Saturday, May 11, 2013

Hues and Cries Department

Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 280–3:
An ancient English law made it a crime to witness a murder or discover a corpse and not raise a "hue and cry." But we live in a world of corpses, and only about some of them is there a hue and cry. True, with a population loss estimated at ten million people, what happened in the Congo could reasonably be called the most murderous part of the European Scramble for Africa. But that is so only if you look at sub-Saharan Africa as the arbitrary checkerboard formed by colonial boundaries. If you draw boundaries differently — to surround, say, all African equatorial rain forest land rich in wild rubber — then what happened in the Congo is, unfortunately, no worse than what happened in neighboring colonies [. . .]
Photos from King Leopold's Ghost
Around the time the Germans were slaughtering Hereros, the world also was largely ignoring America's brutal counterguerrilla war in the Philippines, in which U.S. troops tortured prisoners, burned villages, killed 20,000 rebels, and saw 200,000 Filipinos die of war-related hunger or disease. Britain came in for no international criticism of its killings of aborigines in Australia, in accordance with extermination orders as ruthless as von Trotha's. And, of course, in neither Europe nor the United States was there major protest against the decimation of the American Indians.
When these other mass murders went largely unnoticed except by their victims, why, in England and the United States, was there such a storm of righteous protest about the Congo? The politics of empathy are fickle. Certainly one reason Britons and Americans focused on the Congo was that it was a safe target. Outrage over the Congo did not involve British or American misdeeds, nor did it entail the diplomatic, trade, or military consequences of taking on a major power like France or Germany. [. . .]
What happened in the Congo was indeed mass murder on a vast scale, but the sad truth is that the men who carried it out for Leopold were no more murderous than many Europeans then at work or at war elsewhere in Africa. Conrad said it best: "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz."