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King Leopold, Greatest human rights violator in history

Updated on August 19, 2014

A horrible holocaust in Congo in late early 1900s

Africa has never been a stranger to horrible human rights violation, but in the late 1880s, King Leopold of Belgium brought forth a level of bloodshed and cruelty rarely seen before or since. He enslaved virtually an entire country, pillaged their natural resources and building a wealth scarcely imaginable. All this was done in the name of progress and building civilizations. These acts set the stage for some of the hate and anger that those in Africa still feel today towards Europe or the west in general. To not understand their past is to not understand their heritage which will never allow us to fully appreciate their view of the west. A powerful read by Adam Hochschild, a story that should be read by all, as Africa is still a troubled area with anarchy and piracy in a few areas which is reeking havoc in shipping lanes and other countries.

Photo Credit: vBulletin

The story is almost too ubelievable

Almost every child at some point has been exposed to the atrocities and horror of the Nazi's during WWII, however how many are taught of the almost equal if not worse atrocities the king of Belgium laid upon those in Congo? It has been called one of the largest and earliest mass human rights violations in human history. It is near impossible to pinpoint how many were killed by Leopold given lack of accurate surveys and record keeping in those days, however conservative estimates have set the number at around 10 million killed. This puts into perspective the scope of the events and the megalomania and cold sadistic nature of Leopold. This book is not an easy read emotionally, but does tell the story of a horrendous human rights event that is many times over looked in modern history lessons.

This story takes place on two continents. First, in Europe in a world of pomp and glitz, royalty acted as gods and felt the world was their oyster. Colonies were common to enrich the home country as a supply of inexpensive raw materials, but also to spread the home country's influence and prestige. France, Portugal, England, and Belgium, all participated in the race to have the most valuable territories under its flag. The public justification for having colonies was to use the "White Man's Burden". This was the belief that advanced western societies were responsible for brining advancement to the underprivileged. They claimed that the 'gifts' of modern transportation, government and societal improvements were for the colonies benefits, while conveniently ignoring that those transportation systems and governments helped them plunder a country of some of its most lucrative natural resources. Each home country treated their colonies a little differently, however, one clearly stood out as one of the worst treated and that, of course, was Congo, which was pillaged by their home country.

For Leopold and his colony in the Congo, his pillaging started on a small conservative level. He began with his interest in ivory using professional hunters to slaughter thousands of wild animals to be sold in the open market. Yet it was never terribly profitable at least on the level he was trying to attain. Yet, with the beginning of the industrial revolution, a new commodity would change the course of African history and intertwine Western and African cultures forever. The byproduct of a little used tree that created something called rubber. Rubber quickly became extremely critical to create tires, tubes and thousands of other parts critical for all nations to participate in the industrial revolution. Overnight Congo, which had participated in only slowly expanding the wealth of the home country, now had the potential to help make it one of the most powerful in the world, while making its leader one of the richest.

Once made aware of both the need for the rubber and the potential from his colony, King Leopold lost no time in building a ruthless plan to pilfer every possible ounce of rubber from around the Congo region, which he 'owned'. Rubber is not an easy commodity to harvest; it is quite time consuming and labor intensive. To meet his unquenchable demand, Leopold practically enslaved the entire country, setting them up as slave laborers to harvest his crop. It was not uncommon for the taskmasters to severely beat and mutilate workers who could not keep up at the quota level that was expected. Of course, with any influx of foreign immigrants, especially without modern medicine or even basic hygiene in slave camps, illness soon followed. With the influx of Europeans to help oversee the operations, Smallpox became pervasive and helped to kill those who survived the taskmasters. No matter how much wealth flowed into Belgium, Leopold demanded more. He demanded more money, more rubber, more work and more ruthless measures against the local population, no exceptions.

How can a story as horrific and immense in scale as this one get missed by a generation of educated students? Not only was Leopold ruthless, but he was also a brilliant manipulator, able to control the story in an era before worldwide instantaneous reporting. He cultivated an image of a humanitarian trying to aid an impoverished people and bring them the miracles of civilization. With few people of means in the dark continent of Africa able to refute his claims, he was able to keep this charade in many ways to this day. He used the almost unimaginable wealth that he was accumulating at the time to build a tremendous amount of monuments and buildings throughout his country, achieving the nickname of the builder king. Without global reporting and given the acceptance of the time of utilizing colonies to enrich home countries; these mass killings and slavery of an entire people went almost unnoticed. Key westerners in Congo, thru herculean efforts, attempted to expose the travesties, but in those days the impact of a few could be easily blunted by the wealth and power of a king.

This book is not an easy read. It is horrifying and some of the descriptions of the torture and conditions of the native workers is downright sickening. However, to not learn about what happened in Congo is to ignore a huge part of what makes African society. This is the cause of some of the strongest anger that those in Congo feel toward the west. As we attempt to work with some of the poorest countries in the world, it would help to understand that Western development helped put them in that state. Adam Hochschild did a masterful job in this book and bringing the great secret to light.

Photo Credit via US Slave blog

Interesting Quotes

'Monsters exist,' wrote Primo Levi of his experience at Auschwitz. 'But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are ... the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.'

'I do not want to risk ... losing a fine chance to secure for ourselves a slice of this magnificent African cake.' --King Leopold

And so the bulk of chicotte blows were inflicted by Africans on the bodies of other Africans. This, for the conquerors, served a further purpose. It created a class of foremen from among the conquered, like the kapos in the Nazi concentration camps and the predurki, or trusties, in the Soviet gulag. Just as terrorizing people is part of conquest, so is forcing someone else to administer the terror. *

Tell me what you think: Leader or Villain?

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    • TTMall profile image

      TTMall 5 years ago

      Thank you for such an informative lens.

    • PlethoraReader profile image

      Matthew 6 years ago from Silicon Valley

      @TeacherSerenia: Not sure I want to be in a position to defend Stalin, Mao or other leaders of genocide, however I did feel Leopold was in a slightly different category given the systematic way he enslaved an entire country regardless of race, religion, gender or age. Regardless you bring up other terrible leaders and I will write the reviews of the others soon. Thank you for your time and thoughts.

    • TeacherSerenia profile image

      TeacherSerenia 6 years ago

      I dont think he was the GREATEST human violator in history - there have been many others who violated humans rights just as much - but yes he was certainly a nasty fellow.

      If you really want the biggest violator of humans rights - try stalin, or Mao Tse Tung, or even George Dubya Bush - he sent men off to Gitmo with NO trial.