“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack.”

10 June 2015

..."What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” – Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate all the Brutes.

Thanks to Hannah Arendt, the concept of a direct link between the European colonial era and the 20th century’s ‘coming catastrophes’, is not a new one. To Arendt the 19th century colonial setting was very much a training ground in which methods of subjugation and terror were honed and a laboratory in which the tools of modern warfare were formed and tested. When these methods were later transferred and applied within the boundaries of European ‘civilised societies’ during the First and Second World Wars, this violence was internalised and then domesticated. 

In the European metropole restrictions were placed on programmes intended to uplift the lower orders of society. It soon became evident, however, that such restrictions did not apply to colonial agents who could employ radical methods of coercion upon racially alien and geographically distant populations with near impunity. 

One of the most frightening, and lesser known, examples of this ‘carte blanche’ colonialism, the brutal rape of the Congo basin by Belgian colonial forces, is represented in Empire Online through the works of E.D Morel – in this case, King Leopold’s Rule in Africa

E. D. Morel © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

The atrocities committed are too many and too horrifying to mention in a small blog post. It is worth knowing, however, that during Leopold’s 23-year ‘ownership’ of the Congo, an estimated 5-10 million people (around half of the country’s population) died of unnatural causes. Speaking in 1908, after the Belgian King's rule had finally come to an end, Leopold stated (in private, while ordering the destruction of the State archives) that 'I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there.'

Congolese hostages © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

"The mortality among native prisoners in Boma gaol is enormous, the normal death rate being 50 to 70 per cent., under favorable conditions" - E. D. Morel © The British Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

In King Leopold’s Rule… Morel laments that ‘there has been nothing quite comparable with [the atrocities in the Congo] since the world was made. The world can never see its like again’. But we did not heed his warning. Leopold’s attempts to cover up his crimes are reminiscent of comments made in 1975 by Eric Griffiths-Jones, British attorney general of colonial Kenya during the Mau Mau detentions: ‘If we must sin, we must sin quietly’.

The ghosts of colonial violence followed mankind deep in to the 20th century, and arguably continue to do so. Our colonial legacy, our history of violence has become a factor of humanity that may now never leave us. In Morel’s words: ‘the civilised peoples of the world can acquiesce in the indifferentism of their rulers’. Let us no longer allow this to be the case.


King Leopold's Rule and other works by Morel are available to view in Adam Matthew's Empire Online resource. Please note that full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license

About the Author

Becca Richards

Becca Richards

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2014, and I now work as an Assistant Development Editor. I have been able to put my degree in History to good use while working on a variety of different projects. My academic interests lie in Russian history from the late-imperial to mid-Soviet period, with a particular focus on the history of violence.