Sunday

19th Jan 2020

Letter

Letter to the editor regarding Congo and Belgium

  • Andrew de Maere D'Aertrycke, in his colonial uniform (Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele)

Dear Sir,

I want to make use of my right of reply and take the opportunity to rectify the numerous slanders and unfounded accusations against King Leopold II and the Belgians who created and developed the Congo (1885-1960) in the piece published by EUobserver, Colonisers Speak - 60 years after Congo's independence.

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What I want is to rectify the unfounded accusations he has written, as follows:

"Belgium pillaged the wealth of a nation for almost eight decades and was responsible for, what some historians (sic) call, one of the largest genocides in human history."

This statement is just a repetition of all these unfounded accusations of a genocide which was never proved, because of lack of statistics and knowledge of the size of the population in 1885 when the Congo Free State was founded. It is a well-known fact that Stanley evaluated the population size on the basis of a very limited number of observations along the Congo river, and dubious extrapolation calculation methods containing several errors. As a matter of fact, nobody, even today, can seriously provide any reliable figures in this respect.

The question of the population of the Congo is a so far unsettled one. Various estimations have been made ranging from 11 million to 29 million inhabitants. One may choose which estimation he prefers. No one knows, or is likely to ever know for sure, since the very first official population census was made in 1920!

Whereas there is no question that there has been a depopulation at that time, this was due to various causes among which: the involuntary introduction of new diseases such as smallpox, the fact that many villagers moved massively across the River Congo into the less well-occupied by white posts French colonies, the sleeping sickness which caused tens of thousands deaths and thus not solely to punitive expeditions ordered by the Congo Free State.

Belgium does not owe its wealth to te exploitation of the Congo. In the 19th century, Belgium was the second-most industrialised country in the whole world. It is true that the colonisation of the Congo was undoubtedly an enterprise with an economic agenda that yielded much profits to those who took part of it, It is also undeniable that it had a favorable outcome for the Belgian economy. But it was also a "win-win" issue for all concerned, including the Congolese.

Leopold II did his utmost to pacify his Congo Free State, by putting an end to the incessant tribal wars (with ensuing atrocities including cannibalism), and by defeating the Arab slave traders who were decimating the population of the eastern part of the country, with the assistance of local tribes such as the Batetela.

"Wahis was personally appointed by King Leopold II of the Belgians to be governor-general of the Congo from 1892 to 1908, the highest office in the colonial administration. Under his governorship the colonial administration imposed a population-wide tax in the form of rubber…"

"For a period of two decades, governor Wahis, from its seat in the coastal town of Boma, ordered low-ranking officials in outposts scattered across Congo's vast jungles to collect a so-called "rubber tax" from every individual, if necessary by force."

Let me first correct the word "colonial". The Congo was not a colony at that time, but a Free State ruled by King Leopold II. I cannot see what's wrong for a state to collect income from taxes. The natives who did not have money to pay their taxes in cash, were paying their contribution to the state in natural products, such as rubber or foodstuffs. The rubber tax represented one week collection and they were fairly paid for the rest.

As regards the Wahis governance, I have several documents from him containing strong recommendations to his subordinates, urging them to treat the natives with all due respect and to avoid using force when it was not necessary. How else does any government nowadays behave when tax-payers do not comply ?

His way of exercising his function has been so much appreciated by the Belgian politicians at that time, that they did not hesitate to appoint him as the first governor-general of the Belgian Congo, after its takeover in 1908. He remained at the head of the colony until his retirement in 1912.

A large boulevard in Brussels bears his name.

"State officials proceeded to terrorise the local population, using coercive measures ans punishment techniques such as draining out whiplashes , taking female hostages, raping, torturing, mutilating and in some cases performing cannibalism…"

It is absolutely undeniable and most regrettable that such atrocities have been committed. But it should be added that, when discovered, their authors have been prosecuted.

The custom of chopping hands of death enemies was a local custom and was introduced in the Congo by the Arabs from the Muslim sharia law to punish thieves.

The first penal code introduced by Leopold II in 1888, strictly forbids this cruel practice. The report of "The Inquiry Commission" of 1905 is absolutely clear in this respect. Though this report was extremely severe in denouncing such crimes, King Leopold II did not hesitate to have it published - in extenso - in the "Journal Officiel de l'Etat Indépendant du Congo" and issued no less than 24 royal decrees to put an end to all those malpractices.

Speaking about cannibalism, let me quote this message sent by the local chief Manangame of Avakubi to a Swedish officer in 1905 :

"At the time when the Arabs were ruling our country, they were taking us, our wives and children, as slaves. They burned our villages. The white man never burns villages and when we bring him hens or bananas, he pays us well. He also pays us fairly for the mupira (rubber) that we collect. The white man has put an end to slavery… But we, black people, nevertheless wish that the white men go home, since we are forced to maintain roads and may no longer fight neighbour tribes and eat our prisoners, because if we eat them, we are hanged!"

Finally, if you want to learn more about the Congo Free State ruled by King Leopold II, I warmly recommend you to read the attached book written around 1905 by an American anthropologist Frederick Starr, after 13 months inquiries on the spot.

Yours sincerely,

André de Maere d'Aertrycke

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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