Boom in the Jungle: RIP Belgian Congo

In 1885 the king of Belgium, Leopold II, acquired a vast chuck of the heart of Africa as his own personal domain. It was called the Congo Free State and from the 1890s until its dissolution in 1908 there was much controversy in the West concerning the treatment of the indigenous peoples by Leopold’s administration. Though Leopold outlawed slavery the Congolese still suffered under a new form of servitude wherein if rubber quotas were not meant than they would lose a hand or death. Due to poor management thousands died from malnutrition and disease. So great was the outrage of the rest of the Western world that in 1908 Leopold handed the Free State over to the Belgian government.

There is a debate as to how many died with some suggesting 5+ million though the usual numbers given are highly exaggerated. It is also forgotten that Leopold II ruled the Free State indirectly, he had governors running the place for him and they countered negative press by saying it was foreign propaganda. Can’t blame someone for not wanting to believe what foreigners are writing. Of course it is also conveniently forgotten that the natives themselves frequently mutilated each other and cannibalism was quite common. Whatever one wants to think of Leopold and the Congo Free State it is absolutely false and absurd to suggest genocide was committed. Yet sadly many do, including quite prominent persons like the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who called Leopold’s rule a “holocaust.”

The next 52 years of Belgian rule is also conveniently forgotten by the anti-colonial and larger anti-White crowds because it does not conform to their view of European overseas imperialism. The Belgian Congo was run significantly better than its predecessor and was something of a model colony. I refer you now to this interesting 1955 article from Time magazine – “Congo: Boom in the Jungle.”

I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety but allow me now to just highlight a few parts,

The Belgians like to feel that they have devised “a middle way,” making possible black-white partnership. Their program is: full speed ahead in economics and education, dead slow in politics. So far, the evidence is that the Belgian way is working. The Congo, under hard-working capitalism, has become a tropical cornucopia in the heart of a poverty-stricken continent…. Nowhere in Africa is the Bantu so well fed and housed, so productive and so content as he is in the Belgian Congo. 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, the sons of cannibals now mine the raw materials of the Atomic Age. 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 (compared with less than 10% in the French empire). The Belgians taught the Bantu to run bulldozers, looms and furnaces, to rivet ships, drive taxis and trucks. Girls with grotesque tribal markings etched into their ebony foreheads sell in shops, teach in schools, nurse in hospitals. Already thousands of natives in the Congo’s bustling cities earn $100-$150 a month —more than most workers in Europe, and small fortunes by African standards. They buy sewing machines, phonographs and bicycles in such profusion that Sears, Roebuck has recently put out a special Congo catalogue.

Bourdain and countless others believe the post 1908 Belgian rule was at least as terrible as Leopold’s rule and are left in shock when they meet Congolese who suggest otherwise. Its not hard to imagine why there are still Congolese who remember Belgian rule fondly. Under Belgian rule they were doing better than many Europeans!

The Governor-General of the Belgian Congo in 1955 was one Léon Pétillon who was Governor-General from 1952-1958. While credit must of course be given to his predecessors, Pétillon should be remembered for his role in developing the Belgian Congo. From the Time article,

Known as the “Little Lion” to the 5,000 Belgian civil servants who govern the Congo on his orders, Pétillon has an actor’s mobile face, slow limpid speech, and graceful white hands which more often than not gesticulate with a lighted Camel to emphasize a point. An old Africa hand, he is guided by a motto like that of his predecessors: Dominer pour Servir—dominate to serve. Pétillon stands for ‘paternalisme,’ the policy which the Belgians openly proclaim as the secret of their success in the Congo. “The African under stands paternalism.” says the Governor with conviction.  “It was he who invented it.” In the Congo, paternalism means bread but no votes, good government but no opposition; the best Negro housing in Africa but no real freedom of movement. “The emphasis is on economics,” says Governor Pétillon. “The fascination of becoming a skilled worker handling precision machinery drives out of the Negro’s mind the need for politics.” The Congo has excellent roads because the rural population is compelled to labor on them; it is developing scientific agriculture by forcing peasant farmers to grow minimum quotas of cotton, and jailing them for failure to deliver. Each Negro city dweller is fingerprinted and must carry a plastic identity card attached to his tax receipt. Yet the Congo is one of the few places in Africa where there is practically no racial tension. “This is black man’s country,” says Governor Pétillon. 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.

