Part II: A King at Bay
Summary of Chapter 12: David and Goliath
At the time Morel discovered Leopold’s crimes, few Europeans or Americans knew anything about what went on in the Congo, but that would change since Morel had a new piece of the puzzle. He would be able to document the financial fraud.
Morel refused to keep his insight to himself. He first confronted his boss, Sir Alfred Jones, the head of Elder Dempster. Jones went to Brussels the next day to see the King, who promised that reform would be carried out. Jones was walking a tightrope. He did not want to lose the lucrative Congo business, but slavery was illegal, and Leopold’s operations could also prove trouble for the shippers.
Elder Dempster tried to silence Morel with raises and promotions, but he refused, and in 1901 quit the company, knowing there was no turning back from the path he had decided. With funding from various sources he began writing and organizing against Leopold. He started a newspaper, the West African Mail, a weekly news bulletin.
Who was Morel? He was a strong stocky young man in his twenties with no money or influence. Hochschild admits he is the most difficult player in the drama to fathom. He had spent his youth in business, and with a mother and growing family to support, could have used the promotions at Elder Dempster. He had never espoused politics or social or religious causes. He had nothing to gain, but his “smoldering sense of outrage” made him into “the greatest British investigative journalist of his time” (187). He wrote three books and hundreds of articles and started a newspaper, all filled with “meticulous accuracy” “as in a lawyer’s brief” (188).
Morel energized everyone he met, including Members of Parliament from every party, religious leaders from every denomination, humanitarian groups like the Anti-Slavery Society, and wealthy aristocrats who gave money. He made it clear he was the man to come to for anyone who had information about Leopold’s operation. He began gathering statistics, documents, and eye-witness interviews. British, Swedish, and American missionaries in the Congo supplied some of the most harrowing stories, as well as photographs of the natives with severed hands that Morel used in all his public rallies and publications. In 1903, the British House of Commons passed a resolution protesting Leopold’s treatment of Congo natives and taking him to task for violating his promise of free trade in the Congo. Leopold was alarmed that England, the superpower of the day, was against him. Even though he had been exposed, his rule was still in place. The situation was at a stalemate.
Commentary on Chapter 12: David and Goliath
The title of the chapter reflects the unthinkable odds of an obscure shipping clerk with no influence fighting a wealthy dictator and prominent European monarch. Perhaps the moment was right, for Leopold had been getting away with murder for decades.
Hochschild mentions that an important influence on Morel was Mary Kingsley whose book, Travels in West Africa had described the African people as intelligent human beings and not savages. He learned from her how the people regarded the land in terms of communal use, and therefore, it could not be viewed as “empty.” This made Leopold a thief. Morel, like many at the time, was also a passionate advocate of free trade, believing that it would bring Africa into the modern age in a benign way. Leopold had an indefensible monopoly in the Congo, thus breaking his pledge to the world that he was opening the Congo to world trade.
One of Morel’s secret sources lived in the Congo and risked being found out by the censorship office in Boma. He was Raymond De Grez, a decorated Force Publique veteran who gave Morel letters from Congo agents that spelled out what was really going on. Morel published, for instance, a secret order to Congo officials on the bonuses they would get for forcible conscriptions of African males into the army. Morel was able to expose Leopold’s deceptions, bribes, and lies.
One of the more sensational stories was from American Edgar Canisius who had been a counterguerilla commander in the Congo. He himself reported that, while fighting native rebellions, his troops had killed over nine hundred African men, women, and children, in a six-week campaign.
Summary of Chapter 13: Breaking Into The Thieves’ Kitchen
After the resolution passed against Leopold’s rule, the British Foreign Office sent a telegram to their consul in the Congo to go into the interior and send them reports. Their consul was an Irishman named Roger Casement, a veteran of twenty years in Africa. He had witnessed the brutality over the years.
Casement was a sensitive man who was kind to natives. Now he was going to the rubber-producing interior to make a full report for his government. He stayed at river stations and took notes, sending dispatches to the Foreign Office on the atrocities he saw. Casement became as impassioned as Morel about the Congo cause. In 1903, he returned to London and began his official report. It was published in 1904, but the names of witnesses were repressed by the Foreign Office, and it lost its immediacy and personal touch. The report was so graphic that the British government was uncomfortable.
Casement found a friend in Edmund Morel, whose writings he had avidly read. The two became close friends and colleagues in their publicizing the atrocities. Each had half of the puzzle: Casement had the personal experience of the Congo, and Morel had the facts and figures. Casement became friends with Morel’s wife as well, and it was Mary Morel who urged her husband to work with Casement in forming the Congo Reform Association. Morel organized public meetings all over England that drew thousands.
Commentary on Chapter 13: Breaking Into The Thieves’ Kitchen
Casement is described as a handsome and likeable man. Morel immediately trusted him, and both men were relieved to find another who was equally alarmed by Leopold’s human rights abuses. Morel says when Casement spoke in his lilting Irish voice, he could actually see the bloody bodies. He now had a friend in the business of tearing aside “‘the veil from the most gigantic fraud and wickedness which our generation has known’” (206).
Hochschild remarks on the similarity of their friendship and campaign to the British antislavery movement and the friendship of William Wilberforce and William Pitt the Younger a hundred years earlier. The irony was that “They were white men trying to stop other white men from brutalizing Africans” (207). The people they stood up for had many of them already perished and could not tell their own story.
Casement and Morel, however, were not armchair moralists. They paid a high price for their idealism. They would both go to prison for their reformist work. Casement, in addition, had a dangerous secret for that time: he was a homosexual, and he kept a diary, recording his liaisons. Oscar Wilde had been jailed for homosexuality in 1895.
