5 Feb 2010

Avatar and King Leopold's Ghost -- The Reviews

Coincidental juxtapositions can be interesting.

Today I finished King Leopold's Ghost, a book about the Belgian king's ruthless exploitation of the people living in Congo (then Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo). The story is one of a colonial owner using force and cruelty to extract wealth (ivory, slaves, rubber) from vulnerable land and people. Rape and pillage was the norm, and the white colonials who raped, maimed and pillaged justified their acts by claiming that the natives were not human and the land was without owners. 10 million people died during Leopold's regime of terror (about 1880 to 1910). Unfortunately, that pattern was repeated in many colonies -- in the same period and even in recent years.

James Cameron's Avatar is a movie worth watching for its fabulous visual effects (and even the love story), but the plot echoes the colonial story: Earthlings invade another planet to get a valuable mineral ("unobtanium" is its cartoon name). Along the way, the natives are seen as beasts and Nature raped.

Of course, this is Hollywood and it includes a love story and happy ending. Formerly colonized people on this planet did not get the Holly-Happy ending. The Belgians established a pattern of corruption and lawlessness and a system for concentrating and abusing power that local "leaders" have adopted, with poor results for their "free" brothers and sisters.

Addendum: Here's a "Pandora" view on dams and rivers.

Bottom Line: People are much quicker to destroy what's not theirs and abuse people who are powerless. Stronger property rights and human rights are the key to the sustainable use of resources and progress in human development. I give the book and movie FIVE stars each.


elladeon said...

“…and even in recent years.”

That is quite a statement. “In recent years” by which colonial power?

Leopold II died in 1909, while the Congo was a Belgian colony until 1960. What was it like, I wonder, in those 50 years?

Time Magazine 1955

In the Belgian Congo last week….[p]rosperous Negro shopkeepers climbed up wooden ladders and draped the Congolese flag (a golden star on a blue field) from lampposts and triumphal arches set up along Boulevard Albert I, the spanking concrete highway that bisects the capital city of Leopoldville…
The Congo is King Baudouin's richest, widest realm… Booming Congo exports provide the dollars and pounds that make the Belgian franc one of the world's hardest currencies…

Leopold's rubber gatherers tortured, maimed and slaughtered until at the turn of the century, the conscience of the Western world forced Brussels to call a halt. Today, all has changed… In little more than a generation of intense economic effort, the Belgians have injected 20 centuries of Western mechanical progress into a Stone Age wilderness. The results are staggering: in forests, where 50 years ago there were no roads because the wheel was unknown, no schools because there was no alphabet, no peace because there was neither the will nor the means to enforce it…

Belgian brains and Bantu muscle have thrust back the forest and checked the dread diseases (yaws, sleeping sickness, malaria) which sapped the Bantu's strength. In some areas, the Congo's infant-mortality rate is down to 60 per 1,000—better than Italy's figure. More than 1,000,000 children attend primary and secondary schools—40% of the school-age population...

The Congo's gross national product has tripled since 1939. Money is plentiful. Belgian investors take more than $50 million a year in dividends alone. Once the Congo depended exclusively on mining and farming; today it manufactures ships, shoes, cigarettes, chemicals, explosives and photographic film.

Hmm, doesn’t sound so bad really. Sounds like things were coming along. The “conscience of the Western world” (does such a thing exist in King Leopold’s Ghost?) had forced a stop, and then onward from there.

We’ve had another 50y of progress, with all those lands and resources freed from Western exploitation. It must truly be a paradise now.

New York Times 1991

While the Belgians were often consummately patronizing to their African subjects, they installed an efficient colonial administration. In time, they introduced health care, water projects, education, telephones and power lines, helping to turn this once isolated village into one of the most affluent and best-tended cities in the core of equatorial Africa. Today, the legacy of Kikwit's colonial past is swiftly disappearing.

"Civilization is coming to an end here," said Rene Kinsweke, manager of Siefac, a chain of food stores, as he spoke of how Kikwit has become a dispiriting tableau of chaos and catastrophe. "We're back where we started. We're going back into the bush."

