such as the unhappy fate of his daughters, wed to older European royalty for political purposes. He had many mistresses, and in 1885, Leopold was part of a sex scandal naming him as a patron of an English brothel that sold ten to fifteen-year-old virgins.
Summary of Chapter 7: The First Heretic
This chapter is the story of George Washington Williams, the first great dissenter and public witness of what Leopold was doing in the Congo. A network of river posts or stations that served as military forts and collection points for ivory dotted the Congo River by 1890. At the Stanley Falls station Williams, a black American journalist and historian, arrived to assess the place as a possible opportunity for black Americans who might want to go back to Africa.
He had been born in Pennsylvania in 1849 and enlisted with the Union Army during the Civil War. He also fought in Mexico and in the Indian Wars. He attended both Howard University and Newton Theological Institution, becoming pastor of a Baptist church in Boston. In Washington D. C. he started a black newspaper, the Commoner. He moved around as both pastor and newspaperman. At thirty, he was elected as the first black member of the Ohio state legislature. He wrote a massive pioneering history of the black race, History of the Negro Race in America from 1609 to 1880, acknowledged as an important work by W. E. B. Du Bois. With his law training from Howard, Williams worked as a lawyer, wrote books, and testified before Congress for black Civil War veterans.
Williams met Henry Shelton Sanford at the White House and heard about Leopold’s plans for the Congo. As a paid journalist, he traveled to Europe and interviewed King Leopold II. Williams was impressed with Leopold and asked him what he expected in return for the money he had spent to develop the Congo. Leopold replied he did it all “‘as a Christian duty to the poor African’” (106).
Williams then signed an agreement with a Belgian company to send forty skilled black American artisans to work in the Congo. He went to Africa to check out the conditions for himself on a subsidy from the American railroad baron, Collis P. Huntington. Leopold and his aides tried to stop Williams from going to the Congo, suspicious of his purpose.
Williams spent six months in the Congo. He observed villages and stations on the Congo firsthand, and in his rage at what he saw, he produced a damning document while staying at Stanley Falls. He called the Congo “‘the Siberia of the African Continent’” (108). In an Open Letter to King Leopold II, he described conditions in the Congo.
As a historian, he could verify the truth of his account, he said, with witnesses, documents, and data. He would hold the proof until an International Commission could be assembled to investigate. In a dozen pages, Williams brought forth most of the charges that would be made against Leopold, including human rights violations. He highlighted the torture, the inhumane punishments, and the fact that there were no hospitals and schools for the natives as promised. Williams told about the shooting of villagers and kidnapping of women to intimidate the men into forced labor. He accused Leopold of being in the slave trade.
Williams followed up with A Report upon the Congo-State to the American President. He said America had a responsibility to do something since it had sanctioned Leopold’s state. He called for an international regime to replace Leopold’s rule. In a letter to the American secretary of state, he spoke of Leopold’s “‘crimes against humanity’” (112).
Williams’ Open Letter was printed as a pamphlet and circulated in America and Europe. The New York Herald printed an article on the subject. Leopold was furious at the scandal and planned a counter-attack, a smear campaign on Williams.
By 1891 Williams was in Egypt, ill with tuberculosis and out of money. He somehow got free passage to England on a British steamer where he met a sympathetic young Englishwoman. He became engaged to her and died in Blackpool under her care, at the age of forty-one.
Commentary on Chapter 7: The First Heretic
The smear campaign on Williams was possible because, not only was he black, but also, because, like Stanley himself, he embroidered some of the facts of his life. He called himself Colonel Williams, from his military experience, but he was not really a colonel. He sometimes claimed a doctorate degree when he did not have one. He became engaged to an Englishwoman before he died, though he had a wife and son at home.
Hochschild points out, however, that the man was brilliant and though “there was something of the hustler about him” (114), it was his boldness “that enabled him to defy a king, his officials, and the entire racial order of the day” (114). Williams was the only one to speak out in his time, though many had seen the same atrocities. A British missionary, George Grenfell, for instance, said he could not publicly question the state. No matter what tall tales Williams told about his personal life, what he said about the Congo was later corroborated by others. In an age without ease of travel in Africa and the reluctance of witnesses to speak out, the conditions of the Congo were difficult to verify and Leopold’s status too important to question without more proof.
