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Evil Personified

[ 86 ] December 18, 2013 |

It’s always useful to remember the true depraved evil of King Leopold II and the horrors of Belgian rule over the Congo, a legacy that goes far to define the lives of the people of central Africa today.


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  1. N__B says:

    “King Leopold’s Dream” was my introduction, at about the age of twelve, to the adult writings of Mark Twain. Given the historical oubliette into which so much of the detail seems to have been tossed, it’s a good thing that we have Twain’s and Conrad’s descriptions to keep the horror alive.

  2. Thom says:

    Very true, Erik. Thanks for the post. (When I saw the headline, though, I thought it would be about Nixon.)

    • GoDeep says:

      +1… I wish when we read Heart of Darkness in HS it had been accompanied with a history lesson of Congolese colonization. I didn’t much like Conrad’s style & it made it hard for me to absorb. I’m embarrassed to say that I was an adult before I actually realized the extent of the horror there… And unfortunately it seems like its been a never ending horror movie even since Independence…

  3. Atrios says:

    I used to have a parody commenter who went by the name of King Leopold. I admit I miss him.

    • Was going to link the same book. Great, if horrifying, read that makes a very strong case for Leopold II to be included on the list of “biggest assholes ever” with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etcetera.

      • Aimai says:

        That simply can’t be true. I understand all mass murderers and famines are caused by lack of capitalism.

      • Sam240 says:

        Don’t forget Talaat Pasha, who had a bunch of positive things to say about the Armenians he was exterminating, and partially “justified” genocide on the grounds that it would save money — reducing government spending in the long run. As he put it, you can’t afford to tell the difference between the innocent and the guilty, as those who are innocent today may be guilty tomorrow, and that survivors may carry out murders in the future. The latter turned out to be true in Talaat’s case: he was killed by a survivor of the Armenian Genocide.

        Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, by Henry Morgenthau, includes reports from this genocide, as well as his recollections of dealing with Talaat. It can be read at

        Talaat has always struck me as the type of person who would look at the Nazis packing Jews on trains to send them to the death camps, and then complain that the passengers, and not the government, should be the ones paying the fare.

        (I’m not exaggerating; he once asked Morgenthau for a list of insurance policies that Armenians had taken out with American companies, stating that, since there were no survivors left, their death benefits would go directly to the government under Ottoman law. Therefore, he continued could Morganthau help the government get the money it was due?)

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      Yes, that is a pretty good book. For the more recent history of Congo I would recommend Thomas Turner, The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth & Reality (London: Zed Books, 2007). For Belgium’s other holdings in Africa, what are now Burundi and Rwanda I recommend Peter Uvin, Life After Violence: A People’s Story of Burundi (London: Zed Books, 2009) and Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide New Updated Editon (London: Zed Books, 2009).

  4. MattT says:

    Speaking of terrible people, wasn’t one of Newt Gingrich’s hobbyhorses apologism for Belgian colonialism in the Congo? Without speaking any of the relevant languages or actually visiting the Congo.

  5. Aimai says:

    We were just in Belgium last year, for the first time. Its a really, really, weird place–the Belgians themselves don’t seem to be able to stand themselves and they are incredibly brusque and loud and in your face. I asked our Belgian Tour Guide (who was both racist and homophobic) whether she considered herself Belgian (she had lived all over the world) and she said, disdainfully, “no, European.” I did not see the chocolate hands and body parts that someone recently was discussing, although I heard about them. I didn’t connect them with the Belgian Congo since theres a long tradition of manufacturing body parts for religious devotion out of lots of things. But: creepy.

    Bruges and Ghent were gorgeous, but I’d never go back to Brussels or Belgium for anything other than a pit stop.

    • Nigel Holmes says:

      Are you sure the hands are connected to the Congo except in the minds of people writing about them on the internet? Antwerp has a legend explaining its name with a chopped off hand origin story, commemorated in its city arms (i.e. hands were an Antwerp thing before Belgium got involved in the Congo). If that’s the origin, they’re more historically insensitive than a celebration of colonialism (like the fireworks they used to set off in Clifford’s Tower in York).

      But perhaps I’m underestimating the ability of people to celebrate awful things.

