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imperialism & war

A Tale of Two Kings

Colonialism changes form but continues unabated as it has for over five hundred years. While reading King Leopold's Ghost, I was struck by the similarity in fabrications and lies told by King Leopold II to justify his actions with those given by George W. Bush to justify the Iraq war. The economic motivations and incredible hypocrisy of both men are also similar.
Actually it is a tale of one real king, Leopold II of Belgium, and one who would love to be a king or dictator, George W. Bush. In fact, George W. Bush has appropriated for himself some of the powers of kings, such as waging aggressive wars against other nations. Realizing that European kings had waged wars on one another for centuries at great cost to civilian populations, our founding fathers wrote into the US Constitution the provision that only Congress was empowered to declare war. However, our stalwart representatives in Congress (actually a vacillating group of wimps) have abrogated their responsibility to protect this important power and simply allowed the President to seize it.

King Leopold II of Belgium desperately wanted his own private colony in Africa. He hired Henry Morton Stanley, the great African explorer, to sign treaties with the tribal chiefs along the Congo River and its tributaries and to procure ownership of the land and all the resources on that land. Most of the chiefs probably had no idea of what they were signing when they marked their X on the paper. For a little cloth and beads, he was able to secure control of a vast area of land. Now, he needed international recognition of his claim in central Africa. King Leopold II used his influence with a wealthy American businessman named General Henry Shelton Sanford to secure US President Chester A. Arthur's recognition of his claim to the Congo. Additional assistance was provided by Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, who wanted to send all the blacks in the United States back to Africa. He had more trouble with Bismarck, but eventually procured Germany's recognition to his private fiefdom in Africa.

In a very similar manner to George W. Bush's professed humanitarian desire to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people, King Leopold II claimed he had absolutely no monetary interest in the Congo. He stated that he was only interested in bringing scientific progress to the native people and stopping the barbaric Arab slave traders coming in from the east. Leopold attended antislavery conferences in Europe and even established an organization called the International Association of the Congo to promulgate his supposed desire to end slavery and bring progress and enlightenment to the Congo.

All the while King Leopold II was engaged in this activity, his Force Publique troops were kidnapping Africans and paying chiefs for slaves to use as porters in bringing ivory out of the Congo and to build a trail and later a railroad around the treacherous rapids at the lower end of the Congo River. When slaves were disobedient, they were beaten with an often lethal whip made from hippopotamus hide called a chicotte.

The human rights situation in the Congo grew even worse when John Dunlop discovered the great utility of rubber in making inflatable tires for bicycles and later automobiles. The world demand for rubber skyrocketed. Rubber comes from a species of tree and also a wild vine which grew abundantly in the Congo. King Leopold II realized that plantations of rubber trees would require time for maturity and in the intervening period, he could make a veritable fortune from sap of the wild rubber vines in the Congo. The problem was how to make African men leave their families, go into the jungles and swamps and remain there for months, harvesting the rubber. The dilemma was solved by taking the wives and children of the Africans hostage and only releasing them when the men returned with their quota of rubber, which naturally required an enormous amount of labor to achieve. Sometimes, even more force was necessary and massacres were perpetrated and a practice developed of cutting off the hands and feet of recalcitrant natives. Initially, hands were cut off corpses to prove ammunition hadn't been wasted, but later it was used on living people. Many native rebellions occurred, which were defeated because the Europeans had rifles and a new machine gun invented by Hiram Maxim. It is rather reminiscent of the use of the Gatling gun against the bows and arrows of Native Americans or indeed of the great US military supremacy in Iraq.

The incredible hypocrisy of King Leopold II in portraying himself as a great humanitarian, while simultaneously building a tremendous fortune off slave labor, was discovered by a British shipping official named E. D. Morel. He found that ships arriving in Antwerp were loaded with ivory and rubber, but those headed back to the Congo contained nothing to pay for these commodities-only weapons and ammunition. The logical, inescapable conclusion was slave labor.

