Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > “'A Fury of Generous Indignation': Critical Perspectives on King Leopold II’s Rule in the Congo Free State" by Ryan W. (Spring 2014)

“'A Fury of Generous Indignation': Critical Perspectives on King Leopold II’s Rule in the Congo Free State" by Ryan W. (Spring 2014)

                In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium was awarded control of the vast Congo Free State in the heart of Africa.  Tasked with the protection and betterment of the indigenous peoples and commanded to keep the territory open for merchants of all nations, Leopold choked out foreign trade and became sole benefactor of all goods pulled out of the territory.  The natives were paid next to nothing, and in many cases nothing at all, instead threatened into serving their Belgian overlords through threats of death or mutilation.  Western outcry against the atrocities committed within the Congo grew as more and more reports returned from the country, brought back by missionaries and government officials like Roger Casement.  Reform movements sprouted up in many countries, and they approached various political and literary figures to be the public faces of the movement.  In Great Britain it was Joseph Conrad and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in America it was Mark Twain.

                King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo was kicked off in 1885 when the Berlin Act granted him the territory to rule directly, without interference by Belgium’s Parliament.  He slowly choked off trade by foreigners in the region and began funneling the profits from the lucrative ivory and rubber trades into his own pockets.  In order to motivate the highly-underpaid natives to work, agents of Leopold’s government exacted all kinds of horrors in order to motivate their workers.  Reports began to leak out of the country of mass killings, mutilations, and other atrocities, and in the face of these allegations the British government sent Consul Roger Casement, who had previously worked in the country, on a fact-finding mission (ed. Murfin, p. 113).  Casement’s report, published in 1904, remarked how much the country had changed since he last worked there, and gave a detailed account of the various atrocities he saw there.  Of particular note were the Africans who’d had hands chopped off, because a number of pictures were circulated as examples of this vile act (p. 116 – 117).  Some lost hands because they failed to bring enough rubber to the Europeans (ed. Murfin, p. 116), while others lost hands because soldiers need to bring back the hand of a dead African for every shot they fired, and they’d make up the discrepancies by taking the hands of innocent bystanders (ed. Murfin, p. 114).

                Upon Casement’s return to England he found out King Leopold was attempting to suppress the contents of his report and in response he began to generate a public outcry against King Leopold within Great Britain, one of the first people he turned to being his friend, Joseph Conrad (“Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement,” Hawkins, p. 67).  Casement had met Conrad when the latter was working on a river steamer for the Belgian trading company, an experience which Conrad drew upon for his 1899 novel Heart of Darkness.  Within Heart of Darkness Conrad, through Marlow, conveyed his distaste for the cruelties of Leopold’s rule, rejecting the chain-ganged Africans (Conrad, p. 30), the sick natives left to die (Conrad, p. 31), and groups like the Eldorado Exploration Expedition (Conrad, p. 45).  Casement asked Conrad to lend his voice to the movement and Conrad responded with a letter comparing the atrocities committed in the Congo to slavery, which had been banned 75 years ago in Europe (“Joseph Conrad, …” Hawkins, p. 69 – 70).  With Conrad’s permission the reformers used this letter in a number of publications (“Joseph Conrad, …” Hawkins, p. 70 - 71), and in the meantime Conrad recruited a number of others to the cause, including his friend R. B. Cunninghame Graham, the socialist and anti-imperialist (“Joseph Conrad, …” Hawkins, p. 71).  However, despite all this Conrad never really became personally involved with the reform movement.  The reasons for this are unknown, but it was likely a combination of Conrad’s view that a writer had no place in the arena of international politics (“Joseph Conrad, …” Hawkins, p. 73), and because of his own personal pessimism that anti-imperialism efforts were futile (“Joseph Conrad, …” Hawkins, p. 76).

