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“This Moldy and Piety-Mouthing Hypocrite”

King Leopold II of Belgium (1839-1909)

King Leopold II of Belgium (1839-1909)

The writer of these lines was none other than Mark Twain, whose dander was up when he learned of the mutilations and massacres in the Congo attributable to Leopold II, the King of Belgium:

In fourteen years Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives within the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there—which will be soon, let us hope and trust. [from King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905)]

Of course, Twain had not yet seen the likes of Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, or Pol Pot because that was to come later.

I have just finished reading Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. The Belgian monarch brought something new to colonialism: He designated the Congo as his personal property, making sure that all the wealth that came in went into his personal coffers. No, the Belgians did not enjoy any of that wealth directly. It went into ostentatious palaces, young concubines, and villas on the Mediterranean—all of which were his personal property. He did not even have the saving grace of being a patron of the arts. He was a patron of whatever enriched him. He even made his people “lend” him millions to develop the slave economy of the Congo.

Congolese with Their Hands Cut Off

Congolese with Their Hands Cut Off

At first, the wealth of the Congo came from ivory. It was not long, however, that Leopold realized he could have a corner in rubber. Trees had been planted throughout Asia and Latin America, but would not come to maturity for a number of years. Therefore, Leopold ruthlessly turned the Congolese to harvesting rubber from the rubber trees that grew wild throughout the region. Women and children were held as hostages while their men were sent out to bring in their quota of rubber.

Woe betide any Congolese who didn’t fulfill his quota. They were killed; they hand their hands cut off; or both—and the hostages being held were likewise brutalized.

Eventually, the world caught on to what Leopold was doing—and many other European colonial powers such as France and Germany were also guilty, but not on the same grandiose scale.