Posted by Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu, Sheffield, Tuesday 09
Presentation by Eric Toussaint, Liège, Tuesday June 12, 2007
First, I would like to address the question of the historical context in which the Congo becomes a state subject to Belgium through its king, Leopold II. Next, I will analyze a series of elements on the exploitation of the Congo.
The CADTM approach, which co-organizes this activity with different Liège associations, is in the course and the medium term. It is a question of launching an absolutely necessary debate on memory, on the role of Belgium, very concrete, with regard to the Congolese people, from the end of the 19th century until today.
This evening, we are going to approach the Congo period submitted to Léopold II (1885-1908). The idea is to organize a series of activities in the next eight or nine months to describe the situation so far. After this evening, we will approach the period 1908 to 1960 when the Congo passes from Leopold II to Belgium, the independence of the Congo in 1960, the circumstances of this independence, the assassination of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the role of the Belgium in supporting and organizing this assassination, supporting the Mobutu dictatorship; the end of the Mobutu regime and the period opened by the end of Mobutu, that is to say, the current period which spans ten years, from 1997 to 2007.
We plan to convene activities not only in Liege but in Brussels, Mons, Ostend and other cities, because this country is full of symbols that refer to the period of Leopold II. Symbols which, for the most part, like the bronze plaque of the Liège city hall, were built, created in the 1930s, in a very specific context: we had to make people forget the atrocities of the Leopold era.
Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, as part of an international campaign to protest against the crimes of which the Leopold II regime was guilty in the Congo, a period of stigma struck Leopold II. Then, in the 1930s, we recorded a sort of rehabilitation of Leopold II: we erected equestrian statues of Leopold II and inaugurated “commemorative” plaques in a series of public places extremely important in terms of memory, such as the hall of Liège city hall.
We want to approach these aspects of history in a completely critical manner, with a bias in question, so that Belgium really ensures a duty of memory, an obligation of memory. As José Mukadi, who introduced the evening, said, debates have stirred in Belgium in the past eight months on the question of whether to allow a new elected municipal official to sit on a municipal council while he denied the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century. On the other hand, there is silence when it comes to the actions of the King of the Belgians in the Congo from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. There is a very selective memory of Belgian political representatives, of the press, of certain university professors. Our role is to reintroduce into the debate, in social issues, the responsibility of Belgium towards the Congolese people.
This is a job that will span several months. We will convene, with other organizations, a study day in Brussels where we will call on a series of historians giving them time to present the facts and to debate. I would add that I myself am not a doctor of history, I am a historian of the École normale de Jonfosse and a doctor of political science at the University of Liège and the University of Paris VIII.
Historical perspective of the colonization of the Congo
At the end of the 18th century, more than a century before the Leopoldian colonization of the Congo began, the 13 British colonies in North America, following a war of independence, freed themselves from the British crown. Britain, in another part of the planet, was strengthening its grip, by imposing the colonization of South Asia, India in the broad sense, from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century. For their part, the Dutch strengthened their domination over Indonesia. Those who fought for liberation, for the suppression of the colonies, were not limited to the European descendants – recently immigrants – who obtained the independence of the 13 British colonies of North America to found together, in 1776, the United States from North America. An extremely courageous people, a black people descended directly from Africans, the people of Haiti, also won their independence in 1804 against French domination. Over the next twenty years, wars of independence were fought in Latin America. They are led by people like Simon Bolivar who will defeat, in several battles, the Spanish troops which dominate a large part of Latin America.
I mention all this because at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, when a whole series of countries gained independence from the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa was still largely un colonized by Europeans. This does not prevent him from having suffered the effects of the colonization of other continents through the triangular trade and the slave trade. Several tens of millions of Africans were enslaved and forcibly transported to the Americas between the 17th century and the mid-19th century.
It was in the fourth quarter of the 19th century that sub-Saharan Africa fell completely under the colonial yoke of European countries: Great Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, Belgium … mainly.
Leopold II, second king of the Belgians, seeks to endow his country with a colony
Leopold II plans to colonize part of Argentina, then turns to the Philippines and asks the Spanish for the price. This price is too high, he cannot pay it. Finally, he set his sights on the immense Congo River basin. To do this, he will use cunning so as not to come into conflict with the great European powers which are already important colonial powers and who would have the means to destroy the colonial ambitions of Belgium, who came late to claim his share of the cake.
Before becoming king, Leopold II had traveled an important part of the colonial world: Ceylon, India, Burma, Indonesia. He fell in admiration during his travels in front of methods from the Netherlands to Java in Indonesia.
Java was the model for him and that is what he will apply during his colonization in the Congo. The Javanese model was based on forced labor.
In the 19th century, the arguments used by Europeans to colonize Africa and Asia were mainly:
Christianize the pagans;
bring the benefits of free trade to everyone (this remains very current …)
and, in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, do away with the Arab slave trade.
From 1865, when Leopold II acceded to the throne, he undertook numerous initiatives to endow Belgium with a colony.
