Thursday, January 03, 2013

Hell on Earth

In my World History class recently we discussed the Congo Free State.

In my Guam History and World History classes I often create strange lists for students in order to understand the ways in which I see the history that I'm teaching. For Guam History I have two main lists, "The Most Heroic Chamorros That You've Never Heard Of" which features figures Chamorros from Guam History who were heroic and brave and accomplished great things, but don't fit into the usual historical narratives and are either accidentally or intentionally erased. I also have a list "The Assholes of Guam History" which has you might guess is a list of all the jerks in Guam's History. The people who have oppressed Chamorros, slaughtered them, held them back and just caused all sorts of problems. Some of them are Chamorro but most of them are non-Chamorros.

These lists evolve as my understanding and knowledge evolve. For example many years ago if I was coming up with an Asshole of Guam History list I might have placed Magellan high on the list. He was the first European to find Guam and it is because of him that the island got the label "Island of Thieves." He did "put Guam on the map" as everyone and their cousin and uncle and achakma' is fond of saying, but in truth other than killing some Chamorros and burning down a village his impact was relatively minor. Even though Magellan found Guam the Spanish did not colonized for another 147 years and they only colonized it because one man, Diego San Vitores was insist that the Chamorros there not be allowed to live in simplicity and savage freedom, but be forcibly converted to Christianity. Although Magellan is far more notorious, San Vitores did much more objective harm to the people. The history whereby Chamorros eventually accept Catholicism is irrelevant in determining level of assholeness here. You cannot justify actions because they created you or you don't want the alternative that might exist if they did not, you have to think of them in that context and whether they were right or whether they were the actions of racist, immoral jerks.

For the heroes I have a list of "hipster" options for those interested in Guam History, but would like to invest themselves in things that make them look different, cool or unique. People like Hurao and Mata'pang are already too well known. Choosing them as your heroes is like naming your kid Tasi or Ha'ani. It may have been cool when the only Ancient Chamorro people knew was Kepuha and when having a Chamorro name meant naming your kid "Maria" or "Inocencia" but things have changed quite a bit since then. These are figures who are so heroic that they might have even defied conventional wisdom at the time and been banished from history. They are those who may not fit in with the typical historical narratives that historians use to tell Guam's history and so they are edited out in order to keep things nice and tidy.

A figure who often tops my list of Chamorro heroes that no one knows about is Jose Salas. He was a Chamorro serving in the Spanish military who participated in an alleged overthrow of the Spanish government in 1884. He and several others allegedly plotted to overthrow the Spanish government on island by assassinating key figures over the course of a single night. Different soldiers had different targets, apparently Jose Salas, whose target with the Spanish Governor himself, went through with the plan. Him and four others were executed by firing squad in Hagatna after being put on trial in the Philippines. Despite Salas going so far to kill the chief executive in Guam in an attempt to overthrow the Spanish and assert Chamorro sovereignty, he is barely discussed in Guam History.

For my world history classes my lists are naturally different. I treat world history with less intimacy since we travel around the globe visiting different locales, some of which my students know little to nothing about. I used to provide a list of "Messiahs" from world history. These were people who offered visions of a different, better world, which became attractive to suffering masses or people hungry for change that they eventually developed huge followings and sometimes even had their own armies and conquered lands. Some of the figures we discuss are Wovoka, Hong Xiuquan and Nat Turner.

These are important figures in the way they animate the obscene dimensions of certain historical periods. They may have been futures that were not allowed to exist, but because of the way they were sometimes very brutally destroyed, they can help us understand the historical better. There are never just two sides to a story. There are always multiple public versions of a story and then you have the obscene aspects that most don't want to address.

