Leopold’s Congo—A docudrama

I just provided the cold statistics on King Leopold’s democide in his Congo. But, how did it become his? Unfortunately, King Leopold of Belgium was an intelligent man. He used his brilliance to wield his kingly authority and prestige in conjunction with lies and deception to convince the major nations of the world at the Berlin Conference of 1885 to grant him exclusive ownership of the Congo in Africa. He was so deceptive that these nations did not even know at the time that this was what they were doing. They had no idea they were giving this man an area that was larger than that of England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined. They thought, as Leopold deceived them into believing, that they were acting against slavery and promoting the humanitarian development of the African natives.

With his control over all land in the Congo, which he cleverly called the Congo Free State, no native could own land; tribes and native empires that had worked and farmed certain land for centuries no longer owned their land. Leopold owned it all—every stream and lake, every mountain and hill, every farm and plantation, every town and village. His!

Leopold granted rights to companies in which he secretly held at least 50 percent ownership. And they proceeded to exploit the Congo’s resources without competition—Leopold would allow none. He set up police forces and a governance of the Congo under his total control, and each of the companies were encouraged to set up their own company police. From then on, profit for Leopold and his companies were the first, second, and third goals of his administration.”

At the point of a gun, Leopold turned the Congo, over seventy-six times the size of his own country of Belgium, into a prison of slaves. No native had any rights. Their only purpose in life was to serve Leopold’s greed. They were forced to build a railroad for him; to transport his ships, disassembled into thousands of heavy and clumsy pieces, to inland lakes; and to produce ivory and rubber for his companies and his vast ego so that he could buy or build villas for his teenage mistress, a former prostitute, and build throughout Belgium monuments to himself.

But, these words like the statistics of his incredible democide are cold, heartless. So, to give some feeling to this horror, I wrote the following docudrama. It is based on actual reports and stories of native life under Leopold.

The Congo Free State, 1906

The white man came at midday. My wife Gili and I were weeding the village field planted with cassava and maize, while outside her hut, my sister Abo was making banana flour by pounding up dried bananas. We saw two men hurry to the Chief’s large hut in the village and soon Liamba, our Chief, came out and had the drums beaten to summon everyone from the fields.

When we all gathered around him, he told us that soldiers with red caps and guns and accompanied by white men were coming to the village.

He said that we should put out food for them so that they would eat and pass on without bothering us. So we went into the fields and collected in baskets cassava, plantains, and ground nuts and brought them back to the Chief’s hut. We also collected chickens and goats from around the village.

When the soldiers entered our village they gathered the food, chickens, and goats together, and afterward they surrounded the village and the white man strode up to Liamba and shot him in the head. At the same time, the soldiers made us sit on the ground while they searched each of the huts, forcing everyone out, including even the young children and women nursing their babies. One man tried to escape and a soldier shot him. He cut off the dead man’s hand and put it into his pocket. We learned later that the hand was proof he had used his bullet to kill a native. Sometimes soldiers would kill animals with their guns, and cut off the hands of living people to prove they had not wasted bullets.

Fida, a friend of mine, at first didn’t understand what the soldiers were demanding. A soldier prodded him with a knife to sit on the ground. A white man saw this and commanded a soldier to grab Fida and drag him by his feet to the space in front of us. A soldier told us to watch and see what happened when we didn’t obey.

Fida trembled as he was pulled to his feet by two soldiers and forced to strip. They made him lay face down on the ground, and one soldier grabbed his hands and the other his feet. A third soldier wielded what we learned to call the chicotte. This was a special whip made of a long strip of corkscrew-shaped, sun-dried hippopotamus hide. It had sharp edges that cut into the skin of those whipped with it.

The soldier started whipping Fida’s buttocks. The first stroke left a red line. As more strokes lashed his body, Fida writhed on the ground, and ended up getting his hips and stomach lashed. Some strokes fell on his genitals, and he shrieked with pain. He began bleeding badly in huge rivulets. Finally he could do no more than moan. We lost track of the number of lashes, but surely there were many more than fifty. Long before the soldier was finished, Fida stopped moving or making any sound. Out of breath, the soldier eventually stopped. He grabbed Fida’s hair and pulled up his head. Fida had bitten through his tongue. He was dead.

A man dressed in blue with a white man alongside him told us that each man would have to collect a basket full of coagulated sap he called rubber from a particular vine that grows in the jungle. If we didn’t fill our basket, we would get whipped like the one dead on the ground. To make sure that we fulfilled our quota and didn’t run away, our wives and children would be held hostage.

A soldier handed me a piece of rubber vine so I would know what it looked like, and had me pass it around. We were told the best way to coagulate the sap was to spread it on our body as soon as we tapped the vine. We must not get dirt, leaves and twigs, or stones in it. We were also prohibited from cutting the vine down, and should do no more than make a cut to drain the sap.

We were separated from the women. I saw my wife crying as she and my sister and the other women and children were driven into one of the large huts. The soldiers packed them all in, and they had hardly enough room to sit.

The soldiers gave each of us a basket and pushed us with their rifles, telling us to go. They gave us no food, nothing to protect us from the rain, nothing but a knife.

I went deep into the forest looking for the vine. I could not find any the first day. When night came, I climbed a tree and slept in a fork in its trunk. It rained during the night; by morning, my teeth were chattering. At dawn I started searching again, more to get warm than to find a vine. I ate berries along the way and found a banana patch and filled my stomach.

Toward nightfall, I found a thick rubber vine and made three cuts in its trunk. As the sap came out I cupped it in my hands and smeared it on my body. Night had fallen by the time the sap coagulated. Pulling it off my body was painful—the strips took body hair along with them. I laid the strips in my basket, then searched in the moonlight for tealeaves.I climbed a tree, found a spot to sit, and wrapped the leaves around my body for warmth.

It took me three more days to fill the basket, since I could only find two more rubber vines. On the last one I was desperate. I hacked it down and dug up the roots with my knife to get as much sap as I could. With my basket full, I headed back to the village, which took two more days. When I reached it, I handed the basket over to a soldier sitting at a table with a white man.

The white man emptied the basket on the table and moved the strips of rubber around. He said something to the soldier, who grabbed my arm and took me to the hut where they were holding my wife and sister hostage. Five or six soldiers were sitting around the hut, paying no attention to three others who were raping Oleka, a young girl. One was holding her arms. Another spread her legs. A third raped her. I tried not to look.

The soldier I was following told me to call to my relatives inside the hut. I did so, and Gili and Abo, each very thin and weak, crawled out. I felt weak myself, but I managed to pick my wife up and put her over my shoulder. With my free hand I lifted my sister by her arm and half dragged her to the shade of a tree. I got water in a bucket from the nearby stream and gave it to them, and a soldier gave me nuts and bananas in a pot from which I fed them.

When she gathered her strength to talk, Gili told me that they had been given only some nuts and a little water, and that two babies, three children, and two of the women, Ejum and Katinga, had died in the hut. She and my Abo had been repeatedly raped, as had all the younger women in the hut. Beautiful Kalonji had fought the soldiers, and had been knocked to the ground, stripped, and whipped to death with the chicotte. Her bloody body, “So cut up it looked like bloody strips of meat all entwined together,” Gili said, had been left for days in front of the hut as a lesson.

I wanted to kill the soldiers, but what could I do? They had taken the rubber-cutting knife away from me, and they would shoot me before I could kill one, then as a warning to others they would kill Gili and Abo. So I swallowed my rage, but could not prevent my tears. For one week longer the soldiers waited for more rubber to be brought from the forest. Finally the last man came out of the forest in the morning, but with a basket only partly full. As soon as the soldiers saw this, they took the basket away from him, gave it to the white man, and pulled the man under a tree. They tied his hands behind him with a long rope, threw the other end of it over a tree limb, and pulled him up by his tied hands until his toes were barely touching the ground. They tied the rope to another tree trunk, and left him like that. He watched as the soldiers brought his wife and daughter out of the hut where they kept all the women, pulled them over in front of him, and shot each of them in the stomach so they would die slowly. Husband and father, he could do nothing but watch them die. Before walking away, the soldiers chopped a hand off each of the women for proof that they did not misuse their bullets.

Gili, Abo, and I could only watch, shaking with fear. The soldiers had brought several large baskets with them. Inside were rusty chains. The soldiers told us to line up near the baskets. Then they clamped an iron collar around each person’s neck, and chained us together in one continuous line. We were given large, heavy baskets containing rubber, food, carvings, ivory, and other things stolen from our village, which they told us to carry on our heads. Some of us also carried goats. When we were all loaded, the soldiers led us onto the trail they had followed to our village.

Day after day we walked, stumbled, tottered, and staggered, sometimes pulled forward by our chains, sometimes held back. In the heat, our sweat made the iron collars chafe our necks, and soon we had open and bleeding sores around them. The soldiers gave us little food and water. We undulated and swayed up and down and sideways, like a giant millipede drunk from Tembo, its many legs seeming to move in different directions, but the body nonetheless moving forward.

I moved in a daze, tugging with or against the chains, watching my feet so that I did not trip. The chains made a continuous clinking noise. When one of us fell, others close by on the chain were also pulled down. Some spilled their baskets, and as they got up the soldiers whipped them with the chicotte. Diur, the woman in front of me, had carried her baby for the first two days, but when she started to straggle and slow up the line, a soldier jerked her baby boy out of her arms and threw him into the woods, where the animals would get him.

The older people were having trouble. They steadied the load on their head with one hand while supporting themselves with a pole or branch. Knees bent, they lurched along. The fourth day, our chains pulled us to a stop. Farther back in the line, old Mobyem sat down and refused to move. A soldier jabbed him with his gun, but he just sat there looking at his feet. Finally, two of the soldiers took out their knifes and stabbed him repeatedly, and he fell over with blood gushing from the wounds. They unchained him, took off his collar, and chained together the ones behind and ahead of him. They redistributed the load he had been carrying.

More people died or were killed, and it meant that our loads got heavier. Each day was more horrible than the last. On the most horrible of all days, I lifted myself off the ground at first light to eat a rotten piece of meat mixed with berries, nuts, and squirming larvae that a soldier passed out. My wife Gili would not get up when he kicked her. I leaned over her and gently called her name. “My lovely Gili, I said, “please get up. The soldiers will kill you.”

She didn’t move. She was dead.

The next day my sister Abo went mad and tried to run for the forest, but she only dragged the rest of us off the trail behind her, and fell screaming. A soldier shot her.

After two weeks we reached the large village of Nyangwby by the side of a lake. There were many white men around. The soldiers led us up to a large white man’s boat. Black smoke billowed out of a big pipe sticking out of the top of it. Men on the boat removed our iron collars and chains, and led those of us carrying rubber onto the boat. They told us to dump the baskets into a very large hole.

Different soldiers took us to a large hut where strangers from another village fed us. Afterward, with soldiers standing around us, the strangers branded us on the leg with a hot iron. They also told us we would be slaves of the white men in the village, and that if we tried to escape they would whip us to death with the chicotte.

That evening, members of the strangers’ kingdom attacked the village. They used arrows and knives, and killed many soldiers and white men during the battle. I escaped into the forest. Two days later Mr. Sestok, a white Protestant missionary, and two Congo converts found me on a trail. I was almost dead.

He died three days later from an infection that developed in the wounds the metal collar made on his neck. Before his death, he told his story to Henry Sestok of the Baptist Missionary Society.”

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