King Leopold II
The Legacy of Kind Leopold II of Belgium and the Torment of Felix Charmettant
by Karim Ajania
Felix Charmettant, the personal priest, confidante and chaplain to King Leopold II of Belgium, is a character in my play, The Mauresque. In real life, he was the previous owner of the Villa Mauresque which was then purchased by the new owner, W. Somerset Maugham. King Leopold II of Belgium had left a tangled legacy in the Congo and, one can only imagine during his confession sessions with Felix Charmettant, quite a sense of torturous torment for Charmettant. One could say that the Scramble for Africa of which Leopold was at the very heart and core, must have likely scrambled the mind and heart and soul of Felix Charmettant. Which brings me to a philosophical question for which I have no answer:
How does a priest like Charmettant unscramble the soul of a man like Leopold? That is the question I grapple with in the play, The Mauresque.
A much more important question for today’s world is this: how would we even begin to imagine the Unscramble for Africa ?
Perhaps we can start from the central core of the continent (Congo) and then work our way outward to the remaining countries in Africa ?
There are two definitions of the word “scramble” that apply to the African Continent:
1. “to move with urgency or panic”.
This definition applies to the 19th Century European scramble – or, extreme urgency – to divide and colonize the African continent.
2. “to disarrange (jumble)”.
The European “scramble” (urgency) for power and control of Africa led to this continent being entangled in a web of botched broken borders and constricting chaotic colonialism. The souls of men like Leopold, who were entrusted to men like Charmettant must also have been engulfed and entangled in chaos and darkness. As a playwright, I imagined that sense of engulfing and entangling chaos and darkness as it was emitted through the dark soul of King Leopold II to his priest, Felix Charmettant, and then to the new resident of The Mauresque, W. Somerset Maugham.
This entanglement morally, culturally and economically “scrambled” (jumbled) the continent.
Yet despite all of this the African Peace Journal sees a story of hope as we look forward to the future.
In the 21st Century, the African continent is on the eve of an “unscramble” and the African Peace Journal is documenting this Unscramble for Africa.
The dictionary definition of the word “unscramble”:
1. To separate (as from a tangle) into original components – to resolve and to clarify
2. To restore to original form, to reinstate as new
The Scramble for Africa
A good place to begin to understand the Scramble is with Thomas Pakenham’s seminal work, The Scramble for Africa. Publisher’s Weekly:
The pieces went to Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Belgium; among them, they acquired 30 new colonies and 110 million subjects. Although African rulers resisted, many battles were one-sided massacres.
In 1904 the Hereros…revolted against German rule. Their punishment was genocide–24,000 driven into the desert to starve; those who surrendered were sent to forced labor camps to be worked to death. In a dramatic, gripping chronicle, Pakenham floodlights the “dark continent” and its systematic rape by Europe. At center stage are a motley band of explorers, politicians, evangelists, mercenaries, journalists and tycoons blinded by romantic nationalism or caught up in the scramble for loot, markets and slaves.
In an epilogue Pakenham tells how the former colonial powers still dominate the economies of the African nations, most of which are under one-party or dictatorial rule.”
– Publishers Weekly on Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa
Villas in the South of France
A villa in the South of France can sometimes cost well over $10 Million.
Premium prices apply to such desirable areas in the Côte d’Azur as Cap D’Antibe, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Cap Ferrat.
The Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc first opened its doors to guests in 1870, or, 15 years before the Scramble for Africa in 1885.
It was a hotel where both the 19th Century King Leopold of Belgium and the 20th Century self-appointed President-for-Life of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, enjoyed cocktails.
King Leopold and President-for-Life Mobuto owned French villas in successive centuries of profitable exploitation of The Congo.
In the early 1990’s, Mobuto held a banquet at his villa in the South of France manned with 35 servants. He opened two bottles of wine for his table – a Chateau Petrus 1947 and a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945.
The cost of Mobuto’s two wine bottles: over US $9,000.
Below is the Villa Leopold, one of the many homes of King Leopold II of Belgium (source: Forbes dot com).
Adam Hochschild explains the curiously synchronic alignment in values between the European King Leopold in the 19th Century and the African President Mobuto in the 20th Century:
‘Those who are conquered,’ wrote the philosopher Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, ‘always want to imitate the conquerer in his main characteristics – his clothing, his crafts, and all his distinct traits and customs’.