Summary of Chapter 8: Where There Aren’t No Ten Commandments
Boma, the west coast port, became the capital of Leopold’s Congo. In the 1890s it was a bustling town, but though there was a governor general, the Congo was administered directly from offices in Brussels, reporting directly to the king. The agents at the river stations were often alone for months; they were usually single and took on African concubines.
Since Leopold did not have enough money to develop the entire territory, he leased land to private companies, but he usually had a 50% share in any company, “like the manager of a venture capital syndicate today” (117), says Hochschild. He could thus attract capital while retaining half the proceeds. The king, however, used troops to shut out other business from his territory. The king would declare a “state of siege” for a certain area, and when the siege was lifted, all the ivory was gone. The king continued to claim he was not making a profit, but using ivory sales to lessen his deficit.
Leopold’s agents swept through the bush in the 1890s making ivory raids, getting all the ivory they could, through hunting, trading, and confiscation. The natives were forbidden to sell ivory except to Leopold. Africans were not allowed to receive money for their ivory. They got cloth, beads, brass rods, or nothing at all.
Labor was key to all Leopold’s operations. At first, he needed porters. Men, women, and children would be chained by the neck and made to walk in a file bearing heavy loads on their heads. They were like skeletons, starved and exhausted. They died by the thousands along the roads and trails.
Flogging with a chicotte, a corkscrew whip of hippopotamus hide, was a punishment on bare buttocks that left permanent scars. Twenty-five lashes could result in unconsiousness; one hundred lashes were fatal. Even children received a minimum of twenty-five lashes. Stanislas Lefranc, a Catholic magistrate, saw screaming children whipped in this way and was horrified. He described these scenes in Belgian newspapers, but he was regarded as a troublemaker. Few others working in the Congo objected to “officially sanctioned terror” (121). Natives were hanged for various infractions, major or minor.
Leopold used military force to run his colony. He sent Belgian soldiers and used African mercenaries. In 1888 he established the Force Publique, his state army. It was the most powerful army in central Africa. It utilized black soldiers under white officers. There were rebellions by Congo tribes to put down. The Yaka people fought for ten years, and the Chokwe for twenty years, inflicting heavy casualties on the Force Publique, but the tribes were defeated in the end. Leopold’s troops used a system of shifting alliances among the tribes to weaken their unity. One chief named Nzansu was able to kill a notorious agent named Eugene Rommel, who rounded up fifty thousand porters a year to do forced labor. A Swedish missionary recorded that the source of the uprisings was the state itself. There were many mutinies of black soldiers against cruel white commanders as well.
Meanwhile, Leopold kept issuing edicts banning the slave trade, but there were few witnesses who came forth to challenge him on his hypocrisy. His own slaves were referred to as “volunteers” (130), but they were in chains. He also called the conscripted blacks in his army, “liberated men,” since he had bought them from a slaver to serve for seven years in the Force Publique. He bought them from the Afro-Arab slave boss called Tippu Tip, whom Leopold recruited to run the colony’s eastern province.
Hochschild includes an African woman’s story of what it was like to be enslaved in the Congo. It was recorded by an American Swahili-speaking agent, Edgar Canisius, about a woman called Ilanga. She and her family were kidnapped to be porters. They were beaten and starved, and the women who carried babies in their arms had their babies thrown in the bush to die. Leopold also set up children’s colonies of young African boys taken from their villages that he had trained to be soldiers. The death rate in those colonies was over 50 percent.
Commentary on Chapter 8: Where There Aren’t No Ten Commandments
Hochschild begins now to unfold the history of the atrocities in the Congo Free State and the hypocritical lies of the king, who was obviously responsible. He quotes from letters and documents of the various witnesses and from the king himself.
Some interesting points about this long chapter include Hochschild’s analysis of how humans can commit atrocities against other humans. He blames racism as a major factor. Not all Europeans agreed, but a common perception was that Africans were inferior, lazy, uncivilized, and to be treated like animals or beasts of burden, since they were not intelligent. Another factor is that the terrorism was sanctioned by the authorities, and everyone was participating in it. As with the Nazis, a lot of the atrocities were delegated to subordinates in order to put distance between the one ordering them and the execution of the order. Or, Africans were forced to torture each other; the whippings were administered by Africans to other Africans, a terrorist technique also used in the Soviet gulag and Nazi camps. Finally, as is evident with Stanley’s behavior, shooting the natives was seen as a manly virtue, a sign of toughness, like shooting an elephant.