E. D. Morel established the Congo Reform Association, which was dedicated to telling the world the truth about the atrocities being committed in the Congo. He was joined by a British consular official named Roger Casement, who had the honesty and integrity to personally investigate conditions in the Congo and report accurately on them to the British government. This organization attracted notable writers like Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mystery stories.

Leopold II retaliated against this truth telling effort by Morel and others by hiring a German banker named Ludwig von Steub to bribe journalists and editors across Europe so favorable articles about him and the Congo would appear in European newspapers. This was successful for a time, but Leopold eventually abandoned the effort. The bribery was discovered because the banker kept writing correspondence to Leopold demanding payment for his bribes and saying that journalists don't give receipts. Finally, Leopold sold the Congo to the Belgian government, which proved to be nearly as repressive to the people there as Leopold, especially when important minerals like copper, cobalt, gold and uranium were found and mining developed.

The US corporate media realize that the interests of American corporations in Third World nations are protected and enhanced by US military power. Consequently, George W. Bush doesn't have to resort to bribery to get his lies printed like King Leopold II did. The editors and journalists just blindly accept the lies the President, State Department and Pentagon give to them to justify foreign wars. They know which side their bread is buttered on and for the sake of their careers, they practice self-censorship. They certainly aren't going to argue that the Iraq war is about oil profits any more than in King Leopold's day they would have argued that slavery existed in the Congo or was connected in any way to profits from rubber and ivory. The crass economic motivations of corporations must be carefully camouflaged by tons of garbage about humanitarian ideals, freedom, democracy, the rule of law and "American values." In Leopold's time the justifications for imperialism were bringing Western civilization, Christianity and scientific progress to the "savages."

The death toll of King Leopold's rule in the Congo is estimated at between eight and ten million people. George W. Bush has killed a lot of people in Iraq and Afghanistan and poisoned their lands with radioactive uranium which will cause a large number of future victims. However, as yet he can't compare to the brutality of Leopold II, who accumulated his grisly toll of victims during a period of over twenty years.

Obviously, the theory that I am advancing in this article is that colonialism has simply changed its form and continues as it has for over five hundred years and that the actions of King Leopold II and George W. Bush are intimately related and economically motivated. Colonial governments have been replaced by puppet governments, which can be overthrown by CIA coups or US military force if the leader becomes too independent. The World Bank and International Monetary fund can place enormous pressure on countries to privatize and deregulate their economies for corporate benefit. Colonialism has become even more efficient and devastating to the people of the world. The starvation of millions of people in the Third World is not caused by overpopulation, lack of resources, laziness, underdevelopment or any of the other spurious reasons given by apologists for capitalism. It is caused by exploitation.

Some people might think that maybe the United States breaks with all previous history and is the one country in the world that really and truly fights wars for democracy and freedom. Certainly, that is what is usually taught in the US history books, just as Belgian colonial history books taught that King Leopold II tried to end slavery in Africa instead of creating a holocaust there. Why should the results of exploitative economic systems change if the cause remains in effect? Cause and effect is a law of physics. If capitalism causes colonialism, exploitation and war, then these effects will not vanish until capitalism is destroyed. To put it another way, most Americans now realize that politicians in Congress are bought and paid for by corporations and that unfortunate situation influences greatly both domestic and foreign policy. Are corporations interested in democracy and freedom, or are they interested in profits, market share and control of the Earth's natural resources? I believe the answer is obvious.

As an interesting footnote to this story, two of the courageous leaders of the campaign to bring the atrocities in the Congo to public attention, E. D. Morel and Roger Casement, suffered tragic fates. E. D. Morel realized the relationship between the imperialist slaughter of World War 1 in Europe and the atrocities in the Congo. He was imprisoned in England for his opposition to the war. Roger Casement was an Irishman, and he saw the colonization of the Congo by Leopold and the colonization of Ireland by England in the same light. He tried to influence Germany to grant independence to Ireland if they won the war. He was hung as a traitor to England.

Much of the information in this article comes from an excellent book on the Congo called King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild.

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