Part 3: The Horror CrescendosAs I recounted in Part 6, King Leopold could not exactly leave his heart in San Francisco, having never been there, but, thanks to the machinations of Colonel Henry I. Kowalsky, he could just as easily have put chunks of both it and his reputation, as well as his royal prestige and geopolitical fortunes, into an urn and shipped them there for cremation and scattering over the Pacific Ocean. The Hearst papers had, to say the least, cast him in a very poor light both in America and internationally. This blow served to pour salt on another self-inflicted wound that was already festering.
With his back against an increasingly crumbling wall ever since Morel had launched his crusade against him, Leopold decided to stage, once more, some political theater that would paint him as virtuously high-minded, just and caring, the very kind of sleight of hand melodrama that had won him control over the Congo in the first place. He would appoint an august Commission of Inquiry to investigate any wrong-doing in his domain, a commission, however, that would be hand-picked by him.
He had actually pulled a similar stunt in the 1890s when he appointed his Commission for the Protection of the Natives, consisting of three Catholic and three Protestant missionaries scattered over a thousand miles who only met twice, with only three present each time, while never having even traveled to the rubber-producing zones, the hub of the atrocities, to boot. Their findings were, unsurprisingly, banal. That commission served as a white-wash then, and Leopold had every reason to believe that a new one would do the same for him now, in 1905.
This time he appointed three “impartial” judges, a Belgian, a Swiss and an Italian, the Italian being none other than Baron Giacomo Nisco, who was actually chief judge of the Congo Free State at the time, in a word, an employee of his, who, like the other two, spoke no native language and little English, the common language of Leopold’s harshest critics, British and American missionaries.
Thus interpreters would have to be relied upon heavily, although Leopold would have been better off if every interpreter in Africa had suddenly contracted Yellow Fever and died, because now it was the turn of dauntless English missionary John Harris and his wife, Alice, to come to the forefront once again to damn the entire wretched forced labor/slavery system. He and his wife had already become major contributors to Edmund Morel’s Congo Reform Association through their letters, photographs and extensive speaking engagements. Now they do their best to reveal the truth to the Commission of Inquiry.
The Harris mission was in Baringa on the banks of the Maringa River in the heart of one of the rubber concessions, so the Reverend had constant knowledge of the various crimes being perpetrated against the Congolese either through his travels, eye-witnesses, including patients in his mission hospital, or by word of mouth, and he had many, many contacts with native tribes. Consequently, when Leopold’s commission and retinue, which sojourned through the Congo Free State for several months while taking 370 depositions total, came to Baringa via two steamboats, Harris was ready for them with scores of natives ready to testify. Worse still for Leopold, Harris, according to the documentary White King, Red Rubber, Black Death, had made arrangements with Morel to publish these testimonies.
Once the proceedings began, the judges were gradually overwhelmed with emotion as horror after horror was unfolded before their eyes and ears, with the most dramatic moment coming when Chief Lontulu of the village of Bolima, who had arrived by boat with a pile of 110 twigs, began, when it was his turn to testify, to place each twig into one of four piles upon the commission table, the piles representing the nobles, men, women and children of his tribe. As he laid each twig out, he recited the name of a person murdered by agents of the state, a deeply moving scene that infuriated the Congolese authorities who, in revenge, had Lontulu tortured to death several weeks later.
Reports had it, meanwhile, that one of the judges had openly wept during the depositions, the contents of which were now filtering back to Morel in England through his allies, who soon transformed them into a pamphlet for mass distribution that even reached members of the Belgian Parliament. Then in another shocking blow to King Leopold, his acting governor of the Congo Free State, Paul Costermans, soon after being briefed on the commission’s findings in March, 2005, slit his throat in remorse. It was now becoming clear that, given this level of damning testimony, the commissioners were not going to whitwash the Rubber Terror. Indeed, their findings would serve only to corroborate the fierce allegations of Edmund Morel and Roger Casement.
A Potemkin Summary
When they returned to Europe, the commissioners began finalizing their 150 page report that the King, knowing of its contents, could only hope to sidetrack or delay. Actually, he did both. The report’s release was delayed until early November 1905, while Leopold, as disingenuous as ever, pulled off yet another fraud on the international press.
Knowing full well of newspaper editors’ and reporters’ lazy propensity for synopses of lengthy reports, he delivered, on November 3rd (the day before the release of the full report) to every major newspaper in England, a “complete summary and authentic resume of the report” (p. 251 – Mariner Books edition of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild), compliments of the “West African Missionary Association”. Certainly missionaries, Leopold’s staunchest critics, could be trusted, every editor would think.
What this “resume” was though was Leopold’s own attempt at a whitewash, a Potemkin summary so to speak. Newspapers naively and dutifully headlined this latest canard in both Europe and America before they finally caught on to the scheme by bothering to read the full report. And when they later decided to investigate the West African Missionary Association, they discovered that this was but a phantom dummy front created to give credence to Leopold’s plot, and whose address was a one-room office in London with no office workers in it, a one-trick pony that never rode again.
