“At the dock of the big port of Antwerp he sees his company’s ships arriving filled to the hatch covers with valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory. But when they cast off their hawsers to steam back to the Congo, while military bands play on the pier and eager young men in uniform line the ships’ rails, what they carry is mostly army officers, firearms, and ammunition. There is no trade going on here. Little or nothing is being exchanged for the rubber and ivory. As Morel watches these riches streaming to Europe with almost no goods being sent to Africa to pay for them, he realizes that there can be only one explanation for their source: slave labor.”
– pg. 2, KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST, Adam Hochschild, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1999
“I began to read more. The further I explored, the more it was clear that the Congo of a century ago had indeed seen a death toll of Holocaust dimensions.”
– pgs. 3, 4, ibid.
“Underlying much of Europe’s excitement was the hope that Africa would be a source of raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution, just as the search for raw materials – slaves – for the colonial plantation economy had driven most of Europe’s earlier dealings with Africa. Expectations quickened dramatically after prospectors discovered diamonds in South Africa in 1867 and gold some two decades later. But Europeans liked to think of themselves as having higher motives. The British, in particular, fervently believed in bringing ‘civilisation’ and Christianity to the natives; they were curious about what lay in the continent’s unknown interior, and they were filled with righteousness about combating slavery.
“Britain, of course, had only a dubious right to the high moral view of slavery. British ships had long dominated the slave trade, and only in 1838 had slavery’s vestiges been abolished in the British Empire. But the English quickly forgot all this, just as they forgot that there had been slave revolts in the West Indies and that economic factors had hastened slavery’s end by making it less profitable. In their opinion, slavery had come to an end throughout most of the world for one reason only: British virtue. When London’s Albert Memorial was built in 1872, one of its statues showed a young black African, naked except for some leaves over his loins. The memorial’s inaugural handbook explained that he was a ‘representative of the uncivilised
races’ listening to a European woman’s teaching, and that the ‘broken chains at his feet refer to the part taken by Great Britain in the emancipation of slavery.’”
– pgs. 27, 28, ibid.
When it comes to the various civil and other wars raging in the Congo for the past two decades, and the millions and millions and millions of Congolese who have been killed, this is something to which I think I have closed my mind. You know we have enough going on in our own backyard to crush our spirits, so we don’t need to go looking for stress in Central Africa. And, most of us don’t.
But, a few days ago there was this op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled “To Save Congo: Let It Fall Apart.” The author is one J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council. Let me quote him. “The Democratic Republic of Congo, which erupted in violence again earlier this month, ought to be one of the richest countries in the world. Its immense mineral reserves are currently
valued by some estimates at more than $24 trillion and include 30 percent of the world’s diamond reserves; vast amounts of cobalt, copper and gold; and 70 percent of the world’s coltan, which is used in electronic devices. Yet the most recent edition of the United Nations Development Index ranked Congo last among the 187 countries and territories included in the survey.”
My St. John’s College class was in the second form in 1960/61 when the former Belgian Congo exploded into world headlines. Our government monopoly radio station was still the “British Honduras Broadcasting Service.” All our international news came from the British Broadcasting Service BBC and the Voice of America (VOA), which is to say, London and Washington.
It was hard to understand exactly what their newscasts were saying, but the names of the Congolese leaders caught our fancy – Lumumba, Kasa-Vubu, Mobutu, Tshombe … The British and the Americans then fed our imaginations with graphic tales of Congolese soldiers (black) running wild and raping innocent Belgian nuns (white). What were we Belize black youth to do except try to distance ourselves mentally from these horrors in Africa? It was psychologically important for us to differentiate ourselves from the Congolese, and it was in this context that those of us who were more European in appearance sought to make fun of those of us whose appearance was more “Congolese.”
In the Caribbean, where Africa was more familiar than in Belize, The Mighty Sparrow did an absolutely brilliant job of satire mixed with hyperbole in his calypso – “Congo Man.” He knew that there was something wrong somewhere with the images and stories which were being transmitted from the Congo by British, European, and American radio and television newscasts.
