published the 21 october 2016
Leopold’s private army was a brutal militia run by settlers with a taste for lucrative adventure. The majority of the soldiers were locals who signed up to avoid being taken slaves. But the army was no soft option: some chose slavery or simply ran away. The business of the amputated hands, recorded in several eyewitness accounts, is significant: the officers’ greatest fear was that the Congolese soldiers would turn their weapons against them, as in fact happened on several occasions.
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now was based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Conrad wrote the book on his return from Belgian Congo in 1899, drawing on his experiences there. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote in 1909 :
There are many of us in England who consider the crime which has been wrought in the Congo lands by King Leopold of Belgium and his followers to be the greatest which has ever been known in human annals. Personally I am strongly of that opinion.
Leopold was not unduly fussed by reactions in Britain, as long as public opinion in his own country cared little what happened to a few far-flung natives. Outrage in the British press was long attributed to envy of Belgium’s colonies. In fact, public opinion across Europe was far more scandalised when the king took up with a French prostitute fifty years his junior, showering her with gifts and even marrying her shortly before his death in 1909.
Rubber was much in demand in the late nineteenth century, when vast plantations were sown. It took a few years for the trees to grow to the point of producing the precious sap, which is why harvesting wild rubber was such big business. The harvesting process was very painful: the locals smeared their bodies with the sap to carry it back, then peeled it off in sheets, giving themselves an impromptu full-body wax as they did so.