      • Lee Rudolph says:

        I didn’t notice chocolate hands (in Bruges, Ghent, or Antwerp), but then again, on that trip my base was Geneva and I had been inoculated with the notion that Belgian chocolate wasn’t worth considering when Swiss chocolate was available. Perhaps Aimai (or winslow2036, author of the linked dailykos story, if s/he is reading here) remembers whether the hands were available in both white chocolate and brown chocolate varieties. The hands on the arms of Antwerp (as depicted by Wikipedia, anyway) are white. If all (or essentially all) the chocolate hands are black, I’d say that’s dispositive.

        • Katya says:

          If all (or essentially all) the chocolate hands are black, I’d say that’s dispositive.

          Not necessarily. Milk/dark chocolate are yummy, whereas white chocolate is fine, I guess, but it’s not really chocolate. I would expect to see more brown chocolate, just because it tastes better and is likely more popular.

        • njorl says:

          I thought Belgian chocolate was supposed to be the best in the world, at least when it comes to chocolate that people really eat. The Swiss and Italians make ridiculously overpriced and unobtainable batches that win competitions, then sell an inferior product based on reputation.

          • Sauron says:

            Well, that’s what the Belgians would say, of course.

            And it is true that Swiss export chocolate isn’t as good as Swiss chocolate intended for domestic consumption (even the mass marketed stuff); my landlord in Geneva during my first stay, an Austrian, lost a bet with his Swiss lady friend (from Valais) that she couldn’t tell the difference during blind tests between Toblerone for export (as in, the French commune of Annemasse a few hundred yards from the apartment building) and apparently-identical Toblerone for domestic consumption.

            • Lee Rudolph says:

              Done in by that “one nym to bind them all”-fail, yet again. I suppose you people think it’s easy being evil personified. Bah, humbug.

            • sibusisodan says:

              “Being vanquished from the realms of men and elves wasn’t the end of the story by any means. ‘I took it more as some time to reassess, find myself,’ said the Dark Lord in an exclusive interview. ‘I found a small pension in Geneva, and really enjoyed the anonymity of it all, the small scale stuff of daily life, without having an overarching plan to dominate everything…'”

              • You should see the stuff he’s doing right now, with Artisinal beer and coffee. We are planning on branching out and maybe doing a line of soaps and chocolates–oh, not mixing them of course!

              • Sauron says:

                And it’s absolutely true, by the way, that Toblerone here is much, much better than what I used to be able to get in the old country; not that it’s particularly good, mind you. When I can save up a bit of gold for a treat, I like to slip out to the Chocolaterie du Rhône. Though it’s somewhat a place one goes to see and be seen, and I’m not really into that, these days.

        • Nigel Holmes says:

          From this site, they seem to come in dark, milk and white. If you trust Wikipedia, the first product was a kind of biscuit, Antwerpse handjes, and the tradition only goes back to 1934. So chronologically at least, it could be influenced by Leopold II; but (again just reading Wikipedia), it really doesn’t look like it’s something Belgium would celebrate (Leopold had taken Congo as a private possession, until he was forced to cede it to the state in 1908).

          • wjts says:

            The cookies/chocolate may only date from 1934, but according to that same article, they were made as a reference to the story of Druon Antigoon. I very much doubt there’s any real symbolic connection between the chocolate hands and the atrocities in the Congo.

        • On reconsideration I doubt the story in the dailyKos article since I think the hand cut off thing sounds more medieval than post congo. I didn’t see the chocolate hands but they were certainly in the guidebook–along with warnings and descriptions of chocolate penises and other body parts which owe more to modern sensibilities than ancient. We also bought enormous gummy rats in Bruges, which are a symbol of the town. I think to really appreciate these food items you have to remember that the tradition of forming them goes way, way, back in the guilds which pre-existed the Belgian Congo.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      The flower carpet is pretty neat, as is the Musical Instruments Museum.

      Lots of other nice collections in that area as well.

    • LeeEsq says:

      I’m pretty sure that the chopped off hands have more to do with something from Belgium’s Catholic identity, martyrdom and all that or something from their Mediveal and Reanaissance history. These sort of grotesque imageries are common in a lot of countries.

      The average European isn’t anymore aware or concerned with the dark side of their countries’ history than the average American or Japanese or anybody else.* For better or worse, its just the past for them and has nothing to do with them. In the Netherlands, the main museum dealing with Indonesia, the Tropic Museum (I forgot the Dutch name) has more in common with the Museum of Natural History than anything relating to Dutch imperialism in what is now Indonesia. As an anthropological museum, its kind of nice but it does show a lack of self-awareness.

