Rubber, capital, and trophy amputations: how Europe's colonial past is a wound that has been left to fester
Illustration credit: Gabriella Nero

Content warning: violence, racism

To separate a quest for wealth from a desire to conquer is impossible. Across the expanses of space and time, from the Aztec hegemonic nexus of the fifteenth-century, to the Belgian reign of terror in the Congo, the coloniser has justified abuse after abuse with the shiny idea of gold and glister.

The recent global refocus on Black Lives Matter and systemic racism has brought with it a renewed emphasis on decolonisation. Western Europe has, in the last three hundred years, gradually slipped its tentacular grip from most of its former ‘possessions.’ Formally, then, we have decolonised.

Or have we? No. We are a far cry from living in a decolonised world. The seesaw of perpetual imbalance set in motion by colonialism is stuck. The countless kingdoms and empires uprooted, the millions of lives lost: these are deep scars on the demographic and cultural landscapes of tens of countries.

However, the most pervasive — yet most subtle — legacy of colonialism lies in our economic system, that of globalised capitalism operating around a pivot of unequal trade relations. The governing force of our lives is a product of imperialism: one whose origins lie in the creation of an unbalanced system to facilitate the exploitation of labour. In short, a system designed to maximise economic gain while minimising expenditure. The quest for capital, in tandem with a quest for resources in pastures farther afield, led to mass-annexations of territory and the start of Western Europe’s plethora of imperial exploits. Racism, especially in its nineteenth-century pseudoscientific form, was a justifying mechanism for these rapacious endeavours. For empirical evidence of this system in motion, we need look no further than the recent calculation made by the economist Utsa Patnaik, which upends the commonly perpetuated narrative of philanthropy espoused by colonists, and in its place reveals that Britain robbed India of some $45 trillion in the space of under two-hundred years.

I want to take a brief look at how Europe’s colonial legacy has left a wake of destruction. It is a trail the surface of which has only been lightly traced with a pin. But the crevice beneath is one which needs to be uncovered and delved into — its contents exposed.

Cruelty and capital: the case of Belgium

One of the greatest villains in the history of the European colonial project was, somewhat surprisingly, Belgium. It presents arguably the most striking case study of the devastating effects of greed and destruction in modern history. In spite of this, in a conversation about colonialism or empire, this modest country is not necessarily the first that springs to mind. Its empire did not burrow into every nook and cranny of the globe as Britain’s did, nor did it begin its overseas exploits as far in the remote past as the Spanish. Nevertheless, the only monarch whose statue has been torn down à la Edward Colston during the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests is that of King Leopold II in Brussels.  Another statue of the late king, in Antwerp, was set aflame. Why, when so many European monarchs were colonisers of the first walk, is Leopold the subject of such a vitriolic display of public outrage?

Belgian control of the Congo  (what is nowadays mostly the Democratic Republic of Congo) between 1890 and 1908, was in fact Leopold’s control of the Congo. It was the personal fiefdom of a man who was not only consumed by an insatiable lust for wealth, but was, to boot, deeply disingenuous. To secure personal control of the Congo, Leopold had to circumvent the Belgian constitution, and, to this end, in 1885 promised his government that this new acquisition would in no way become a financial burden on Belgium. In a laughable ploy for sympathy aimed at eliciting financial support, Leopold had it made publicly known that he had curbed his enormous appetite (he once ate two entire pheasants in a single sitting in Paris) to pour more money into his ‘philanthropic’ endeavours in his precious Congo. (What did he say, I wonder? ‘I’ve gone without my second pheasant! So help me God!’?) This strategy worked a treat, and Leopold, under the guise of seeking ‘not a franc back’, was able to begin the process of wringing the Congo of its abundance of resources. In doing so, he would orchestrate what amounted to genocide.

To say that this reign was brutal would be a deafening understatement. This one-man, remotely controlled regime (Leopold never actually went to the Congo) led to the deaths of an estimated 15 million Congolese (figures vary, but certainly the number was staggering. Adam Hochschild, in his celebrated book King Leopold’s Ghost, refers to the death toll as being of ‘Holocaust dimensions’). Testimonies, made available only in the 1980s, contain myriad descriptions of unimaginable acts of violence. One man, William M’Putila of Bokoté, described how his right hand had been cut off as a child, during a siege in which his parents had been both murdered. A siege sounds rather vague: to clarify, this was a raid aiming to extract rubber, one of the Congo’s key natural resources.

You see the equation: the justifying mechanism for this act of inhumanity was the promise of capital to be accumulated from rubber extraction.

