Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Africa: A Case Study in Capitalism, Colonial Dominance and Genocide

This is a three part posting on Western exploitation and colonial domination of the African continent and its people. Part 1 deals with the way in which African slavery and the establishment of plantations on European colonial possessions was a necessary element in the rise of the capitalist system many of us endorse today. Part 2 is a brief discussion of the "scramble for Africa" which marked the beginning of European colonialism on the African continent in the 1880's. Part 3 is a biography of King Leopold II of Belgium his systematic genocide in the Belgian Congo which reduced the Congolese population from 20 million to only 10 million in a span of 40 years. Statues and monuments of Leopold, one of histories greatest mass murderers, adorn Belgium to this day and the government has refused to pay any type of reparations to the Congolese people, many of whom live in abject poverty as a direct result of Belgian exploitation.

Part 1: Profit Over People

source: "Capitalism and Slavery," by Eric Williams

In accordance with 16th century precedents, the Negro slave trade was entrusted to a company which was given the sole right by a nation to trade in slaves on the coast of West Africa and to maintain forts necessary for the protection of the trade post. They then could transport and sell the slaves in the West Indies. Accordingly, the British incorporated the Company of Royal Adventurers in 1663 and later replaced it with the Royal African Company in 1672, as did the Swedish, Danish and French, following the precedent set by the Portugese in 1450. Individual traders were excluded and thus, the slave trade became, in effect, an economic venture monopolized by European colonial states, thus assuring that profits would flow directly to each respective treasury.

Merchants and Plantation heads alike began to complain about the government monopolies, claiming them to be inefficient and unprofitable, as well as unable to meet demand and provide low prices. Accordingly, on July 5, 1698 the British gave in and allowed the slave trade to be open to all British subjects, so long as a payment of a 10 percent duty was paid on all goods exported to Africa for the purchase of slaves. This development proved profitable in the newly introduced economic theory of mercantilism which stated that a country could increase its stock by a favorable balance of trade, exporting more goods than were imported. Thus, the increased amount of goods traded for slaves (since more slaves could be bartered under the new system) would actually accelerate the growth of the British treasury. In addition, the slaves helped to increase production on the colonies and thus, provided sugar and other tropical commodities which otherwise would have needed to be imported from foreigners, upsetting the favorable balance of trade. As the plantation colonies grew, so too did the markets for British industrial goods and industry flourished in Britain as a result of the ever growing markets. The colonies of the West Indies, with the supply of sugar and other tropical commodities exerted itself as an ideal colonial asset, as opposed to those in the Americas, which began to compete with the colonial empires by producing comparable manufactured goods.

By 1690, the amount of capital produced by the planters of the West Indies was so astonishing that Sir Dalby Thomas that every white man in the West Indies, (through exploitation of the valuable "commodity" "black ivory ") was one hundred and thirty times more valuable, than a white man at home. It was estimated that the profit involved with the slave trade amounted to no less than 36 percent of Britains total commercial profits. As mentioned, as the amount of slaves traded increased, so to did profits and the rise in profits led inevitably to more slaves being traded. By the 18th century this cycle had culminated in one of the greatest migrations in recorded history. The conditions, however were so appalling that, for every 100 slaves that left Africa, only 84 would reach the West Indies and, by the end of three years about one third of them would be dead. Thus, for every 100 that left the coast, only 56 would be alive after three years. This astounding cost in human life, which fueled the massive accumulation of capital, grants merit to the saying that in Liverpool (which grew as a direct result of the slave trade) "the principal streets had been marked out by chains, and the walls of its houses cemented by the blood, of the African slave." The saying may no doubt be extended to countless cities in the colonial empires, whose foundations were likewise laid with the blood and tears of the enslaved African.

The slave trade had another result, besides the massive accumulation of wealth for the European powers. The amount of slaves traded became so dramatic that, by 1787 the population of the British West Indies consisted of 58,353 whites, 7,706 free Negroes and 461,864 slaves, with an annual average of 34,000 slaves exported from Africa. The population of the French West Indies was relatively similar, with an annual export of 20,000 slaves from Africa. This enormous population shift in addition to slaves who perished, resulted in Africa being deprived of many of its most prosperous members of society, crippling the continents development with consequences that reverberate to the present.

Part 2: Capitalism, Competition, Empire and the Partition of Africa

At the onset of the 19th century, Europeans began a process known as the "opening of Africa," whereby the continent was opened to exploration and the exploitation of the continents relatively untapped raw materials. While many of the European powers took control of parts of the continent along the coast and established trading posts, the majority of the African continent remained free of European control. Since Europeans already had access to the raw materials of Africa through trade and trade posts, the question arises as to why Europe proceeded to slice up and distribute Africa amongst themselves, a process known as the "Scramble for Africa," which began in 1885 following the failure of the Berlin Conference and ran through the onset of the 20th century. Examining circumstances in Europe, leading up to the onset of the scramble, will help to illustrate the necessity of further "opening" the African continent.

The unification of Germany in 1871 and Bismark’s policy of Weltpolitik to establish the German Empire’s "place in the sun;" the "Long Depression," from 1873-1876 which hampered the economies of many of the European powers; strategic interests, most notably control of the Suez canal, which was seen as a vital strategic possession; and the advancement of the modern capitalist system, which John A Hobson argued was the necessary precursor to imperialism - were all significant factors. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 attempted to set rules for the colonization of Africa, many of which were not followed - almost resulting in war amongst colonial powers on several occasions; the end of the Berlin Conference is generally seen as the onset of the scramble and indeed, within a decade all of the continent save Liberia and the Orange free state remained independent of European control (Ethiopia would also gain nominal independence following the defeat of Italy in 1896).

Returning to the reasons for the scramble, the unification of Germany in 1871 under Bismark found the large and powerful nation in a position to compete with Britain and France for European dominance, yet it entered the scene well after most of the world had been colonized. Germany was a quickly rising industrial power and lacking colonies from which to extract raw materials they moved to establish a footing on the African continent. With Germany, who British and French planners already viewed as a rising threat, setting its sights on Africa, Britain and France also moved to grab a piece of Africa, motivated in part, to assure Germany did not seize all the territory first. Other emerging powers, such as Italy, and nominal powers such as Belgium and the former colonial powers of Portugal and Spain also acquired territories on the continent, none of whom managed to control as much territory as Britain, France or Germany.

A second factor in the move to control Africa was the "Long Depression," caused by the reparations payments from the Franco-Prussian war as well as the collapse of the Vienna Stock exchange in 1873 and various other factors. This was a major cause of the "new imperialism" which the scramble for Africa constituted. Many of the European powers were experiencing a rising deficit in their balance of trade and Africa was seen as a vast new market as well as a possible area for development and capital investment. This was in addition to the prospect of increased control over raw materials.

The third factor was strategic interests and control of trade, especially the Suez canal, control of which meant dominance of the primary trade route between the east and west. The British had envisioned strategic control "from Cape to Cairo" a notion made famous by the South African businessman and colonizer Cecil Rhodes. The "red line through Africa," which Rhodes envisioned, uniting resource rich South Africa with the trade route of the Suez canal by railway was hampered by German control of Tanganyika. This British vision also encroached upon French ambitions to extend their control from French West-Africa toward the eastern shores, ultimately the British won out.

While this scramble was fueled by the competition between the European powers, it was also fueled by accelerating Western capitalism. The people of the African continent, whose lands were taken, were seen as idle and lazy, their lifestyles of communal land control and subsistence farming, hunting and gathering did not produce a surplus to be bought sold or traded. These people then, it was thought, could be civilized by revolutionizing agricultural production to produce cash crops, opening mines and setting up light industry where cheap African labor could be produced. The total political, economic, cultural and social intrusion of the African continent which the "scramble for Africa" represented - like the slave trade before it - had devastating consequences for the people, which can be seen by the massive poverty and violence, as Africans on their own continent are still deprived of the land seized from them by European colonialists which is now owned by their white descendents and Western multi-nationals.