It was against this sordid backdrop that the explosive revelations in the Hearst newspapers of Leopold’s lobbying efforts in America, via Colonel Kowalsky, soon occurred, adding new public damnation to prior condemnation. Leopold, around 70 years old now and with his health beginning to fail, had already decided that, upon his death, he would bequeath his “private” African domain to the state of Belgium in his royal will. But now the walls were rapidly closing in upon him through the relentless international efforts of Morel, Casement, missionaries and countless others. Cries were increasingly astir everywhere for Belgium to annex the Congo, or for an international conference to be convened to revoke King Leopold’s sovereignty over it. The King knew that the “gig” was about up and accurately surmised that the entire Congo Free State could indeed be ripped from his hands by a collective effort.
The Belgian Congo
Leopold, ever the unscrupulous businessman and con artist, now sensed that it was time to hold a transfer of sale to a decidedly captive customer, his own homeland, Belgium. If he had to relinquish the Congo, he would at least replenish his coffers doing so.
Belgium was suffering all the slings and arrows of guilt by association from various critics simply because Leopold was their constitutional monarch, even though they had no legal, official say over his actions in or ownership of the Congo. He had made sure that the legalese of the Berlin Conference General Act of 1885 bequeathing sovereignty of the Free Congo State to him, as well as the subsequent ratification of him as “le Roi-Souverain” by the Belgian National Congress, had no loopholes for encroachment upon his “turf.”
Belgium, pressed to annex the Congo by both Great Britain and Teddy Roosevelt’s White House, and which even Edmund Morel admitted was the only feasible solution, finally felt compelled, in late 1906, to negotiate with its now suddenly, rather mercenary king. Leopold the barterer now proved as inventive as a mother lapwing protecting her chicks in preventing the government from even studying the Congo accounting books, which in reality, if properly investigated, would have led to new front-page scandals. An exasperating year and a half later, after many melodramas and enough time to hide more of his blood-profits, Leopold finally settled on a contract.
To paraphrase Hochschild’s passage in King Leopold’s Ghost, Belgium agreed to (1) assume all of Leopold’s Congo-related debts, some 110 million francs; (2) finance, for another 45.5 million francs, the completion of Leopold’s vain and ambitious construction projects in Belgium, projects such as a massive royal homestead at Laeken; and (3) personally pay him, in what amounted to a gigantic pension for his tenure as le Roi-Souverain, another 50 million francs, which in another black twist of irony, would be extracted from monies from the Congo instead of from the Belgian taxpayer. (p. 259 – Mariner Books edition of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild)
So even the removal of the tyrant who made Congolese soil run red with blood for some two decades would have to be paid for by further exploiting the land’s wealth and people for his benefit. In modern terms, this would be like forcing the people of Sierra Leone to pay Charles Taylor billions of dollars in recompense for the countless horrors of mutilation and mass-murder he visited upon them. Fortunately, however, Taylor now sits in prison with a fifty-year sentence awaiting him pending final appeals.
On November 15, 1908, the Parliament of Belgium formally annexed the Congo Free State, marked by a ceremony in Boma, its capital, and what had been a de facto colony in all but name would now become one formally, henceforth to be called the Belgian Congo.
Intriguingly, during this same period a legal battle between missionaries and Belgian officials had developed in the Congo, a battle that would serve as a portent for what degree the harsh injustices of the old Congo would carry over to the new Congo. Meanwhile, our stalwart African-American missionary crusader against the Rubber Terror, William Henry Sheppard, had become the center of this controversy.
In January, 1908, Sheppard had written yet another scathing report on human rights abuses, despite the increasingly draconian crackdown on freedom of the press in the Congo Free State, this time on the outrages of various rubber concession companies within the area of responsibility of his American Presbyterian Congo Mission. His article, entitled “From the Bakuba Country”, was published in the Kasai Herald, a small missionary journal actually run by his by now close associate and equally outspoken foe of Leopold’s system, the Virginian preacher, William Morrison.
The article accused, in particular, Belgian rubber concessions of brutally mistreating the Kuba people. One Belgian company, Campagnie du Kasai, whose new inspector-general was none other than the notorious, retired Force Publique officer, Leon Rom, infamous for his brutality, and which was not even named in Sheppard’s piece, decided to demand a retraction from Morrison, who responded by hurling further charges in his replies to them. The company then decided to sue for defamation in February 1909, a very serious matter at that point in time ever since Leopold had decreed, in 1906, that calumny against Congo state officials was punishable by a heavy fine or five years in prison. All rubber concession officials were considered to be agents of the Congo Free State, and although Leopold had by February already handed over the Congo to Belgium, this decree still held.
The case would not go to trial until September 1909, which gave our two missionaries ample time to build up strong support not only from Morel and the Congo Reform Association, but from authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, various prominent Americans including the Administration, which began leaning upon the Belgian government for a favorable verdict, and, most significantly, from the leader of the Belgian Socialist Party, Emile Vandervelde, who also happened to be a lawyer, and who decided, to everyone’s surprise, to take on the case himself, pro bono and travel to Africa.
