Summary of Chapter 16: “Journalists Won’t Give You Receipts”
Sir Henry Morton Stanley had been elected to Parliament but found it a bore after his active life. He retired to write his autobiography and always defended Leopold and his policies in his public statements. He died in 1904 as the criticism against Leopold escalated. Leopold fought back, using newspapers and pamphlets on which he used lavish amounts of money to control his media image. Yet Alice Harris’s photographs of maimed children outweighed Leopold’s campaign.
Leopold then sent an aide to British Africa to document British abuses there, to show that he was not unique in his colonial methods. The British Empire had its own shocking headlines, concerning the opium trade in India, flogging in South Africa, and excessive native deaths in Nigeria and Australia. Leopold threatened to withdraw his shipping contract from Sir Alfred Jones’s Elder Dempster Company if he did not stop the British criticism. Books favorable to the Congo question were published by travelers Leopold sponsored. Leopold also had his paid lobbyists to the British Parliament and American Congress. He founded his own Press Bureau to produce articles and to bribe newspapers. The quote in the chapter’s title is from Leopold to his pay-off agents to journalists, urging that there be no paper trail.
Yet the campaign against Leopold could not be stopped. Morel traveled to the United States, enlisting such notable figures as Booker T. Washington and Mark Twain. Twain even wrote a pamphlet against Leopold. Leopold fought back with his own American lobby, promising Congo concession rights in the rubber trade to industrialists and getting the backing of the Catholic Church. He made a major mistake in hiring a flamboyant American trial lawyer, Henry Kowalsky, to lobby for him. At first flattered by Leopold and then dumped by him, Kowalsky got his revenge by publishing in William Randoph Heart’s newspapers the story of Leopold’s attempts to influence Congress, using incriminating documents.
Leopold made another mistake in forming his Commission of Inquiry, composed of three judges, to go to the Congo and report on conditions. Leopold meant this to be another lame committee to quiet criticism. Instead, the Commission came back with a damning report, confirming all the charges Morel and others had made.
Commentary on Chapter 16: “Journalists Won’t Give You Receipts”
In giving a full picture of Leopold’s counterattacks and propaganda designed to quiet his critics, Hochschild further gives the impression that Leopold was conscious of the crimes in the Congo. Quotes from Leopold’s letters show him to be a racist primarily interested in profits. Human life did not seem that important to him. He even despised his own family and the opinion of his people.
Hochschild also gives an interesting view of the media war over the Congo issue. Unlike today with satellite TV, an army of foreign correspondents, and social media tools to document conditions on the ground in the moment, it was difficult to go to the Congo to see what was happening. Eyewitness accounts from travelers differed, but Leopold’s own Commission of Inquiry, which for once had taken the testimony of the natives themselves, produced such positive proof of violence that he was unable to counter it.
Summary of Chapter 17: No Man is a Stranger
Hochschild gives examples from native testimony of the Commission of Inquiry that Leopold sent to the Congo. Though a summary report was published, the raw testimony of the Congolese natives was never read until the 1980s when researchers had access to the state archives in Brussels. It was the voice of the Congolese themselves speaking out, and the effect of reading the accounts, says the author, creates an “overwhelming horror” (255). Finally, there could be no more denial.
At this time Leopold was seventy, living in luxury with his mistress, Caroline. Pressure mounted for him to divest himself of the Congo, and he knew he had to cede it to Belgium. He had wanted to wait until his death, but now, he had a crafty plan to sell the Congo territory to the Belgian government, to whom he still owed a debt for the development loans. They agreed to his outrageous terms to keep the Congo away from Britain or France or Germany. Leopold made a killing on the deal. Finally in 1908, the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo. The change of hands did not immediately change the conditions in the Congo as the reformers had hoped, because the concession companies still did business in the same way.
