Slavery is deeply entrenched in our worlds history, and has taken many different forms throughout time – some more overt than others. One of the most audacious, and unknown, instances of slavery is that of the Congolese people under King Leopold II. Under the guise of philanthropic and progressive action, King Leopold II laid claim to the Congo in 1885 and proceeded to enslave many of its indigenous tribes – forcing them to provide free labor to Belgium for his own personal gain. King Leopold misconstrued the African continent (and more specifically the Congo) as an area plagued by violence and savagery; he utilized the ever-popular “white-savior complex” to convince the international community that if Belgium colonized the Congo, the indigenous tribes would benefit from the introduction of European systems of health, education, etc. and the Christian faith. The colonization of the Congo by Belgium, and the remainder of Africa by various other European nations, severely impeded Africa’s ability to progress independently due to the creation of colonies (and eventually countries) that did not take into account the natural borders created by the indigenous tribes of the continent. While the European nations developed rapidly during and after the Industrial Revolution, African countries lacked the necessary freedom to benefit from the revolution. For this reason, we still see an extensive amount of slavery in Africa today – much of which shares commonalities with the slavery practiced by King Leopold II.
With the increasingly industrial nature of Europe during the 1800’s, many European leaders began looking to expand their nations through colonization – among them was King Leopold II of Belgium. However, at the end of the 17th century, there was only a limited amount of land left – primarily in Africa. King Leopold focused his colonization efforts on what would come to be known as the Democratic Republic of Congo and, while Leopold promoted the colonization as both scientific exploration and philanthropy, it was truly a brutal system of slavery. After coming to the realization that the DRC was host to a plethora of ivory – a highly sought after (and thereby expensive) commodity of the time – Leopold recognized the potential profits that the resource could bring Belgium, and so demanded that massive quantities of ivory be harvested – often times with the infamous brutality of the Force Publique.
In order to do this, King Leopold required the legal rights to the land and game of the Congo, and so tricked the tribal chiefs into signing away their ownership in return for nearly-worthless trinkets and gems. Furthermore, Leopold then continued to enslave the indigenous tribal groups of the area – using them as a labor force that enabled him to exploit the entirety of the colony (nearly four times as large as Texas). Ironically, Leopold managed to gain international support for Belgian colonization of the Congo under the pretense of “stopping the slave trade,” leading the United States and many of world leaders to recognize the legitimacy of Belgium’s claim on the Congo. In its entirety, King Leopold’s ploy was simply a hugely-successful campaign of misinformation that increased his wealth exponentially.
Unfortunately, there are many parallels between King Leopold’s system of slavery in the Congo, and the modern forms of slavery that we see around the world today. Much like during colonization, globalization has led to the expansion of Western corporations into developing nations in order to reduce the cost of production by taking advantage of laxer labor restriction. However, what many people are unaware of is that many of these corporations pay their workers nothing at all – opting instead to enact a system of forced servitude. In the words of Kevin Bales, in his book Disposable People, “consumers do look for bargains, and they don’t usually stop to ask why a product is so cheap” (Bales). Unbeknownst to the majority of people, many of the commodities that we use in our day-to-day lives – sugar, cotton, jewelry, glass, cellphones – are the products of slavery. However, while we are quick to denounce the slavery in our history books, many people would prefer to remain indifferent to the flourishing systems of slavery that are thriving around the world today – we are all too eager to look the other way so long as we can continue our lives unaffected.
Much like the indigenous tribes of the Congo, victims of modern-day slavery are often initially deceived into slavery – lured in with false promises of paying jobs, and better lives for themselves and their families. In addition, many young children are merely abducted from their families and trafficked into slavery while they are still young. Once enslaved, victims are treated with similar forms of brutality employed by King Leopold during his reign in the Congo. Slaves are required to work under intolerable conditions for exceedingly-extended hours in order to meet nearly-unachievable quotas. These men, women, and children are abused both mentally and physically. The enslaved Congolese people were forced to meet rubber quotas, some even resorting “to digging up roots in order to find enough rubber to meet their quotas” in order to avoid the chicotte. modern slaves are also held to unreasonably high standards of production that force them to risk their health to meet (Hochschild). Furthermore, modern-day slaves are forced to work inhumane hours in dangerous conditions without the adequate protections necessary to preserve their health.
In both the case of King Leopold’s Congolese slavery and modern-day slavery around the world, political and economic interests were (and continue to be) merged into a complex that allows slavery to continue unchecked by the government. King Leopold exercised total political control in Belgium, and used his power to facilitate the economic gain of both his country and himself. For this reason, slavery in the Congo continue (and expanded) for many years under the pretense of Christian philanthropy and technological progress – the system benefitted both the political and economic interests of Belgium. Of course, the corporations that implement slavery in the modern world do not often have direct control over the government; however, they do have access to a level of indirect control by providing financial resources to political leaders in return for government approval to continue using slave labor to produce their commodities. Obviously, this political-economic complex invites an extensive amount of corruption into the government; the results of which are perhaps best explained by Dr. Kevin Bales: “When the police become criminals, slavery can take root” (Bales).
Perhaps the most notable similarity between the slavery enforced by King Leopold in the Congo and modern forms of slavery is that each masquerades as technological and societal progress. Under King Leopold, the Congolese were forced to build an extensive railway system throughout the colony – the likes of which the world had not yet seen – and collect huge amounts of ivory and rubber – some of the most highly coveted commodities of the time. To the outside world, each of these things seemed to be significant advances for Belgium. However, what the world did not know until much later was that, although King Leopold presented a front of progress, it was simply a façade to cover what would soon come to be known as “a crime against humanity” (Hochschild). In both cases, the outside world is easily deluded due to its extreme focus on the end result – a railroad, ivory, a chocolate bar, a cell phone, etc. – and its near-total disregard for the process by which it is produced. As Kevin Bales explains in his book Disposable People, while the commodities produced by slaves have incredible value in our society, the slaves themselves are disregarded – their value stolen away from them – their identities stripped, and their voices smothered until they are practically invisible.
Fortunately, there are many people who have fought, and continue to fight, for the rights of those enslaved both in the past and the present. Take Edmund Morel, a Liverpool Shipping Line employee who noticed that many of the goods being transported to Belgium from the Congo were the result of slave labor and had a “flash of moral recognition” that motivated him to take preventative action that eventually lead to the formation of the first-ever international human rights movement of the time (Hochschild). Even Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, himself had a flash of moral recognition while reading a quote from Mark Twain that motivated him to research the odious crimes committed by King Leopold in the Congo, and become heavily involved as a journalist in the human rights movement. Many others also continue to join the fight to shine a light on modern-day slavery and eradicate the “crime against humanity” that has been allowed to go on for so long.
Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: U of California, 1999. Print.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.