It is a tragic but all too familiar irony that many modern-day nations might never have existed without colonialism. Such is the case with the central African nation known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the second-largest sovereign nation on the African continent. Between the years 1885 and 1908, the Belgian monarchy headed by King Leopold II, first cousin of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, undertook colonial rule in a region shaped by the river Congo and part of an ancient tribal kingdom. Financial gain provided the impetus for the Belgians, as it had been for the British, Dutch, Portuguese, Germans and other players in the European sweepstakes of empire.
It is important to note that whereas most European powers pursued a politically motivated colonialist agenda in the late 19th century, Leopold’s interests were almost entirely financial and purely exploitative in terms of resources and the region’s native population (Hochschild, 1999). Beneath a veneer of Christian “improvement” (ostensibly a modernizing and Christianizing undertaking) Leopold, acting almost exclusively as his own inviolable corporate entity – a supposedly philanthropic sole proprietorship – turned the people of the Congo region into a massive slave population for the purpose of plundering an area roughly 76 times the size of Belgium. To Leopold, central Africa represented a bounty, a place ripe for exploitation by its new and unquestioned sovereign. As an agent of change, Leopold’s true primary objective was simple: to maximize profits.
The consolidation of business interests in the Kasai district, which played out in 1901, was the kind of power play that gave Leopold primacy throughout what became known as the Belgian Congo. The 14 companies that operated in the Kasai were strong-armed into forming a single concession known as the Compagnie de Kasai, which gave Leopold “a monopoly over the trade in rubber, ivory, and other raw materials” (Vansina, 86). In this way, Leopold was able to manipulate the situation so that he was in a position to lease concessions to interested commercial parties, from whom he extracted huge percentages of profit. Thus, business representatives from many countries were quickly disenfranchised and Leopold, who operated free of effective constitutional restraints at home, was free to accomplish his primary objective at the considerable expense of the region’s tribes, such as the Babua, Kakongos, Mayombes and Kuba (Wack, 154).
An approximate count of the tribes living in the Congo Free State ranged anywhere from 30 million to 15 million, though by 1905 many observers had come to the belief that 20 million was a more accurate figure (Wack, 151). The tribesmen that had for generations comprised the ancient kingdom of Kongo easily fell prey to “one of the most devious and ruthless systems of economic exploitation through forced labor ever conceived was put in place by Leopold” (wa Muiu & Martin, 119). An ancient way of life and the cultures that it spawned suffered a Holocaust-like devastation, with tens of millions estimated to have been killed under the yoke of the worst colonial tyranny imaginable.
The region’s traditional tribal system was viciously uprooted with the Luba-Lunda and Kuba tribes, which constituted a large, indigenous power structure that maintained political balance in the region, were divided up into small local units, or chiefdoms loosely based on a clan system (wa Muiu & Martin, 120). The new chiefdoms were comprised of no more than 1,000 people, part of a systematic and intentional erosion of native power that left the tribes and their leaders with virtually no autonomous authority (Ibid). The effect on this complex socio-cultural system could not have been more devastating.
The kingdom of the Kuba was made up of a social network, an elegant fabric of interrelated tribes known as “the people of the king” (wa Muiu & Martin, 111). This loose confederation included the Kete, the Coofa, the Cwa and the Mbeengi, a sort of loose Kuba
confederation. The Kuba were a matrilineal people accustomed to a high degree of geographic mobility within their traditional lands. Their cosmological and religious practices reflected a strong belief in reincarnation. They were also a profoundly political society, with villages that had become “the cornerstone of the whole sociopolitical structure” (Ibid). Each village had its tribunal and chief, who were responsible for the administration of justice. Above all, the Kuba’s remarkable political and judicial stability was attributable to a highly successful system of checks and balances that relied heavily on the Kuba’s form of village-by-village government (Ibid).
Unfortunately for the Kuba and their affiliated tribes in the western Kasai district, they occupied an area rich in rubber. Between 1905 and 1910, Leopold’s Compagnie de Kasai took advantage of the changes Leopold forced on the Kuba to convert a weakened social system into a massive resource for slave labor (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 34). The Belgians had learned well the lessons about tribal politics in the Congo region, and they were ruthless in how they applied those lessons. Consequently, “a series of decrees on local colonial administration in 1906, 1910 and 1933 succeeded in progressively transforming the chiefs into subaltern functionaries of the colonial administration” (Ibid, 35). These functionaries were to help facilitate Belgian rule and, by extension, the continued acquisition of wealth by King Leopold.
