A quick baseball note: Earl Weaver passed away last night at the age of 82. Weaver hadn’t been active in the game in over two decades, but his work as the Orioles’ manager made him a legend not just for his colorful language but for his thinking about in-game strategy, which presaged a lot of what is now called “Moneyball” thinking in an era before computers, spreadsheets, and mothers’ basements. His book Weaver on Strategy is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to learn about a more rational approach to managing; the book discusses the use of statistics, the uselessness of the bunt, the benefits of platooning, and more such topics strictly through logical arguments rather than with heavy math.
Adam Hochschild’s 1998 non-fiction work King Leopold’s Ghost tells the unsavory story of the rape of the Congo by the monarch of the book’s title, a megalomaniacal autocrat who manipulated and schemed his way into one-man rule of a giant and resource-rich plot of land in the heart of a continent he never visited. The book itself focuses on the time from Leopold’s first attempts to gain a colony for himself to the eventual handoff of the territory to the Belgian state, but the effects of his misrule and the marginally better rule of the Belgians continue to plague what is in effect a fake-country today.
Leopold was obsessed with finding a colony to rule, partly out of ego, partly out of fear that tiny Belgium would be left at an economic disadvantage (as their equally small neighbors the Netherlands established colonies across Asia), and partly out of greed. His impact on the land he ended up ruling was awful, but he was a master diplomat in his era, buying influence, wheedling concessions, and financing large expeditions, some led by Lord Stanley, up the Congo River to explore and claim territory for himself. That territory was first titled, Soviet-style, as “The Free State of Congo,” even though it was about as free as a man in concrete shoes, and later became the Belgian Congo and then Zaire, the title by which I’ll probably always think of it. (It was so easy to remember the geography of that part of Africa, as the world’s only three countries that start with Z were located there, adjacent north to south in alphabetical order: Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe.) Leopold established a brutal system of colonial rule that relied very heavy on forced labor – outright slavery as well as punitive labor systems that created virtual slavery through enormous production quotas, hostage-taking, and cutting off hands – and made the territory the world’s main producer of natural rubber at a time when demand for the resource was growing due to the invention of motor vehicles.
The extent of slavery and its inherent violence ended up a cause celebre around the world, even though similar systems existed on smaller scales in French and English territories in Africa, with the movement to end the oppression of the Congo’s native tribes led by an English journalist-activist named E.D. Morel and two black Americans who visited the Congo, the historian George Washington Williams and the preacher William Sheppard, and saw the the brutality up close. After setting the scene by detailing Leopold’s takeover of the Congo, Hochschild spends the heart of his book explaining the rise and modest successes of one of the world’s first truly international protest movements, aimed at embarrassing Leopold into instituting reforms. Leopold fought back, often playing quite dirty in the process, but did eventually sell the colony at an exorbitant cost to Belgium, which didn’t do a whole lot better as colonial rulers.
The biggest problem with the country known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, something Hochschild doesn’t spend enough time exploring, is that it remains a fabrication of the Belgian king who created it: The territories aren’t based on tribes, languages, or even historical entities, but on the treaties Leopold signed to craft his territory. Much as the Versailled-created nation of Yugoslavia (originally and comically known as “The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes,” as if they were all citrus fruits you could stash in the same crisper) collapsed once autocracy there failed, the DR Congo has been torn apart by civil wars, coups, famines, and genocides since the Belgians left – not that it was any better while they were in charge – and the United States helped assassinate the country’s first ruler, the democratically-elected Patrice Lumumba. Wikipedia – which is never wrong – says that there are an estimated 242 different languages spoken within the DR Congo’s borders, now, including four “national” languages, all of the Bantu family, the distribution of which gives you some idea of how fraudulent the country’s borders seem today. Yet breaking the country apart poses enormous problems of resource management, with the eastern province of Kivu providing over 10% of the world’s supply of the ore coltan, the central provice of Kasai-Oriental providing 10% of the world’s diamonds by weight, and the southern province of Katanga has the world’s second-largest reserve of copper and might have a third of the world’s supply of cobalt. (All data also from Wikipedia.) The country has just one direct outlet to the sea, at the Congo River delta into the south Atlantic Ocean, so dismembering the country would create economic discrepancies across the new nations while just one of these subcountries would control the only international trade route that didn’t involve crossing a border. It is no wonder that the country has been racked by conflicts for a half-century, with the only respite coming during the reign of the dictator-thief Mobute Sese Seko. (No, not this guy.)
Hochschild does a fair job of sourcing his material, although the lack of inline citations is a slight negative, and he points out several times that most of what we know of Leopold’s rule actually comes from white/European sources, since the conquered African tribes either didn’t have effective writing systems or just didn’t have the way to put that writing in a form that would survive. Slaves or forced laborers seldom had avenues to describe their experiences unless they escaped from servitude. Hochschild paints a bleak picture to begin with, but it’s likely that the brutality was more widespread than he states and the death toll, estimated at around 10 million, could easily be higher. It’s a shocking and largely forgotten story of white exploitation of Africa, but given the constant instability in the region – including further genocides and the use of rape as a weapon of terror – it’s important that we understand our own contributions to the area’s problems. In a week where Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o each garnered about a hundred times the ink of the conflict in Mali, however, I suppose that’s wishful thinking.
Next up: I am making extremely slow progress through Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; through 200 pages, I can say that the book makes almost no sense to me.