How does a mass murderer defend himself? Not any old killer, one of genocidal proportions: Belgium’s square-bearded, greedy and bloodthirsty tyrant, King Leopold II (1835-1909).
He was responsible for the deaths of between two million and 15 million Congolese between 1885 and 1909. Many historians now settle on an estimate from 1919, which claimed that his private army wiped out a staggering 10 million people, half of the country’s population.
The brutal Leopold never saw the need to justify himself or defend his actions. But in two works 113 years apart, artists imagined his response. American novelist Mark Twain’s soliloquy on Leopold was self-righteous and Kenyan band Crystal Axis are defiant in their 2018 single.
But some background first. In the late 19th century, certain western European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain – competed in the massive land grab known as the Scramble for Africa. Belgium was late to the looting party. But King Leopold hired British explorer Henry Morton Stanley to stake out 2 million km² of mineral-rich land around the Congo River, in effect privatising colonialism.
At the Berlin Conference in 1884 and 1885, the other European countries established rules on how to slice up the continent into colonies. But the wily Belgian monarch convinced them and the United States to recognise his Congo Free State in 1885. An area 80 times bigger than Belgium, it was literally Leopold’s own private fiefdom.
Congolese men were forced to work as miners, rubber-tappers and woodcutters, harvesting wild rubber in the forests. They were sent into the jungle to slash vines and layer their bodies with rubber latex. As Oxford University academic Tim Stanley described it in History Today magazine: “Later they would scrape it off their skin – often taking flesh and hair with it.”
Leopold’s 19 000-strong private army, the Force Publique, ran the Congo as a massive slave camp, using looting, arson, rape, maiming, torture and killing as tools against the local population. Amputations were a particularly brutal weapon. If Leopold’s soldiers weren’t satisfied with a slave labourer’s haul of wild rubber, they hacked off his children’s hands and feet.
“Hands were not only amputated from the living as punishment, but from the dead as evidence,” Dave Dyment wrote in Magenta Magazine. “Soldiers submitted the hands to their superior officers, to prove the number of their kill. Often a village failing to meet the rubber quota would be entirely massacred.”
Millions of Congolese people died of starvation, disease or violence. Meanwhile, King Leopold, who never visited his private colony, made a massive fortune as the worldwide demand for rubber boomed following the discovery of its use for tyres.
International outrage over the atrocities in the Congo forced Belgium to take control of the colony in 1908, a year before Leopold’s death. When he died, the king’s funeral cortege was booed, wrote Stanley.
In his biting political satire, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which was published as a pamphlet in 1905, Twain wasn’t fooled by the image Leopold tried to cultivate as a Christian philanthropist and humanitarian. The king’s brutal legacy was first exposed in the West by American and British writers and campaigners at the turn of the century.
One of them, American missionary William Morrison, witnessed Leopold’s rule first-hand and wrote to Twain as part of his campaigning. King Leopold’s Soliloquy was the result.
Dripping with eloquent sarcasm, Twain’s pious “Leopold” describes how he “went pilgriming among the Powers in tears, with my mouth full of Bible and my pelt oozing piety at every pore, and implored them to place the vast and rich and populous Congo Free State in trust in my hands as their agent”.
His aim was to “lift up those twenty-five millions of gentle and harmless blacks out of darkness into light, the light of our blessed Redeemer, the light that streams from his holy Word, the light that makes glorious our noble civilization – lift them up and dry their tears and fill their bruised hearts with joy and gratitude – lift them up and make them comprehend that they were no longer outcasts and forsaken, but our very brothers in Christ”.
Last year, more than a century later, five-piece Afropunk band Crystal Axis echoed the great satirist with a guitar-driven reminder of how the tyranny of the “Head Foreman and Superintendent of the Congo State”, as Twain described him, is still with us.
Their powerful single, Leopold, “was spurred by the lack of dialogue in the role the Western world has played towards the colonisation and plundering of African countries,” Crystal Axis wrote in a Facebook post.
Like the best punk, Leopold is a shout-along song. It’s as sarcastic as Twain’s soliloquy when the singer “becomes” the king:
I’m going to eat you alive
Skin and bones it’s suppertime.
A shop of horrors sublime
History says I’m alright!
Crystal Axis aren’t shy to shock:
I’m the king and it’s all mine
Under Force Publique and Christ
Your hands are mine tonight
Fingers up one time!
Crystal Axis remind us that colonialism and its reeking residue remain.