Part 3: “beto febole yiwa” - “Rubber is Death”

source: An incredibly well produced and eye-opening documentary film produced by the BBC entitled "White King, Red Rubber, Black Death." The film is available to be viewed in its entirity here: "White King, Red Rubber, Black Death"

For the people of the Equator Province of the Congo, where some of the worst atrocities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries took place, there is a saying to describe the experience during the reign of King Leopold II: “beto febole yiwa” - rubber is death. In 1880 the population of the area encompassing the Congo Free State was as high as 20 million people. By 1920, the population had shrunk by one half, to little over 10 million. Population loss on such a massive scale constitutes genocide in the minds of anyone who applies elementary moral standards, yet statues and monuments of the perpetrator, King Leopold II, adorn the cities of Belgium to this day.

The documentary “White King, Red Rubber, Black Death” shows how the greed of one man systematically raped the African land of both its resources and its souls to produce the grandiose and splendor of his Belgian nation. As one travels through the magnificent cities today there is still no mention of the millions of exploited Congolese at the foundations, and accordingly, historical revisionism continues to keep Leopold’s name from assuming its rightful place on the list of humanities greatest mass murderers.

King Leopold II’s quest for overseas colonies began in the late 1870s, when he appointed Henry Morton Stanley to map out and establish a colony in the Congo region of North Africa, which had yet to be claimed by any of the European powers. The area, more than seventy times the size of Belgium was granted to Leopold in 1885 at the Berlin Conference and he established the Congo Free State that same year. Leopold’s agents had acquired documents signed by tribal leaders, many of whom did not understand the nature of the agreements. Nevertheless, Belgium’s fellow colonial powers deemed them to be binding treaties laying a legal framework for the exploitation that was to follow.

Unlike the older colonial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands, among others, who no longer extracted wealth from their colonies, but rather, used them for investment and as a symbol of national prestige; King Leopold sought colonial possessions as a means to extract wealth for himself and his country. Upon his crowning, Leopold announced that he planned to make Belgium “greater, stronger and more beautiful.” The rise of rubber as an essential material in the manufacture of tires for automobiles gave the monarch his chance. The Congo was a rich source of rubber and the people a tremendous source of slave labor. As the king of a Christian nation, Leopold was able to justify his actions in the region, not only as a benevolent act of philanthropy to spread civilization, but also in the name of Christianity, adding a further veil of legitimacy. The Belgian army was dispatched to the Congo along with the Christian missionaries. The African people were freed from their brutal Arab slave masters and then forced into a far more devastating system of slave labor in service of the Belgian kingdom.

King Leopold once claimed that he never sought to create any wealth for himself and was only interested in spreading the light of civilization to the Congo. In reality, the profits from rubber produced by Congolese slave labor elevated Leopold to one of the richest men in the world. Using his own private funds accumulated from his African acquisition, Leopold took on huge construction projects including the Cinquantenaire and several museums such as the Royal Museum for Central Africa; none of his projects give any mention of the people whose labor was exploited to construct them. So as not make public the massive fortune which he was accumulating, Leopold kept the funding for the projects a secret. As the monarch’s individual wealth, as well as that of his kingdom grew dramatically, so too did his greed, until it spiraled out of control culminating in a system of suffering and death which remains almost unparalleled in the history of colonial domination.

What separates these crimes from others committed in the name of empire is not only the utter lack of humanity, but the way in which it was systematized and dictated from the very top of the Belgian government. The Belgian General Leon Fievez was an exemplary figure in illustrating how rubber production could reach its pinnacle. Fievez was the General in charge of the Equator Province of the Congo, where some of the worst atrocities took place. It is reported that Fievez, the “devil of the equator,” as he was known by the populace, killed roughly 1,300 Congolese, burned down 162 villages, cut down plantations and destroyed vegetable gardens - leading indirectly to countless additional deaths through malnutrition and starvation. Accordingly, Fievez also had the highest rubber production in all of the Congo. Knowing full well the methodology employed to increase rubber production Leopold sent a message to the Governor General that the Belgian state would pay commissions to stimulate zeal. The message to the Generals on the ground was clear - they could kill, burn and loot to coerce their slave laborers into increased production. By failing to prosecute or even condemn the brutal tactics he knew were taking place, King Leopold II granted consent to the genocidal tactics which were being employed; by paying commissions for higher rubber production, he not only consented, but encouraged these crimes against humanity. As Joseph Conrad wrote, in “Heart of Darkness,” - his account condemning Belgian atrocities in the Congo: “to tear treasures from the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is to burglars breaking into a safe.”

