Stories cannot substitute for historical facts, even when people want them to be true — but as a result of Black Lives Matter’s influence, resurrecting the atrocities of Western colonialism has become fashionable. George Floyd’s death revived a torrent of anti-colonialism in Western societies fueled by resounding demands for governments to atone for colonialism’s sins. Although, the colonial legacy of the Western powers is tainted by dastardly acts, exaggerations of violence must be condemned. Using history as a political tool only pollutes public discourse in the long run.
Listening to activists is quite different from reading an academic study. Mainstream outlets will inform readers that Europeans committed atrocities in Africa and the West Indies, though they are unlikely to mention that such brutalities provoked outrage in Europe and often led to commissions of inquiry. Western colonialism could be brutal, but it was also a critical movement that encouraged introspection.
The current narrative has given a warped view of the Western colonial project, and some nations are more maligned than others. Belgians are unfortunately being singled out for attacks on the basis that they have failed to repent for the policies of Leopold II, who established the Congo Free State in 1885. Unsurprisingly, because the chronology of events is ignored, debates about Belgium’s involvement in the Congo are mired in ignorance. Inaccuracies are parroted as facts to the detriment of true learning, and one can be painted as a racist for exposing falsehoods — but nonetheless, the truth will be told to halt the distorting of history.
It’s the norm to vilify Belgians for the horrors that occurred during the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium, although Belgium was a reluctant colonial power and the Congo Free State was the King’s pet project. Leopold envisioned Belgium becoming a colonial power, but his efforts were rebuffed by the Belgian government. He thought that colonies were profitable and could bolster Belgium’s presence on the global stage. To legitimate his project, Leopold sold his plan as a humanitarian attempt to end slavery and modernize Africa. His diplomatic tactics proved successful, and with the endorsement of the Berlin Conference, he founded the Congo Free State as a private entity controlled by himself personally.
He was a marginal figure in Western history, until Adam Hochschild highlighted him in his book King Leopold’s Ghost. Hochschild claims that ten million Congolese died as a result of the King’s policies. While it is indeed true that he presided over a brutal labor regime, the figure cited by Hochschild is outrageous and has been denounced by leading historians. Hochschild’s arguments are guided by the eminent historian Jan Vansina, who estimates that between 1880 and 1920 the Congo’s population diminished by at least half. While Hochschild has yet to recant, Vansina has revised his estimates.
Using these figures, Hochschild asserts the following in his book:
Only in the 1920s were the first attempts made at a territory-wide census. In 1924 the population was reckoned at ten million, a figure confirmed by later counts. This would mean, according to estimates, that during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately ten million.
This assessment is problematic, because Hochschild is assuming that absent Leopold’s rule, then the Congo’s population would instead have been 20 million in 1924.
However, the Congo Free State’s administration lacked the resources and organizational ability to make such a huge dent in the Congo’s population. Validating Hochschild’s numbers would mean that Leopold’s regime either directly or indirectly annihilated large swathes of the population on a yearly basis during his reign, yet this seems unlikely based on the geographical reach of the Congo and Leopold’s staff complement. Moreover, Hochschild tries desperately to rehabilitate his credibility by suggesting that the weakening of the population caused by the Congo Free State’s policies made sicknesses and social ills worse.
His reasoning is erroneous, however, because a benevolent regime would not have mollified the impact of diseases to a great degree. Africa’s eastern and central regions were plagued by epidemics in the early twentieth century, and historically epidemics have episodically swept African societies. Africa’s environment is conducive to the flourishing of diseases, and although good governance helps to mitigate epidemics’ consequences, they still have a ravaging effect on society.
Further, Leopold’s critics have omitted that he was a forerunner in the quest to combat sleeping sickness in the Congo. In 1903, he requested the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to provide the Congo Free State with a mission. The disease was rigorously studied by researchers and the Congo Free State swiftly implemented the experts’ recommendations. To combat the ailment, camps to nurse the sick were built and staffed by Catholic nuns. The Congo Free State even instituted diagnostic methods to promote early treatment. Belgium organized the most successful campaign to combat sleeping sickness and was lauded by other European powers.
King Leopold II was not perfect, but neither should we believe the gruesome depiction of him painted by activists. An increase in population during the colonial era for some parts of the Congo was even observed by Jan Vansina, who opines, “Contrary to expectations, the Kuba population was actually rising rather than falling during the first two decades of the colonial era.” But, Leopold II did oversee atrocities, and therefore a commission of inquiry was launched to investigate abuses that occurred under his watch. Because these atrocities ignited outrage in Europe, the Belgian government decided to turn the Congo into a colony to prevent future abuses. Belgian colonialism then led to improvements in areas such as healthcare and primary education.
Economically, Belgian colonialism accelerated capital investment in the Congo. Relative to other colonies, the Congo was at the pinnacle of per capita capital investment. By 1938, the Congo had been the recipient of $48 of foreign capital per inhabitant; whereas in British India (including Burma and Sri Lanka), this sum amounted to $8; in the Dutch Indies, $36; in French African colonies, $25; in British Africa, $32, and $18 in Portuguese Africa.
Historian David K .Fieldhouse renounces partisan critics of colonialism by describing the Congo’s success after the reign of King Leopold II:
Yet, after the Congo became a full Belgian colony in 1908, the Belgians again typified the period by creating one of the most efficient and benevolent colonial regimes to be found in Africa. Finally, the disasters which followed Congolese independence in 1960 demonstrated more forcefully than anywhere else how dangerous it was to end imperial control before a dependency was adequately prepared for freedom.
In sum, the narrative about Belgium’s intervention in the Congo, as many others, is just another exaggerated story. It would be more prudent for activists to focus on the millions who died in warfare under independent rule.
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