The Ghost of Authors Present

Since he is no longer up for re-election, George W. Bush has been able to actually admit that he can read. Not only do we have his widely commented excursion in existentialist/absurdist literature this summer with Albert Camus (among other readings) but for Christmas we found out from the Washington Post that he just finished reading King Leopold’s Ghost “- an account of the plundering of the Congo in the late 19th century. ”

For those of you who, like myself, were more interested in the blossoming sexuality of your high school classroom neighbor than the detailed lecture on the causes, execution and consequences of nineteen century European African colonialism (a lecture that often lasts a respectable thirty seconds) I will attempt to briefly summarize the history of the Congo Free State. To preface, I haven’t read King Leopold’s Ghost and have gotten most of my information from the most excellent one volume history The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham. (For a single volume history of post-colonial Africa I would also strongly recommend Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa.)

In 1865. Leopold II succeeded his eponymous father to the throne of Belgium. He had long felt that Belgium needed an outlet for it’s energies; something to mobilize the people, something to mobilize the country, something to make him money. In short Belgium needed colonies. Unfortunately several factors stood in the way of this noble dream. First there really wasn’t much territory left – South America had long since been divvied up between Portugal and Spain, the Pacific and Southeast Asia were under the control of the French and British and Victoria would be crowned first Empress of India in just over a decade. The second stumbling block was closer to home; neither the politicians nor the public were enamored with the idea of carrying the Belgium flag out to paint the world – um – green.

None of this deterred King Leopold. He spent the next ten years seeking an outlet for his dreams. First he looked at buying a colony. Britain turned down the idea of a Belgian colony among the palm trees and cannibals in New Guinea; Spain declined ‘leasing’ the Philippines for the paltry sum of 10 million francs. Leopold had to look elsewhere. His attention was drawn to Africa, in the 1860’s and 1870’s still largely unexplored. He was especially interested the adventures of Lieutenant Verney Lovett Cameron in central Africa and Cameron’s descriptions in January 1876 of a land of ‘unspeakable richness’ waiting for an ‘enterprising capitalist’.

Since the Belgian public wasn’t interested in supporting a colony in Africa, Leopold would just have to do it himself – privately. He arranged a conference with leading explorers, including the American Henry Stanley, made famous from his accounts of his African adventures during the search for the Scottish missionary David Livingstone. One thing led to another and Leopold had manoeuvred the major European countries to a conference in Berlin about the subject of dividing up Africa. Leopold carved out the center – the area around the river Congo – for himself. Publicly his motives were of the highest calibre. Philanthropically he would bring European ‘civilization’ to the deepest, darkest corners of the African continent; the calibre of his motives were almost has high as those of the rifles used by the mercenaries he would send.

Now building a colony isn’t cheap. The costs of empire are what caused the colonial American tax bruhahas leading to revolution and it was the cost that tarnished the feelings of Belgian politicians towards what was then called Leopold’s folly. After ten years and an investment of over two-thirds of Leopold’s net worth, the Congo ‘Free State’ still wasn’t showing a profit. Ivory was the biggest export but it wasn’t enough. Things might have collapsed if it wasn’t for the work of two men – neither Belgian.

The first person died even before Leopold was crowned. He was the American Charles Goodyear, whose patent number 3,633 from 1844 for the vulcanization of rubber revolutionized the industry, making the sap of an otherwise useless tree one of the most important industrial products of the age. The second critical figure was John Boyd Dunlap, who’s patent for an inflatable tire changed the way the world rides just as the use of bicycles and automobiles soared. The demand for rubber exploded and Leopold was sitting on the dynamite – the wild rubber trees in the Congo.

It is here that the story loses any innocence. By 1902 Leopold was making around 40 million Francs per year from Congo exports. Enjoying the luxuries of his newly built palace and the pleasures of his eighteen year old mistress (Leopold was 65 by now – eat your heart out Mike Foley), Leopold had managed to keep any hints of misdoing in the Congo more or less quiet. It took the British shipping clerk/journalist Edmond Morel to do the calculations and the photographer/missionary Alice Harris (do all these people do two things?) to provide the evidence of the atrocities being committed in the name of commerce. It turns out that instead of the normal colonial model, exporting raw goods from the colonies and importing finished products into the colonies, Leopold had come up with a less moral but far more profitable method – export raw goods and use the local population as slave labor. (*forehead slap* It’s just so simple – why didn’t the British think of that? Oh – honor.) In one of the more disgraceful practices, native mercenaries were required to ‘prove’ they had used their ammunition correctly – one bullet – one hand. Of course if the previous owner wasn’t dead yet, that was of no bother.

By 1908 the public outcry against Leopold had become unbearable. He was forced to turn the Congo ‘Free State’ over to the Belgian government and retired to his estates until his death in 1909. His funeral procession was booed.

But what does all this have to do with our current noble leader, George W. Bush?

Quite a bit – at least according to Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold’s Ghost. In a verbal broadside an open letter printed in the LA Times on December 22, Hochschild finds lots of similarities. He poses President Bush a number of questions.

First, as you now know, the long effort by King Leopold II of Belgium to bring Congo under his control was driven by his avid quest for a commodity central to industry and transportation: rubber. Does that remind you of anything?

What’s more, the king justified his grab for Congo’s natural resources with much talk about bringing philanthropy and Christianity to darkest Africa. Now what did that remind you of?

Leopold cleared at least $1.1 billion in today’s dollars during the 23 years he controlled Congo, and his businessmen friends made additional huge sums. Much of the money flowed into companies with special royal concession rights to exploit the rain forest. Final question, for extra credit: Do those companies remind you of anything? If you mentioned Halliburton or DynCorp, you’re right again.

As a reader of history, you must have been interested, I’m sure, in something else in the Congo story: the case of another world leader facing his own Abu Ghraib scandal.

The piece is both well written and damning. Well worth the read.

But, as opposed to Mr (Dr? Prof?) Hochschild, I wouldn’t try to ask questions President Weasel wouldn’t answer – I’d simply make a single suggestion. Next time when you’re choosing Christmas reading Mr President, try to make sure the author is no longer among the breathing, editorial-writing living. In this sense Camus was an excellent choice.

That way, shortly before Christmas, like Scrooge, you might be able to avoid the Ghost of Authors Present while reading about the Ghosts of Kings Past.

Just an idea.

%d bloggers like this: