Sunday, January 9, 2011

Leopold II and the Congo

Here are some pages from The Cambridge history of Africa: from 1870 to 1905 giving a well-balanced account of an inflammatory subject: the disastrous history of the Congo Free State, the unsavory colonial venture of the second King of the Belgians. Contrary to some versions, Leopold did initially have qualms upon hearing of crimes perpetrated against the Congolese. Tragically, however, he was then all too willing to be persuaded that these charges were calumnies. To quote:
All the principles of Congo policy were decided by the king. But in the implementation of these policies, the administration of the state often played its own game. This was particularly true of the domanial régime. Leopold's will was that the state should extract the maximum profit from its domain. But he was not very much concerned with the way this aim was reached. The system of outright exploitation of the native population which gave, as the figures of production show, such extraordinary results, was mainly devised by the administration, both in Brussels and in Africa. Leopold limited himself to noting that the yield was satisfactory. However when the first accusers rose up to denounce abuses in the treatment of the Africans, the king was deeply moved. From 1896 to 1900, as his private letters reveal, he passed through several periods of agony. 'We are condemned by civilized opinion', he wrote in September 1896. 'If there are abuses in the Congo, we must make them stop.' 'It is necessary to put down the horrible abuses', he repeated in January 1899. 'These horrors must end or I will retire from the Congo. I will not allow myself to be spattered with blood and mud.'
On the occasion of each of these crises of anger and disgust, the king reiterated strict orders: cruelty to the natives should be severely punished. The Congo administration just waited for the storm to pass. It had elaborated a system and stuck to it. Altering the system might weaken it. The lessening of pressure on the Africans would naturally bring about a reduction of revenue; and the administration was well aware that, if this occurred, it would have more than royal anger to face. In other words, the administration distinguished between the king's permanent and fundamental desire--to increase the output of the domain--and his occasional crises of conscience. It modelled its action on what was permanent and fundamental. All those linked with the régime, therefore, and desirous of exculpating themselves, tried to convince Leopold II that the accusations against the Congo were unjust or exaggerated and were made in great measure out of ill will. The attitude of Leopold who, unconsciously no doubt, was ready to be convinced, thus came to undergo profound modification; instead of being affected by the attacks, he began soon to react more and more violently against them. Whereas the king almost always dominated his entourage, it may be said that in this case he allowed himself to be dominated by it (pp. 320-321).


Christina said...

I have read this post many times, trying to understand Leopold II, whom I always viewed as rather unpleasant (not least for his excesively long nails,as described the the Empress Frederick)In this post, he reminds me very much of Kaiser Wilhelm II - wanting to do the right thing but signing things away to his ministers so easily. It also brings to mind Queen Victoria's many letters to her ministers and generals about the treatment of the Boers, and African and Indian peoples (QV was absolutely firm about respecting the religious and cultural heritage of her Empire and frequently encouraged and ordered her generals to respect others' beliefs).

Leopold II, though, remains something of mystery to me. Do you admire him, Matterhorn?

Matterhorn said...

There are some qualities in him I can admire--his drive and determination and desire for national greatness--but due to his other, as you say, unpleasant traits, which seem to outweigh the positive ones, I find it very hard to admire the man himself.

Christina said...

Thank you, Matterhorn.