It is difficult to exaggerate the dizzying pace of decay in this city of nearly 400,000 people. Six months ago, the Siefac food conglomerate consisted of 21 stores in Bandundu Province. Today, a single store is left, and it is to close as soon as its remaining stock is sold, Mr. Kinsweke said…

Elsewhere in town, squatters have moved into homes that once belonged to the Belgian colonials… Streets and backyards are littered with indescribable filth, and toward the edges of the city the roads crumble into dirty sand and then disappear altogether. Rats and flies are breeding as never before, adding to critical sanitation and hygiene problems.

It is at night, though, that Kikwit's seemingly inexorable roll toward ruin is felt the strongest. The sky of this sprawling city is lit with exactly two street lights, one for each of the city's remaining nightclubs. Aside from private generators, there is no electricity; nor is there running water.

Josh said...

That's interesting about the articles about the Congo - but, I'm left wondering why you didn't provide first-person accounts, rather than articles from Eurocentric sources? "Belgian brains and Bantu muscle"?

David, Five Stars for Avatar? Hopefully, you have a seven-star system, because, although it was a good movie, it was no Lawrence of Arabia.

elladeon said...

Josh, my primary impediment to providing a first person account is not having lived in the Congo in 1955, nor even in 1991.

If you can trust that the NYT quoted Mr. Kinsweke correctly, I'm afraid that is about as close an account as you'll get without heading out there.

The main issue I wanted to point out was that there is a story. It begins with one tyrannical governor, Leopold II, (1885-1908) and takes its next step in the narrative with the current era, and into the realm of dictators like Mobuto Sese Seko (1960-1996). He too was a tyrant, so he must obviously have learned his tyrannical ways from Leopold.

One would barely notice that there is a hole of half a century between those events. The narrative as given flits over them with barely a notice. In fact, in the original post it skips from A to B with no notice at all.

But are we sure? 50 years is quite a gap in history, particularly one where we see some glimmer that things were changing, whole cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants were being grown from little bush villages, new industries were starting, the highest standard of living in equatorial Africa was observed, etc.

Still, it must have been exploitive in the Leopoldian (aka Western) tradition. The hospitals, schools, clean water, and work had a catch.

They probably stole the land, and the water too for that matter:

Time ca. 1955
"This is black man's country," says Governor P├ętillon. Before a white man may buy Congo land, he must prove to the government that no native is using it, and that it will not be needed for native settlement.

Hmm, that doesn't sound right. We'll skip over that too. Leopold, then Mobuto. That is the story; that is all we need to know.

Josh said...

All I'm saying is that I find it hard to trust Time from 1955 to have a real understanding of the situation for Africans in the Congo.

Primary sources don't have to include time machines. However, the eurocentrism inherent in many "accounts" of colonial and post-colonial sites, without real data on conditions pre-, during, and post-colonialism is sorely lacking, due to the nature of colonialism. Our dearth of real information is one more symptom of colonialism's being bad: we can't really tell if it was better for the Congo.

Consider David's blog post on the water priests, and the inability for colonial powers to see the efficiencies in them.

It very well may be that the Belgians were better for Congolese, or it may be completely wrong. We'll never know, because of the nature of colonialism.

elladeon said...


Some of the particulars aren't quite as mysterious as you'd think. There was a time when Kikwit was able to keep its population in the relative comforts of running water, electricity, lighted streets, stores, and a functional road system. There isn't (or shouldn't be) much debate about those things because they quite obviously existed or they could not now be falling into ruin.

Something must have at least two qualities to fall into ruin. It must exist, and it must be possible to change for the worse. That is, to have a ruined city you must at some point in time have had a non-ruined city. You can’t have a ruined city that never was, or a city ruined by constant improvements.

We know of Kikwit that it was not a ruined city in 1908, because it wasn’t much of a city at all. We also know that it is now. We know that Kikwit didn’t undergo continual improvement under Mobuto (or in the decade since, for that matter). Without too much trouble one can fix that the peak of its non-ruined state must have been somewhere between 1908 and 1960. You needn't even take the word of that well-known imperialist rag Time Magazine, but we’ll have no more quotes from those shills anyway.

The colonial apologists at Pulitzer.org can offer another glimpse of Kikwit ca. 1995: “There are no televisions in Kikwit. No newspaper. No local radio station. No telephones. There is also no running water, electrical power or sewage system.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica joined their propaganda, mentioning that, “[T]hough formerly a prosperous provincial trading centre, Kikwit underwent a decline in the late 20th century owing to a decaying infrastructure and declining commercial activity in the region.”

