Seven years earlier, on the death of his father (1865), Leopold II had inherited the distinctive title by which his country’s monarchs were known, King of the Belgians. Belgium itself was barely older than its young monarch. After spells of Spanish, Austrian, French, and Dutch rule, it had only become independent in 1830, following a revolt against Holland. Any respectable country of course needed a king, and the infant nation had gone looking for one, finally settling on a German prince, related to the British royal family, who had taken the Belgian throne as Leopold I.
-from pg. 33, King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, Houghton Mifflin, 1999
Congolese independence was primarily an expression of the anti-colonial revolution which pitted the colonialist North against the colonized South. Since World War II, millions of people had thrown off the yoke of colonialism through strikes, civil disobedience movements and full-scale wars — India in 1947, China in 1949, Vietnam in 1954. A war of liberation had been raging in Algeria since 1954, the second war in Indochina broke out in 1957, and the Cuban people had overthrown Batista’s semi-colonial regime in 1959.
Sub-Saharan Africa was no exception. In 1953, four African states were members of the UN; by the end of 1960 there were twenty-six African member states. The UN declared 1960 the Year of Africa; no less than sixteen states on the black continent gained their independence that year, and the largest and potentially richest of them was the Congo. To counter the obstacle that independence represented, the West had to change its policy of overt domination for one of indirect control, and new national leaders had to learn to respect the neo-colonial order.
-from pg. 40, the PREFACE to the English–language edition of The Assassination of Lumumba, by Ludo De Witte (translated by Ann Wright and Renee Fenby), Verso, 2001.
“The UN declared 1960 the Year of Africa …”
When the (Belgian) Congo became an independent country in June of 1960, I was 13 years old and in the 2A class at St. John’s College, a Roman Catholic high school for young males run by the Jesuits. There was only one radio station in the colony of British Honduras in 1960 – the British Honduras Broadcasting Service (BHBS). When the Congo began to disintegrate politically soon after independence, and the names of the Congolese principals in the drama – Lumumba, Tshombe, Mobutu, and Kasavubu — began to resound on the 12:30 and 7:00 p.m. BHBS newscasts, it became commonplace for our youth to use these names to deride our contemporaries who were darker in skin color and supposedly more African in features.
Personally, I am what is commonly known as “mulatto” – half African and half European. I have a little Indigenous blood from Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast. But I was unlike most mixed-race people in Belize, because my late mother (Elinor Belisle Hyde) had made all her children know from an early age that our great grandmother on her side was the daughter of a “coal black” woman (Elizabeth Kingston) and her Spanish husband (Jose Escarpeta) from the village of Sittee River. So, we Hyde children had a modicum of black consciousness.
Our social situation was complicated further by the fact that we were children of a mixed marriage, religiously speaking. Our father was Roman Catholic, but our mother was a devout Methodist. Such types of marriage were very, very rare in the 1940s here: you married inside your religion.
Denominational religion was even more serious business back then than it is today, and the leading churches were the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, and the Methodists, which controlled almost all the primary and high schools. There were a few Baptist and Nazarene schools, also Salvation Army, but the Evangelicals were not in evidence the way they are today.
I was basically an innocent in 1960 where regional and world affairs were concerned. I remember that the BHBS news, on one occasion at least, spoke about the rape of Belgian nuns (presumably white) by Congolese soldiers (black, of course.)
There are stories I have not told you over all these years, but these stories have some relevance for me as I go over the atrocities wrought by King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the outrageous murder of Patrice Lumumba in early 1961.
When you look at an African country like Ethiopia or Somalia or the Sudan, you will see some brown people. But our consciousness of the Congo even now, and of course in 1960, was that these were the blackest people one could imagine.
I remember when I entered Dartmouth College in 1965, there was an upperclassman in the school from Ghana whose name was Frank Mwine. It quickly became clear to me that he detested the very ground I walked on. It is not unusual for black people to dislike brown people, one reason being that browns are usually the product of sex between white men and black women. I didn’t pay much attention to Mwine, because amongst the foreign students in my class I had met a black African from Malawi with whom I struck up an almost instant friendship – the late Guy Mhone.
I would have been in 2A at SJC between 1960 and 1961, to repeat, during the crazy Congo crisis, how crazy I would not have known at the time. One afternoon in 2A, I saw an incident which has remained with me all these years. The teacher in a Latin or English class was a handsome, blonde Jesuit by the name of Richard Hadel. Something must have bugged him out, or perhaps he had already been angry since the lunch break at the Faculty Building. But suddenly he strolled angrily to the back row of the class, where a tall, languid, black student by the name of Richard Simon was seated. (I can’t swear for that student’s name. We’re talking about 1960/61 here). My recollection is that Hadel smashed the back of this student’s head against the wall dividing 2A from 2B, and then took a stance as if he were ready to fight with the student, who did not respond to his aggression. (I can’t remember if he had made the student stand up before smashing his head.)
In Standard VI at Holy Redeemer Boys School in 1958 or 1959, I had watched a nun brutalize some students, at least a dozen of them, who were members of the school band and had angered her in some way. The nun was a favorite of mine, Sister Francine, and became a favorite of my family, so much so that my mom named her youngest child (and second daughter) after Sister Mary Francine.
Many, many years afterwards, I called one of the students who had been brutalized on the calves with a stick to check something about the incident. Amazingly to me, his concern was that I was about to publicize something which would embarrass his Roman Catholic church. See, I told you, denominational religion is serious business.
As the child of a mixed marriage, religiously speaking, I did not have that same level of intensity, even though I served Mass at the Holy Redeemer diocese for a couple years. My mom had sworn, as part of her marriage vows, to raise all her children as Roman Catholics, and she never interfered with our religious upbringing. But, her fidelity to Methodism had an unspoken influence on us, at least on me.
Anyway, in 2A in 1960 we had a mathematics teacher who was dark-skinned and, I later learned, came from a Sittee River village family. We used to call him “Jack Slade” behind his back. Many years later, I met that teacher’s older brother, and his older brother and I became good friends. But one day in 2A, the math teacher used a white Guatemalan student by the name of Carlos Remis to embarrass me in geometry. Perhaps the teacher thought too much was being made of my academic exploits in First Form, and he wanted to put me in my place. Fair enough. I always wanted to ask him about it, but when I came back from America, he had migrated to Los Angeles, and he’s never returned.
I’ve given you a couple anecdotes from 1960 in Belize at SJC when all hell was breaking loose in the Congo, where millions of Congolese had been mutilated and murdered by King Leopold II, in his quest for riches and glory. Patrice Lumumba was a sincere Congolese leader whose murder the Belgians orchestrated, using Lumumba’s fellow Congolese – Tshombe and Mobutu. The Congo is perhaps the richest country in the world, where natural resources are concerned, but the Congolese people are the most destitute in the world. This story must be told.