World History 2 143 - 9.4.1 Brutality and Exploitation

While all the great powers were capable of brutality and people were exploited in all the colonies, King Leopold II’s subjects in the Congo Free State suffered in ways that have become infamous. Despite his claims that his interest in Africa lay solely in a desire to improve people’s lives, in reality, Leopold was a cruel master. The Congo Free State was considered his personal possession and thus immune from intervention by the Belgian government. Leopold extracted wealth from it by leasing portions to private companies and individuals. Without adopting even a veneer of benevolence, these intermediaries brutalized the peoples of the Congo from the moment they arrived.

Disembarking from steamboats that brought them up the Congo River, Europeans seized Africans and forced them to carry their numerous possessions inland. At times, several hundred would be conscripted to carry a boat’s cargo, marching single-file with iron collars around their necks, attached to chains to ensure they did not run away.

Europeans used Africans in the Congo Free State for all forms of labor, but primarily to gather ivory and harvest rubber from wild rubber tree vines. The amount of rubber they were required to collect each day was so large that, instead of tapping the rubber-bearing vines and letting the liquid flow into pails, they chopped through the vines and allowed the liquid latex to cover their bodies. At the end of the day, the hardened rubber had to be scraped from their skin. For this work, they received low pay if any, often only the food they were given.

Entire villages could be emptied of men forced into service, their wives and children held hostage to ensure their compliance. The ill and injured were left to die, and those who were uncooperative or slow were whipped, sometimes to unconsciousness or even death. Discipline was maintained by the Force Publique, an Indigenous army commanded by European officers. This army killed those who resisted forced labor or tried to run away and then cut a hand from each victim to maintain a tally of the dead. If the quota set by officers was not met, hands were chopped from the living to make up the number. People who failed to gather enough rubber could also lose their hands (Figure 9.27).

A photograph shows nine African American children and adults, in three rows of three. Eight of them wear only a cloth, either across their waist or higher on their chest, while one in the left bottom corner wears a while striped shirt. All of them are shown with one hand cut off. The backgrounds of the pictures show fields, straw huts, and wooden fences.
Figure 9.27 These photos from about 1900 to 1905 show civilian children and adults mutilated by Free State authorities acting for Belgian king Leopold II. (credit: “Mutilated Congolese children and adults” by Alice Seeley Harris/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1899, Joseph Conrad published his novella Heart of Darkness, based on what he had seen in the Congo Free State. The book elicited cries for intervention among the British, and following a British official’s detailed report, the Congo Reform Association (CRA) was founded. Many prominent British and American thinkers were members, and they pressured governments to end the suffering of the Congolese people. In 1908, the Belgian Parliament took the Congo from Leopold II, renamed it the Belgian Congo, and assumed authority over it.

Although the Congo Free State became notorious for the brutal treatment its people suffered, it differed from most other colonies largely in degree, not in kind. Forced laborers toiled in Egypt to build portions of the Suez Canal. In Portugal’s African colonies, people were made to grow rice and cotton and sell it to government agents at prices the government set. Where Europeans ruled through local leaders, such as in France’s West African colonies, forced labor might be disguised as a form of traditional communal labor ordered by a village head or chief.

Imperialism harmed the people of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands in other ways as well. European and U.S. visitors in the late nineteenth century often brought infectious diseases. The introduction of measles to Fiji in 1875 resulted in the death of approximately one-quarter of the population. Modern methods of travel further spread disease. Railroads built to move goods and raw materials in India helped spark outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, and bubonic plague. The demand of textile producers for cotton resulted in the digging of irrigation canals in places like Egypt, which provided ideal breeding environments for malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

Colonizers also brought the cattle disease rinderpest with them wherever they went. Rinderpest came to the Philippines from the United States, for example, swiftly killing the draft animals of Filipino farmers and making it harder for them to grow adequate amounts of food. Once the domestic cattle had died, the mosquitoes turned to biting humans and sickening them with malaria. The introduction of rinderpest-infected cattle to the Horn of Africa by Italians afflicted herds throughout the eastern and southern part of the continent. With herds diminished, thornbush shrubs flourished, providing a perfect home for the tsetse flies that carried sleeping sickness.

Farmers often devoted so much land to cash crops that they were unable to raise enough food to feed themselves. People who mined ore or gathered ivory or rubber for Europeans also did not have time to grow crops to feed themselves. Thus people became dependent on food sold by European and American overseers that was often highly processed and lacked nutrients, such as white flour and white rice, leading many to suffer from dietary deficiency diseases.

Exploitation also occurred in other ways. In the United States, “Wild West” shows hired Native Americans to re-enact battle scenes for crowds of paying White customers. Carnival barkers often placed Native Americans, Inuit, and Filipino Islanders on display for others to look at. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair featured Filipino tribespeople living in recreations of their native villages. Such “human zoos” of tribal peoples from Africa, Asia, the Arctic, and the Pacific were not uncommon in European cities and in other world’s fairs.

Link to Learning

The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, included exhibits of tribal peoples. You can watch a 55-minute documentary called “Human Zoos” to learn more about this imperialist phenomenon.

Given the harm colonization caused, it is worth asking why native peoples ever cooperated with foreign imperialists. Of course, some did so for fear of the consequences of refusing. Some, however, worked with the imperial powers to gain advantages for themselves and their families. For those who learned to speak the language of the imperial power and acquired a certain level of education, jobs were available at the lower levels of government bureaucracies. People could also serve as soldiers and police, a benefit for members of minority tribal groups that had been dominated by more powerful ones. Others could secure jobs as interpreters or guides, and wealthier ones might enter into business with the imperial power, as did some Indians, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Imperial powers like Britain and France often provided education for the children of those who assisted them, preparing them for a possible job in the colonial bureaucracy and even a university education in London or Paris. Finally, many converts to Christianity were sincere in their beliefs and may have felt they had more in common with European fellow Christians than with non-Christian peers.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax