Exemplifying the Horror Of Some European Colonization—Leopold’s Congo

[The following was originally posted on the H-NET List on the History and Theory of Genocide, November 2, 2001]

 Having just read Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, and followed up on its reviews and what I could find about the Congo Free State on the internet….

I’m aghast at the democide I missed. It is probably over many millions, possibly 10 million murdered or more from 1885 when The Berlin Conference formally recognized the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo-formerly Zaire) to 1908 when Belgium took it over as a colony. The Congo Free State was the private land, not a colony, of King Leopold II of Belgium to do with whatever he wanted.

And the massive killing did not stop when Belgium took it over.
But amazingly, although the death toll is in the many millions, far exceeding what Germany did to the Hereros (I get a toll of 55,000), the incredible terror, slavery, and death imposed on the Congo natives by one man has been virtually ignored in books on genocide. For example, there is nothing on it in Chalk and Jonassohn’s The History and Sociology of Genocide, Kuper’s Genocide, and Charny’s two-volume Encyclopedia of Genocide. There is one paragraph without estimates of the toll in Totten, Parsons, and Charny’s Century of Genocide.
This neglect cannot be due to lack of historical information. There was a vigorous international movement at the time led by the Congo Reform Movement, and involving many notables of the day, such as Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Booker T. Washington, and Bertrand Russell. Debates over what to do about the Congo involved the legislatures and Presidents, or Prime Ministers of the United States, England, France, and Germany.

Yet, this democide far surpassed in human corpses most every democide in the 20th Century except that by Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. This mind-boggling democide has been flushed down the memory hole. Why this should be so is beyond this post, but should be the subject of study in itself.

To add embarrassment to this neglect, the French in their Congo taken over in 1900 (now the Republic of the Congo) copied Leopold’s system of rule and exploitation and thus may have murdered several million Africans as well. No work on genocide that I have mentions this.
Just to see how far off I was in my eight-year search for any and all 20th Century genocide, I went through all the tables in my Statistics of Democide and tabulated cases of colonial democide I recorded there.

For colonies by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom, in Africa and Asia, 1900 and after, my grand democide total is 870,000 murdered. This measures a human tragedy by itself, but is nonetheless puny in comparison to just the many millions murdered by Leopold in his private Congo Free State.

I have only a low of 25,000 for this. I recorded no democide for Belgium, although it may have been responsible for close to a million once it took over the Congo. And I get just 22,000 forced laborers murdered by the French in building a railroad in the French Congo.

Now, we have these estimates:

  • Britannica, “Congo Free State” claims that the population declined from 20 or 30 million to 8 million.
  • A 1904 report by Roger Casement’s estimated that as many as 3 million Congolese died since 1888 (cited in Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century; also in Colin Legum, Congo Disaster (1972).
  • Peter Forbath (The River Congo (1977) claims that at least 5 million killed.
  • John Gunther (Inside Africa (1953) estimates 5-8 million deaths.
  • Adam Hochschild (Leopold’s Ghost mentioned above) estimates 10 million, or half the original population from 1885 to 1920.
  • Fredric Wertham, A Sign For Cain: A Exploration of Human Violence (1966) estimates that the population of the Congo dropped from 30M to 8.5M, a loss of 21.5 million.

As a result of all this, I’ve reevaluated the colonial toll. Where exploitation of a colony’s natural resources or portering was carried out by forced labor (in effect slavery of a modern kind), as it was in all the European and Asian colonies, then the forced labor system built in its own death toll from beatings, punishment, coercion, terror, and forced deprivation. There were differences in the brutality of the system, the British being the least brutal and Leopold and the French, Germans, and Portuguese the worst. We all know what the Soviet gulag was like. These colonizers turned Africa into one giant gulag, with each colony being like a separate camp.

Based on this research, I’m willing to estimate that over all of colonized Africa and Asia 1900 to independence, the democide was something like 50 million. This is way above my original 870,000. Even 50 million may be too conservative. If this figure were roughly close, however, then I must raise my total murdered by governments in the 20th Century from 174,000,000 to 223,000,000.

