“They were dying slowly — it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom…. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly…. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone.”
So wrote Joseph Conrad in 1902 in his novella The Heart of Darkness. It’s a passage that, if you have your head screwed on half right, will stay with you for life. I’d known Conrad was referencing his own travels in the Congo in 1894 as he wrote it, and when I heard of Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death I thought to myself, “Ah, some background to Conrad’s experience.”
Now that I’ve seen Congo, Heart of Darkness seems to be less poetry and more journalism.
Where the Rubber Meets the Robe
- Short documentary on Congolese brought to world's fair
Congo only mentions Heart of Darkness and Joseph Conrad in passing. Its real purpose is to indict King Leopold II of Belgium and expose the horrific years in the 19th Century when he exploited and abused the people of the Congo. The film makes a reasonable case for putting this on a par with the Turks’ abuse of the Armenians and Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews. As many as 10 million Congolese may have perished and in some districts up to 90% of the population was killed.
The cause of this mayhem was rubber and Leopold’s greed in exploiting the new market for tires. He, like all the other European leaders of the day, was casting about for territory to establish colonies and to build an empire. But Leopold’s actions were an outrage even by the racist colonial standards of 19th-Century Europe. In the end, his absolute rule of the Congo was ended by the other colonial powers, who in turn were scolded by European social activists and missionaries.
The status of the Congo was raised from personal fiefdom to colonial territory, an improvement from horrific cataclysm to a more moderated abasement. The population continued to be exploited in the burgeoning gold and diamond mines and would not see independence until the middle of the 20th Century, at which time they traded in their European masters for home-grown tyrants.
Congo lays out the charges against Leopold in a courtroom setting with the King sitting in the accused’s seat, indifferent to the appalling evidence. One after another, witnesses read the evidence written from that time. The movie shows photos taken then, and we go to the scene of the crime in dramatic recreations. In classic documentary style we are also taken to the modern Congo, as well as the cities of London, Brussels and Antwerp, guided by the text from a contemporary Congolese historian. He shows us that little if any recognition is given to a dark past. In fact, one of the points the film makes is that Leopold died unrepentant, convinced to the end that he had, through the force of his own will, brought civilization to the Congo. And even to this day Leopold is respected in Belgium with monuments continuing to be erected in his honor.
Congo also tells the story of the uncovering of the atrocities by two Englishmen, Edmund Dean Morel and Sir Roger Casement. Both of these men fell out of favor in WWI, Morel because of his pacifist views and Casement because of his activism with the Irish against British rule. Casement was eventually hanged by the British for his involvement with the Germans during the Easter Uprising in 1916.
The story of this tragedy has lain dormant for a hundred years, not just because Morel and Casement fell out of favor, but also because Belgium continued to colonize the Congo, because of later civil wars, and because there simply hasn’t been a forum to air the history. The film tells us that, at the time, there was considerable controversy and debate in the European press at what was going on in the Congo. Those who think we are more enlightened today might be surprised, especially when considering the inherent colonial and racial bias of the day.
The sense I get is that the Belgian state stepped in to relieve Leopold of his “private property,” not so much because what he was doing was wrong, but because it was an embarrassment to the pro-colonization forces at home. After all the Europeans were supposed to be bringing the light of civilization to the Dark Continent. With Leopold’s exit, the cover-up of his embarrassing rule began.
And so I come back to Conrad and Heart of Darkness. Perhaps the mysterious metaphors and symbolism of Heart are not so obscure as we have been taught. Has Conrad’s novella been remade into a morass of symbolism because we in the West can not face the facts of the story behind the story? Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death would suggest that Belgium, Europe and the West still has some soul searching to do.
A short documentary, The Journey tells the sad story of 267 Congolese brought to Brussels in 1897 for a World’s Fair exposition. Many fell ill, most were miserable from the cold climate and seven actually died. The archival footage and stills make an excellent companion piece to Congo.
Picture and Sound
The subtitles are legible but there are some errors. Perhaps they could have been proofread a little better. The picture quality itself is fair. There seemed to be more compression artifacts than usual. The sound quality is good.