Mark Twain’s Defense of Human Rights in Congo

Mark Twain’s booklet published in early 1905 contributed to the international human rights campaign that ended King Leopold of Belgium’s personal rule over the Congo.

“We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” So stated Mark Twain in an interview published in The New York Herald in 1900. As U.S. business and military figures settled in the Philippines, the most widely read American writer at the time increased the fury of his attacks on the U.S. occupation of the Islands. In 1901 Twain proposed a new flag that would be fitting for the U.S. “Philippine Province”: “We can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross bones.”

Twain deplored his country’s imitating the European pattern of foreign imperial rule and joined in denouncing the European and American suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China. “My sympathies are with the Chinese” Twain wrote. “They have been villainously dealt with by the sceptered thieves of Europe, and I hope they will drive all of the foreigners out and keep them out for good”. But Twain’s fiercest denunciation of the exploitation of another people by a Western power was directed at Belgium’s King Leopold and his Congo Free State’s systems of extracting ivory and then rubber from the heart of Africa.

The celebrated writer’s 1905 treatise detailed the horrors perpetrated by the agents of a King “whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there.” So wrote Twain in his journal a year after he published King Leopold’s Soliloquy as a small book benefitting the Congo Reform Association. The principal organizer and founder of the CRA, Edmund Morel, supplied Twain with photos of Congolese whose hands had been cut off for insufficient harvesting of rubber. In the writer’s view, the photos would counter the whitewashing by most of the American press of the Congo Free State’s depredations.

The Congo photos taken by British and American missionaries greatly agitated the Belgian King. Leopold, in Twain’s words, mutters to himself, “Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, never uttering a word, and knocks them dumb.” The “incorruptible Kodak” was deemed an indispensable aid in countering the Belgian despot’s campaign to portray himself in the U.S. as “the benefactor of a down-trodden and friendless people”.

Providing evidence of the Congo Free State’s common practice of cutting off hands of unproductive rubber harvesters is a missionary of the Congo Balolo Mission. From the collection of the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, Edinburgh.

Twain’s considerable efforts to shed light on conditions in Congo and bring about change were driven in part by the U.S. 1884 official endorsement of the Congo Free State, the first foreign power to do so. He imagines Leopold gloating over his sales job, “Possibly the Yankees would like to take that back now, but they will find that my agents are not over there in America for nothing.” The U.S. President’s Order of Recognition brings a “mocking smile” to the King’s face as he reads, “the government of the United States announces its sympathy with and approval of the humane and benevolent purposes of my Congo scheme”. The guile deployed in establishing his Congo Free State brings another smile as he reads the report from Congo of the American missionary Rev. W.H. Morrison, “Our government would most certainly not have recognized that flag had it known that …..having put down African slavery in our own country at great cost of blood and money, it was establishing a worse form of slavery right in Africa” (author italics, ed.).

Once the U.S. President approved the Belgian King’s rule over the vast Central African territory, leading American businessmen, among them John D. Rockefeller and the Guggenheims, were granted concessions in Congo. Adam Hochschild in his book King Leopold’s Ghost quotes one of the King’s public relations agents in the U.S. as advising the King, “Open up a strip of territory clear across the Congo State from east to west for benefit of American capital. Take the present concessionaires by the throat, if necessary, and compel them to share their privileges with the Americans.”

Always a savvy manipulator of the media of his day, King Leopold sponsored publication of this defense of his Congo rule soon after release of Twain’s booklet

Once Leopold was forced to relinquish his rule of the territory in 1908, U.S. businessmen and government officials developed even closer ties with the agents of Belgian colonial rule. The U.S. business and financial sectors’ heightened involvement in the extraction of Congo’s unmatched strategic mineral reserves led to use of the country’s uranium in the creation of the atom bombs dropped on Japan. At independence in 1960, the international concessions holding the rights to most of Congo’s mineral wealth included a substantial U.S. share. Like the U.S.in the past, China today seems to value access to Congo’s mineral wealth above the human rights and living conditions of the country’s people. Its two billion dollar commitment to the country’s development projects places China in the position of being the leading ally and supporter of the present-day Congolese administration and its defiance of the country’s constitution and those defending its authority.

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One thought on “Mark Twain’s Defense of Human Rights in Congo

  1. Aimee Weston

    I am now reading ” Spies in the Congo” by Susan Williams. My country will never know peace until Christ returns. Sad to say that, but it’s the truth. Thanks for all this information

    Like

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