Elisabetta Benassi: King Leopold’s Soliloquy

Elisabetta Benassi
King Leopold’s Soliloquy
Rome, Italy: NERO, 2015
49 pp., 12 x 18.5 cm., softcover
$24.00 CDN
Edition of 500 copies

For the 55th Venice Biennale, Elisabetta Benassi produced a large installation with a bookwork at its core, The Dry Salvages, which documented ten thousand items of space debris. Invited back two years later, this time as part of the Belgium Pavilion, she once again produced a project centred around an artists’ book.

The Belgian Pavilion was the first foreign Pavilion to be built in the Giardini in Venice, during the reign of King Leopold II. Somewhat lesser known than Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot, Leopold propagated the least-discussed genocide in history. He was responsible for the deaths of between two and fifteen million people, with many historians settling on ten million as a fair estimate.

In 1865, with the death of his father, Leopold became King of Belgium at the age of thirty. A decade later, he formed the International African Association, which fronted as a scientific, philanthropic and humanitarian organization, but whose eventual goal was to turn the Congo into Leopold’s own personal colony. A ‘finders fee’ was paid to explorer Henry Stanley (best known for uttering the greeting “Dr. Livingston, I presume”), who tricked hundreds of tribal chieftains to sign away their land. This gave Leopold unchecked power over a territory of almost a million square miles, nearly seventy times the size of Belgium. He named his colony the Congo Free State. It became, in the words of biographer Adam Hochschild, “the world’s only colony claimed by one man.”

The contracts were violently enforced and Leopold began enslaving the population and commandeering the natural resources. The Congolese were forced to work as miners, rubber-tappers, woodcutters and as porters, carrying elephant tusks through dangerous areas of the rainforest en route to seaports.

Villages were held hostage while the men were sent out to collect wild rubber, high in demand after the 1888 invention of the pneumatic tire. Upon their return, if the agents of the force publique (Leopold’s personal militia) were not satisfied with their haul, the men, women and children of the village would have their feet and hands amputated.

Baskets of human hands became a type of currency for Belgium armies in the Congo. Hands were not only amputated from the living as punishment, but from the dead as evidence. Soldiers submitted the hands to their superior officers, to prove the number of their kill. Those submitting the highest number of hands were rewarded with increased salaries or reduced service terms. This led to mass mutilations, with many left for dead in fields, with severed limbs.

Often a village failing to meet the rubber quota would be entirely massacred. Sexual violence was also used to intimidate and subjugate in order to prevent mass revolt. Men were forced by soldiers to rape or kill their own sisters and mothers. Any resistance to the colonial rule was swiftly and violently ended, with the slaughter of the extended families of anyone refusing to work.

Hochschild wrote that the conduct of Belgian officer Rene de Permentier was not atypical: “If he found a leaf in a courtyard that women prisoners had swept, he ordered a dozen of them beheaded. If he found a path in the forest not well-maintained, he ordered a child killed in the nearest village.”

Leopold controlled the area until 1908, a year before his death, and the repercussions of his rule would be felt throughout the century, and to the present. Poverty, rape, violence, corruption and political unrest remain the norm. Despite boasting some of the richest mineral deposits in the world, including gold, diamonds, tin, uranium, and coltan (essential to everyday electronic devices like cell phones) the Democratic Republic of Congo regularly tops the list of poorest countries in the world.

In 2008, a hundred years after Leopold’s reign, Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch said: “In Congo, if someone starts an armed group or kills people, they have a better chance of becoming a senior minister or a general than being put behind bars.” That same year, UN Deputy Force Commander Major General Patrick Cammaert said of eastern Congo: “It is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier there right now.”

The 1994 massacre in neighbouring Rwanda has its roots in Belgian colonial rule, particularly the reduction of facial distinctions to racial categories: the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa. Leopold’s subjugation terror tactics were employed in Rwanda, as well as Darfur, and during the Ugandan Civil War.

