Los angeles Times
March 2, 2005

A Monument to Denial

By Adam Hochschild, Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost"
(Mariner Books, 1999) and "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight
to Free an Empire's Slaves" (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).


No country likes to come to terms with embarrassing parts of its past.
Japanese schoolbooks still whitewash the atrocities of World War II, and the
Turkish government continues to deny the Armenian genocide. Until about
1970, the millions of visitors to Colonial Williamsburg saw no indication
that roughly half the inhabitants of the original town were slaves.

Until recently, one of the world's more blatant denials of history had been
taking place at the Royal Museum of Central Africa, an immense, chateau-like
building on the outskirts of Brussels. It was founded a century ago by
Belgium's King Leopold II, who, from 1885 to 1908, literally owned the Congo
as the world's only privately controlled colony. Right through the 1990s,
the museum's magnificent collection of African art, tools, masks and weapons
- among the largest and best anywhere, much of it gathered during the 23
years of Leopold's rule - reflected nothing of what had happened in the
territory during that period. It was as if a great museum of Jewish art and
culture in Berlin revealed nothing about the Holocaust.

The holocaust visited upon the Congo under Leopold was not an attempt at
deliberate extermination, like the one the Nazis carried out on Europe's
Jews, but its overall toll was probably higher. Soon after the king got his
hands on the colony, there was a worldwide rubber boom, and Leopold turned
much of the Congo's adult male population into forced labor for gathering
wild rubber. His private army marched into village after village and held
the women hostage to force the men to go into the rain forest, often for
weeks out of each month, to tap rubber vines. This went on for nearly two
decades.

Though Leopold made a fortune estimated at well over $1 billion in today's
dollars, the results were catastrophic for Congolese. Laborers were often
worked to death, and many female hostages starved. With few people to hunt,
fish or cultivate crops, food grew scarce. Hundreds of thousands of people
fled the forced-labor regime, but deep in the forest they found little to
eat and no shelter, and travelers came upon their bones for years afterward.
Tens of thousands more rose up in rebellion and were shot down. The
birthrate plummeted. Disease - principally sleeping sickness - took a toll
in the millions among half-starved and traumatized people who otherwise
might have survived.

Leopold's murderous regime was exposed in its own day by a brave band of
activists: American, British and Swedish missionaries, and a hard-working
British journalist, E.D. Morel. Any historian of Africa knows the basic
story, and many have written about parts of it.

In 1998, I finished a book on the subject, "King Leopold's Ghost," which was
published in Belgium and drew furious denunciations from royalists and
conservatives. The foreign minister sent a special message to Belgian
diplomats abroad, counseling them on how to answer awkward questions from
readers. Asked if the museum planned changes, a senior official of the Royal
Museum of Central Africa replied that some were under study, "but absolutely
not because of the recent disreputable book by an American."

The museum's current director, Guido Gryseels, caught between pressure from
human rights activists on the one hand and rumored strong pressure from the
government and the royal family on the other, several years ago appointed a
commission of historians to study the Leopold period and determine just what
did happen. The move won favorable press coverage, but was in essence an odd
one: Usually commissions take evidence and hear witnesses; they don't study
the distant past.

Under Gryseels, the museum has also gradually begun rewording signs on its
exhibits, and several weeks ago opened a new exhibit, "Memory of Congo: the
Colonial Era," accompanied by a catalog, a thick, lavishly illustrated
coffee-table book of several dozen scholarly articles.

Judging from the latter, the museum has pulled its head out of the sand -
but only part way. There are a few atrocity photos, but they are far
outnumbered by pictures of dancers, musicians and happy black and white
families. The catalog is rife with evasions and denials. The commission of
historians, for instance, sets the loss of population during the most brutal
colonial period at 20%. This ignores the fact that in 1919 an official body
of the Belgian colonial government estimated the toll at 50%. And that the
Belgian-born Jan Vansina, professor emeritus of history and anthropology at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison and widely regarded as the greatest
living student of Central African peoples, makes the same estimate today.

One wall panel at the new museum exhibit raises - and debunks - the charge,
"Genocide in the Congo?" But this is a red herring: No reputable scholar of
the Congo uses the word. Forced labor is different from genocide, though
both can be fatal. Most of all, it is strange to see the catalog's articles
on the bus system of Leopoldville, Congo national parks and the Congo visit
of a Belgian crown prince, but not a single piece on the deadly forced labor
system.

Belgium is not alone in failing to face up to its own history. All countries
mythologize their pasts and confront the worst of it only slowly. But once
they do, there are positive discoveries as well as painful ones. When I went
to school in the 1950s, I never heard the name Frederick Douglass, but my
children, who went in the 1980s, did.

The Royal Museum of Central Africa has similar figures it could celebrate.
Stanlislas Lefranc was a devout Catholic and monarchist who went to the
Congo 100 years ago to work as a magistrate. In pamphlets and newspaper
articles he later published in Belgium, he spoke out bravely against the
cruelties he witnessed. Jules Marchal, who died recently, was a Belgian
diplomat in Africa who, in his spare time, wrote the definitive history of
forced labor in the Congo, much of it based on years of searching files for
duplicate copies of documents that King Leopold had ordered destroyed. Both
men were shunned and ostracized in their time. Confronting the past is not
just about acknowledging guilt, but rediscovering heroes.

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