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King Leopold

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Through the events described in King Leopold’s Ghost, the values and practice of liberalism are contrasted and reflected upon. Adam Hochschield seems to suggest that the ideas and values of liberalism need to be practiced in every society. King Leopold II of Belgium ruled over Congo and Zaire during the colonial era with an iron fist. He portrayed himself as an illiberal leader since his reign was marked with immense colonial misrule. The people of Congo were extremely affected by his greed for gold and ivory. Those who tried to campaign against him were severely suppressed. This paper seeks to establish whether the events that happened during his rule reflect the values and practice of liberalism. This example of colonial misrule illustrates how Congo was extremely exploited, and how the sense of humanitarianism and unity seems to be ignored.

Congo was certainly an illiberal society during the reign of King Leopold II. This is because of the way its people received unequal treatment during this time. It is important to note that during that time, the whites were viewed as being superior to the natives. They took up most of the managerial positions and enjoyed high socio-economic statuses. Africans did not have a say in the management of the colony. They were treated like slaves and were forced to do all the manual work. Hochschield (1998) asserts that the victims were the natives of Congo who lost their land, their freedom and most of all their lives. In liberalism, it is argued that the power of the sovereign is by consent of those being governed, and not by divine right. In Congo, this was not the case because Leopold II did not let the natives choose their leaders. He always chose his own representatives who were all whites. As such, there was grand inequality amongst the people of Congo.

Liberalists believe that the state should not interfere in the economic life of the society. Liberalism also states that economic systems based on free markets are better of, and prosper more than those that are state controlled. This statement was a response to the massive inequalities of wealth created during the industrial revolution. Liberalism demands that the state limits its intervention in the market and create social services such as free public education and health services, and adequately fund them. This in itself is a social reform which aims at reducing inequality among the people and expanding their individual rights. For the case of Congo Free State, even though elementary education was given, the Africans there could not access managerial posts since they were denied higher learning. Belgium also took all the wealth of Congo during its colonization. Hochschild (1998) articulates that it is as if Congo and its people were ‘raped’ and left to die.  King Leopold II plundered the entire nation of Congo, looted its resources, assaulted its people and killed many of them. Hochschild (1998) unveils the story very well; ‘Leopold's officials used unbelievably harsh methods to force the locals to collect rubber in the name of bringing them European civilization, Christian charity, and a Western work ethic.’

Hobbes argues that limitations on liberty should be and can be justified, while Locke maintains that limitations on liberty that are justified should be fairly modest (Macpherson, 1962). On the other hand, Isaiah Berlin stated that one can lack political liberty only if he/she is prevented from attaining a certain goal by other humans (Macpherson, 1962). The people of Congo were clearly denied political liberty by King Leopold II. The limitations on their liberty were also not justified at all. Being free is about what we can do, and what options are available to us with disregard to whether we are actually able or unable to perform the specific task. On the contrary, this is the negative conception of liberty. Liberalists like Green claim that one cannot be free if he/she is subjected under an impulse, or a craving of some sort that cannot be controlled. This means that the individual will be carrying out the will of another person and not his/hers. In view of the Congolese people, Hochschild (1998) notes that they did not choose to be miners or to perform all the heavy works, but they were forced by their colonial masters into doing so. This type of liberalism may be equated to slavery. Here, the people do not really do their will, but are forced to do hard labor. As such, an individual is only free if he/she is self-directed. Free people are not subjected to compulsion or custom. This is a concept of positive freedom. A good example is that, if an individual is not prohibited to be a member of a club, but is too poor to join it, he/she is not free to be a member of that club. He/she also does not have the potential to act. The Congolese were not free since they were denied their own wealth. These circumstances forced them to be very poor (Hochschild, 1998).

King Leopold’s Ghost depicts how a human being can be cunning, charming and cruel at the same time. The events that unfolded during King Leopold’s reign in Congo led to the establishment of the first human rights movement whose main goal was to expose King Leopold’s atrocities. In his book, Hochschield wonders how Leopold and his agents managed to keep most of their deeds in secret, and how he managed to disguise his colony as a charity for the benefit of "pagan" African natives (Hochschild, 1998). There have been arguments on whether liberal societies should interfere with the affairs of illiberal societies since the time of King Leopold. These arguments emerged since there were a number of people who helped in making the world to become aware of the realities of the Congo Free State. One of them was an African American, George Washington Williams, who was the first person to bring into attention what was going on in Congo. Another person was a Presbyterian missionary known as William Henry Sheppard, who in fact brought out direct testimonies about what was happening in Congo. A British journalist and shipping agent E. Morel also exposed the fact that large quantities of ivory and rubber were getting out of Congo in exchange for  riffles and chains. Last but not least, a British diplomat known as Sir Roger Casement helped to commission the British government in protesting against King Leopold (Hochschild, 1998).

There are several questions that separate liberals. It is also widely questioned whether the principles applied in a liberal society can be applied in all other political communities. One liberalist named Rawls argues otherwise. He says that there can be a society where not all persons are viewed as equal and free, but instead, persons are viewed as members who are responsible and cooperative in their respective groupings (Macpherson, 1962). Nevertheless, in this model of society, basic human rights must apply. The Free State of Congo could somehow fit into this model of society, but the Congolese workers were denied their basic human rights. As such, those who campaigned against King Leopold should be commended, since they tried to fight for the human rights of the oppressed. The famous Anglo-polish writer, Joseph Conrad, captained a streamer on the Congo River during the start of the Belgian colonization. He wrote a novel titled ‘Heart of Darkness’ which gives a true picture of Congo at that time. He saw and explains how the whites were greedy for the resources in Congo. He also describes how porters carried elephant tusks on their shoulders to the coast for shipment. They were exported to Europe for jewelry, piano keys and teeth (Hochschild, 1998).

King Leopold wanted to transform Congo into a colonial empire. Therefore, he used propaganda, corruption and political strategy to scheme his ambitions. He used powerful states, public opinion and explorers to help him in his mission. He got international recognition of his colony in the Berlin Conference. The people of the Congo Basin developed into a state of slavery due to the forced labor that was used on them. The numbers of those who died during this time are not accurately known since they were distorted by Leopold himself. Nevertheless, it is estimated that nearly half of Congo’s population perished (Hochschild, 1998).

Liberalism demands toleration of cultures and other differences. However, there are some cultures that are illiberal to themselves internally. Congo was one such illiberal state; its members were not treated equally and were not free at all. They were viewed as communal selves and not individuals. As such, liberalism cannot treat such communities according to its principles. However, it can accommodate such communities as long as they don’t harm others, or the members are free to disassociate themselves from it without being made to pay for their actions. The concern lies on whether the members have been educated on liberty which can enable them to think of themselves as individuals who have the power and the right to choose what they want. Nonetheless, in such a case, liberal education tends to undermine a group’s illiberal identity. One fact that stands out is that there is no compromise between liberalism and illiberalism. One has to have foundational principles so as to show that a liberal society is superior. We do not see any instance where the people of Congo are being educated on their liberty. The mining industries required the forced laborers to dig for gold and to carry supplies, firewood and equipment to the mine sites. Even the mothers who were nursing babies had to carry huge loads. Some miners worked for more than a decade. They were released only after they gave out their sons to take up their places. Uprisings against forced labor were brutally suppressed. People were absolutely not free to disassociate themselves from this society. Those who tried to run away were recaptured and taken back to work. Hochschild (1998) states that besides taking women and children as hostages until the men paid their quotas, soldiers would torture or kill the inhabitants if they faltered.  The miners worked up to twelve hours a day. Armed police made sure that there was discipline through employing the use of ‘chicotte’. This was a whip made from sun-dried hippopotamus hide with razor-sharp edges that was used to whip Africans. As such, Africans were coerced into being miners. The discipline was so harsh and brutal. The Belgians realized later that this discipline made Congo’s population to shrink rapidly. The situation became less severe as some gold mines were handed over into a private corporation. Nevertheless, this did not help to ease the situation since Africans were required to pay taxes. They had to earn money so as to pay taxes. Small scale farmers had to turn into miners or go to work in the industries (Hochschild, 1998).

The Belgians had no option but to invest in the gold mines. They realized that more production required that the workers be well taken care of. Schools were built though Africans were not required to go past the elementary level. There is a claim for special recognition of cultural difference; that in a society, there are some minorities whose values match with liberalism, but the members are a disadvantaged lot to the majority since they cannot compare fairly to obtain the benefits that accompany a liberal society. It is therefore demanded that the minority should be treated in a manner that would ensure that their welfare is taken care of. In Congo Free State, things were the other way round. The minority were the ones oppressing the majority through the use of power. The majority was disadvantaged and needed to be treated fairly so as to be equal. This society lacked the systems for liberalism to occur (Hochschild, 1998).

In classical liberalism, liberty and private property are related. Classical liberalism insists that if an economic system is based on private property, then it is consistent with individual liberty, which is, allowing one to live his/her life and  employ his/her own labor and capital the way he/she deems fit. One can be said to be free if he/she is free to run his/her own enterprise. It is argued that a private property is the most effective method towards protection of property. For example, the press cannot be free if printing plants are controlled by the state. Congo was the only private owned colony. Classical liberalism applies here since Congo was entirely owned by the Belgian King. That is why he could do whatever he wanted. For instance, he employed African workers using his own terms and used forced labor. The ivory traders saw an opportunity of the huge numbers of the miners and therefore sold dried elephant meat to them. The local chiefs were held responsible for identifying laborers, who were then put in chains and taken to the mines. The Belgian government supplied the chains and metal collars. Chiefs who failed to supply workers, food and building materials from their villages were punished. Hochschild (1998) asserts that one of the most grisly aspects of this version of modern slavery was the severing of hands and their collection into baskets as proof of killings so as to terrorize the whole population.

In conclusion, liberalism is a political theory founded on the natural goodness of all human beings and the independence of the individual as well as favoring the liberties of civil and political sectors. Liberalism calls for a government that has the approval of those being governed. Economic liberty, on the other hand, emphasizes the notion of free market and gold standard. It is a political as well as an economic doctrine which puts emphasis on the rights and freedoms of the individual. It also emphasizes the need for limiting the powers of the government.

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