The hidden history of colonialism in Congo

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THERE is still a lot of hidden history to how Africans were treated by Europeans after colonisation. Some of the information written in history deliberately leaves out the most horrible and gruesome effects of imperialism. We have to look for information from books of fiction, archival records and other sources which mirror or reflect what happened when Africa was colonised. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ was the invasion and annexation of African territory by Europeans during 1881 to 1914. The event is also called the ‘Partition of Africa’ or the ‘Conquest of Africa’. In 1870, 10 percent of Africa was under European control. By 1914, close to 90 percent of the continent was under colonialism. Then there was the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 85, which established and regulated European settler colonisation and trade in Africa. According to research captured on Wikipedia, the Berlin conference, “ushered in a period of heightened colonial activity by European powers, which eliminated or overrode most existing boundaries. “Colonialism was introduced across nearly all the continent.” After the end of colonial rule and the coming of independence, African leaders agreed to respect the colonial borders even though those borders did not make sense. According to a Harvard report, the new African leaders in Africa made the decision to keep the borders drawn by former colonisers to avoid disruptive conflict among them. The results of the Berlin Conference are still being felt today. In Part One of this column, we look at European settler colonisation in Africa and its impact on Africans. We begin by looking at the Congo. At the end of the 19th century, King Leopold II of Belgium convinced his government to take over the Congo Basin. Belgium was not so keen. King Leopold II decided that he would colonise Congo with support from a number of Western countries. Through various forms of bribery and lobbying, King Leopold II’s control of the Congo in 1884 was supported by the United States and France. He then began a period of violence and racism against the Congolese people. The explorer, Henry Morton Stanley was sanctioned by King Leopold II to go to the Congo and explore as well as set up centres for trade. King Leopold II told Stanley to go to the Congo and, “purchase as much land as you will be able to obtain, and that you should place successively under suzerainty as soon as possible and without losing one minute, all the chiefs from the mouth of the Congo to the Stanley falls.” Stanley documented what he saw in the Congo and wrote about it in his diaries. Stanley was also given authority to purchase all the ivory and to establish many barriers and tolls on the roads he opened up. He was to claim land treaties very quickly which would grant King Leopold II everything including land and all the minerals. As a result, Stanley secured 450 quick and brief land agreements which were at best, not fully understood by the Africans who were being dispossessed of their land. Today, some of that land remains under Belgian descendants of King Leopold II. The world has remained in the dark about what actually happened during King Leopold II’s rule of terror. In a most famous book titled King Leopold’s Ghost—A story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild, published in 1998, we are presented with the most horrific and gruesome history of the Congo. Such detailed account had so far been hidden or suppressed. It had never been fully taught in schools in Africa. The only way the Congolese knew about the past was through oral history. Hochschild wrote that, “between 1885 and 1908, there were between five and eight million victims of King Leopold II’s personal rule, under a barbarous system of forced labour and systematic terror.” The book by Hochschild presented a most significant part of an unknown African history. It caused a lot of denial and discomfort from many Europeans in Belgium and elsewhere. TheBritish Independent newspaper’s review referred to Hochschild’s book as ‘unhelpful’, because they did not want to accept that the problems in the Congo today relate to the wrongs of the past. In the introduction to the book, Hochschild wrote that, “unlike other great predators of history, from Genghis Khan to the Spanish conquistadors, King Leopold II never saw a drop of blood spilt in anger. “He never set foot in the Congo. “There is something very modern about that, too, as there is about the bomber pilot in the stratosphere, above the clouds, who never hears screams or sees shattered homes or torn flesh.” The events in the Congo were captured by Joseph Conrad in the book, The Heart of Darkness. Conrad travelled to the Congo in August 1890, as a young trainee steamship officer. The central character in the novel is Mr Kurtz, responsible for managing the inner station. Mr Kurtz keeps a row of severed African heads around his courtyard. His cruelty verges on psychopathic madness. Joseph Conrad spoke about The Heart of Darkness, “as a book that captured the truth about the cruelty and savagery that was being perpetrated against Africans in the Congo.” He described what he saw as, “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” The real history of the Congo is still to be examined and explored to help us understand the impact of colonialism in one part of Africa. And yet the horrific torture of the Congolese was not so uncommon during the years of colonialism. Part Two will explore the tragic role of the Germans in Namibia.

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