Sunday, March 22, 2015

More on Leopold the Slaughterer

During the carnival in Brussels the Belgian minister of foreign affairs, Didier Reynders, decided to paint his face black and join the parade of “Noirauds” —literally, “the swarthy ones”. The Noirauds are supposed to represent African nobleman or “kings,” So the white men are dressed up like oddly archaic high-hatted blackamoors, with silk pants, black tights and flashy shoes. The original intent, back in 1876, was to collect money festively and anonymously for an orphanage.

 It was in 1876 that Belgian King Leopold II called together a meeting of 35 explorers, geographers and businessmen to talk about the so-called dark continent. The pretext was charitable or, as we’d say these days, “humanitarian.” The ostensible purpose was to stop the slave trade and bring “civilization” to the people. In fact, Leopold implemented a policy hard to describe as anything but genocidal.

“It didn’t start as a national enterprise, but was presented by the king as a international philanthropic endeavor, a personal project of Leopold II,” says David van Reybrouck, author of the acclaimed history Congo: The Epic History of a People. “It was the plan of a European head of state who wanted to rule African territory, but it was very costly to finance the colonization. He was trying to warm up the Belgian people for the project,” Van Reybrouck explained “but that only worked for the gentry and the upper middle classes.” Of course the African population’s opinion on the matter was not part of the picture.

From 1885 to 1908 the megalomaniacal Leopold ended up confiscating and brutally ruling what was called Congo-Free-State, making it his personal pet project, and the country that has since been called Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo is still paying the price of his misrule, with grave human rights abuses, including the use of rape as a weapon of war. Leopold exerted his power through his “Force Publique,” an army of African soldiers and white officers to whom slavery, torture, rape, beheadings and amputations were part of a daily routine, as documented in Adam Hochshild’s memorable King Leopold’s Ghost. The monarch ruled with an iron fist, pillaging the Free State’s rubber and other resources, and slaughtering or starving its people. When the full scale of the massacre became known, it was estimated that of 20 million Africans in Congo when Belgium took it, only eight million survived. 

Maybe the average Belgian of the time was blissfully unaware of this holocaust in faraway lands. But there’s no excuse today, especially for Foreign Minister Reynders. King Leopold’s ghost lives on—in blackface.

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