Nestled between an ad for the latest trend in pocket watches and a headline predicting a “Busy Winter for Suffrage,” a column in the New York Times 100 years ago today highlighted a rare eyewitness report about atrocities in Congo. Apart from the references to the infamous King Leopold of Belgium and some very un-P.C. language, the article describes brutality and a disregard for human life eerily similar to what’s occurring today in eastern Congo. Of course, the perpetrators and the motivations behind the violence are very different, but reading the historic column today provides an important reminder of the many, many years of violence Congolese people have endured.
Featured on the NYT’s TimesTraveler blog today, the 1909 article describes the homecoming of the Rev. Dr. William H. Leslie and his wife, who had spent 17 years working as missionaries in Congo:
“I have heard,” he said, “about the indignation that was aroused in this country and in Europe because of the reports that came out of the Congo which related to atrocities practiced in that country under King Leopold’s rule. I greatly regret that it is all too true and that the representatives of King Leopold have been guilty of many of the atrocities charged against them.
“With my own eyes I have witnessed many of the most horrible examples of cruelty practiced upon the poor natives in that country. I have seen natives with one hand cut off and I have seen them with both cut off, and in many cases the poor victims were children.”
“The indignation” Dr. Leslie mentioned amounted to a popular movement in Europe and the United States to raise awareness about the atrocities being committed in what Congo scholar Adam Hochschild called King Leopold’s “private fiefdom.” For 23 years, King Leopold had ruled the Congo Free State through the front organization he had created, the Association Internationale Africaine (for which he was the chairman and sole shareholder). The public outcry over the atrocities occurring in Congo compelled Leopold to the annex the Congo Free State and create a more traditional colony, renamed Belgian Congo. The atrocities did not end with the change in status in 1908, and even today, decades after independence in 1960, brutal colonial policies are blamed at least in part for Congo’s propensity toward violent conflict.
Last Thursday also marked 100 years since the Albert Hall demonstration in London, a key moment in this early Congo advocacy movement. Frustrated by the dismal reports from Congo about atrocities, which continued despite assurances from Belgian authorities that the brutality characteristic of Leopold’s reign was a thing of the past, a crowd turned out to protest. Many of England’s prominent bishops participated in the demonstration, which the Times of London the next day deemed the "’protest of Christian England’ against the cruelties in the Congo."
To learn more about this early Congo advocacy movement, see Adam Hochschild’s award-winning book, King Leopold’s Ghost. Also, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof’s latest book, Half the Sky, includes an interesting section on the strength of the grassroots Congo activism in the UK in the early 20th century.
Today’s Congo advocacy movement, aimed at ending the conflict that’s led to 4.5 million deaths in the past decade, is gaining momentum. Learn more and join at RAISE Hope for Congo.
Photo: A caricature of Leopold II with his private earnings from the Congo Free State. Original caption: "My yearly income from the Congo is millions of guineas." Published 1905. (Wikimedia Commons)