Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
In his book, Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad describes the workers that once claimed the Congo land as their own and explored it as their ancestors had.
"A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea. All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off, and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder with alacrity."
The men that were once the owners of the land were now the slaves in the Congo Free State. As the men were removed from their homes to work for the king, the king’s soldiers that policed the state “drove many of those workers to death, raped their wives, plundered their villages, and shot down then of thousands who rebelled.” Is it estimated that half the population was killed during Leopold’s dictatorship.
Britain and France cut up Africa in an attempt to obtain resources that would increase their power. The difference between their administrations and Leopold was vast. An argument could easily be made that they all imposed new forms of slavery, but research has shown that Leopold’s version was much harsher and devastating. Instead of dictatorship styles of government, local leaders were used or newly appointed. The British were known for their indirect rule by using leaders that were from the area. The French took the elite of the area and offered higher education. Very little direct control was assumed when compared to the administration of the Congo under Leopold. Even when things got out of hand and the Belgian state took control of the region, the administration of the Congo kept tight control over the area.
By using local leaders, the British allowed Africans to run the state under their guidance. This meant the exploitation of the people and the land was not as severe as it was under Leopold who had direct control and answered to no one. He was the complete ruler who used and abused those in his care any way he saw fit.
The Congo Free State was an atrocity in the Scramble for Africa that ignited world protest on the treatment of the African natives by European powers. The severity of Leopold’s treatment of the people and the land brought about a new awareness of European imperialism. It did not matter that Leopold’s rule was much harsher than other European rule. It was the poster child for anti-imperialism. The Congo became the voice for African independence to shake the cruel reign of those that cared little for the land or the people.
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