George White Jr.: The Congo's tragic story

Roundup: Talking About History

[George White, jr. is an Assistant Professor of History at York College, CUNY. He is the author of the book Holding the Line: Race, Racism, and American Foreign Policy Toward Africa, 1953-1961 and the article “Little Wheel Blues: John Lee Hooker, the Eisenhower Administration and African Decolonization” in the French interdisciplinary journal Cercles.]

These words are difficult to write. Fifty years ago, the people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo drifted in a purgatory between independence and continued Belgian control. It seems like only yesterday that nationalist leaders like Patrice Lumumba climbed a mountain of severed hands to point their people toward a new future. The Congolese enjoyed a brief moment of unity and democracy until the “Free World” ensnared them. Today, the people of the Congo exist at the bottom-step of the Inferno, unified by exhaustion, trapped by a series of resource wars resembling battles that have raged across the last few centuries. Millions have died; millions are dying. Yet, amid our ceaseless twittering and texting, almost no one speaks of it. My heart is heavy from the stone that it is carrying.

These words should flow since so many like them have already been written. In 1890 George Washington Williams, an African American Civil War veteran and minister, visited the ironically-named Congo Free State and wrote a letter to King Leopold protesting the atrocities he witnessed. Williams, who used the term “crimes against humanity” generations before Nuremberg, died on his trip home. Fortunately, others took up the cause. From 1885 to 1908, King Leopold imposed “forced labor” on the Congolese and enforced his rubber quota by having his Belgian and African surrogates hack off the hands of the Congolese who failed to bring in their designated share of the harvest. Naturally, this sadistic exchange led to wholesale torture and slaughter. Leopold and his cronies made a monstrous fortune until the Belgian Parliament forced him to cede control of the colony in response to an international human rights movement that exposed the atrocities. But the change in “management” did more than exculpate the Belgians; it turned the Congolese into the collateral damage of a rogue monarch’s empire-building project. The voices of Sir Roger Casement, Vachel Lindsay, William H. Sheppard, and the Congo Reform Association had barely ceased to echo when at least 10 million Congolese corpses vanished from history. Do you feel me?

During the mid-1940s, the Belgians placed the entire productive capacity of the Congo at the disposal of the British, the French, and the Americans in order to defeat the Axis powers. Immediately after World War II, the Congolese - like many peoples across what we now call the “Global South” - demanded to control their own destinies. By 1958, Belgian officials feeling the pressure of empires collapsing around them ceded limited autonomy to the Congolese in the form of municipal elections. After riots and protests, arrests and government crackdowns, the Belgians believed that they could shift their embrace of the Congo by offering swift decolonization. Lumumba and his political party, the MNC, prepared for a future that the people could control. But Moise Tshombe - backed by the biggest mining conglomerate in Belgium - “led” a secession of the mineral-rich province of Katanga, the southeast quadrant of the nation.

Lumumba and the MNC were the glue seeking to hold the fledgling nation together, a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual political force that comfortably straddled the huge colony. Lumumba first appealed to the U.S. for economic and military aid to preserve the union. When American officials balked - they believed, among other things, that Lumumba was a Communist - Lumumba turned to a startled Soviet Union. According to the research of Lisa Namikas, the Soviets had studied Lumumba and concluded that he was not the politician to lead a Marxist revolution in the center of the continent. Thus, when the Kremlin learned that the Eisenhower administration had turned down Lumumba, Nikita Krushchev reportedly said to a subordinate “Why?…explain to me why. Really, are the Americans that stupid?” For a few months, Lumumba’s government fought successfully against the “rebels” and their Belgian supporters until he was throttled by his former MNC colleage Joseph Mobutu. Mobutu - backed by the CIA - helped to kill Lumumba politically and physically, then eliminated all political rivals in order to share in the spoils of renewed Western hegemony.

The Eisenhower administration found in Mobutu Sese Seko the “strongman” it needed to hold still the Congo for “Free World” exploitation....

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