      In some obscure corner in Brussels, there is probably a museum about the Belgium Congo but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ignores all the evil that was done there. Otherwise, the Belgium Congo might have been colonized by another country as far as the average Belgium is concerned even though it was still under their control in the early 1960s. That isn’t really that long ago.

      *Americans concerned about the dark side of our history think that the average European is more aware but thats only because of skewed image. We probably socialize with the more aware Europeans than the mass of “we really don’t care about it” Europeans, giving us a distorted picture of the situation. The somewhat less commercialized nature of mass media in many European countries gives the more aware greater media access to. If PBS was structured more like the BBC than there would probably be more media that confronts the dark side of American history in the United States to.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        The average German is aware of the darkside of their nation’s history, but the low countries are still basically in denial. The Netherlands for instance is far behind the US in coming to terms with the darkside of its past. It was only in September of this year that the Netherlands apologized for the worst atrocities in Indonesia. Atrocities that they engaged in after the Nuremburg Trials. Denial and justification of the colonial atrocities in Indonesia by the Dutch is so widespread that the Journal of Genocide Research special topic issue on it had three articles dealing with denialism in Holland. Here is the JGR issue.

        • LeeEsq says:

          Germany is the exception that proves the rule and that was only because of a series of policy choices by the West German government. The East German government blamed everything the Nazis did on the West German government and presented themselves as all being sweetness and light.

        • Daragh McDowell says:

          I’m Irish myself so we tend to spend a lot of our time pointing out the dark periods in other European countries respective pasts, which has more than a little to do with our yen for self-pity. I’m not familiar with continental discourses, but with regards to the UK and the USA the basic problem is the same – the atrocities are well documented and accounted for, and many people do feel a sense of historical guilt or at least responsibility. The problem is a sizable and vocal strain of right-wing that consistently tries to recast imperialist atrocities as some form of noble enterprise and castigates the native populations for their insufficient gratitude (see Ferguson, Niall.)

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            I get the sense that the UK was basically in denial the government trying to hide the atrocities committed in Kenya to deal with the Mau-Mau Revolt in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was only this summer that the British government agreed to compensate surviving torture victims. So I would say that the UK is much worse than the Germans or the US in coming to terms with its past atrocities. It is just not as bad as the Dutch.


            • Ronan says:

              the UK only began to come to terms with what they did in Kenya though because of the campaign run by survivors. Afaict they have fought (and continue to fight)tooth and nail to keep info classified.
              There’s little been acknowledged (afaik) about the other crimes of empire

              • Ahuitzotl says:

                Well a number of the Indian massacres, slaughters, and other butcherings have been acknowledged and more or less apologized for. But then India has some diplomatic weight.

          • LeeEsq says:

            The atrocities of a lot of countries are well-documented. Whether or not the population of a given country feels any sense of guilt or responsibility towards the dark side of their country’s history depends on the policies of the country’s government after it ends, the geo-political situation, and a host of other factors more than documentation.

    • Anonymous says:

      Interesting. I was aware of the antagonism between the Flemish and the Walloons, but I didn’t realize it extended to self loathing.

      If not for the impossibility of dividing up the melting pot of Brussels, partition would be a real possibility.

  6. jphillips says:

    I’m reading through Charles Murray’s writings for work, and I think possibly the most disgusting argument he makes is that the black-white IQ gap in the United States can’t be attributed at all to America’s history of racism because black Americans compare favorably to native-born Africans in IQ, where they’ve never had to deal with things like slavery’s legacy.

    • Lee Rudolph says:

      I’m reading through Charles Murray’s writings for work

      You know, the NLRB isn’t quite gutted.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      IQ tests don’t actually test intelligence. They test how well people do on IQ tests. But, I don’t get the whole Africans are stupid thing. The stereotype does not mesh with my personal experience at all. Given that recent African immigrants are one of the most highly educated groups in the US I would expect the stereotype to weaken just as it did with the Polish. But, the belief doesn’t appear to be subject to empirical evidence.

      • jphillips says:

        Well, that’s why we consider people like Murray to be out and out racist.

      • Aimai says:

        Recent African Immigrants are “one of the most highly educated groups in the US?” This seems like a bizarre and somewhat contorted statistic. Just like “All Nepali Immigrants to the US speak excellent English.” Its true but its not meaningful. Its not actually reflective of general Nepali linguistic capabilities and education–the type of Nepali who makes it here as a visitor or immigrant is, in fact, rather uncommon in Nepal. They are wealthier and better educated than 99 percent of the Nepali population. We are hosting a brilliant, well educated, Nigerian girl who is a student at Harvard. She is, indeed, well educated. But how representative is she of all girls in Africa who are staying in Africa?