The trial itself attracted international attention and its opening quickly led to the acquittal of Morrison on a technicality, leaving Sheppard alone in the dock. Concern arose when, unfortunately, the judge also ruled that the abused Kuba tribesmen could not testify to prove the veracity of Sheppard’s article, but once Vandervelde took to the floor to begin what would become a two hour masterpiece of courtroom oratory, this would not matter. Vandervelde reduced much of the audience to tears in what was not only an eloquent defense of the missionaries, but a clarion call for justice against a cruel and unjust system.
The judge subsequently acquitted Sheppard on the grounds that since he had not actually named Campagnie du Kasai in his article, he could not be held liable. Headlines around the world rejoiced, and the fact that justice had been obtained under the Belgian state’s fledgling auspices duly noted.
Le Roi Souverain Tombe
Shortly after this one last struggle between progressive humanitarian forces and what was now the ghost of the Congo Free State, since the trial ended after the Belgian Congo was inaugurated, Leopold’s health took a dramatic turn for the worst and he became bed-ridden at his luxurious estate at Laeken, Belgium. He was suffering from severe intestinal problems.
His former queen consort, Marie Henriette of Austria, with whom he had had a stormy relationship, had died some seven years earlier, so he was officially a widower. He had, however, been infatuated with one Caroline Delacroix, a much younger, common French courtesan (which is perhaps too euphemistic a term) since the turn of the century and had made her his mistress publicly, sparing no expense or extravagance to impress her, to the point where she was a despised figure to the Belgian citizenry.
As Leopold lay dying by mid-December, 1909, he shared a bedside wedding with Caroline, while meanwhile secretly working with his aides to transfer millions of francs in Congo state securities to her. On December 17 the King, after some unsuccessful eleventh hour surgery, passed away. Two of his estranged daughters, Louise and Stephanie, quickly sprang into action to try to prevent the “usurper” Caroline from absconding with so much of the family assets, but were only partially successful as Leopold’s instant wife/instant widow fled to Paris with a good percentage of them.
Thus King Leopold the Second’s adventures with the Congo ended as they had begun, corrupted and contaminated with intrigues about money. Of his legacy, perhaps Mark Twain said it best when, in his biting satire King Leopold’s Soliloquy, he has Leopold sardonically opining about a memorial for himself:
Another madman wants to construct a memorial for the perpetuation of my name, out of my 15,000,000 skulls and skeletons, and is full of vindictive enthusiasm over his strange project. He has it all ciphered out and drawn to scale. Out of the skulls he will build a combined monument and mausoleum to me which shall exactly duplicate the Great Pyramid of Cheops, whose base covers thirteen acres, and whose apex is 451 feet above ground. He desires to stuff me and stand me up in the sky on that apex, robed and crowned, with my “pirate flag” in one hand and a butcher-knife and pendant handcuffs in the other. He will build the pyramid in the center of a depopulated tract, a brooding solitude covered with weeds and the mouldering ruins of burned villages, where the spirits of the starved and murdered dead will voice their laments forever in the whispers of the wandering winds. Radiating from the pyramid, like the spokes of a wheel, there are to be forty grand avenues of approach, each thirty-five miles long, and each fenced on both sides by skulless skeletons standing a yard and a half apart and festooned together in line by short chains stretching from wrist to wrist and attached to tried and true old handcuffs stamped with my private trade-mark, a crucifix and butcher-knife crossed, with motto, “By this sign we prosper”; each osseous fence to consist of 200,000 skeletons on a side, which is 400,000 to each avenue. It is remarked with satisfaction that it aggregates three or four thousand miles (single-ranked) of skeletons — 15,000,000 all told — and would stretch across America from New York to San Francisco. It is remarked further, in the hopeful tone of a railroad company forecasting showy extensions of its mileage, that my output is 500,000 corpses a year when my plant is running full time, and that therefore if I am spared ten years longer there will be fresh skulls enough to add 175 feet to the pyramid, making it by a long way the loftiest architectural construction on the earth, and fresh skeletons enough to continue the transcontinental file (on piles) a thousand miles into the Pacific. The cost of gathering the materials from my “widely scattered and innumerable private graveyards,” and transporting them, and building the monument and the radiating grand avenues, is duly ciphered out, running into an aggregate of millions of guineas, and then — why then, this idiot asks me to furnish the money! [Sudden and effusive application of the crucifix] He reminds me that my yearly income from the Congo is millions of guineas, and that “only” 5,000,000 would be required for his enterprise.
Every day wild attempts are made upon my purse; they do not affect me, they cost me not a thought. But this one — this one troubles me, makes me nervous; for there is no telling what an unhinged creature like this may think of next…. If he should think of Carnegie — but I must banish that thought out of my mind! it worries my days; it troubles my sleep. That way lies madness. [After a pause] There is no other way — I have got to buy Carnegie.
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