In 1908, the missionary William Sheppard, an African-American who chronicled Belgian rule and its effect on the Congolese tribes, wrote about the changes he had observed among the Kuba, a tribe he admired for its civilized lifestyle and sense of justice. Shepard recalled a people who had for millennia harvested corn, peas, potatoes and other agricultural products, and maintained a vibrant legal and administrative system, “one of the most prosperous and intelligent of all the African tribes” (Hochschild, 1999). And yet, in a few short years, Sheppard had seen Kuba villages overrun by gunmen hired by the trading companies with whom Leopold did business. These henchmen now forced an ancient and sovereign people to “spend most of their days and nights in the forests making rubber” (Ibid).
And so Leopold had succeeded spectacularly in subverting the tribes of the Congo region, who had for centuries practiced agriculture and long-distance trade under the auspices of the village system. Leopold’s ambitions played out with ruthless efficiency and without opposition, using existing political and commercial infrastructures, such as widespread trading and administrative stations that gradually took over the old tribal trading posts (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 33). Leopold’s control over his Congo Free State effectively ended in 1908, but the Belgian politicians that built on his legacy and the system he created continued the exploitation that had changed forever the way the tribes of Central Africa lived their lives.
William Sheppard and his Christian colleagues went to the Congo to bring the virtues of their religion to the Congolese tribes. They believed the African tribesmen had much to gain from the lessons imparted by the Bible and so they went to Africa to spread the Gospel and teach sin and salvation (Hochschild, 1999). Yet when Sheppard arrived, he found a situation vastly different from the one he expected to find. The natives he had hoped to introduce to Jesus were utterly traumatized by their exposure to white, European civilization. In King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild writes of tribesmen who frequently asked British missionaries if “the Savior you tell us of (has) any power to save us from the rubber trouble” (Ibid). Rather than serving as witnesses of Christian love, the missionaries in the Congo found themselves in the position as observers in a humanitarian catastrophe (Ibid).
The missionaries’ greatest service in the Congo may have been to draw worldwide attention to Leopold’s policies and actions in the Congo. Yet they were also the moving force behind the establishment of schools and churches that sought to help oppressed Congolese tribesmen wherever possible. It is interesting to note the extent to which the Kuba themselves assumed the missionary mantle and acted as agents of change in disseminating Christian values and the importance of education. “(Kuba) catechists, evangelists, and school monitors soon became the prime disseminators of Christianity and the dispensers of Western knowledge to the children in primary schools” (Vansina, 296). The kings that ruled the various Kuba clan groups and their councils also supported the establishment of Western-style schools, though inculcating Christianity into the fabric of Kuba society ultimately proved more difficult than Sheppard and other Western missionaries had anticipated (Ibid).
In many ways, the Christian missionary activity in the Congo mirrored the troubled nature of the region under European influence. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries vied with each other in a kind of religious colonialism, a competition to gain the spiritual upper hand among the tribesmen. The Protestants, the Presbyterians in particular, were vigorous in their attempts to establish a firm foothold in the region in the mid-1800s. However, after the Berlin Conference virtually ceded the vast Congolese territory to the Belgians, the picture began to change.
In accordance with Leopold’s wishes, Roman Catholic missionaries began flooding into the area in the 1880s. In fact, Leopold had gone so far as to secure Papal support, the Vatican officially granting the Belgian Catholic missions supremacy in the Congo, though it soon became apparent that there were insufficient numbers of Belgian missionaries to have much of an impact (Hochschild, year). Shortly thereafter, Leopold permitted Catholic missions from France, Holland and other European nations to establish themselves in his African fiefdom. On the plus side, the Catholics and their Protestant counterparts established schools throughout the territory (Ibid). At their worst, the missions sometimes served as agents of exploitation that rationalized what amounted to the enslavement of the native population.