Since the way I teach about recent world history is centered around "colonization" and "liberation" we focus alot on violence and the ways in which colonization allowed different peoples to be treated in subhuman ways, and how this was rationalized in social, political, religious, cultural and even scientific ways. This led naturalized systems of oppression, but in some instance it also lead to the places you could call "hell on earth." Inhuman zones where the barriers that men put between different races allowed them to go beyond sort of rational forms of violence and tread into the darkest and sickest parts of human possibility. The Holocaust is often presented as the prime example of this, but this is just one of many instances, and the amount of attention that the Holocaust receives can be critiqued since most other hells on earth were targeted primarily at non-white groups.

In class last week I presented my candidate for spot #1 in the Top 10 List of Hells on Earth: The Congo Free State.

The Congo Free State was the private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium. It was created in the late 19th century and existed until the early 20th century. It was created in order to be a model for European civilizing in Africa. The people of the Congo Free State were to be educated, converted to Christianity and enjoy all the wonderful benefits of being colonized by Europeans. Leopold was fantastic at marketing himself and portrayed himself as a friend to the Africans and a defender of freedom against slavery and ignorance. He marketed himself very well, but the truth was almost the complete opposite.

King Leopold claimed he was fighting against slavery as he enslaved millions in his personal colony. He treated human beings in such ways that you cannot even call it inhuman. Humans were less than human. They were not even at the level of animals or objects. The people of the Congro Free State were forced to work for Leopold and were given quotas. In order to motivate people to meet their quotas, the police for the Congo Free State would rape, slaughter and torture. Those who did not meet their quotas had to pay Leopold back with their own hands in order to be motivated to meet their next quota.

While preparing for class I came across a list of atrocities that were committed in the Congo Free State. They came from this website:
  • The use of Tippu Tip, a slave trader from Zanzibar, and his slaves (which constituted the Force Publique) , to enslave the rest of the Congo populace.
  • The severing of the hand of any person, be they man, woman or child, who did not fulfil the task required of them.
  • The forced separation of children from their parents, after which they were organised into three children’s colonies where they were indoctrinated, being taught Christianity and trained as soldiers.
  • The stipulation by the Belgian missionaries that only orphans were to be appropriated, so the  parents were summarily executed.
  • The kidnapping of black women so as to force their husbands to work on the Belgian rubber plantations in the Congo.
  • These women were kept as hostages until their men had provided the required quota of rubber.
  • The wife of any man refusing to collect rubber would then be killed, and his children would in all likelihood also be killed. .
  • These atrocities were not just the transgressions of an isolated bunch of rebellious soldiers, as the official manuals handed out by the Belgian authorities actually recommended and endorsed these methods. 
  • Hundreds of thousands of men were conscripted in this manner to work on the Belgian rubber plantations, and had to carry their heavy load of rubber for many a mile, many dying along the way. 
  • Villages that did not meet the quota of rubber stipulated were then required to pay the outstanding amount in the form of a severed hand, each hand representing a “kill”.
  • This often resulted in wars between the different tribes and many deaths, as the quotas were not at all realistic, and the only recourse was to then “harvest” the necessary hands in order to avoid any punitive measures on the part of the Belgian authorities.
  • Whenever a village resisted in anyway, the Force Publique  would then be ordered to terrorise them.
  • Their methods included tying up ten hostages in a tent with large stones attached, and then pushing the poor victims into a river.
  • Another method of oppression was to rape the women
  • Or they just simply shot as many people as it would take to intimidate the rest.
  • However, for every bullet expended, the soldiers would have to return one right hand.
  • The Belgians also resorted to beheading any recalcitrant tribes people.
  • In addition, the soldiers were told that the more severed hands they could collect the less time they would have to serve in the Force Publique, and thus this incentive also served to further fuel the “orgy” of  killing and bloodletting.
  • Entire villages and towns were destroyed, and it is surmised that as many as 10 million native Congolese died as a result of King Leopold’s Tyranny! 
 For me what is instructive about the Congo Free State is the way it expresses how pure colonialism and capitalism are truly inhuman and beyond revolting. That both of these ideas are fundamentally anti-human and the more that they are expressed and unrestrained, the more potentially dangerous they are to living beings.

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