With the prospect of increased commissions, the Belgian Generals found new ways to maximize profits. Concession companies were granted “hostage licenses,” allowing them to capture the wives of the slave laborers. The prettiest of them were often raped. Every 15 days the Africans brought forward the fruits of their labor, if the amount sufficed, they might be assured their wives safe return, failure could equal punishment or even death for both husband and wife. African soldiers employed by Belgium were used to carry out the murders, and to assure that they did not waste ammunition they were forced to collect severed hands from their victim’s corpses. To avoid the wrath of the Belgian Generals, when ammunition was wasted, the soldiers often severed hands from living people, mostly women and children. Leopold realized the system was a success and continued to employ it for more than a decade. While total profits remain unknown, it is estimated that Leopold’s profits from his private crown domain alone (which remained a secret until 1902) was the equivalent of 231 million euros, an extraordinary wealth for his time.

In 1900 Edmund Dene Morel a London journalist of West African affairs began a personal campaign against King Leopold II. Familiar to Belgian trade with the Congo, Morel was able to prove that while rubber was arriving at Antwerp all that left the port destined for the Congo was guns and ammunition. Responding to such allegations the British government appointed Roger Casement as a consul to the Congo Free State. Casement produced a 50 page report condemning the Congo Free State as the most brutal colonial administration the African continent had ever known, going so far as to prove that the atrocities were systematic and top-down. Striking a further blow to Leopold was the formation of the Congo Reform Association in 1904 by Edmund Morel, which quickly grew into a massive European coalition. In response, Leopold appointed his own international commission to report on the Congo, hoping he control the findings. His strategy proved ineffective as the commission received damning testimony about the horrors of the Congo. Some of the most condemning came from a missionary named John Harris, who had personally witnessed Belgian brutality. Harris contended that King Leopold II should be sent to the gallows. Following the commission’s findings, the Governor General to the Congo took his own life. In 1906 the book “Red Rubber” was published, striking a final blow to King Leopold II. With the tide of international opinion turning against him, Leopold ordered the destruction of all records pertaining to administration of the Congo Free State. In 1908 the CFS officially became a Belgian colony. King Leopold II died the next year, his public funeral procession was met with taunts and boos. At the time of his death, he was widely regarded as the most hated man in Europe. It seemed that the efforts of Morel and Casement, among others, had succeeded in revealing the true character of the fallen monarch.

Today, the hatred of King Leopold II, so prominent with his death, seems to have been largely forgotten. Statues of Leopold still adorn Belgium, including a bust of the former monarch which has been erected only recently. In the various memorials, Leopold is portrayed as a civilizer and a benefactor. Morel and Casement, who led the great human rights campaign against Leopold were condemned for pro-German sympathies during the First World War - Casement was executed - and their names and achievements were largely swept into the dust bin of history. Belgium seems to be suffering from a severe case of historical amnesia; Even the Royal Museum for Central Africa fails to give any mention to the atrocities committed by the former monarch. As mentioned, when faced with international condemnation, Leopold ordered the destruction of the most condemning CFS records while others remain classified by the Belgian government to this day. Thus, when Leopold’s defenders are faced with accusations against him, they may simply respond by saying “bring us the proof.” Has King Leopold II been vilified in death? The question will be answered by the next generation of historians and social scientists.

Today, abject poverty and violence continue in the Congo. The people and resources are still exploited by foreign mining operations, as reported by the UN. Since 1998 more than four million people have died in a brutal civil war. Agencies in Belgium such as Pro Belgica continue to lobby the Ministry of Education against criticism of their role in the Congo. The nation still refuses to pay any type of indemnity for their destructive role in the Congo or even admit that their genocide may have constituted a severe human rights violation. King Leopold II, more than a century after his crimes against humanity, continues to be protected by his subjects.