The vulnerable status of the African Elephant, and certainly the connection between terror groups and the ivory trade, can also be traced back to Leopold. “White gold” was one of the primary motivations for his colonization of the Congo. “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed,” Joseph Conrad wrote, “You would think they were praying to it.” Conrad was the captain of a Belgian trading company steamer on the Congo River in the 1890s, and many of the ivory trade atrocities he witnessed are recounted in his classic novella Heart of Darkness.

Leopold amassed enormous personal wealth from his plunder of the Congo, becoming one of the richest men on the planet. He used the profits to finance elaborate public monuments, purchase real estate throughout Europe and build an opulent villa for himself on the French Riviera. Today, the home is one of the most expensive in the world, valued at 1.2 billion dollars. The property includes a number of waterside homes built to house Leopold’s mistresses.

A New York Times article from 1907 recounted Leopold’s scheme to hang on to the vast wealth he had accumulated, after annexation of the Congo Free State by Belgium: “In other words, while the King is still ruler of the Free State and before he transfers the powers he has in that capacity, he uses those powers to transfer the profits of the State to himself in another capacity.”

Even in death, Leopold managed to hoard his wealth, surreptitiously establishing a foundation shortly prior to his passing. Here he was able to transfer cash, paintings, silverware, crystal and jewelry, with the stipulation that the wealth fund grand palaces and further shrines. A secondary motive of the foundation was to disinherit his daughters.

Leopold II did all of this while manufacturing an image of himself as a great benevolent philanthropist and humanitarian. He saw himself as bringing a noble, civilizing influence to Central Africa, thwarting the slave trade, establishing a secure trade route and promoting humanitarian policies.

A force publique soldier quoted in Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost shared his belief: “One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies at the station ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people, but that allowed five hundred others to live.”

This twisted delusion is the subject of King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a work of biting satire by Mark Twain, published as a pamphlet in 1905. Twain writes as Leopold, angry that the British press is beginning to learn of his atrocities, and condemning his critics for only pointing out the negative. The journalists note the starvation caused by excessive taxation, the extermination of entire villages, but not his great work sending missionaries to the villages to “teach them the error of their ways” and convert them to Christianity. “Nothing can satisfy a cursed Englishman!” he exclaims.

Every accusation is addressed with spurious justification: “They were not [all killed]. The great majority of them escaped. They fled to the bush with their families because of the rubber raids, and it was there they died of hunger. Could we help that?”

Twain’s Leopold denies the appropriation of government money for personal gain and calls his detractors “meddlesome American missionaries”, “frank British consuls”, and “blabbing Belgian-born traitors.” As King, he believes himself above reproach, and considers the criticism blasphemous: surely, under the rule of God, any King who was not doing God’s will would not have been helped by God to become King.

Twain punctuates Leopold’s speech with brief stage directions such as “[with a contented smile]” and “[meditative pause]”, making his casual declarations (“every shilling I get costs a rape, mutilation or life”) even more chilling. When it is reported that a widow was forced to sell her little girl, Leopold’s response is that most Congolese women are now widows: “Hang the monotonous grumbler! What would he have me do?! Let a widow off merely because she is a widow? He knows quite well that there is nothing much left, now, but widows. I have nothing against widows, as a class, but business is business, and I’ve got to live, haven’t I, even if it does cause inconvenience to somebody here and there?” The stage direction is simply “[Irritated]”.

Although published a few years after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Twain’s text was still contentious when it was released in 1905, in the final years of Leopold’s reign. Rejected by the North American Review for being “too controversial”, it was distributed by the Boston Congo Reform Association, with all profits going to the organization.

Twain’s slim volume is illustrated with photographs and drawings of Leopold, British soldiers and amputated children. Benassi’s faithful reprint further annotates the speech with the inclusion of tipped-in photographs, clippings and writings. Her additions serve to both update the original text and expand it’s geographical reach.