One of the defenders of the natives, the African-American missionary, William Sheppard, wrote of the toll Leopold’s Congo had taken on the Kuba people: “‘These great stalwart men and women, who have from time immemorial been free’” had changed into starving slaves within three years of the rubber company’s invasion with armed force (261). The company stock fell with Sheppard’s story, and the company sued Sheppard, whose trial was held in Leopoldville. Sheppard was acquitted and became a hero and a much sought after speaker in the United States.
The king fell ill when he was seventy-four and hastily married Caroline, transferring his property to her and her sons, instead of to his daughters, right before he died. There was little public grief with his passing.
Roger Casement, Morel’s partner in the Congo Reform Association, and the author of the British report on the Congo, had finally been vindicated by the corroboration of Leopold’s own investigators. Morel claimed official victory in 1913 after Leopold died and all the evidence of his crimes was in. But was the case truly closed?
Commentary on Chapter 17: No Man is a Stranger
Hochschild mentions that when Leopold transferred his “secretive royal fief” (257) to the government of Belgium during the first decade of the twentieth century, the idea of Congolese independence and self-government occurred to no one. The Congo was a piece of property to be bought and sold, and no one thought of it as stolen from the people who lived there. There was still competition for colonial property among the European nations, and Belgium would have lost a lot of its power and income if it had not agreed to Leopold’s deal.
Though Morel and his Congo Reform Association announced their cause as won in 1913, the author hints that the atrocities did not stop as the reformers assumed they would. The same companies were still exploiting the people to get rubber, though the public was now aroused by their well-documented methods of terror. There was, however, only public opinion that had acknowledged the crimes. There was no enforcement of justice. It was the Congo’s tragedy that it was still rich in raw materials that western countries wanted. The new minister of colonies in the Belgian government was a former official of a Congo company guilty of forced labor. As the world geared up for two world wars, the demand for Congo materials would only increase.
Leopold’s chapter in the crime was closed, at least. He went down in history as a bloody tyrant, as witnessed in the verse from American poet, Vachel Lindsay, furnishing the title of the book and quoted by the author:
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host,
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Summary of Chapter 18: Victory?
Leopold’s ghost did not vanish. Leopold had probably made something like $1.1 billion in profits. Most of the funds eventually went to the Belgian government.
There was a marked drop in reported atrocities in the Belgian Congo, partly because there was a shift to cultivated rubber once the wild rubber decreased. There was a new system, however, that kept the people enslaved, forcing them to work on rubber plantations: the imposition of a head tax. Congolese natives were also conscripted as soldiers or porters during World War I, and they were still worked to death in copper, gold, and tin mines.
The main accomplishment of Morel and the reformers had been to keep the Congo in the spotlight. But, Hochschild concludes, “what happened in the Congo is, unfortunately, no worse than what happened in neighboring colonies” (280). France’s rubber colony also had a 50 percent decline in the native population. In German South West Africa (Namibia), the rebel Hereros were the victims of planned genocide, openly announced in advance by the German military. Some sixty-thousand were “exterminated” (282). Hochschild quotes Heart of Darkness: “‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz’” (283).
The author finishes the stories of the founders of the Congo Reform Association. Roger Casement took up the cause of Irish Home Rule, understanding that Ireland was also a victim of colonial policy. Casement had been knighted for his Congo reform but became an enemy of Britain with his Irish Republican projects. He was part of a group that collaborated with the Germans during World War I to get arms for the Irish Rebellion. He was caught and executed for treason.
Edmund Morel became an anti-war activist during World War I, losing his popularity and becoming hated in an era of war fever. He called for disarmament and a negotiated peace. He was arrested and served six months of hard labor in Pentonville Prison, remembering the Congolese as he had to carry one hundred pound bales of jute on a starvation diet. After the war, however, Morel was elected to Parliament on the Labor ticket, beating Winston Churchill. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Price.
Commentary on Chapter 18: Victory?
