05 September, 2008

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: From Colony to Independence

I have to find out all about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), because I am hoping to enter an essay writing competition* on that country. In the next two posts, I will quickly state the current sketchy understanding of the country's development. Prior to undertaking actual research, this is everything I know about the Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo gets its name from the Congo river. So does its neighbour, the Republic of the Congo. When people talk about The Congo as a country, they invariably mean the DRC, given the country's much larger size and position in the heart of Africa. Like most of Africa, the Congo was colonised, but whereas other parts of the continent were taken over by European countries, the Congo in the late 19th century became the private empire of one man, King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold managed to persuade the leading European nations of the world to let him create the Congo Free State as his personal domain, seized for him by the Belgian army. The profits of controlling the Congo flowed solely into his pockets. And the profits were considerable, as Leopold turned the Congo into one of the greatest slave states the world has ever seen. In so doing he disrupted the fabric of established communities and may have inadvertently caused HIV to jump from chimpanzees to humans, but he became very rich indeed.

It is worth considering just how bestial Leopold's rule over the Congo was. Thomas Pakenham's The Scramble for Africa contains a picture taken in the Congo Free State. A Belgian official stands with two Africans. Initially, it looks like a scene from any African colony, but then you see what the Africans are holding in their hands. They are holding hands, severed hands. Leopold's Congolese quislings would cut the hands off any of their compatriots who were not working hard enough for their European master. It is small wonder, then, that some estimate Leopold's African Auschwitz-Birkenau to have halved in population during his rule, through a combination of the locals being exterminated or fleeing into neighbouring countries.

Eventually, though, do-gooders like Edmund Morel and Roger Casement alerted the world to the horrors that Leopold was perpetrating in the Congo, and people like Joseph Conrad wrote novels about the Belgian King's African Gulag. People were shocked, with many feeling that Leopold was giving colonialism a bad name. The Belgian government moved in to wrest control of the Congo from their monarch. What was his empire now became the Belgian Congo, and was run as a colony something like the other colonies then covering Africa. This meant that, in a purely notional sense, the Belgians were committed to "civilising" the Congolese, but in practice they were interested solely in exploiting them, just in a less shocking manner than Leopold. The Belgians took care to provide the Congolese with only the most rudimentary of educations and to keep them as insulated as possible from modernity, lest they develop troubling notions of the equality of all human peoples. The Congolese were naturally excluded from any say in how their country was run.

The European powers were weakened by the Second World War, and many of their African colonies saw the emergence of nationalist agitation in the post-war period. This led to an increasingly number of African countries becoming independent. Or maybe the colonists decided to replace direct rule by indirect control of newly "independent" states through local stooges. The Belgians sought to insulate the Congo from nationalist sentiment, but in the late 1950s the colony was rocked by the sudden and unexpected appearance of anti-colonial unrest. The Belgians did not have the stomach for a war against the nationalists, so they beat a sudden retreat, giving their colony an independence that few had expected it to achieve so quickly. Or perhaps the Belgians hoped that a hasty withdrawal would leave an independent Congo so weak that its inexperienced leaders could be easily manipulated from Brussels.

image source

The story continues in part two of this exciting series.

EDIT: I've been looking at Adam Hochschild's book on Leopold's African Empire, and the white guy in the picture above is actually an English missionary. I reckon the picture was probably taken by humanitarian Christians, to draw attention to Leopold's depraved regime in the Congo.

*I could post details of this competition here, but I do not want any Hunting Monsters readers entering the competition and stealing the prize that will rightfully be mine. However, keen users of Internet search engines will have no problem finding the competition's details.


Anonymous said...

You might be interested in the forthcoming book on child soldiers in Uganda, titled First Kill Your Family, by Peter Eichstaedt. Check it out by following this link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/First-Kill-Your-Family-Resistance/dp/1556527993/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1220710154&sr=1-2

ian said...

Anonymous, your comment looks suspiciously like spam. Identify yourself, or I will delete it.

ian said...

That said, a book about child soldiers in Uganda might well be of interest, but what is the relevance to colonial-era Congo?

Ravi Singh said...

King Leopold should be revered by modern conservatives: spreading the good news of capitalism, Christianity, guns and Westernization to a remote corner of the world, uncowed by criticism from the liberal media, and ready to use military force.

ravi singh said...

And, I should add, undeterred by collateral damage.

ian said...

yeah, whatever.