Back in those days, when we young Belizeans went to the movies, the theaters would show footage of international news. This was our only opportunity back then to see what was out there, so to speak. I remember that when the 17-year-old Pele led Brazil to World Cup triumph in Sweden in 1958, the mere sight of the black youth in very brief video, created great excitement in Palace Theater. Now, in 1960, it was the Congo’s turn, and the images of ourselves were not nice.
I am eternally grateful to my mother for giving me a sense of who I am. It was one of her granduncles on her father’s side who had told her the story of Jose Escarpeta and Elizabeth Kingston. I have told you this story before, but it always bears repeating. Jose was a “Spanish boat captain” who married a “coal-black” Creole young lady in Sittee River. This must have been in the 1850s or so, not that long after Britain had freed her slaves, but still three decades before Belgium’s Leopold II would begin his rape and destruction of the Congolese people in 1885.
Last week while driving one morning to Ladyville, I saw a young Hispanic guy and a young Creole lady exchange a kiss by the roadside. In that instant, I gathered that she was waiting to catch a bus, perhaps to work. They appeared to be a “man and woman” couple, if you understand what I mean, and so for me they were the 2012 equivalents of Jose Escarpeta and Elizabeth Kingston.
The young lady could well have been Garifuna, of course. Bottom line, she was dark brown, so somewhere down the line she had to be from Mama Africa. One of the things we never talk about is that we Africans were programmed to think we and our people were ugly. As a result of this mindset, children who were “mixed,” wanted to emphasize anything that they thought appeared European in their looks. Thing is, how did you actually get “mixed”? At some point and in most cases, a European man desired an African woman.
This gets us into deep water, because, after contact between the continents was established five hundred years ago, European men were often in a position to rape African women – both here and over there. Well, beloved, I will avoid that deep water today. All I will say is that over here in the Diaspora, there are a lot of us who have European elements in our appearance, and most of us cherish those elements. During slavery and colonialism the masters and rulers got inside our heads, and this is the result – we love him and we hate us.
Partly because my mother taught me where I came from, I love my African side, and I feel sad for those of you who do not. This week, after reading Pham’s essay, I decided to read King Leopold’s Ghost again. I am reading it slowly, and I am making notes. The vast majority of you out there will never read this book, and for sure, if you are students, your teachers will never say anything about it in your classrooms. There are reasons why the Congo is in the bloody and frightening mess it is in today. The biggest reason is a Roman Catholic European king by the name of Leopold II. Belgium was the only European country without a colony, and Leopold wanted one in the worst kind of way, so that he could get rich. The other European nations had already taken over West Africa and East Africa. Only Central Africa remained – that is where the Congo is.
There are many of us in Belize who conceive of ourselves as Europeans, when the Europeans do not so conceive of us. Myself, this week I think of myself as a Congolese, and you can laugh all you want.
I don’t believe that J. Peter Pham is a real friend to the Congolese people, but I will end this column with another quote from his op-ed piece.
“If some enterprises, public or private, can be said to be ‘too big to fail,’ Congo is the reverse: it is too big to succeed. It is an artificial entity whose constituent parts share the misfortune of having been seized by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley in the name of a rapacious 19th-century Belgian monarch. From the moment Congo was given independence in 1960, it was being torn apart by centrifugal forces, beginning with separatism in the mineral-rich, southern province of Katanga.
“The international community has repeatedly dodged the reality by opting for so-called peace deals with shelf lives barely longer than the news cycle. Rather than nation-building, what is needed to end Congo’s violence is the opposite: breaking up a chronically failed state into smaller organic units whose members share broad agreement or at least have common interests in personal and community security.”
As a postscript, please note that Carlota, the mad wife of the Emperor Maximilian who was executed by the Mexicans in the latter part of the nineteenth century, was Leopold’s sister. Some of Carlota’s story appears elsewhere in this issue of our newspaper. In future issues, more of Leopold’s evil and brutality will be discussed.