                In America, Mark Twain’s involvement with the Congo Reform Movements mirrors that of Conrad.  Twain, a self-confessed anti-imperialist, was approached by E. D. Morel, a friend of Roger Casement’s and head of the English Congo Reform Association (C.R.A.), and convinced to work for the betterment of the people in the Congo (“Mark Twain’s …” Hawkins, p. 148).  Twain wrote letters, gave speeches, and met with government officials, including once with President Theodore Roosevelt (“Mark Twain’s …” Hawkins, p. 148).  All of this was capped off with his 1905 pamphlet titled King Leopold’s Soliloquy, a satirical piece in which King Leopold gave an absolutely inadequate defense of his rule.  Leopold laughs off mass murders as overblown trifles, and jumps between saying all abuses have ceased and that they’re a necessary evil to keep things flowing.  King Leopold did his best to suppress the pamphlet, discouraging critical reviews and publishing a pamphlet of his own entitled An Answer to Mark Twain (“Mark Twain’s …” Hawkins, p. 159).  However, Twain quickly burnt out and stepped down from his role in the American C.R.A.  He was essentially their public face, and the number of things they asked him to do was simply more than a seventy year old man with several illnesses could bear (“Mark Twain’s …” Hawkins, p. 165).  He had also learned that the United States had never officially signed the Berlin Act, which meant that they had no stake in the running of the Congo Free State and, instead of being obligated to act in the defense of the native peoples, were instead better served staying out of it  (“Mark Twain’s …” Hawkins, p. 168).  Without any real change likely, Twain decided the C.R.A. was taking too much of his time.  He by no means gave up on the people of the Congo, however; instead, it apparently ate at him so much that he stopped receiving news of King Leopold or the Congo Free State altogether.  This is clear in a 1909 letter he wrote to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, another reformer and member of the English C.R.A, as he directs rage at both Leopold and western inaction, despite the fact that King Leopold had been removed from power in 1908 (“Mark Twain’s …” Hawkins, p. 174 – 175). 

                The involvement of Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad in the Congo reform movement was eerily similar: both felt strongly about the horrors occurring in the Congo, but chose not to become involved long term.  Conrad dropped out because of a feeling that he was out of line and a general lack of faith in humanity, while Twain had to step back for his health and due to the general inability of the US to become involved.  Despite the limited involvement of the two great authors, however, justice eventually came and Leopold was stripped of power.


Research Agenda:

Different perspectives on King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo Free State


Annotated Bibliography:

Twain, Mark.  King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule.  New York: International Publishers, 1970.  Web. <http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/i2l/kls.html>

Twain’s pamphlet presents a satirical defense of King Leopold II’s reign in the Congo Free State, which points out the various flaws in King Leopold’s thinking.  I am using this sources as an exhibit, alongside Heart of Darkness, but it also has use as a general background source.

Casement, Roger.  “Report of the British Consul, Roger Casement, on the Administration of the Congo Free State.”  Heart of Darkness.  ed. Ross C. Murfin.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011.  113 – 115.  Print.

Roger Casement’s report is a factual account of his travels throughout the Congo Free State, and it documents the various horrors and abuses he saw there.  This source is useful for background information. 

“Photographs of Mutilated Africans.”  Heart of Darkness.  ed. Ross C. Murfin.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2011.  116 – 118.  Print.  

These pictures provide examples of some of the horrifying mutilations that the Belgians exacted upon the people of the Congo Free State, most notably all of the removed hands.  This source provides context for others, making it a background source.

Hawkins, Hunt.  “Mark Twain's Involvement with the Congo Reform Movement: ‘A Fury of Generous Indignation.’”  The New England Quarterly.  51.2 (1978):  147 – 175.  Print.  <http://www.jstor.org/stable/364304

This article explains Mark Twain’s motivations and goals in trying to help the Congo Free State, with references to other anti-imperialist works that Twain produced.  This article is useful to me as an argument source for Twain’s writing.

Hawkins, Hunt.  “Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement.”  Journal of Modern Literature.  9.1 (1981 – 1982):  65 – 80.  Print.  <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831276>

This article describes Joseph Conrad’s involvement, physically and philosophically, with the Congo Reform Movement, in particular his relationship with British Consul Roger Casement.  This article is useful as an argument source for Heart of Darkness