Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lessons From The Past: the Belgian Congo and the Philippines (March 12, 2013)

The current generation of what the late Tony Judt wrote as one that was “obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth” was also guilty of being “indifferent to so much else,” the study of history being near the top of that “so much else” list. History, to put it another way, has become subjected to ennui by a modern civilization that apparently has better things to look forward to. But history is still dynamic and appealing to those of us who are not ready to put the final touches on historical studies. Contrary to what many people in Western(ized) societies believe, the attempt to restore history as a wealth of inadequately-explored or politically-repressed events and personalities should not be made out to be some prosaic diversion that pointlessly brings us back to an extraneous past.

Given the world’s present troubles, history as a pertinent topic has to work hard to make itself visible through the morass of a modernity that many are convinced has gotten out of control. But to ignore history is to, to paraphrase the famous Santayana line, to reprise the mistakes it is laden with. Being so contemptuous of history is also to compound those mistakes, thereby leading us to base how Western civilization is structured and programmed on what is an expediently distorted picture of historical reality.

Keeping those ruminations in mind, there are two historical events that I would like to touch on here, events that have receded in the Western historical consciousness, not that either of them ever really shimmered in the light of mainstream historiographical narratives. The first one is the story of Belgium’s colonial enterprise in the African Congo under King Leopold II, beginning in 1885 and ending in 1908. The second transports us back to America’s imperial campaign to forcibly subdue the Philippine Islands at the turn of the century. That endeavor, officially lasting from 1899 to 1903 (but actually dragging on in a war of attrition for another 11 years), was every bit as violent and bloody as Belgium’s imperial project in Africa.

It was with a systematic combination of corruption, political spin, Machiavellian maneuvering, and a readiness to resort to what amounted to barbarism, that King Leopold II of Belgium sought to turn the Congo, a huge territory that was about seventy times larger than Belgium itself, into literally his own private property.

For official reasons related to ostensibly-benevolent causes and so that diminutive Belgium would gain respect on the world stage, Leopold secured Belgian control over the Congo in the 1884 Conference of Berlin which divided Africa among the European colonial powers. However, Leopold’s ulterior motive for colonizing the Congo morally lagged behind his stated purposes. His real motive was to exploit the territory’s vast natural resources for his personal aggrandizement. Leopold accomplished this beyond his wildest dreams.

Leopold accumulated a massive amount of riches from Belgium’s Congo investment. Ivory, rubber, and other minerals were the source of his incredible fortune. But it is the means of that fortune that made him in the view of author Adam Hochschild, a brazen profiteer, a colossal megalomaniac, an enslaver of men, women, and children, and worst of all, a mass murderer. Hochschild’s best selling 1998 book, “King Leopold Ghost,” chronicles the history of Leopold’s brutal subjugation of the Congolese people.

According to Hochschild and other independent histories of the Congo Free State as it was called under Leopold’s rule, as many as 10 million Congolese died as a result of his majesty’s incomparable greed. Under Leopold’s aegis, rubber and ivory quotas were imposed on Congolese slave laborers. Failure to reach the quotas were met with beatings, rapes, the hacking off of the hands of men, women, and children alike, and with killings on a wide scale. As horrible as it is, the story of Leopold’s Congolese nightmare is worth reading about for its relevance to the modern-day massacres in Rwanda and in Sudan’s Darfur region.

For decades, the United States has tried to project itself around the globe as a paragon of freedom, human rights, and democracy. As much as anywhere else, this shining image was badly tarnished in the turn of the century Philippines, a land that then US President William McKinley maintained had to be colonized “for humanity’s sake.”

Influenced by a conjunction of economic, geopolitical, religious, and racial rationalizations, America, at the time a rising industrial power, saw great dividends from colonizing the Philippines just as the archipelago was ending centuries of repressive Spanish colonial rule. The McKinley administration would defend the takeover of the Philippines by helping remove the tyranny of Spanish colonialism and by promising to institute democratic institutions and values in the islands. In other words, the US as a colonial master wanted to “civilize” the Filipinos, otherwise designated as America’s “little brown brothers.”

However, Filipinos had burgeoning notions of independence in their heads, thus confounding Washington’s imperial ambitions, albeit for the interim. So when the US deployed soldiers in the islands in the last stages of Spain’s defeat at the hands of anti-colonial Filipino fighters, it was only a matter of time that tensions between American and Filipino forces boiled over into a live conflict. What resulted was the Philippine-American War, a conflagration that bore historical witness to imperialistic ruthlessness and savagery.

During the Philippine-American War, the United States had to combat outgunned but determined Filipino fighters. Doing so would cost the lives of about 4,000 American soldiers. The fighting would also kill anywhere from 250,000 to 1,000,000 Filipinos. Many of the Filipino deaths resulted from the Americans’ application of torture, scorched-earth programs, and operation of concentration camps. Several civilian massacres at the hands of American soldiers added dramatically to the death toll. One such prominent massacre took place in the town of Balangiga in 1901. It was there that US General Jacob H. Smith gave the order to shoot any Filipino male over the age of ten because they were in his view, capable of utilizing weapons.

A most hopeful note concerning the tragic episodes in the Congo and in the Philippines is that the passage of time has engendered an honest and rational reflection on the historical depravities committed by Western nations against non-Western ones. What is distressing about this is that it has taken so long for Western societies to collectively recognize and acknowledge what are incredulous truths about their past. My particular dismay lies in that people continue to pass over what are by now, substantiated historical conclusions, conclusions that they generally assume to be too distant to be of any didactic value today.


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