For example, in 1876, he organized an international geographic conference at the royal palace. According to him, the objective – and this is consistent with the pretext that was used at the time – is: “To open to civilization the only part of our globe where it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which enveloping entire populations is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress. (…) It seemed to me that Belgium, a central and neutral state, would be a good field for such a meeting. (…) Need I tell you that when I invited you to Brussels, I was not guided by selfish views? No, gentlemen, if Belgium is small, it is happy and satisfied with its fate; I have no other ambition than to serve it well. ” And he explains that with this international society of geography where he has summoned a series of great explorers, it will be a question of building roads to be successively opened towards the interior and hospital, scientific and peacemaking stations which will constitute as many means of ” to abolish slavery, to establish harmony between the chiefs, to provide them with just, disinterested arbiters. This is the official speech.
Shortly after, he hired the explorer Stanley, who had just crossed Africa from east to west, following the Congo River to its mouth.
The Berlin Conference of 1885 and the Creation of the Independent State of the Congo
In 1885, after multiple diplomatic maneuvers, Leopold II obtained authorization in Berlin to create an independent state of the Congo. Chancellor Bismarck said at the close of the Berlin conference in February 1885: “The new State of the Congo is destined to be one of the most important executors of the work that we intend to accomplish, and I express my best wishes for its rapid development. and for the achievement of the noble designs of its illustrious creator. “
In addition to his speeches at major conferences, Léopold II makes another type of statement: the documents he sends to those he delegates to the independent state of Congo to highlight it, or the declarations he makes to the press. For example, on December 11, 1906, an interview with the New York newspaper Publisher’s Press appeared, where he said – I quote from it and bear in mind that it is 1906, more than twenty years after the Berlin conference: “When we has been treating a breed made up of cannibals for thousands of years, it is necessary to use methods that will best shake up their laziness and make them understand the healthy aspect of work ”.
From the moment when, in 1885, Leopold II could create from scratch the Congo’s independent state which is HIS personal state, he issued a first fundamental decree: all the land considered vacant became state property. He appropriates the land while the objective of the independent state of Congo was to allow the Congolese leaders to get along and defend themselves against the Arabs who enslaved them. In reality, he made a series of treaties, via Stanley, with a series of customary chiefs of the Congo, by which these customary chiefs transferred the ownership of the lands of their villages or their domains to the head of the independent State of Congo
The Javanese model applied by Belgium of Léopold II in the Congo
It was then that Léopold II applied the model of the Dutch exploitation of Java: he systematically exploited the population which he managed to dominate in particular by the creation of the Public Force, by requiring this population to harvest latex ( natural rubber), elephant tusks, and provide food for the needs of the settlers. The king has a monopoly on almost all of Congo’s activities and wealth. His model implies a maximum harvest of the Congo’s natural wealth by means that have nothing to do with directly modern methods of industrial production. No, it is a question of forcing the Congolese population to harvest the latex to obligatorily bring back a certain quantity per head, to hunt to bring back enormous quantities of elephant tusks. Léopold II maintains a colonial force endowed with an army mainly made up of Congolese and commanded entirely by Belgians, to impose the respect of the colonial order and the respect of the obligations of output. He will systematically use methods of absolute brutality. Per capita, you had to bring back so much rubber. To force village chiefs and men to gather for picking, their wives were imprisoned in concentration camps where they were regularly subjected to sexual abuse by colonists or Congolese from the Police Force. If you don’t get the mandatory results and quantities, you kill to make “examples,” or you mutilate. Pictures of the time show victims of these mutilations, who had a very specific meaning. The soldiers of the Police Force had to prove that they had used each cartridge wisely, so they had to bring back a severed hand to prove that the cartridge had been used to kill a Congolese.
The vision, the policy of Léopold II, king of the Belgians and representing the interests of Belgium, of the Belgian people, thus corresponded to an extremely brutal mode of colonization. He also says about the colonization model: “To maintain that all that the white will produce in the country must be spent only in Africa and for the benefit of the blacks is a real heresy, an injustice and a fault which, if it could translate into fact, would stop the march of civilization in the Congo. The state which could only become a state with the active participation of the whites, must be useful to the two races and do each their fair share. “
Obviously the part that goes to the Congolese is forced labor, snags and severed hands.
On the question of the wild exploitation of rubber, I will give only a few figures: the exploitation of rubber begins in 1893 and is linked to the tire needs of the nascent automobile industry and the development of the bicycle. We produced 33,000 kilos of rubber in 1895, we harvest 50,000 kilos in 1896, 278,000 kilos in 1897, 508,000 kilos in 1898 … The absolutely huge harvests will therefore bring extraordinary profits to the private companies that Léopold II created, and whose he is the main shareholder, to manage the affairs of the independent state of Congo. The price per kilo of rubber at the mouth of the Congo River is 60 times lower than the selling price in Belgium. It also reminds us of very current things with the diamonds or coltan collected today.
