More or less by coincidence, this is the second book about Congo that I have read this month. This is the story of an earlier era, of the awful exploitation, rape and murder of vast numbers of Africans under the personal supervision of Leopold II, King of the Belgians. Hochschild admits that precise figures are difficult to establish with confidence, but it seems pretty clear that ten million people, half of the population, were killed by Leopold’s regime. He got away with it by a cunning combination of concealment of the amount of wealth he was extracting for his own private hoard, wishful thinking from the white world about the heroic civilising mission of European colonialism, and the conspiratorial silence of the officials involved. For any European, and particularly for us Belgians (as I have now been for a bit over a year), it is essential reading as a reminder of the atrocities of our shared past with Africa.
Hochschild’s subtitle is “A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa”. The heroism described is mostly that of the few investigators who dared to tell the truth of the mutilations, murders and slavery that characterised Leopold’s Congo, the likes of E.D. Morel and Roger Casement. Hochschild regrets that there are very few accounts available from the African perspective. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is about the destructive moral effect of the Congo experience on Europeans like Kurtz; the Africans in the story do not speak, and they were rarely allowed to tell their story in real life either.
My office is a stone’s throw from the Parc du Cinquantenaire / Jubelpark, created in the suburb beyond Etterbeek by Leopold II from his vast Congolese profits. It contains a rather disturbing monument to the Congo enterprise, as well as the pretentious archway which frames the end of the Rue de la Loi / Wetstraat. A favourite excursion for the children is to the Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, where the stuffed animals are cute but the historical record is, in more than one sense of the word, whitewashed. As Hochschild points out, the legacy of the colonial enterprise is visible in the streets of Belgium today, if you know where to look, or indeed if you just look with your eyes open.