William himself survived not because he was shown any pity, but only because he had been playing dead. Another man, Ekuku, paramount chief of the village of Boiéka, recounted how a white coloniser, having killed a black labourer, responded that he ‘[didn’t] give a damn’ [sic], because all the judges were white men.

A two-second analysis of this non-justification reveals not only that there was no threat of repercussion, but that the killing of a black man rang no moral alarm bells in the murderer’s head. For a purported Christian — a religion which commands its followers ‘Thou shalt not kill’ — the sole explanation is that the man did not see his victim as a fellow man. Such a view ties in with the analysis given by the Congolese politician and religious figurehead, Paul Joseph Mukungubila, in which he stated that the colonisers ‘ont falsifié la parole [de Dieu] pour priviligier les intérêts du roi’ (that the colonisers falsified God’s word to serve the interests of the king).

No reasonable person, as Hochschild points out, could read such testimonies without feeling a profound sense of revulsion. At the time, however, they were reported only in general terms, until the individual reports came into the public domain some seventy-odd years after the Congo passed out of Leopold’s hands. This said, the condemnation at the time was nonetheless enough to force the king to relinquish personal control of his colony, particularly when it came to light that he had tried to manipulate US foreign policy by hiring the San Francisco attorney Henry Kowalsky to influence Congress.  When Leopold had to devolve colonial power to the government, it foiled his plans to do so posthumously, with a backdated will, to bolster his legacy as an altruist. At the crux of an operation motivated by an eternal quest for ‘more!’ was a man who would pull whatever strings necessary to get it.

Somewhat shockingly, considering that this information is in the public domain (needless to say, as I am writing this article), Belgium’s colonial era is still revered by many. To others, it is but a murky piece of general knowledge. I had — perhaps naively — assumed that Belgium had held itself to account for its past crimes; that it had looked at its colonial legacy through a critical lens, and had maybe even apologised. I had but a vague idea of the cruelties of the colonisation, and what little I did know I had mostly gleaned from questions about why there were chocolate hands sold in Belgium (yes, really). I laboured under this delusion until recently, when I watched an IGTV video posted by the account @decolonisonsnous (an excellent resource for understanding and deconstructing colonial narratives, particularly in francophone countries). In the video, which I’ve linked to above, a former colonist is invited into a classroom of sixteen-year-olds, as part of a project organised by their teacher to highlight the issues of such a retrograde mentality. Indeed, when asked whether he believed independence was a good thing, responded brusquely ‘Non. Trop tôt‘ (No. It was too soon). He then added insult to injury by stating that he knew a boy who had been eaten (yes, again, really) by local inhabitants. People with such a mentality perpetuate a narrative that, frankly, sounds like that of a conquistador apologist.

Belgium has not, in the words of Prabir Purskayatha, ‘decolonised the minds’ of its people. The only formal apology issued has been for taking mixed-race children from their parents. This month, the former president of a prominent Belgian university, Hervé Hasquin, argued on national television that there were ‘positive aspects of colonisation.’ The rhetoric of ‘glory’, ‘power’, and ‘fame’ — all the words that colonial apologists will use to characterise the period of dominion — are, I would argue, synonyms for wealth, for wringing every penny out of the colonised land. The only possible logic that can defend such actions is a valorisation of capital over human life. Or, more specifically, over black lives.

Belgium’s lack of a full-scale set of apologies, not to mention reparations, speaks to a distinct apathy toward its past. The protests in Brussels, and the demands for removing Leopold’s (thirteen!) statues from streets and parks, indicate change is in the air. But this mentality has yet to penetrate the consciousness of Belgium’s political elite. When people say Europe is not the US, they fail to recognise that the institutionalised racism which characterises the latter has its insidious roots in Europe. And these will continue to sow seeds until they are exhumed, given a thorough autopsy in the public eye, and shoved into a glass case to be beheld from afar.

Part of a pattern?

Certainly the case of the nineteenth-and twentieth-century Belgian Congo is the one of the most shocking. But it was an extreme variant of a pattern that had persisted for centuries beforehand.

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus, a Genoan in the service of the Spanish crown, landed on Hispaniola, he was fixated on the false idea that it was awash with gold. On his second voyage, after having returned to Spain and inflamed the minds of its populace with (wildly exaggerated) descriptions of a gold-laced paradise, he  became intent on extracting it all. See whether you can see the pattern here. He demanded that every Taíno man on the island produce a hawk’s bell of gold every three months. Should they fail to meet this (ridiculous) quota, they would have their hands amputated. The exact same mechanism, to a tee, that was employed by Leopold’s mercenaries in the Congo, when rubber extraction quotas were not met. Four hundred years earlier.

