Monday, October 26, 2009

"By This Sign We Prosper" (Heart of Darkness, Part One)

Heart of Darkness:
Part One:
"By This Sign We Prosper"
Part Two: Christian Demographics Fun Facts
Part Three: Doing the Lord's Work In Rwanda
Part Four: Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from Rwanda
Part Five: Preparing the Way for Genocide in Rwanda

A Brief History of Monotheism in Africa

Most Africans (90+%) are either Christian or Muslim. And most live in countries that are overwhelmingly (80-99%) one or the other.

Islam is predominant in northern and eastern Africa, and this has been the case since the early days of Islam, over 1000 years ago. For the most part the Islamic conquest of those parts of Africa simply amounted to a transition from one monotheistic theocracy (Christendom) to another (Islam).

A minority (about 10%) of the Egyptian population remained Christian even after the Islamic conquest. Other than Egypt, Ethiopia was the only remaining Christian stronghold in Africa after the spread of Islam, that is, until the rise of European colonialism. One estimate is that there were only 9 million Christians in all of Africa as late as 1900 (only about 7% of the total African population of the time). Today there are close to half a billion Christians in Africa, somewhere between 40 and 45% of a total African population of around 1 billion.

The vast majority of Christians in Africa today are Christians because of only one reason: European colonialism. The history of monotheism in Africa is really very simple. First, Christianity was imposed by force from 324 to about 600 AD. Then Islam was imposed by force, starting a little after 650 AD, and the vast majority of those forced to convert to Islam were descendants of those who had already been forced to convert to Christianity. Then, in a process that had it's early beginnings as far back as the 1500's, but which dramatically accelerated in the late 1800's, the European Great Powers imposed Christianity by force, but almost exclusively in the non-Muslim parts of Africa.

It is interesting to note that the European colonialists were so circumspect in their missionary activities in places where Islam was already well established. This was a "professional courtesy" that the Muslims, in their youthful exhuberance, had neglected, for the most part, to extend to their brother monotheists during their own early conquests in Africa.

The Crime of the Congo

It is worth pausing to consider the magnitude of the great cultural genocide that has been accomplished in Africa in just slightly over a century. In that short time, the spiritual traditions of hundreds of millions of people has been nearly completely eliminated. These ancient traditions were still intact, although already under siege, in the days when my great grandparents were young. This was done by modern industrialized nations and by modern "denominations", not by black hooded medieval Inquisitors or Crusading knights on horseback.

What happened in the Congo provides crucial insights into what happened throughout Africa during this period of intense Colonialization and equally intense Christianization. In 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State, which was neither "free" nor a "state". It was a corporation, and Leopold was the only shareholder! It was a corporation with it's own private army, and it "owned" a territory 76 times larger than the nation of Belgium itself!

In 1905, Mark Twain wrote the satirical King Leopold's Soliloquy. On the front cover of an early edition there was a picture of a cross and a machete above the motto: "In This Sign We Prosper". In that same edition, the following text, in the shape of a cross (as below), faced the frontispiece:

The illustration on the frontispiece itself shows a flag waving bearded figure (Leopold) standing atop a large pyramid, the sky above filled with dark clouds and lightning flashes, and the ground below populated by neat rows of headless skeletons, all holding hands:

In the Soliloquy, Twain portrays Leopold as clutching and kissing a crucifix while bemoaning how unfairly he has been portrayed in the media because of the increasingly widely-known (at the time) violence of his "Free State" in the Congo. Leopold protests (to himself) that he is "oozing with piety at every pore" and that he has been solely concerned with the spiritual well-being of his 25 million Congolese subjects, whom he wishes to "lift up ... into the light, the light of our blessed Redeemer, the light that streams out from his holy Word, the light that makes glorious our noble civilization ...."

The King ends his soliloquy by comforting himself with the knowledge that his misdeeds in the Congo will go unpunished for two reasons. First of all, whatever "excesses" may have occurred are more than offset by the tremendous spiritual benefit derived from the conversion of the Congolese to the One True Faith. Second of all, Leopold realizes that when it comes right down to it, his fellow Christians and fellow Europeans are too ashamed by what they themselves have been a party to, so that when evidence is presented to them they will "shudder and turn away .... certainly that is my protection ... I know the human heart." Following this there is another cross shaped section of the text:

And following that there comes a "Supplement" added with the explanation that "Since the first edition of this pamphlet was issued, the Congo story has entered upon a new chapter." This "new chapter" was the result of the revelations emanating from King Leopold's own Commission of Inquiry. The Supplement ends with an interview titled simply "Ought King Leopold to be Hanged?".

Mark Twain wasn't the only well known writer to speak out on the issue of the Congo. In 1909 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his The Crime of the Congo, which begins like this:
There are many of us in England who consider the crime which has been wrought in the Congo lands by King Leopold of Belgium and his followers to be the greatest which has ever been known in human annals. I am very strongly of that opinion. There have been great expropriations like that of the Normans in England or of the English in Ireland. There have been massacres of populations like that of the South Americans by the Spaniards or of the subject nations by the Turks. But never before has there been such a mixture of wholesale wholesale expropriation and wholesale massacre all done under the an odious guise of philanthropy and with the lowest commercial motives as a reason. It is this sordid cause and the unctious hypocrisy which makes this crime unparalleled in its horror.
The Horror .... The Horror ....

It is a thankless business, quantifying human suffering. An even more unrewarding task is that of measuring and assessing the magnitude of human evil. Just how bad was "the crime of the Congo", and just how bad were the criminals who perpetrated it? It is crucial to point out (for now in passing, but in a later post in much more detail) that the most vocal critics of King Leopold were often (like Twain and Conan Doyle) to be found among the British and the Americans, whose savage policies towards the native inhabitants of the New World are unmatched in the annals of Genocide. Today comparisons between Leopold and Hitler are sometimes made, and such comparisons are hotly debated by knowledgeable and impassioned proponents on both sides. But what about comparisons between Andrew Jackson and Adolf Hitler?

The appalling fact is that much of the early 20th century rancor over the atrocities in the Congo was simply part of the cynical political maneuvering of colonial rivals: articles of cookware, all found in the same kitchen, all owned and operated by the same cook, all accusing each other of being foul, fiendish, infernal articles of cookware. The uber-sanctimoniousness of the screeds by Twain and Conan Doyle was only partially due to the very real horrors committed in the Congo by the Belgians. But, as I just promised, I'll have to return to the hypocrisy of the accusers later.

Belgium lurched into the Scramble for Africa very late in the game, but they lost no time in demonstrating that when it came to conquest and exploitation, the small nation of Belgium could run with the big dogs. Estimates in terms of human lives lost as a direct result of Belgian colonialism during the heyday of the Congo Free State vary from 3 to 10 million (between 2% and 8% of the total population of Africa at the time). One estimate is that the population of the area under the control of the Congo Free State declined from 30 million to only 8 million between 1885 and 1908!

In his 1995 book King Leopold's Ghost Adam Hochschild actually attempted to identify the original model for the character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Hochschild found that there were multiple candidates among the sociopaths in Leopold's employ, including more than one man who decorated his garden with the skulls of his victims. That was not the main point of Hochschild's book, though. In the Introduction to the book, Hochschild describes reading, in a footnote, a casual reference to Mark Twain's involvement in "a worldwide movement against slave labor in the Congo, a practice that had taken 5 to 8 million lives." Hochschild was stunned by the fact that he had never heard of either these atrocities or "the worldwide movement" condemning them, even though he had been a writer and researcher on the subject of human rights for years!

In his Personal Afterward, written after the initial publication and reactions (both praising and damning) of his book, Hochschild also spoke of the initial resistance he faced in getting the book published:
When I began working on it, it was surprisingly hard to get anyone interested. Of the ten New York publishers who saw a detailed outline of the book, nine turned it down. One suggested the story might work better as a magazine article. The others said there was no market for books on African history or simply felt Americans would not care about these events so long ago, in a place few could find on a map. Happily, the tenth publisher, Houghton Mifflin, had more faith in readers' ability to see connections between Leopold's Congo and today.
Not only has King Leopold's Ghost now sold hundreds of thousands of copies (not bad for a history book!), it has also been translated into a dozen languages, and it was the basis for an award winning documentary by the same name in 2006.