If you would understand the Congo—its enmity, its brutality, its orgiastic relish of hatred, the strength of Tshombe, or the passion of Lumumba, this is the book to begin with, for Leopold II created the Congo—its misery, its slavery, its impotence, and its anarchy. And he did more besides. The notoriety of his life, the evil of his methods, threw into vivid relief the greed, the indifference, the moral bankruptcy and public hypocrisy of high capitalism of western Europe in the late nineteenth century. About money, power, sex, family obligations, Leopold II was totally amoral: his egocentric needs dominated his actions. And towards the gratification of his ego, he dedicated his not inconsiderable powers—great cunning, immense industry, high concentration, and untiring physique. He was a remorseless man of almost intolerable vigor. And so long as he had his own way with money or with whores, he was largely indifferent to private abuse or public condemnation. He was the unloveliest scion of one of the more unpleasing minor royal families of Germany—the house of Coburg, whose blood, through Victoria of England’s marriage with Albert of Saxe-Co-burg-Gotha, ran its unlovely course through most of Europe’s nineteenth-century dynasties. Leopold’s father, Leopold I of Belgium, had been an object of Victoria’s veneration, and his squalid son never lost her affection although he came to be detested by nearly every other crowned head in Europe. Not that they minded his treatment of Africans, but they were deeply disturbed by his offensive behavior to his wife, the daughter of an Archduke of Austria, whom he ignored for years. They were shocked by his tyranny to his daughters. He set up what amounted to a judicial enquiry when Princess Louise took a pear without permission from a tree in the glasshouses at Laeken, and he spent the last years of his life trying to cheat them out of their inheritance. But, above all, his brother monarchs were outraged by his sexual life. The fact that he liked prostitutes naturally did not offend them—after all many of them did—but he openly consorted with them, the younger the better, and insisted on ennobling one of them, Caroline Lacroix, afterwards Baroness de Vaughan, and marrying her on his deathbed. Even though his brother monarchs could not, posterity might have forgiven such faults, for divided and acrimonious royal families are not uncommon and the gigantic sexual appetite of Leopold, like Charles II’s, could have become an object of amused wonder. But the squalor of Leopold’s spirit ran through muddier channels than these.
He hungered for power and money more than for pre-pubescent girls and they proved far harder to get. Leopold wanted an empire from the very first moment that he entered public life. He became wildly excited when he learned that his sister’s husband, Maximilian, was to become the Emperor of Mexico, and the next year he went off to Seville to work in the archives of the Indies to discover what profit the Spaniards had made out of their colonial empire. That task completed to his satisfaction, he moved through the Mediterranean to Egypt, and became fascinated in the scheme for the Suez Canal. With his usual acumen he was an early investor in shares of the Suez Canal Company and made very handsome profits. He returned to Egypt again before making a protracted tour of the Far East, filling notebook on notebook with details of the economic exploitations of the Dutch, British, and Spanish colonies. On his way out he bought a piece of marble from the Acropolis, sent it to the Minister of Finance, but thoughtfully had it engraved with a portrait of himself and inscribed “Il faut à la Belgique une colonie.”
However, Belgium did not think so. A small country with a small-town mentality, the Belgians were consumed with rabid party warfare between ultra-montane Catholics and ardent liberal atheists; the former believed that Leopold was involved in a monstrous Masonic plot, the latter that he was the dupe of the Pope, but both viewed his colonial ambitions with intense suspicion. Also, Belgium’s surplus population found an easy outlet in France, and its capitalists were at that time at least, content with largescale speculation in the development of the steel and coal industries of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Saar basin. Leopold I wanted an empire, and the reluctance of his subjects was merely an irritation. He thought of buying a part of the Argentine; he tried to purchase the sovereignty as well as trading rights in the Philippines from Spain. The diplomatic situation in Europe finally focused his attention on the Congo basin. He had eyed it many times before finally settling on it. But once his mind had been made up, he moved with ruthless efficiency, doing personally what his country refused to do.
Mr. Ascherson is at his best in laying bare the complex motives of the great powers who allowed Leopold to establish himself in the Congo basin in order to stop each other from annexing it, and in the illusion, carefully fostered by Leopold, that free trade would be permitted. Leopold’s avowed aims, of course, were impeccably virtuous. He intended to stamp out the Arab slave trade, to introduce the tribes of the Congo to the blessings of European commerce, technology, administration, and religion (all creeds welcomed) and so bring about a federation of civilized black republics in the heart of Africa. His duty done, his mission completed, Leopold and his company were to be reduced to a simple trading venture. What happened was totally different. The great powers allowed themselves to be hoodwinked, partly through the careful lobbying by Leopold’s hired hacks on the anti-slavery issue and partly because they at least neutralized each other by allowing Leopold to go ahead.
With great dexterity Mr. Ascherson unravels each complicated stage in the terrible tragedy of the Congo and in all disputed territory moves with scholarly care. Indeed, the skill of Mr. Ascherson will be only appreciated by those who attempted to disentangle the part played by Leopold. He was a master of deceit as well as hypocrisy, skilful in salting away immense loot that he was bringing from the plundered Congolese people. He covered his tracks with immense care. Nevertheless the story is clear enough. Plunged almost immediately into financial difficulties by the sheer capital needs for railways, steamships, armaments, Leopold solved them by the most savage exploitation of primitive peoples since the Spaniards destroyed the Caribs in the sixteenth century. And he was aided by luck. The great bicycle boom of the late nineteenth century created a vast demand for rubber. Rubber grew wild in the Congo. For this and for ivory villages had their quotas. If the quotas were not forthcoming, punitive action was taken—mutilation of hands and genitals, burning of villages, hanging of men, women and children, wholesale beating, torture, and brutality of every sort. The sight of a European became enough for a whole village to take to the bush. Crops were neglected, the economic and social structure of the Congo ruined. And with Fate’s customary irony, an epidemic of sleeping sickness of gigantic proportions helped to complete the living hell that Leopold was creating. Rumor of the horrors reached Europe only to be met by Leopold’s superb propaganda machine. Only after decades of publicity were the Belgians forced to wrest the Congo from Leopold and became responsible for its government. Naturally Leopold fought that development tooth and nail and secured a victory for himself and his collaborators. The Belgian Government agreed to respect the concessions that Leopold had drafted, so the exploitation of the Congo went on, less brutally, of course, but more systematically and more efficiently. The Union Minière has drawn fabulous profits from Katanga copper, profits which could have made the Congo into an affluent society, which could have created universities, medical schools, agrarian improvements, and industrial development of all kinds. And of course the Union Minière was but one of Leopold’s corporations. To protect its loot it was willing to plunge the Congo into civil war and use its prophet Tshombe as a farcical facade for the principles of freedom and liberty.
Anyone who would understand Lumumba and the veneration in which he is held by many Congolese should read and ponder this brilliant book. There is no rhetoric in it, no special pleading, no weighted evidence, but a scholarly exposition of Leopold and all that he did. The effect is devastating, far more so than if the book had been written in the white heat of passionate revulsion. Mr. Ascherson never loses sight of those diplomatic factors and political situations which gave Leopold his golden opportunities. He makes it clear that, with Leopold in the dock, there are also two other culprits: aggressive nationalism and predatory capitalism. And yet, horrible though the story is that Mr. Ascherson reveals, it also contains a ray of hope. After all, Edward Morell, Roger Casement, and the others who pitted themselves against Leopold, and exposed his atrocities, did not struggle entirely in vain. They stopped the grosser iniquities, the more bestial sadisms, even though they could not check the greed, the insatiable avarice of white exploitation. Then, can we?
April 30, 1964