To counter the idea that the natives were passive victims, Hochschild records the uprisings and rebellions that the Force Publique was hardly able to quell. Many warrior tribes and their heroic leaders fought against Leopold’s troops during the whole Belgian occupation of the Congo–a preview, says Hochschild, of the Congolese guerilla wars of the 1960s. He highlights the stories of some of these Congolese leaders like Muleme Niama of the Sanga people who fought bravely against troops with artillery. He refused to surrender and was killed with all his men.
Nzansu was the chief who killed the villainous agent Eugene Rommel, whom even the whites reviled. A sergeant in the Force Republique, Kandolo, led a mutiny against a cruel commander, Mathieu Pelzer. His rebels took over the Kasai region.
Hochschild identifies the sort of white men who went to the Congo to become agents or soldiers. They were often “hard-bitten men fleeing marital troubles, bankruptcy, or alcoholism” (139), and they often left their morality at home. One example was LÈon Rom, an uneducated Belgian who became a commissioner at Matadi, paid well, and winning glory for training Force Publique troops. He was also famous for his display of African heads on his garden fence.
Summary of Chapter 9: Meeting Mr. Kurtz
Hochschild turns to the story of Konrad Korzeniowski, born in Poland, growing up with romantic ideas of Africa. He had been in the British Merchant Marine and finally, in 1890, went to Brussels and applied for work on the Congo River. He believed in Leopold’s noble objectives. His boat carried rails and ties for the new railroad. His six months in the Congo as a river captain, however, changed his view of human nature forever, as he later wrote about the greed and brutality he witnessed, under his pen name, Joseph Conrad.
After thinking of his experience for the next eight years, he finally wrote Heart of Darkness, published in 1899. Hochschild quotes a significant passage:
“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world . . . You lost your way on that river . . . cut off for ever from everything you had known.” (142)
The narrator of the story, Marlow, goes to a Congo post and meets Mr. Kurtz, a successful agent who has made money by collecting ivory but has also gone native, taking an African mistress, though he has a white fiancÈe at home, and participating in African rituals to make himself a sort of king of the jungle. Kurtz dies on Marlow’s boat, speaking of his grandiose plans. Marlow ponders Kurtz’s fall into evil as he views his house with African heads displayed on the fence.
Hochschild asserts the novel must be seen within its historical context. Conrad had actually witnessed the events he wrote about in Leopold’s Congo. Kurtz is probably a composite of many agents Conrad met, particularly LÈon Rom of the Force Republique, mentioned in the last chapter, who was known to have African heads on his fence. Another candidate was Georges Antoine Klein, a French agent, and another was Edmund Bartelot, the man Stanley left in charge of his rear guard in the Emin Pasha Expedition, who went mad. Bartelot was famous for his harem of African women.
The “Inner Station” where Marlow sees the fence of shrunken heads is based on Stanley Falls, where George Washington Williams wrote his indictment of Leopold, in the same year Conrad was there. The two men may have been at Stanley Falls at the same time. Hochschild speculates on the probability that Conrad and LÈon Rom met in 1890. Rom had several characteristics of Kurtz, such as his intellectual and artistic interests. He also had his brutal racism.
Hochschild then tackles the paradox that though Heart of Darkness is “one of the most scathing indictments of imperialism in all literature” (146), Conrad was a loyal supporter of British imperialism. Conrad’s novel has been criticized in recent years for the fact that there are no African voices and that the view of blacks is stereotyped. Yet clearly the story is an indictment of the Kurtzes and a meditation on what produces such men.
Commentary on Chapter 9: Meeting Mr. Kurtz
It is difficult for a modern reader to understand how it could have escaped the nineteenth-century public that colonialism is an evil in itself that leads to the human rights abuses it found shocking. Given the five-hundred-year colonial mindset that Hochschild described as a prelude to the Congo Free State, Leopold’s crimes and the crimes of agents like Kurtz are only an extreme example of an underlying cultural distortion of perception.