Whether the average Congolese is better off now does introduce subjective valuations. However, since the system as it exists is no longer capable of providing these things at all, I hope that your own argument includes justification that not even having the opportunity for electricity and clean water is indeed the better outcome for all concerned.

Given the [alleged] decline in infrastructure, perhaps people would like to leave. That would have been fairly easy at one time, if the Time-era stories are to be believed. Kikwit was a major trading center and had good roads. Now, unfortunately, escape isn’t quite so simple since, “[F]or most of the year, the main road into the town is passable only by four-wheel-drive vehicles, and then only with great difficulty.” (NYT)

"The problem is, once people taste civilization, they can never go back to their old ways of doing things. All we have left here is a longing for what we once had, and a bitterness for what now exists."

Good news is that we can never really know for sure whether they’ve lost anything. Perhaps if Kikwit’s radio station hadn’t shuttered you could broadcast that to the residents to cheer them up. Unfortunately, colonialist propaganda casts an impenetrable veil between us and the truth. One thing is certain: colonialism is bad, mmmmkay.

Josh said...

And, Kikwit is what percentage, exactly, of the Congo? It's great to show that one city in an entire nation was improved after the utter barbarity of the colonial power's earlier activities.

But, once forced into a post-mercantilist (one may argue a continuing mercantilism under private, European companies) economic system, is it any wonder that, when the experts and movers in that system leave, the "infrastructure" of that system should no longer function? You pretend that the Congolese ever participated in more than a tiny, tiny percentage of the actual economic activity that was the great improvement in the region touted by English-speaking sources.

And, yes, I'm able to believe that, post-barbarity, the Belgians may have actually tried to improve things, and may have even succeeded in "improving" them for economic efficiency into the Belgian-induced system, rather than the Congolese entering on their own, as equals. I'm also willing to believe that this paternalistic "attempt" brings with it the seeds of its own destruction. If colonialism were so grand in the Congo, why did it end?

elladeon said...


You got me. It is awesome everywhere but Kikwit. The IMF backs you up, and drives a stake through all my earlier claims:

Per capita [real] GDP fell steadily from US$380 in 1960 to US$240 in 1990 and further to US$85 (or 23 cents a day) in 2000,
placing the country among the poorest in the world. - IMF WP/04/114

Josh said...

This would be more interesting, but for the biting sarcasm.

GDP per capita... again, I don't know, but did any companies leave the Congo during this time, companies who may have made a great deal of money in-country, but who didn't redistribute this money? per cap. GDP is about the only way we've tried to measure wealth, but if you looked, for example, at California's GDP, and then compared it to the living conditions in Merced County, you see a striking difference.

I am not arguing that Congo is not in dire straits. I am arguing that colonialism did a lot to put Congo in dire straits. When a country just leaves, that doesn't automatically make things better.

Why did Belgium leave, anyway, if things were much, much better? You haven't answered that question yet, and it's an honest question.

David Zetland said...

@Everyone -- interesting discussion. My opinion (never been there) is that COngo was worse off as a result of colonialism. I agree that MS Seko used Belgian tools to make it worse off. GDP is a terrible measure.

Avatar -- btw -- gets 5 stars b/c it was an "oh wow" movie -- like Lawrence of Arabia -- but for a differnet reason, the visual effects.

elladeon said...


Wikipedia has the briefest account:

In the early 1950s Belgium came under increasing pressure to transform the Belgian Congo into a self-governing state. Belgium had ratified article 73 of the United Nations Charter, which advocated self-determination, and both superpowers put pressure on Belgium to reform its Congo policy.

The way to read "superpowers" is "the United States." The US had a long standing hostility to colonialism, cf. our extreme pressure on Britain during WWII for guaranteeing the independence of India as one particularly good and fairly contemporary example.

So, if you'd like a single answer on why colonialism died, it is the ascendancy, and ultimate supremacy, of US foreign policy goals following WWII. (Seko was, in fact, installed by our government.)

A shorter, but equally accurate version is to imagine that there are two people thinking on these issues in the late 1950s. I'll call one "Josh" and the other I'll call "Ella".

They decide to flip a coin to decide what should be done about colonialism in the Belgian Congo.