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          It doesn’t need to be representative. It shows that a significant number even if a small minority have intellectual accomplishments as great as that as the smartest whites. Since people with those accomplishments are not typical of white American either I don’t need 50% of Africans to earn PhDs to show that they are not inherently stupid. I just need to show that such people exist and not in fact rare. Just about any African an American meets in the US is likely to be more educated than most of the native born population.

          • jim, some guy in iowa says:

            and your average proud (or at least not ashamed) racist says those are the exceptions that prove the rule

            • J. Otto Pohl says:

              Then there are quite a lot of exceptions. Some 1.5 million people in the US are immigrants born in Africa. The percentage of them with higher education is greater than the native born white population. The report below breaks it down. But, the majority of Nigerian, Ugandan, Cameroonian, and Tanzanian immigrants to the US have a Bachelors degree or higher.


              • Aimai says:

                You know, there’s a fairly long and dishonorable history of American Whites preferring their relationships with Africans to be with people who speak English with an English accent and who don’t have a direct history of US oppression. White Americans are quite happy, often, to believe or act like you can have “normal” relationships (unraced) with Black Africans while they dismiss the very real accomplishments of Black Americans. AA people get bachelors degrees too, you know. Fuck if one of them isn’t Presidenting right now while being black. It really hasn’t helped redefine race relations in this country. So how could some random Ph.D. from Nigeria or Ghana do so?

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  Go back and read the comment by Jon Phillips I was responding to. He notes that Murray claims that African Blacks are less intelligent than US Blacks. So the racist hierarchy that exists, contrary to what you state is that Black Africans are considered below Black Americans. This is not surprising especially when one notes that a lot of Black Americans like Obama in fact have a lot of European ancestry. My point was that the Black Africans from Africa with no European ancestry one was likely to meet in the US were likely to be better educated than most native born Whites. That is the people put at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy (below even Black Americans and sometimes deemed inferior by Black Americans themselves) in fact performed better intellectually than Whites.

                • DrDick says:

                  JOtto – Please note that Murray is a staunch conservative (and hero to other conservatives) as well as a flaming racist, who pretty much everyone on the left dismisses as a racist loon. Nobody here agrees with him (except our conservative trolls).

              • jphillips says:

                Of course, my original point was not to open the debate as to whether or not black Africans are more or less intelligent or accomplished than black Americans, but rather to highlight the fact that Murray, one of the most prominent “intellectuals” of the right, stated in a highly publicized and presumably fact-checked book, that black people in Africa haven’t been subjected to any kind of systemic oppression over the past, say two hundred years.

      • DrDick says:

        I should point out that it is almost always conservatives who believe this BS and it is because they are at least closet racists.

  7. Major Kong says:

    Wow. Sure glad they weren’t all violent and stuff like those scary Muslims.

  8. MacCheerful says:

    In a park in Brussels there is a monument to some soldiers, victors in a battle, where the description has a tag carefully placed over some words to conceal the fact the victory was over a slave revolt.

    Belgium is a very strange little country. At a restaurant, whatever you do, don’t ask for the meat and cheese plate – always a disappointment.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’m failing to see how the actions from 125 years ago (as bad as they were) somehow can be linked to the recent horrors of the modern day Congo.

  10. Nick says:

    And one final tally to lay on Belgium’s account — the best evidence suggests that the simian immunovirus mutated into HIV during the period of Belgian colonialism, somewhere along the northern Ubangi river. Since SIV is constantly jumping into humans and creating low-level, largely-non-transmitted infections, it’s thought that the conditions of Belgian colonialism — violence, sexual exploitation, total disruption of village life and urbanism — created a situation where the virus managed to jump between humans multiple times, very rapidly, extending its exposure to the human immune system and eventually mutating into a form that could survive.

  11. Sly says:

    I remember the debate between Chomsky and Buckley on Vietnam and, when it got to the purpose of colonialism, the interchange went something like this:

    Chomsky: Imperial powers have always justified colonial projects with humanitarian rhetoric, even though they are almost always, in practice, predatory. The only counter-example I can think of are the Belgians in the Congo.

    Buckley: Ah, so you see! Sometimes that humanitarian rhetoric is true and genuine!

    Chomsky: Oh… no, no, no. The Belgians colonized the Congo for the expressed reason to enslave everyone and take their stuff.

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