That perception, that western cultures were superior and had a moral right to invade and exploit indigenous people, has been exploded in the present time. However, we live in a world that still reverberates with echoes of colonial attitudes and economies. It is important, however, to not see colonial racism as merely a European problem. The 1890s were a terrible decade of racism in the United States as well, with hundreds of lynchings that were never investigated.
Many writers at the end of the nineteenth century, such as Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, were in Conrad’s position of embracing colonialism while unconsciously revealing its weaknesses in their stories. It was the moment before colonialism began to fail as an accepted philosophy, and the furor over the Congo atrocities that was beginning to be publicized may have hastened its end.
Still, it is a paradox that the most damning indictments of colonialism such as Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, do not moralize against empires, but show in spite of the author’s beliefs, how imperialism corrupts the spiritual integrity of those who practice it.
Summary of Chapter 10: The Wood That Weeps
In 1890 the rich and famous of London crowded Westminster Abbey to see the wedding of the hero, Henry Morton Stanley, to Dorothy Tennant, a high-society portrait painter. He was finished exploring and now spent his time being famous. He was knighted and elected to Parliament. He had made his move from a lower class illegitimate birth to the upper class through his Congo career.
Meanwhile another hero in the Congo was beginning to speak out against what Stanley had stood for. This man was William Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian minister. As part of the movement to send American blacks back to Africa, sponsored by white supremacists, such as Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan, black American missionaries left for the Congo as a preparation for others to follow.
The Reverend William Sheppard was born in Virginia in 1865 and had attended Hampton Institute and the Colored Theological Seminary in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He had worked as a Presbyterian minister in Montgomery and Atlanta. He was a big man with energy and physical courage. His church, however, would only let him go to Africa with a white superior, Reverend Samuel Lapsley.
The two men established the first Southern Presbyterian mission on the Kasai River. Sheppard was at home in the bush and recruited the Africans to help. Lapsley’s letters home were full of praise for Sheppard’s fearless strength and skill as a born trader and hunter. Sheppard was actually the true leader of the mission.
Sheppard worked in Africa for twenty years, wrote a book, letters, and articles; he gave speeches to fascinated American audiences. His tone towards the natives was noticeably different from other African explorers. He was happy in Africa and studied the language. He saw the Africans as the land of “‘his forefathers’” (155). He was popular with the Kuba people. As Hochschild mentions of the photo included in the book, the tall Sheppard standing next to the shorter tribesmen looks like “a football coach showing off a winning team” (155).
The Kuba people were great artists in masks, sculpture, textiles, and carved tools. Sheppard made ethnographic notes on them and other tribes of the Kasai region, noting their myths, rituals, and other details. He felt they had a great civilization. Sheppard recorded his impressions in his book, Presbyterian Pioneers in the Congo and lectured at Exeter Hall in London, being made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
The Kuba were at first protected by their remote location in the rain forest. What destroyed them was the discovery of rubber. With the use of rubber for automobile and bicycle tires the rubber boom was on. It became Leopold’s main revenue now. He presided over the wild rubber boom for twenty years. The only thing he needed was labor. It required that workers spread out through the rain forest and climb trees.
Rubber is a sap, and the French word for it means, “the wood that weeps” (160). It came from a vine that twined around a tree perhaps going hundreds of feet in the air. It was necessary to slash the vine and hang a bucket to collect the sap. The workers had to go deeper and deeper into the forest to find fresh vines. The work was hard and painful, and the natives were not willing to do it.
Leopold’s army used forced labor by looting all the food sources of a village and holding women, children, and chiefs as hostages until the men produced a certain amount of rubber. The hostages were held in stockades, and many died of starvation. Women were raped.
Leopold did not proclaim this as official policy and could claim it was not true, but in the field, it was the way rubber was produced and sent to Brussels. There were instructions on how to take hostages in a field manual that Hochschild quotes. One of the editors of the manual was LÈon Rom, the model for Mr. Kurtz.
Hochschild frequently compares the Congo terrorism to the Soviet gulag, operating by quotas. The men had to sleep in the jungles far from home and made themselves cages to protect themselves from leopards. The Force Publique enforced this system.