"Josh" (heads) believes that colonialism is altogether evil, and should be abolished forthwith so that the Congolese may establish the government of their choosing.

"Ella" (tails) is sympathetic to an argument for self-determination, but isn't convinced that the Congo as it currently exists has the political temperament and cultural mores for either democracy or economic freedom to survive a Belgian withdrawal.

The toss came up heads.

elladeon said...

BTW, the statistic isn't real GDP, it is real GDP per-capita.

As best as can be ascertained, real GDP is also down in absolute levels since ‘60. That is astonishing since the population has increased tremendously. As a consequence, real GDP per-capita is severely down.

Much economic activity may not be recorded by GDP, but that suggests a large informal sector, which is itself a sign of decline. Shrinking formal and growing informal sectors of an economy are signs of economic deterioration and corruption.

The decline in economic activity combined with the loss of trade, rotting infrastructure, explosion of violent and property crime, and finally war, can all be convincingly traced to the Belgian withdrawal. It is hard to say the withdrawal improved anything for anyone in any measure.

At least Leopold II was deposed over the Congo in 1908 when the colony passed (after some int. hot potato) from the crown to the parliament, a rather astonishing action. That was 2-4y after his crimes came to light.

Mobuto ruled for decades, as there was no colonial government to depose him for his crimes.

I agree with David that the Congo was worse off because of colonialism, but it was also better off for it. It had one of the highest standards of living and lowest incidence of disease in all of Africa by the 1950s. In absolute terms it wasn’t high vs the developed world, but for the entire continent of Africa it was a fairly safe, healthy, and prosperous place to be.

That must count as "better" as much as one counts the "worse" now, when it is one of the poorest, unhealthy, and dangerous places in the world.

I don't attribute that decline to the Belgians teaching the Congolese how to be thugs and then their thuggery running amok. Everyone can be a thug. It requires very little training.

The argument on those grounds is also inconsistent applied and somewhat condescending. How so? Well, the country was indisputably on the way up ca. 1910-60, with Belgians at the helm. Even if one conceded constant Belgian thuggery, one must also concede successful economic performance. The argument seems to be that the Congolese were ready and willing to learn their thuggery by example but unable or unwilling to learn their business by example.

Not an argument I would feel comfortable making, but there it is.

Colonialism as the culprit does follow in that the idea of a nation-state and a central government were imparted where there was no such concept before. Under the Belgian government that state provided infrastructure and organization.

With the transfer of power, those paved roads, motorized transports, organized police forces, weaponry, and other introductions of colonialism were so many tools for a dictator to consolidate his power over a nation, where before he could only have extended it over a village. The decaying infrastructure likely makes that projection harder now, but the most important question is relative ease. Even crippled by bad roads, the government is almost certainly incalculably better able to project its power across the nation than the average citizen is able to flee from it. It is even possible that disparity has grown over time rather than shrunk.

That they would be better off if the Belgians had never come takes a trickier course. It argues that the previous primitive lifestyle was superior to that of the cities, water and electricity, trade, medicine, education, and literacy that existed at the peak of the colonial government. It may have been. It is almost certainly better than what it is now. In hindsight, that is as much an active decision as colonialism was. Ultimately, colonialism provided medicine and prosperity. Anti-colonialism would have denied it. Pursued from the beginning, it also would have denied the initial tyranny and chaos that resulted from retreat. Pursued, however, to bring about an untimely end, it succeeded only in creating a truly hellish place, wreathed in good intentions.

David Zetland said...

@elladeon -- thanks for the further, enlightening comments. My take is as follows:

1) The Belgians did a better job running things b/c they had functioning institutions, imported from their home, which had evolved over centuries. They consolidated and organized to fit those institutions. Locals benefited via trickle-down.

2) When they left, no locals could/would use those institutions. They went to thuggery BUT that thuggery was magnified via the tools that the Belgians had put in place.

3) Without colonialism, Congo wold have evolved institutions that would have made it better off today.

4) Given colonialism, the only thing that may have worked was an indigenous civil service (a la India) or enough time for locals to catch up within the belgian structure, but there was neither time nor will to have either of those.

5) Congo is indeed fucked for the foreseeable future -- 2-3 generations -- unless a strongman with ethics (!) comes into power. Rare but possible (e.g., Singapore, which is 0.001% of Congo's size/compexity).

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