This use of the bodies of the ‘other’ to extract profit is a recurrent theme in colonial history. Indentured labour, systems of thinly disguised slavery (or, for much of history, outright slavery) have been instrumental in feeding Western economies. In 1570s Peru, at the mercury mine of Huancavelica, a twisted system of rotational labour known as the mit’a was implemented by the Viceroy of the territory, Francisco de Toledo. In principle, it operated on the basis of labour in exchange for protection and evangelisation. In reality, indentured servitude meant that not only could the indigenous people be exploited (the death rate was alarming by all accounts, though not recorded), but cohesion of communities destroyed.

One of the greatest lies to have been told, and swallowed by the common consciousness, is that colonisers brought ‘civilisation’ to their dominions. This phrase is code for condoning the forceful imposition of European culture and values, preferably by eradicating those already in place.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the case of Mexico. Moving away from grossly exaggerated and over-simplified myths of human sacrifice, it is a little-known fact that, at the time it was lain to siege and destroyed in 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was a city of 200,000 inhabitants. This was four times the size of Seville, Spain’s then-largest city.

The chronicles of the Spanish missionary, Bernal Diáz, recount how ‘when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded…. [they] seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis.’ Destruction was for gain and looting. Accounts of barbarism seeking to justify colonisation must be read through the lens of their function as an ex-post-facto overlay of righteousness.

Let us return to our initial case study of the Congo. The process of destruction, accelerated and exacerbated by Leopold’s men, had in fact  begun in the sixteenth century at the hands of the Portuguese.  Early modern Europe was rife with gross misconceptions about Africa, borne  out of the ignorance of the Dark Ages. For example, in 1350, Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk, wrote that it was a place inhabited by one-eyed people who used feet to cover their heads. In 1459 another monk, Fra Mauro, claimed it was the home of the roc, a bird so large it could carry an elephant through the air (see King Leopold’s Ghost).

To see this far-flung land as a self-contained entity required a stretch of the imagination and extension of empathy few made. The Portuguese, in the late 1400s,  stumbled upon the Congo river, and, travelling inland, found what was by their own accounts, a well-organised, cohesive kingdom and series of chiefdoms. What began as a cordial exchange between King João of Portugal, and King Affonso of the Congo, however, quickly became an unequal and bitter exchange as João’s mercenaries began decimating the population through mass-enslavement. By 1630, 15,000 slaves per year were transported against their will from West and Central Africa. They were catalogued in census records in terms of their appearance, age, and above all, their cash value. One such record reads: ‘Child, name unknown as she is dying and cannot speak. Male without value….’

So began the Atlantic slave trade. The epitome of the objectification of black bodies as instruments of labour.

In the wake of destruction

Of course, abolition has happened. Decolonisation, formally, has happened. People nowadays are, rightly, far less likely to believe stories about giant elephant-lifting birds. But illegality does not translate into radical ideological transformation. The fact remains that the colonial hangover has yet to be cured: in a recent poll, 23% of Belgians said that they were proud of their empire, the same number who said that it was a source of shame. In Britain, the number who felt proud was higher, at 32%. In The Netherlands, 50%.

More significant, perhaps, even than the crisis of public opinion, are the continued strategies to promote and enforce subjugation. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s most mineral-rich country; why, then, is it still so poor? It is poor not only because of internal strife (though in large part, this strife is a legacy of colonial oppression, and having been robbed of all self-determination). It is poor because it has been and continues to be drained of its resources, its population engaged in labour that keeps many of them at or below subsistence-level earnings. The result is that this perception is so ingrained in the popular consciousness that few question why it is poor: it just is. Just as in psychoanalysis, we must analyse the causes, and seek from there to rectify their consequences. This would first and foremost require a shift in how we engage in international trade at a fundamental level. To truly decolonise, we can no longer exploit.

Sources

https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1CYHvi2qZCIGTm_Ncj6d_vQ8ZY47TIRPA&ll=50.73432989591802%2C4.6444047671874955&z=8

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/12/belgium-forced-to-reckon-with-leopolds-legacy-and-its-colonial-past

HOCHSCHILD, ADAM. KING LEOPOLDS GHOST: a Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. MARINER Books, 2020.

https://yougov.co.uk/topics/international/articles-reports/2020/03/11/how-unique-are-british-attitudes-empire

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/britain-stole-45-trillion-india-181206124830851.html?fbclid=IwAR3-FQgNpE9iriNQNzoKQ-INtvEy8EhBb5Hi102XpW5We5m9xkjvhqm4SLM