Desperate refugees came to William Sheppard’s mission station. He went into the bush to investigate, risking his own life, and found destroyed villages and many bodies. He was shown a fire roasting human flesh. The chief told him they had to cut off the right hands of rebels to show the State how many they had killed. The smoking preserved the hands.
The cutting off of hands and feet became part of the rubber regime in the Congo. It was used as a terrorist tactic to subdue the natives. Hochschild includes photos in the book of Africans with severed limbs. One father is slumped in despair looking at the severed foot and hand of his five-year-old daughter. If a village refused to cooperate, sometimes the whole village was executed.
Sheppard wrote articles on these conditions for missionary magazines, and his articles were quoted widely in Europe and the United States.
Commentary on Chapter 10: The Wood That Weeps
Hochschild uses the meaning of the French name for rubber to describe the cost of rubber production in the Congo: “ the wood that weeps.” He suggests the rubber sap was the tears of the people tortured to produce the raw material for tires.
As a prelude to this grisly account, Hochschild builds up the portrait of another hero who tried to expose Leopold’s methods. William Sheppard was a sincere missionary who admired the people he was sent to serve. He learned their language, culture, and was accepted by them. He lived peacefully among them and recorded valuable information about their culture before it was destroyed. This picture of the Kuba people belies the prejudice that the Africans were uncivilized. Sheppard recognized them as related to him; they were his people, his forefathers.
Summary of Chapter 11: A Secret Society of Murderers
Leopold kept his profits from the Congo secret, so that he would not have to pay back his loan to the Belgian government. The bonds he was able to issue made him as much money as the rubber. The bonds were supposed to develop the Congo, but little of the money was spent there. Leopold spent his money in Belgium, for monuments, museums, new palace additions, a golf course, and pavilions. Hochschild describes Leopold’s regal lifestyle and his daily schedule to illustrate his enormous lust for power and his indifference to how he got his money.
In the Congo, the railroad was a priority, and it needed six thousand workers at a time, a very difficult construction project around the Crystal Mountains and the falls. When Chinese workers were brought in, in 1892, hundreds died or fled into the bush. Hijacked workers from Barbados rebelled. It was said each tie on the railroad cost an African life. In 1898, the railway opened. Eleven million pounds of rubber a year now had a way to get to the sea.
Missionaries became the witnesses to Leopold’s crimes. Swedish missionary, E. V. Sjˆblom, for instance, published detailed descriptions of the rubber business in 1896. He explained how Force Publique soldiers were paid according to the number of hands they collected from dead rebels. Leopold was able to derail their attacks by his own skilled public relations officials.
Leopold appointed a Commission for the Protection of the Natives, composed of Congo missionaries. This took the pressure off, but none of the missionaries appointed were in the rubber district; they were scattered all over the Congo. The Commission had no power and did nothing.
Cargo was carried to and from Africa by Elder Dempster, a Liverpool shipping line. Edmund Dene Morel, a bilingual clerk, was sent to Belgium to supervise the ships that docked in Antwerp. Morel noticed that the records for his employer did not conform to the statistics given by the Congo Free State about what was produced there. He realized there was a fraud. He discovered the secret arms shipments to the Congo. He realized someone was skimming off the top, when he saw the figures published by the Congo Government. He also understood that there was no trade going on. How was the rubber being produced? He suspected slave labor.
Commentary on Chapter 11: A Secret Society of Murderers
Hochschild quotes Morel’s description of his discovery: “It must be bad enough to stumble upon a murder. I had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman” (181).
Hochschild turns his narrative now to focus on the mounting criticism of Leopold and his colony of forced labor. Leopold was able to discredit the missionaries or pacify criticism with his investigating Commission, which had no power. Now, an Englishman , Edmund Dene Morel, who was in a position to amass financial and specific evidence, would prove to be a catalyst for a larger movement against Leopold.
Hochschild describes Leopold’s grotesque world fair in Brussels in 1897. He made it into a celebration of the Congo, with living tableaux of African villages peopled by 267 black men, women, and children shipped from the Congo. The blacks had to act out their village life with drums, dancing, cooking, canoes, and thatched huts, as though they were in a zoo. Their villages were contrasted to a new civilized village built by Leopold’s Force Publique, where soldiers marched and played in a military band.