Dear Leopold, Rest In Hell
I first read Heart of Darkness nearly a decade ago. And one quote has stuck with me ever since: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves[white folk], is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." It is a powerful line because of its straight up simplicity. But I am the great-grandson of sharecroppers from Egypt, MS and the great-great-grandson of slaves. My ancestors were shuffled here from Angola, where their former lands were captured by white Europeans. And yet, it pains me to admit, I never fully understood the absolute horror of European colonialism until I read Conrad's classic.
Today is the 104th anniversary of the death of Belgium's King Leopold II. The book made me loathe this greedy man who was, like many Kings of his era, a spoiled, insecure and violent maniac. Belgium, unlike its neighbors, didn't control many colonies. Of course, Leopold thought, how could a country be influential if it didn't have darker peoples under its boot (It should be noted, however, that Leopold's invasion of the Congo started off as a personal investment, which makes it even more heinous). The despot's nefarious forces, dubbed the Force Publique, invaded the Congo Free State and unleashed a horror many of us can't even fathom. The invaders raped Congolese women, destroyed homes and villages, sucked vital resources rubber and ivory) from the country and, more infamously as shown above, cut off the hands of native peoples to intimidate those who didn't produce enough rubber to meet the quota or to show military superiors that bullets hadn't been wasted on, gasp--wait for it, animals. Those beautiful black hands, by the way, are still a presence in Belgium. I was in Brussels several years ago and a candy shop, near the European Commission's headquarters, was selling chocolate hands. No other customer seemed to recognize the odious irony of it all. But, then again, that's Europe for you: a lovely and historically rich continent spectacularly ignorant of its role in multiple genocides.
Leopold was truly an evil man who enriched himself by murdering some 10 million people. Most Belgians are, amazingly, unaware of his crimes. Instead, they see him as the longest reigning monarch in the country's history who helped build things. Belgium is indeed a beautiful country, but whatever Leopold built there was constructed on the bloodied backs of millions of black people who were slaughtered or maimed by his "rubber regime". The the only good to come from Leopold's unfortunate birth was its role in spawning the first global humanitarian cause, a campaign formed to combat his actions in the Congo.
Ultimately, we should always remember the day Leopold gave us the pleasure of leaving this planet. And while I rarely, if ever, celebrate the demise of another human being, that bastard made himself an exception. He was a brutal monster who illustrated the evils of colonialism and white supremacy better than any creature I can imagine. We hear and learn, rightfully, about the Holocaust and the millions of Jews sent to their deaths by Nazism; but seldom are we made aware of the millions of Congolese lives lost to Leopold's terrorism.
So let us celebrate this December 17th and the expiration of a dreadful man whose bloody stamp on history we sadly forget.
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