A Brief History of Colonialism in Congo

From the Brattleboro (VT) Reformer,

By Marty Jezer

In recent weeks the Democratic Republic of the Congo,
formerly known as Zaire, and before that the Belgian Congo,
has been in the news: A brutal civil war, an horrendous AIDS
epidemic, the assassination of its dictator, Laurent Kabila,
and now a new President, Kabila's son Joseph, who is in
Washington for talks with the Bush Administration. These
events are usually described in the media without historic
context. We in the West shrug in bemusement and wonder why
these Africans can't get it together.

Most of us know little about the Congo except, perhaps, if
we are old enough, from the little ditty, "Bingo, Bango,
Bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo, oh no no no no no."
Then there's Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness. The
main character, Kurtz, is a white trader who surrounds his
home in the Congo with shrunken heads. The barbarity that
Conrad describes is considered a metaphor for man's capacity
for evil, too horrendous to be anything but fiction.

But Conrad, who was witness to the colonization of the
Congo, has said that his novel "is experience . . . pushed a
little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the

As individuals and peoples we are products of our past.
Events don't unfold in a vacuum. What happens today is an
outgrowth of history. To learn the facts of Conrad's case,
one can turn to Adam Hochschild's book, King Leopold's
Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial
Africa (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

Hochschild's book is a history of Belgium's King Leopold's
crimes against humanity in the rainforest of equatorial
Africa. Leopold felt stifled by his country's parliamentary
democracy, as Hochschild tells it. He wanted to rule; if he
couldn't rule his own people, he could at least rule over a
colony. In 1877 he sent an agent, the American explorer
Henry Morton Stanley, into the African rainforest with
orders "to purchase as much land as you will be able to
obtainS" Stanley thereupon negotiated "treaties" with 450
tribal chiefs, documents that were meaningless to the chiefs
who agreed to them. Leopold then used the treaties to
convince other Western colonial powers that he had legal
right to the Congo River basin, an area more than fifty
times the size of Belgium. Thus was the Belgian Congo

Leopold spoke of bringing civilization to the Africans and
sent a small but heavily armed Belgian force into the Congo.
This army forcibly conscripted African youth to fill its
ranks. It then went from village to village taking the women
hostage and forcing the men to go deep into the jungle to
tap the indigenous rubber trees. Those who resisted were
mowed down by machine-gun fire. Many were beheaded or had
their hands cut off. One of the King's officers wrote, "My
goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people S
but that allowed five hundred others to live." Another
wrote, "To gather rubber in the district Sone must cut off
hands, noses, and ears."

Those not gunned-down or mutilated were worked as slaves to
maximize the rubber harvest. With the men doing forced labor
and the women held hostage (and being raped and otherwise
brutalized), the native social structure was destroyed.
Since there was no one free to hunt game or grow crops,
starvation resulted, and with it disease. Between 1880 and
1920, the Congo lost approximately half of its population.
An estimated eight to ten million Africans died as victims
of King Leopold's "rubber-terror"

International outrage forced Belgium to take over the King's
fiefdom, but forced labor continued. Belgium extracted
rubber, ivory, diamonds, and uranium from the Congo and gave
back nothing: no schools, no hospitals, no infrastructure
except that which facilitated the export of resources. The
uranium used to make the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki came from mines in the Congo.

In 1960 Belgium gave the Congo independence, but, with other
western countries, continued to maintain economic power. One
excuse was the Cold War. In 1961 Patrice Lumumba, the Prime
Minister in the Congo's first elected government, was
seized, tortured, and murdered by a Colonel named Joseph
Mobuto. Lumumba was considered the most brilliant of the
Congolese leaders. He also spoke out against Western control
of the Congo's resources and was thus considered a
"communist." Belgian historians have uncovered compelling
evidence showing that Mobuto was acting under instructions
from the CIA and the Belgian government. In 1965 Mobuto
himself seized power and, with the backing of the United
States, ruled as an absolute dictator until his overthrow by
Kabila. Like King Leopold, Mobuto, who re-named the country
Zaire, ran the economy for his own personal profit and, like
the Belgians before him, left the Congo impoverished.

On top of all this came AIDS. While most of us have been
lead to believe that the AIDS epidemic beganwhen an African
was infected by contact with an HIV- carrying chimpanzee,
this theory has been challenged by author and AIDS
researcher Steve Minkin, who tells a much more realistic
story. According to Minkin "European male sexual promiscuity
and paid sex with men and women brought AIDS into Africa
along with HIV-infected blood products collected in the USA
and exported from Europe." And so the West continues to
bring death to the Congo and to blame the Congolese for
their own misfortune. Now a new Congolese President is
seeking American and Western help. While there is no simple
solution to the civil strife in the Congo, the U.S. can
commit American resources to fighting the AIDS epidemic. As
Minkin says, "In the U.S. we have been most successful in
fighting AIDS by preventing the spread of HIV infection in
hospitals and clinics. We invested heavily in universal
precautions and blood screening, but poor Africa is being
told to fight AIDS without the benefits of these wise
investments." The West, including the United States, has
inflicted more than a century of pain on the Congolese and
other Africans. We can begin making amends by heavily
investing in safe, quality health care in the Congo and the
rest of Africa to deal not only with AIDS but with the other
diseases of poverty that our policies have helped bring


Marty Jezer is author of Stuttering: A Life Bound Up in
Words; biographies of Abbie Hoffman and Rachel
Carson, and The Dark Ages: Life in the USA, 1945-1960.
He lives in Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at

Copyright 2001, by Marty Jezer