Summary of Chapter 14: To Flood His Deeds With Day
Morel and his Congo Reform Association put pressure on the American, British, and Belgian governments for more than a decade. Morel had some flaws, Hochschild notes, including his bullheadedness and clashes with colleagues. His political views were also conditioned by the times. He believed in free trade and colonialism as ways to bring modern progress to all nations. He saw the Africans as Noble Savages.
Morel knew how to find rich sympathizers, and he was a master of the current media, especially photography, to document his charges. He got other journalists enlisted in the cause and was a leader who appealed to both upper and lower classes. He could mold his message to the crowd and appeal to British pride in its humanitarian goals for the empire. The problem was, he thought, that Leopold was not doing colonialism the right way, the way the British did.
In 1906 Baptist missionaries John and Alice Harris returned from Africa and joined the Association. They displayed chicottes and shackles, described their experience in the Congo, and displayed their photographs, some of which are shown in this book.
Meanwhile, Leopold had his own prosecutors and spies in the Congo to keep an eye on the information flow to Europe. Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, a black born in Nigeria, worked for the Congo Free State. He was known as an enthusiastic supporter of the regime, but he had a change of heart and began to send information to Casement and Morel. He was found out and harassed until he committed suicide.
Hochschild explains how the Belgians were fed up with their king, not so much for the Congo crisis, but because of his scandalous lifestyle. He had had many sexual liaisons but when he took a sixteen-year-old French call girl as a permanent mistress, the public was upset.
Leopold lavished his Congo rubber riches on Caroline, buying her clothes, villas, and yachts. When she had a son, the child became the Duke of Tervuren. When her second son was born with a deformed hand, it was taken by the public to be a divine punishment on Leopold for the severed Congolese hands.
Commentary on Chapter 14: To Flood His Deeds With Day
One of the interesting points Hochschild makes about Morel’s campaign is that though it focused on human rights abuses, it did so from the firm conviction that there was nothing wrong with imperialism, especially British imperialism. The public, and the reformers, had not yet made that step in logic that says there is something inherently wrong with colonialism itself.
Morel and his supporters still believed in the “Moral Empire”(212), the Christian duty of westerners to bring civilization to the backward countries. The benefits to the West through free trade and commercial development would surely benefit the natives as well, they rationalized.
Since then, of course, history has scrutinized the British empire itself for all the evils it brought to Africa and Asia, so it may be difficult for a reader to understand the self-righteous pose of Morel and his followers. Britain and the other colonial powers had yet to go through their own periods of soul-searching. It must have been a great shock to Americans and Europeans, however, to see such blatant and overwhelming acts of cruelty and violence that would result in the torture and death of half the native population of the Congo. It was simply too big to ignore.
Summary of Chapter 15: A Reckoning
Morel’s campaign ran photos of burned villages and dead bodies and mutilated natives in newspapers. Hochschild asks, what was the final death toll in the Congo? Leopold’s Congo Free State officially existed for twenty-three years, beginning in 1885. The rubber boom caused the worst of the bloodshed, but the deaths continued after the end of his regime. Though the killing was of genocidal proportions, it was not exactly genocide. There was not a conscious program of eliminating a particular ethnic group. Leopold’s men were looking for free labor and using fear to coerce the natives. There were four causes of population decline: murder; starvation and exhaustion; disease; and lowering of the birth rate.
Diseases escalated, of course, because of exhaustion, trauma, and malnutrition when the epidemics hit—malaria, smallpox, sleeping sickness, and lung and intestinal infections. Leopold’s agents frequently used disease as the real reason for the deaths. Sleeping sickness was to blame, they said, and the limbs were cut off to prevent gangrene. There was also the argument that African tribes themselves cut off hands from their dead enemies. Belgian anthropologists have since discovered evidence that large numbers of African men were worked to death as rubber slaves or killed in raids. Many scholars now agree that the Congo population was cut in half between 1880 and 1920, with an estimated ten million deaths.
Hochschild asks, why did the killings go on for so long? His answer is that “The same irrationality lies at the heart of many other mass murders” (233). He compares the Congo tragedy to Stalin’s purge, when even after Stalin had eliminated his opponents, he continued arbitrarily executing seven million more people, plus those who died in the labor camps. His conclusion is that “mass murder had a momentum of its own” (234).
Commentary on Chapter 15: A Reckoning
Hochschild compares mass killing to a sort of sport to its perpetrators, like hunting, to explain this strange and tragic phenomenon. Certainly, he has documented the racism of explorers and agents who thought of the natives as animals to work or shoot. He has explained that the men who went to the Congo were often the lowest elements of their own societies. In the Congo, they may have become drunk on power, feeling important for the first time in their lives. He documents the mental instability of men like Henry Morton Stanley.
Leopold created a terrorist organization where rubber and ivory quotas were enforced by a feared military, the Force Publique, officially encouraged to use torture and murder. The military officers were tough and relentless sadists. There were many Europeans who saw what was going on and kept silent, perhaps afraid to challenge the powerful status quo.
Beneath all the psychological or philosophical speculation, however, is the case that Hochschild has built up over the entire course of the book that King Leopold’s rape and rule of the country were criminal acts. Though not present in the Congo, he set up the conditions and the motivation for the killings. He deliberately lied about why he was developing the region. He also fought to cover up the torture used to extract the rubber instead of trying to address the problem. Greedy and underhanded despite his moral pretensions, he never took responsibility for what happened.