The Most Painful Proof

“Congo” probes royal, colonial atrocities, and a heritage of denial

“Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death” presents a meticulous chronicle of the systematic use of fear, human rights abuses, and atrocities to force a nation of 20 million Africans into the service of King Léopold II. Unlike other colonizations, where land and natural resources were appropriated, the Congo was actually the personal property of King Léopold II from 1885 to 1908. European outrage at his widespread abuses led to him relinquishing the Congo to the nation of Belgium as a whole.

“Congo” also illustrates how Belgium has practiced collective denial about its colonial past despite the outrage at the turn of the century, as statues around Brussels, some recently erected, laud the king as a philanthropist and civilizer. The king’s descendents still sit on the Belgian throne in palaces built on African slave labor, while Belgium utters precious little remorse or guilt, or even acknowledgement.

The sovereign of a small country, Léopold II was desperate for a colony. After failing elsewhere around the globe, the Congo represented his last chance, and he was hungry for his piece of “this magnificent African cake.”

“Congo” clearly shows Léopold II was well aware of what was happening every step of the way. The avarice began with the king carefully studying how other Western nations signed treaties with the indigenous peoples they would soon subjugate. Using this cunning, Léopold signed a variety of agreements with tribal chiefs to give him the “veil of legality” he might need later on if accused of land grabbing. Once establishing himself as the only game in town, a variety of edicts declared all open land his personal property; harvests and forest produce were made state property as well. The “Congo Free State” quickly became a forced labor camp for its 20 million inhabitants, half of whom died within 20 years, when global demand for rubber for bicycles and cars demanded quotas.

For those who did not meet quotas, punishments were severe. Along with deaths and mutilations were dismemberments; smoked hands were kept as proof that the population was being punished. In some cases, rubber collectors’ wives were held hostage until the quota was met; this crime was so institutionalized that it was common for records to be maintained of how long a hostage would be kept, and people were legally authorized to become hostage takers. The women were subjected to rapes and other sex crimes during their confinement. Many villages also went up in flames, abandoned to this day. The camera captures some of the charred remnants decades later.

“Congo” presents a wealth of irrefutable evidence against Léopold and his henchmen, but undermines its case with overbearing righteousness, like narration screeching repeatedly, “this is an outrage.” The dramatized courtroom trial with actors in 19th century dress reading testimony before a passive Léopold is also overkill.

Despite this heavy-handedness, “Congo” effectively presents its case, and calls our attention to two major players in the 20th century’s first major human-rights activism. Edmund Morel, a journalist, used his newspaper, the “West African Mail,” to convey Léopold’s crimes to a wide audience. Roger Casement, Irish-born British consul to the Congo, worked to keep his own “Congo Report” from being suppressed by the British government. Together, their efforts made Léopold, once the richest man in Europe, the most hated as well.

Where the camera really succeeds is in today’s Brussels, where the great palaces and public monuments to Léopold built on his African income retain prominence. Here, the statues of the king stand in stark contrast to those left in the Congo, rusting away in weedy lots and junkyards.

Léopold died a year after giving up the Congo, and the Belgians made a more traditional go of colonialism in the wake of the sovereign’s personal ownership, exploiting gold and diamond reserves without mutilating and killing as a policy of state. But, even when it bowed out of colonialism altogether in 1960, Belgium left the Congo a legacy of abuse and corruption that has blighted one of Africa’s most populous nations with civil wars and despotism ever since.

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