Mobuto’s luxurious Villa del Mare, a pink-and-white marble colonnaded chateau at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riveria, complete with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, gold-fitted bathrooms, and heliport, lay a mere dozen miles down the coast from the estates Leopold once owned at Cap Ferrat.”
— Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, page 304
The price of King Leopold II’s villas in the South of France
“Placed beside Leopold – Nero, Caligula, Attilo, Torquemada and Genghis Khan are mere amateurs.”
— Mark Twain in a statement published in the New York World, 1905
The most accurate – and gruesome – way to measure the cost of King Leopold’s villas in the South of France is in the numbers of people whipped and numbers of hands severed.
“Under the reign of terror instituted by King Leopold II of Belgium (who ran the Congo Free State as his personal fief from 1885 to 1908), the population of the Congo was reduced by half — as many as 8 million Africans (perhaps even 10 million, in Hochschild’s opinion) lost their lives
Some were beaten or whipped to death for failing to meet the rigid production quotas for ivory and rubber harvests, imposed by Leopold’s agents. Some died of the diseases introduced to (and spread throughout) the Congo by Europeans. And still others died from the increasingly frequent famines that swept the Congo basin as Leopold’s army rampaged the countryside, appropriating food and crops for its own use while destroying villages and fields.
Hostage-taking and the grisly severing of hands (from corpses or from living human beings) were part of the government’s policy — a means of terrorizing others into submission.
As the “rubber terror” spread through the Congolese rain forest, Hochschild adds, entire villages were wiped out: Hundreds of dead bodies were dumped in rivers and lakes and baskets of severed hands were presented to white officers as evidence of how many people had been killed.
Michiko Kakutani’s review of King Leopold’s Ghost, New York Times, September 1, 1998
“Like the hostage taking, severing of hands was deliberate policy as the government officials would later admit:
‘During my time in the Congo I was the first commissioner of the Equator district,’ recalled Charles Lemaire after his retirement. ‘As soon as it was a question of rubber, I wrote to the government, ‘To gather rubber in the district … one must cut off hands, noses and ears.
If a village refused to submit to the rubber regime, troops sometimes shot everyone in sight, so that nearby villages got the message.”
— Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, page 165.
It was Joseph Conrad, more than any other writer of his time, that saw “the horror, the horror” of King Leopold of Belgium’s Congo. Published in 1902, Heart of Darkness had a rapid political impact and was cited by writers such as TS Elliot.
“Joseph Conrad’s slim novel may be the single most influential hundred pages of the 20th century… Conrad’s artistic challenge was to make the world he saw visible to others. It’s a political challenge too. Sometimes writers reveal a hidden situation, sometimes campaigners do, and sometimes it’s just an accident. Few of us had much idea about the conditions in which copper is mined—everyday copper for plumbing, electrics, saucepans and coins—before 33 Chilean miners found themselves trapped 2,000 feet underground.”
R. Butler, The Economist Magazine, Winter 2010
“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902
As I had mentioned in a previous post referencing colonialism (Burmese Days), African author Chinua Achebe creates a thinly veiled character reference to Mobutu in his novel, Anthills of the Savannah.
The most awful thing about power is not that it corrupts absolutely but that it makes people so utterly boring, so predictable.
– Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah
Mobuto had amassed a personal fortune of some $5 Billion while serving as President-for-Life of The Congo.
He was practicing the kleptocracy that the 14th Century poet Ibn Khaldun had predicted as inevitable in the quest to “imitate the conquerer” – the conquerer in this case being King Leopold II.
When I was in the boy scouts growing up in Nairobi, our scout masters taught us how to tie very firm and durable knots.
Boy scout knots are tied in a manner that can be untied and untangled at a moment’s notice.
Everything Starts Somewhere
However, the chaotic constrictive knots cobbled together by the European powers who colonized Africa are a scrambled mess of botched borders and broken spirits. They will take a long time to restore and untangle and unscramble.
The people who historically tied these tangled knots, from Leopold to Mobuto to Cecil Rhodes to Idi Amin, were not exactly boy scouts. So the knots they tied in countries like Congo and South Africa and Uganda were intensely tangled.
Nevertheless, the process of untangling and unscrambling Africa must now start with unconstrained ideas for peace.
Everything starts somewhere.