When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Arenât Called âHitlerâ
Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is?
Most people havenât heard of him.
But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in your stomach as when you read about Mussolini or Hitler or see one of their pictures. You see, he killed over 10 million people in the Congo.
His name is King Leopold II of Belgium.
He âownedâ the Congo during his reign as the constitutional monarch of Belgium. After several failed colonial attempts in Asia and Africa, he settled on the Congo. He âboughtâ it and enslaved its people, turning the entire country into his own personal slave plantation. He disguised his âbusiness transactionsâ as philanthropic and scientific efforts under the banner of the âInternational African Societyâ. He used their enslaved labor to extract Congolese resources and services. His reign was enforced through work camps, body mutilations, executions, torture, and his private army.
Most of us â I donât yet know an approximate percentage but I fear its extremely high â arenât taught about him in school. We donât hear about him in the media. Heâs not part of the widely repeated narrative of oppression (which includes things like the Holocaust during World War II). Heâs part of a long history of colonialism, imperialism, slavery and genocide in Africa that would clash with the social construction of the white supremacist narrative in our schools. It doesnât fit neatly into a capitalist curriculum. Its bad to âsay racist thingsâ (sometimes), but quite fine not to talk about genocides in Africa perpetrated by European capitalist monarchs.
Mark Twain wrote a satire about Leopold called âKing Leopoldâs soliloquy; a defense of his Congo ruleâ, where he mocked the Kingâs defense of his reign of terror, largely through Leopoldâs own words. Its 49 pages long. Mark Twain is a popular author for American public schools. But like most political authors, we will often read some of their least political writings or read them without learning why the author wrote them (Orwellâs Animal Farm for example serves to re-inforce American anti-Socialist propaganda, but Orwell was an anti-capitalist revolutionary of a different kind â this is never pointed out). We can read about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but King Leopoldâs Soliloquy isnât on the reading list. This isnât by accident. Reading lists are created by boards of education in order to prepare students to follow orders and endure boredom well. From the point of view of the Education Department, Africans have no history.
When we learn about Africa, we learn about a caricaturized Egypt, about the HIV epidemic (but never its causes), about the surface level effects of the slave trade, and maybe about South African Apartheid (which of course now is long, long over). We also see lots of pictures of starving children on Christian Ministry commercials, we see safaris on animal shows, and we see pictures of deserts in films and movies. But we donât learn about the Great African War or Leopoldâs Reign of Terror during the Congolese Genocide. Nor do we learn about what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, potentially killing in upwards of 5-7 million people from bombs, sanctions, disease and starvation. Body counts are important. And we donât count Afghans, Iraqis, or Congolese.
Thereâs a Wikipedia page called âGenocides in Historyâ. The Congolese Genocide isnât included. The Congo is mentioned though. Whatâs now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo is listed in reference to the Second Congo War (also called Africaâs World War and the Great War of Africa), where both sides of the multinational conflict hunted down Bambenga and ate them. Cannibalism and slavery are horrendous evils which must be entered into history and talked about for sure, but I couldnât help thinking whose interests were served when the only mention of the Congo on the page was in reference to multi-national incidents where a tiny minority of people were eating each other (completely devoid of the conditions which created the conflict no less). Stories which support the white supremacist narrative about the subhumanness of people in Africa are allowed to be entered into the records of history. The white guy who turned the Congo into his own personal part-plantation, part-concentration camp, part-Christian ministry and killed 10 to 15 million Conglese people in the process doesnât make the cut.
You see, when you kill ten million Africans, you arenât called âHitlerâ. That is, your name doesnât come to symbolize the living incarnation of evil. Your name and your picture doesnât produce fear, hatred, and sorrow. Your victims arenât talked about and your name isnât remembered.
Leopold was just one part of thousands of things that helped construct white supremacy as both an ideological narrative and material reality. Of course I donât want to pretend that in the Congo he was the source of all evil. He had generals, and foot soldiers, and managers who did his bidding and enforced his laws. It was a system. But this doesnât negate the need to talk about the individuals who are symbolic of the system. But we donât even get that. And since it isnât talked about, what capitalism did to Africa, all the privileges that rich white people gained from the Congolese genocide are hidden. The victims of imperialism are made, like they usually are, invisible.