The remarkable double life of a Belgian King

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.  The Congo, a 1914 poem by Vachel Lindsay

The Horror!, the Horror!  Kurtz’s last words from  Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

________

If you visit Brussels, you will see plenty of reminders of the architectural legacy of King Leopold II. Today he is fondly remembered by many Belgians as the “Builder King,” who commissioned a great number of buildings and urban projects, especially in Brussels,Ostend and Antwerp. In the capital he bequeathed the Royal Glasshouses the Cinquantenaire Park and the Royal Museum for Central Africa. In Ostend, an equestrian statue in Bronze of Leopold graces the middle of the promenade. The king is seen on his horse above the smaller figures of local fishermen on one side of its base and naked Congolese on the other side. There is a commemorative declaration from the Africans in which they express their gratitude to Leopold for liberating them from slavery under the Arabs.

Leopold II reigned as a constitutional monarch for 44 years – from 1865 to 1909. Born in 1835, he was just five years younger than the country. His reign saw the adoption of universal adult male suffrage in competitive elections, setting the country on the road to becoming a fully-fledged modern democracy. The free-trade policies that he backed helped bring about a remarkable economic transformation, with their coal production almost equalling that of mighty France. It helped Belgium become very rich. The textile industry, based on cotton and flax, employed about half of the industrial workforce.Ghentwas the premier industrial city in Belgium until the 1880s, when Liege, with its incipient steel industry, came to the fore. Primary education became compulsory, and with the 1881 School Law, girls were guaranteed access to secondary education. Key social reforms were introduced, providing greater protection for women and children. Children under twelve could not be put to work, and after they turned twelve their working day was limited to twelve hours. At this time this legislation was quite radical compared to most of Europe. So in conclusion Leopold was a great reformer at home, a founder ofBelgium’s long years of peace and plenty. What’s not to like?

But then Leopold discovered the Congo. I don’t mean literally – he never actually set foot in Africa– but he was to exert a sinister influence on the continent. For Leopold overseas colonies were the key to a country’s greatness. He worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory for Belgium, but his enthusiasm was not shared by the Belgian people or government. In view of this indifference, Leopold set out to acquire a colony in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen. The Belgian government lent him money for this venture. In 1876 he created the International African Society, a private holding company under the guise of an international scientific and philanthropic association. There was nothing philanthropic about Leopold’s venture though. He hired the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley, of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame to establish a colony in the Congo region.

At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, at which European countries carved up Africa for themselves, Leopold was recognized as sovereign of most of the area he and Stanley had laid claim to. On 5 February 1885 the Congo Free State, with an area more than 75 times bigger than Belgium, came into being. The importation of guns and alcohol would be banned. Peace would be imposed on all of the tribes, and the slave trade would be eradicated. The three Cs – Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization – would all be able to thrive.

The Free State was not a successful operation at first. The initial economic focus had been on ivory, but when the global demand for rubber exploded, the highly labour-intensive collection of sap from rubber plants became a lucrative alternative. In 1888, Dunlop had invented the pneumatic rubber tire for bicycles, and in 1895, Michelin had done the same for cars. Suddenly, Leopold had his hands on something that everyone needed.

Through his private “police”, the Force Publique, Leopold ruled the state as a personal fiefdom. More than a police force, the Force Publique was a mercenary army. Their job was to extract wealth for him, and of course for themselves. The officers were whites and they were in charge of an ethnically-mixed African soldiery. One of their principal tasks was to make sure that rubber quotas were met. Their modus operandi was the use of slave labour, with Congolese men, women, and children all being roped in. The soldiers received low salaries, but they could earn big commissions by meeting or exceeding their rubber quotas. When the wildly overoptimistic quotas were not met, horrific punishments – beatings, mutilation and mass killings – were meted out. The most infamous example of their brutality was the chopping off of hands. These severed hands became a kind of currency – proof that the soldiers were obeying orders. If there was no rubber, the Force Publique, would go out to collect a quota of hands instead. They would mutilate anyone they could find. This is a most gruesome example of perverse incentives. When one commander complained that his men were shooting only women and children, his soldiers came back from the next raid with a basket of penises.

Leopold’s rule of the Congo Free State was in very stark contrast to the enlightened policies he promoted in Belgium. Virtually nothing was invested in improving conditions in the Congo. The only roads built were the ones to transport rubber to market. While he was interested in the security of his Belgian subjects, he had no such worries about the Congolese. Vast wealth would go to Belgium, but the only items that made the opposite journey were weapons for the Force Publique.

There was significant outrage at what Leopold was doing in Africa, led by British diplomat Roger Casement and a former shipping clerk E. D. Morel. His Congo Reform Association was the first mass human rights movement. Mark Twain provided his customary biting wit in a political satire, called King Leopold’s Soliloquy, in which the king argues that bringing Christianity to the country outweighs a little starvation.

By 1908, the evidence of atrocities reached such a level that they could no longer be denied, and after nearly a quarter of a century Leopold was forced to give up his control over the Congo to the Belgian government.

Estimates of the death toll range from two million to fifteen million Determining precisely how many people died is next to impossible since accurate records were not kept. According to the ranking by atrocitologist Matthew White the death toll was ten million, coming in at number fourteen on this chart of infamy.

How could Leopold have ruled two places at the same time in such dramatically different manners? Are we dealing with a case of multiple personality disorder? Of course hypocrisy is a typical human characteristic.Jeffersonwas able to pen the Declaration of Independence a glorious celebration of human rights. Yet at the same time he owned slaves. We could put it down to racism. And Leopold was most probably a racist. But these explanations fail to take into the account the big picture. The Congo has continued to suffer even after the Belgians surrendered their colony in 1960. Racism does not seem to explain the 30-year reign of President Mobuto, who amassed a vast personal fortune while bankrupting Zaire, the old Congo Free State. He may have been mad, but he was able to perpetuate himself in power for more than three decades.

In The Predictioneer’s Game political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita opens with the case of the Belgian king. I blogged about Bueno de Mesquita’s ideas in Gadaffi was too nice: The Dictator’s Handbook. The academic asks why Leopold II was an enlightened constitutional monarch and a ruthless despot simultaneously. For Bueno de Mesquita what unites these two facets of Leopold is the goal of preserving power. Leopold was a civilised Belgian ruler not because he liked his fellow Belgians and welcomed their influence over him. He hated it. He just did what he had to do. In the Congo he faced no such constraints and he did what worked best for him there The political environment made all the difference.

When rulers depend on the support of many the best way to rule is by creating good policies. When leaders require the backing of a few to stay in power they need to focus on satisfying the few, even if the rest of the population are left in abject poverty.  It is not that the leaders in some countries are more venal and corrupt. Nor do people in some countries differ in their willingness to accept tyranny. The fundamental difference is the constraints placed upon the rulers.

I wouldn’t want to single out Belgium. The colonial legacy is one that we all need to reflect upon. I can report that the statues of Leopold have not been faring too well recently. At Ostend in 2004 the equestrian statue was vandalised; one of the “grateful” Congolese in it has had his hand chopped off to make it more realistic. In the palace of Tervuren, in a leafy suburb of Brussels, a statue of Leopold has been moved to a distant corner. A six-metre statue of the king was erected in the middle of a roundabout near Kinshasa’s central station. However it was taken down again after just a few hours. If only the real Leopold’s impact had been so ephemeral.

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