Leopold II’s international campaign against the crimes of Belgium in the Congo
This policy ultimately gave birth to a huge international campaign against the crimes perpetrated by the Leopoldian regime. It was black pastors from the United States who protested against this state of affairs, then the famous Morel. He works for a British company in Liverpool and is required to travel regularly to Antwerp. He makes the following observation: while Léopold II claims that Belgium makes trade with the independent State of Congo, the boats bring back from Congo tusks of elephants, thousands of kilos of rubber, and leave only with weapons, essentially, and food for the colonial force. Morel thinks that this is a very funny trade, a very funny exchange. The Belgians of the time who supported Leopold II never recognized this reality. They claimed that Morel represented the interests of British imperialism and criticized the Belgians only for taking their place. Paul Janson, whose main audience at the Free University of Brussels, bears the name, will say: : “I will never criticize the work of Leopold (he was a member of the House) because those who criticize it, in particular the British, do so only with the policy of getting you out of my place”.
However, critics are gaining momentum, with books like Joseph Conrad’s, In the Heart of Darkness, and The Crime of the Belgian Congo, a too little-known book by Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer who invented Sherlock Holmes. An international campaign against the exploitation of the Congo resulted in demonstrations in the United States as well as in Great Britain and ultimately produced effects. Leopold II was forced to set up an international commission of inquiry in 1904, who traveled to the Congo to collect testimonies. The testimonies that this international commission collects are overwhelming. They are all found in handwritten form in the archives of the Belgian State.
Today, the duty to remember in relation to crimes against humanity committed in the Congo
Over the past twenty years, many conferences have been given, books have been published denouncing the type of state that Leopold II, King of the Belgians, had established in the Congo. In short, a large amount of serious literature has been added to the period documents today.
We learn, for example, that the share of the budget that the independent state of Congo allocated to military spending fluctuated year after year between 38% and 49% of total spending. That is to say the importance of the chicotte, the importance of modern rifles to establish a dictatorship systematically using the weapon of brutality and assassinations …
It can be considered, without risk of error, that the King of the Belgians and the independent state of the Congo, which he led with the agreement of the Belgian government and parliament at the time, are responsible for “crimes against humanity ”committed deliberately. These crimes are not blunders, they are the direct result of the type of exploitation to which the Congolese people were subjected. Some authors, and not the least, have spoken of “genocide”. I propose not to engage in a debate which focuses on this question because it is difficult to establish exact figures. Some serious authors estimate that the Congolese population in 1885 reached 20 million and that at the time when Leopold II must transmit to Belgium in 1908 his Congo to Belgium to make it the Belgian Congo, there were 10 million Congolese. These are estimates by serious authors, but difficult to prove since there was no population census.
Instead of millions of victims, if the number was tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of the colonial activity of Leopold II, the fact remains that these are crimes against humanity and that it is fundamental to restore historical truth. Citizens, and in particular young people, entering the hall of the town hall of the city of Liège, or going from the rue du Trône towards the Place Royale in Brussels, pass in front of the plaque saluting the colonial work or in front of the equestrian statue of Leopold II. Citizens pass in front of the statue of Leopold II erected in Ostend on the seafront. They see a majestic Leopold II with, beneath, grateful Congolese, stretching their grateful hands towards him with the sole commentary of the civilizing role of Leopold II to liberate the Congolese in the slave trade … It is urgent to restore the historical truth and to stop lying to our children, to lie to Belgian citizens, to stop insulting the memory of the victims, the descendants of the victims and descendants of the Congolese who underwent in their flesh, in their dignity, an absolutely terrible domination.
This duty of memory must be done elsewhere too. Let us avoid a debate of the type: “you are only criticizing Belgium and you are silent about what happened elsewhere”. I started my presentation by setting the context: Great Britain dominated South Asia in an extremely brutal way; the Netherlands has dominated the populations of Indonesia with extreme violence; before that, three-quarters of the population of what was then called the Americas had been exterminated and, in the case of the Caribbean, almost 100% had been exterminated during the 16th century. The Belgian state therefore has no monopoly on brutality at all, but we are in Belgium and, as Belgian citizens, with our Congolese friends, with nationals of the different countries who live in Belgium, it is fundamental to do this duty of memory and restore historical truth. As we suggest, it can be by dismantling the bronze plaque in the town hall and putting it in a museum with all the necessary explanations. At the very least, it can be by accompanying this plaque with an adequate explanation corresponding to historical truth based on scientific work. This is why we ask the municipal authorities to help bring justice to the memory of the citizens of the Congo and here, all citizens of the world. This is also why we are asking for the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into Belgium’s colonial past.
Sheffield, Tuesday 09
By, Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu
Directeur Exécutif National
Human Rights Activist-Founder and National Executive Director of ‘No Impunity for the Congolese State’ (NICS) – Human Rights Organisation.
Address: C/O RAPAR. 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS.
Phone: 00447405082590 / 00447490875889