In the last two chapters, Hochschild puts Leopold’s story in a larger historical perspective. Here, he makes the shocking and depressing point that Leopold was no worse than other colonial powers, though he took the brunt of the criticism, because his rubber business was so big. Despite the humanitarian rhetoric and moral justification about the benefit of imperialism to all parties, racism and colonial mentality were to blame for the human rights abuses in the colonies, more than the villainy of one individual. Africans lived in an occupied country in a state of continual warfare.
The experience Morel and Casement had with the Congo seems to have radicalized both of them. Casement worked for the British government in the beginning but later identified with the demands of his native Ireland, feeling the tyranny of colonialism personally. He was helping to prepare for the Easter Uprising of 1916 when caught and tried for treason. Morel died with respect but went through a very hard time during the war, as he was one of few who saw what a waste it was. He began to understand near the end of his Congo work that the land of Africa belonged to the Africans. Many of those who stood up for human rights in the Congo, black and white, had to pay a price for their courage, and the author implies these sorts of sacrifices have to keep being made.
Summary of Chapter 19: The Great Forgetting
Hochschild now turns to why this Congo story, which galvanized public opinion for twenty years and had so many famous people involved, was forgotten. Nowhere was it afterwards referred to in textbooks, museums, or in the city of Brussels, though the blood of the Congolese paid for many of the Belgian monuments. This is not singular, as there is no memorial to colonial martyrs in any European city, nor are there monuments to slavery in the American South. The Congo is an example of “the politics of forgetting” (294).
Leopold made it more difficult to remember by spending a week burning his Congo papers before he died. Investigators had a hard time following lost paper trails when interest in the event was revived in the 1970s and 1980s. Forgetting is not passive, the author asserts, but an “active deed” (295). In Africa, the colonizers wrote the textbooks. Books on the forced labor were banned and press censorship helped to erase the past. Today, rapid urbanization in Africa contributes to forgetting not only the colonial past, but also the tribal past. In the Mongo language, this period of Congo history is known as lokeli, “the overwhelming” (300).
Though Africa’s troubles are not entirely due to the Europeans, the colonial legacy to Africa was not democracy but harsh authoritarian rule. The Congo has had a harder time emerging as a modern nation than other African countries. The first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated because he knew that to overcome the colonial past, the economic domination from outside had to change. This was an alarm to western powers with heavy investments in the Congo. The U.S. chose to support a dictator friendly to western interests, Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the Congo from 1965 to 1997. Mobutu copied Leopold’s methods of dictatorial rule, terrorism, and personal plunder of the national wealth.
The author tells the story of Belgian historian Jules Marchal to whose work we owe most of the records of Leopold’s crimes today. He was the one who found the lost testimony of the African witnesses before the 1904-05 Commission of Inquiry, in the inaccessible files of the Belgian government. A retired Belgian diplomat, Marchal became obsessed with Leopold’s Congo and devoted himself full time to research. Hochschild traces the development of Marchal’s meticulous data and points out, “Although virtually ignored in Belgium, [Marchal’s] books are the definitive scholarly study of the subject” (298).
The lasting achievement of the campaign against Leopold has been in the tradition of human rights movements that keep alive the outrage against injustice. Thus, the Congo reform movement was “a vital link in that chain, and there is no tradition more honorable” (306).
Commentary on Chapter 19: The Great Forgetting
Hochschild concludes that it is important not to forget atrocities like the Congo, because it would blunt our human sensibilities and outrage against injustice. Seen in a larger context, it was not an isolated event with one man as the sole cause. It was part of a social fabric, a collective mindset, and yet the author makes a convincing case for individuals of conscience standing up to say “No.” If such protests were not as much a part of history as the mass murders of a Hitler, Stalin, and Leopold, Mr. Kurtz would be the sole representative of human nature. On the other hand, a George Washington Williams, a William Sheppard, E. D. Morel, or John and Alice Harris are part of the vital tradition of moral heroes who define a common humanity that goes beyond cultures and times.