As such, the Catholic missionaries, working hand-in-hand with the temporal power of the Belgian authorities, did much to uproot ancient religious and cultural traditions among the Congolese tribes. The Kuba, for instance, were believers in a form of reincarnation and the cycle of the soul, reminiscent of Hindu beliefs. There is also a creation mythology of sorts, with Woot, the universal first man, being the progenitor of humanity and the creator of physical and
psychological features characteristic of the human race (wa Muiu & Martin, 112). The agricultural rhythms of life celebrated such beliefs, which the emissaries of the church subverted in favor of a strict Christian-Catholic doctrine.
Through all of this exploitation, it is difficult to imagine applied anthropologists acting on behalf of a colonial European power. In fact, the employment of minimally disruptive anthropological tactics seems inconceivable in light of the naked greed and utterly unscrupulous disruption of deeply ingrained social, cultural, religious and political customs that played out among the tribes of the Congo region. And yet, one is left to ponder the potential benefits that an enlightened anthropological approach might have produced. Leopold was an inventive and clever strategist, albeit a brazenly opportunistic and criminally negligent one. It is interesting to speculate, however fantastically, about what might have happened had he been capable of using a lighter hand in his African possessions and how anthropology might have brought that about.
An in-depth study of the indigenous cultures in the Congo would have revealed several important conclusions. Specifically, the Belgians would have found that the Kuba and other Congolese tribes in the Kasai and other districts were far more civilized, organized and technologically advanced in their agricultural practices than any Europeans could have imagined. The missionary William Sheppard spent more time among the Kuba than any other non-African in the years before the Berlin Conference. He discovered a people that had much to impart to their European counterparts. He described the Kuba as “dignified, graceful, courageous, honestand really hospitable” (Hochschild, 1999).
Sheppard became the first to find the Kuba capital, having surreptitiously followed an ivory caravan (Hochschild, 1999). His study of the Kuba during his time there revealed that “Their knowledge of weaving, embroidery, wood carving and smelting was the highest in equatorial Africa” (Ibid). In respect to such well-defined native cultures, anthropologists are quick to take the position that any cultural change not originating with the subject civilization is negative (Shelton, 103). And yet the Europeans had much to offer the tribes of the Congo in terms of technology and education. From an anthropological perspective, missions may be agents of negative change, though the schools that many established were regarded in a positive light by indigenous peoples.
A program of careful study and interaction (along the lines followed by Sheppard, not Stanley) could have had a dual effect in determining how the Congo tribesmen could most benefit from European intervention, a benign advantage the Belgians might have used to insert themselves seamlessly into the indigenous culture. Whereas missionaries once served as educated, though non-objective observers, anthropologists are uniquely suited to play the role of social mediator. “The anthropologist, as professional student of the problems of acculturation and culture change, has acquired a vested interest in this realm of forecasting” (Manners & Kaplan, 158).
Thus, an anthropological approach may have done much to engender an atmosphere of balance and understanding between two vastly different cultures, perhaps giving the Belgians access to valuable rubber and timber resources through a mutually beneficial alliance with the tribes that Leopold and his colonial minions all but destroyed. A concerted application of both social and ethnological anthropology would have been well-suited to the task, producing a comprehensive cultural and socially functional overview of the Congolese tribes (Manners & Kaplan, 54). This may seem an absurdly utopian notion in light of the truth, but given the inconceivable brutality of the Belgian regime it is surely worth considering a better outcome via the intervention of anthropological study and observation.
The Belgian colonial regime in the Congo accomplished its primary goal in the most brutal manner possible: realizing spectacular economic gain at the expense of the native population. This was achieved by orchestrating business activities and consolidating commercial interests to the notable advantage of the colonial power. From an indigenous standpoint, ancient political systems were subverted and the region’s large and powerful tribes were sectioned off into small, administrative centers soundly controlled by the Belgian authorities. The impact on the native Congolese tribes was epic, with tens of millions having perished at the hands of their oppressors and ancient cultural traditions destroyed by a ruthless ethnocentrism. A combined program of study and observation, utilizing ethnological and social anthropological disciplines, may well have had a mediating influence on the situation, showing the Belgians a way to achieve their objectives without yielding to their worst colonial impulses.
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