The last point concerning land ownership I find quite fascinating and also important given the controversy surrounding land ownership in neighbouring Rhodesia and South Africa.

All told, five big companies control about 90% of the Congo’s capital investment. They treat their Bantu workers with the same assiduous paternalism shown by the Congo state. For its 63,000 black dependents, the Union Minière furnishes attractive brick bungalows and good schools, prenatal care and milk for mothers and children, medals for the men who excel at their work in the mines. “This is capitalism as it works in the Congo,” said one industrialist proudly…. The Belgians plan to move slowly—and progress steadily. “We adapt and adjust continually to the Congo’s circumstances,” says Governor Pétillon. “In the cities perhaps we shall move towards the ordinary concept of democracy, for black and white alike, but in the countryside, we may have to be content for a long time with a modified form of tribalism.”

Many will of course detest that democracy was not granted right away but Pétillon’s strategy is sound given it was such an unknown concept to most Europeans in the 1950s let alone Black Africans who had no concept of democracy prior to the arrival of Europeans. It should be noted that this lack of voting rights extended to the White minority as well.[1] The left should really view colonialism as a necessary evil as it was via colonialism that Western notions they hold so highly were able to spread across the globe.

Many will also cringe at the thought of segregation but given that people naturally prefer the company of their own kind and multicultural projects have all ended in failure, I see no reason to take offense at that measure.


King Baudouin at a school of the Force Publique in Luluabourg, 1955

In the 1950s the British, too had utopian ideas for their African colonies. Even prior to then European states with land in Africa attempted to better the native inhabitants as well as exploit the lands for economic purposes (for this reason, slavery, female genital mutilation and the like were outlawed) but in the aftermath of the Second World War humanitarianism and egalitarianism became prominent themes.

Even with the issue of land ownership, in Southern Rhodesia – later the Republic of Rhodesia – White rule was benevolent much as it had been in the Belgian Congo. Interestingly enough, a major reason for the intractable nature of Ian Smith and the White community as a whole was that they had seen how majority rule absolutely crippled and destroyed the Congo, a formerly prosperous country with great potential.

I am not some self-hating lunatic who views the European overseas empires as being terrible and evil entities and I feel no shame in what has happened, but I do wonder if the scramble for Africa was really necessary for Europeans. Once it became a reality, however, it was foolish to have pushed for rapid decolonization. The UN, Soviets, Americans and liberal elements in Belgium (not to mention the other handful of European nations with African colonies) were wrong to push for Europe to leave. The modern Democratic Republic of the Congo is a complete travesty; for many it is a living hell. Cannibalism (especially of Pygmies who are viewed as little more than animals), rape, child abuse (often done for religious reasons) incessant warfare, intervention from neighbouring states, corruption, poverty is all rampant.

It is easy today to look back and see the wisdom in the Belgian governance and the words of Pétillon. The biggest problem was that they believed a European style country run and inhabited primarily by non-Whites could at some point in the future work. Even with the most careful planning that was never a possibility. If the Belgian authorities had done a better job at keeping the socialist tinged Black Nationalism of neighbouring countries out of the Congo than perhaps things would not have gone to hell so quickly. Even so in the end the DRC would not be an African Belgium. It was absolute folly to think that democracy and other Western concepts could fully take hold in Africa just as much as it was of the Bush administration to think invading Iraq and Afghanistan would lead to little West Asian versions of America.




[1]Voting was extended to all White and Black men above the age of 25 in 1957. Almost instantly democracy denigrated into political violence between the different tribes though Blacks also came together to attack Whites. In 1960 Brussels took voting rights away from the Whites presumably to assuage Black Nationalists who preached that not only would White material goods and homes be redistributed but even their women would be open season. Perhaps though it was done also for the protection of Whites as on voting day violence erupted across the colony. No matter, after independence was granted the Whites were able to experience violence: they were ethnically cleansed.


About Thomas Jones
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