One of the Belgian hostages during post-independence Congo Crisis in 1960.
Misfortunes appear seemingly associated with the history of Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC as we now preferably call. Even its geographical existence itself, in agonizing terms, is a ‘colonial wound’, already carved by the personal ambitions of King Leopold of Belgium more than a century prior. Firstly known as ‘Congo Free State’, King Leopold brutally exploited his approximately all his subjects, mutilating their hands for failing to fulfill quota required by his private company. It was estimated that 10-30 million people died from 1885 to 1908, the year the colony was taken over by Belgian government directly. Renamed ‘Belgian Congo’, the colony underwent rapid economic growth, and near its independence in 1960, it became the most industrialized colony in the whole continent. Nonetheless, skills and technology transfer were virtually nearly non-existent, as bulk of the expertise was managed by a tiny white Belgian community, no more than 90,000 strong, against more than 16 million Congolese people, of whom only a few dozens had ever accomplished higher education.
As independence came, anti-Belgian sentiment was overwhelmingly terrifying; thousands of businesses were ransacked and looted, and the entire economy came into a complete stoppage. Another three-decade authoritarian rule by Mobutu Sese Seko, meanwhile, foresaw a relative political stability and a stronger Congolese identity under another more authentic African name, Zaire, but corruption remained severe in nearly all aspects. With his downfall in 1997, the whole nation plunged into an African-sized ‘World War’, by which more than 5 million civilians and soldiers died until 2003. Right now, the country ends up on the lowest bottom of the world’s poorest, desperately dependent on its mineral resources. It’s not to say the future remains bleak, but at the very least, the country needs a serious leader to unify the population, shed a light and cast a new hope on its own people, otherwise the country will not survive long, and simply end up as ‘a mere colonial wound’.
Read the whole article, published in 2006, in The Independent.
Other testimony disclosed how Belgian officers ordered their men “to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross”. This blood-curdling business carried on for more than 12 years before word leaked out. One of the first to blow the whistle was the captain of one of the riverboats that transported the ivory and rubber downstream to port. His name was Joseph Conrad, and eight years later he wrote a book that has shaped the emotional language in which white people discuss Africa.
It was called Heart of Darkness. The atmosphere it conjures is of fetid fever-ridden ports in an Equatorial river basin surrounded by dense tropical rainforest. It is a climate of persistent high temperatures and humidity, as enervating to the soul as to the body. It is a world of madness, greed and violence, centred on a charismatic ivory trader called Kurtz who turns himself into a demigod to the local tribes and gathers vast quantities of ivory. Eventually, he dies – “The horror, the horror,” his last words.
When the book was published in magazine serial form in 1899, it did not just expose what Conrad was to call “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”. It also gave backing to the writings of a man whose campaigns on the Congo the public had been reluctant to believe.
ED Morel was a clerk in a Liverpool shipping office who began to wonder why the ships that brought vast loads of rubber from the Congo returned carrying no commercial goods, but only guns and ammunition. He began to investigate the Force Publique and concluded that Leopold’s well-publicised philanthropy was in fact “legalised robbery enforced by violence”. He wrote: “I had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a king for a croniman.”