There are a total of fourteen interventions, excluding the colophon page and a black & white photograph of the installation in Venice, both of which are glued into the back of the book. These include facsimile reproductions of newspaper articles and two texts by the American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and author William Edward Burghardt Du Bois: Worlds of Colour, from 1924 and Peace is Dangerous from 1951. W.E.B. Du Bois was a proponent of Pan- Africanism, an ideology and movement that encourages the solidarity of Africans worldwide. He helped organize several Pan-African Congresses to fight for independence of African colonies from European powers.

An undated glossy insert appears to be a reproduction of a magazine advertisement for Texaco Petroleum Products, which boasts that the company is “doing their share in helping to develop the Belgian Congo”. On the verso is an ad in French, for Firestone.

Harvey Firestone Jr. spoke out against Leopold’s atrocities, according to Rubber: An American Industrial History (2014), which quotes him as calling it “a reign of terror of enforced labor that included murders, whippings and the severing of hands of those deemed slow.” But Benassi is presumably drawing a parallel to Firestone’s later activities in Liberia.

In 1926, Firestone was granted a 99-year lease for a million acres, at a cost of six cents per acre, by the Liberian government. A million acres represents four percent of the Liberia’s total territory and ten percent of arable land in the country.

Liberia had teetered on the verge of bankruptcy several times, and the rubber tire company insisted on a five million dollar loan to help them pay off their debt to British Bankers. The conditions of the loan gave the corporation complete authority over the government’s revenues until it was repaid, essentially rendering the African country an American protectorate, for twenty-six years.

“To the little Republic of Liberia, Firestone has brought a new day of hope and advancement,” the company announced in a radio broadcast. “It has been a gratifying thought to us that by means of commercial progress we have been of service to mankind.”

The contract between Liberia and Firestone included a clause that the government would assist with labour needs. At one point, it was estimated that of the 10,000 people Firestone employed in Liberia, 8,500 of the workers were “compelled” by soldiers.

When rubber prices fell during the Great Depression, Firestone ceased development of the plantation, reducing its size considerably, cutting wages in half for good measure, and further depriving the Liberian government of income to repay the loan. When the country missed a payment Firestone asked the U.S. government to send a warship. President Roosevelt rejected the “gunboat diplomacy”, stating “We should remember that Firestone went to Liberia at his own financial risk, and it is not the business of the State Department to pull his financial chestnut out of the fire except as a friend of the Liberian people.”

A decade ago, in 2005, the Firestone Company and the Liberian government signed a new 37-year deal raising the lease price to fifty cents per acre. In Japan, where Firestone’s parent company Bridgestone is located, leasing costs are as high as $12 a square foot, or over a million times the price the company is currently paying in Liberia.

The following year, a UN report was released citing appalling living conditions for Firestone employees, hazardous working conditions, unfair wages, and the contravention of child labour laws. Dan Adomitis, President of Firestone, responded with the following statement:

“I think you need to understand another point. During the 2003 fighting, we had thousands of refugees come to Harbel for the safety that it provided. When those people came, they occupied any open area of land that was available. They put up temporary housing made out of mud, out of bamboo, out of thatch, out of tarpaulin, out of corrugated steel. Anything that they could do to get shelter. And those conditions still exist. They are not Firestone housing, but they are on our property. We have very strict policies about child labor. We do not hire anybody under 18 years of age, and we discourage parents from bringing their children to the fields with them. We have a program with the Ministry of Labor in Liberia – and also the union that represents our employees – to educate parents about why they should not bring children with them into the field. And if we see incidents of this, we will cancel those employees, and if necessary, ultimately discipline them over such issue.”

Last year, after PBS’s Frontline aired a documentary investigating links between Firestone and a notorious Liberian warlord, Kevin O’Marah in Forbes magazine rushed to their defence:

“Firestone naturally aligned with this ruling class and, while it provided paying work for thousands of Liberians, perpetuated a fundamentally extractive economic model that bred deep resentment. Attacking Firestone for this is unfair since few in Europe or North America at the time recognized Africa as a potential market or its people as eventual partners.”

Neither of their specious statements would seem out of place in Twain’s Soliloquy.

View a clip of King Leopold’s Soliloquy being read in the installation in Venice.