We should all weep. 

Some List Exchanges
on the Above”

November 6, 2003
Regarding of my reestimate of the colonial democide due to the European powers, one scholar asks: “I am curious to know, though, how Rummel’s arguments might contribute to a rethinking of the relationship between democracy and democide/genocide. I am far from an expert on fin-de-siecle and early-20th century European politics, but it seems to me that both Belgium and France could have claimed, at the time that they and/or their chartered companies were perpetrating massive atrocities, to be as democratic as any states then in existence. Does Prof. Rummel have any thoughts on this?

1. Does this change my evaluation of the relationship between power and democide, freedom and nondemocide?
No. It reinforces it. King Leopold II had absolute power over the Congo Free State. It was his. Belgium had nothing to do with it. And he created and slave and lethal land on the order of Stalin’s slave labor gulag.

2. What about when the Congo Free State was transferred to Belgium in 1908? Belgium colonial officials went to extreme lengths to prevent information about the Congo from getting out. particularly to the people.. For example, the testimony before a Commission set up to investigate what was going on in the Congo was suppressed. Even Belgium’s own ambassadors in the 1970s, over 60 years later, were forbidden from looking at the secret files. Nonetheless, due to the legislature’s demands and overview, conditions in the Congo were gradually improved after it took it over..

3. What about France, which did directly govern the French Congo in which conditions were not much different from the Congo Free State?
The Story is similar. The French colonial office kept secret information about events in the colony and tight control over who went there and what they could say. Nothing negative was allowed out.
We have here the problem in democracies, especially regarding foreign affairs, whether war, security threats, or colonialism. Although the democracy itself may be open, with freedom of speech and the diffusion of power, centers of near absolute power may be set up that operate internally and over their mandate as though a dictatorial system. The intelligence services (e.g., CIA), the military in time of war (e.g., Hiroshima), or the colonial administration (e.g., France)

4. What does the greed and bloody profits of concessions in the colonies say about capitalism?
Nothing. There was no capitalism, no free market, no competition, and no free trade. The companies that operated were given special dispensation and military protection to be monopolies over a specific region or trade. In the case of the Congo Free State, for example, Leopold only allowed most concession into the Congo if he had at least controlled 50 percent of their stocks. This was industrial socialism at its worst. 


November 4, 2003

A mystery about the black hole the Congo Free State and the French Congo have fallen into is the interest among genocide scholars in the Herero genocide that took place during this period. Here about 55,000 were murdered by the Germans, while next door and ignored by current scholars was the ongoing murder of many millions. Every book on genocide in general covers the Herero; none covers the Congo, except for a nonspecific paragraph here and there. 


November 6, 2003
German Africa was similar to the Congo in the forced labor and exploitation of the natives, with the one major exception of the Hereros. As a result of their rebellion, the Germans intentionally tried to kill them off root and branch. This meets the Convention’s definition of genocide. Otherwise, in German colonies, as in the Congo Free State, French Congo, and other colonies, natives were murdered in the process of their exploitation as slave labor, or when they got in the way. The were not killed because of their tribal membership or race as such.

But this is where the scandal of the many definitions of genocide used by scholars hits home. By the Genocide Convention’s standards, only the Hereros involved genocide, and maybe some other isolated cases of minor significance. But by Charny’s definition, and that Chalk and Jonassohn implicitly use, which is murder by government, all the mass murders in the colonies were genocide.
I suspect there are two reasons for the emphasis on the Herero. One is that it is manifestly genocide as defined by the Convention. Second, the Germans did it, which then plays into all kinds of theories about national character, precursors of the Holocaust, The Kaiser and the causes of WWI, etc.

Anyway, the significance of the different treatment is that an incredible amount of democide (genocide in Charny’s terms) has been missed, and this affects our attempt to get at causes and conditions, or most fundamentally, our understanding.

I hope some Ph.D. student takes a dissertation interest in this whole question.

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