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Tucson Weekly Costly Conquests

Accounts Of 19th-Century Colonialism Read As Brutal Yet Modern Cautionary Tales.

By Gregory McNamee

JUNE 28, 1999: 

King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin). Cloth, $26.

Exterminate All the Brutes, by Sven Lindqvist (New Press). Paper, $12.

KING LEOPOLD II of Belgium (1835-1909) was a strange man, even by the eccentric standards of the royal bloodline that produced him and his cousins Queen Victoria of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Empress Carlota of Mexico and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. He was notoriously avaricious, even as a child. He was cruel to his servants. He hated his wife and daughters, who returned the favor. Accustomed to having his way at all times, Leopold nonetheless seems to have despised thoroughly his native land and his willing subjects, whom he collectively dismissed as "small country, small people." He disliked Belgium so much, in fact, that he had all the meat for his table brought in from neighboring France, spent most of his time in Paris or the French Riviera, and disdained even to dock his imperial yacht in Belgian waters.

But the scornful king, Adam Hochschild tells us in King Leopold's Ghost, nonetheless determined that his tiny country deserved a mighty empire. He set about scouring the earth for a likely place for a Belgian colony, ordering his aides to make inquiries of the Argentine government whether an island at the confluence of the Uruguay and Parana rivers might be for sale, to try to purchase the islands of Fiji and Formosa, to convince the Spanish king to sell him the Philippines.

Rebuffed in his efforts, Leopold happened on newspaper accounts of the voyages of Henry Morton Stanley, the self-promoting journalist and explorer who had newly made himself famous by discovering the whereabouts of the Scottish traveler David Livingstone. Leopold importuned Stanley--a native of Wales who, for reasons of his own, passed himself off as an American--to help him conquer the hitherto unexplored area south of Uganda. Stanley did not bite, but he still pointed Leopold in the direction of the Congo, where, he said, there were fortunes to be made.

Great fortunes indeed lay along the course of the Congo River, rich in iron, gold, ivory and especially rubber. The huge area, a drainage as large as India, had been little explored by Portuguese, French, German and English travelers, and Leopold was able to seize the territory with only murmurs of protest from his seniors in the business of colonialism. (Ever disdainful of Belgium, Leopold claimed it for himself, ceding it to his country two decades later.) Belgian soldiers made quick work of the takeover, armed with three great advantages over the native KiKongo peoples, in Hochschild's estimation: superior weaponry with which to battle the indigenes; superior medical knowledge with which to battle a vast array of tropical diseases; and superior transport with which to battle the huge distances of the African interior.

Wherever the Belgian flag went, terror followed. The result was, Hochschild argues, "a death toll of Holocaust dimensions," numbering somewhere between 4 and
8 million Congolese dead in the space of two decades. No one will ever know the true count, but the estimates have strong corroboration in a range of sources from writers who in some instances deplored the slaughter and in others participated in it. Hochschild works from a wide range of documents from the period to paint his devastating portrait of Leopoldian savagery. He enjoyed an uncommon embarrassment of riches in his endeavor, as he writes, "the Victorian era was a golden age of letters and diaries; and sometimes it seems as if every visitor or official in the Congo kept a voluminous journal and spent each evening on the riverbank writing letters home." None of those who murdered and tortured the Congolese peoples seems to have kept silent. Instead, many of the eyewitnesses to whom Hochschild appeals for evidence were strangely proud of their efforts on behalf of their king, and Hochschild damns them with their own words.

As the Belgians demonstrated in the Congo, conquest is a brutal business. The Belgians were not alone in their inhumane actions, however: in the 19th century, colonial powers around the world seemingly strove to outdo one another in new ways of behaving savagely, a conquest that's especially evident in Africa.

In Exterminate All the Brutes, Swedish historian Sven Lindqvist paints a broad-brush history of European colonialism on the continent. Drawing his title, and much of the brooding spirit of his book, from Joseph Conrad's fable Heart of Darkness--which Conrad, as Hochschild reports, called "experience...pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case"--Lindqvist turns up 19th-century newspaper accounts of British massacres of wounded Sudanese rebels after the siege of Omdurman; of German concentration camps in what was once called Southwest Africa; of a Belgian captain who decorated his flower beds with the heads of recalcitrant plantation workers.

These incidents were not unusual, Lindqvist writes. Neither were they considered particularly inhumane among the people who perpetrated them. Lindqvist argues persuasively that colonialism was guided by a doctrine that placed Europe at the top of the evolutionary ladder and regarded non-Europeans as a separate species bound for extinction--a doctrine, the author suggests, that found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust. One can take issue with Lindqvist at several turns, but his book is certainly thought-provoking, just as a good book of historical investigation should be.

Hochschild and Lindqvist have produced unsettling, even harrowing books that extend our understanding of dark moments in world history--moments that are sadly being recapitulated today in Africa, South Asia, the Balkans...wherever conquerors seek to establish empires.


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