King Leopold II of Belgium

 

The Legacy of King Leopold II and the Torment of Felix Charmettant

by

Karim Ajania

Felix Charmettant, the personal priest, confidante and chaplain to King Leopold II of Belgium, is a character in my play, The Mauresque.

In real life, Charmettant was the previous owner of the Villa Mauresque which was subsequently purchased in 1927 by W. Somerset Maugham.

King Leopold II of Belgium had left a tangled and tragic legacy in the Congo and one can only imagine that during his confession sessions with Felix Charmettant, Leopold transmitted a torturous torment for Charmettant. One could say that the Scramble for Africa of which Leopold was at the very heart and core, must have likely scrambled the mind and heart and soul of Felix Charmettant. Which brings me to a philosophical question for which I have no answer:

How does a priest like Felix Charmettant unscramble and sanitize the soul of a man like King Leopold?

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Félix Charmettant (1844-1921)

How can Charmettant ‘unscramble’ the soul of King Leopold? 

That is the question I grapple with in the play, The Mauresque. A much more important question for today’s world is this: how would we even begin to imagine the Unscramble for Africa ? That is a question I grapple with as the Founder and the Editor-in-Chief of the African Peace Journal.

Perhaps we can start from the central core of the continent (Congo) and then work our way outward to the remaining countries in Africa?

There are two definitions of the word “scramble” that apply to the African Continent:

1. “to move with urgency or panic”.

This definition applies to the 19th Century European scramble – or, extreme urgency – to divide and colonize the African continent.

2. “to disarrange (jumble)”.

The European “scramble” (urgency) for power and control of Africa led to the African continent becoming disarranged and “scrambled” into a web of botched broken borders and constricting chaotic colonialism. The dark souls of powerful men like King Leopold sought absolution from pious men like Felix Charmettant. As one of the richest men in the world in the early 20th Century, Leopold was willing to pay handsomely to have his soul cleansed by priests like Charmettant.

He installed  Charmettant in a luxurious villa in the South of France as he did his mistresses. Leopold purchased villas for his priests and villas for his mistresses.

Leopold purchased villas for his priests and villas for his mistresses.

Charmettant’s own soul, by association with his king, Leopold, must also have been engulfed and entangled in chaos and darkness. Like a gathering storm.

As a playwright, I have imagined that gathering storm of engulfing and entangling chaos and darkness, like a fluid and slithering demon, as it passed through the dark soul of King Leopold II to his priest, Felix Charmettant, and then slithered into the soul of the new resident of The Mauresque, W. Somerset Maugham.

I imagine that Maugham felt the unsettling presence of the intensely dark storm at The Mauresque which, like a poisonous parasite, ate away at his creative spirit.

I imagine that Maugham sought to travel all the way to the Indian Himalayas to seek a way through the darkness, back into the light, to reclaim his creative spirit.

I imagine that King Leopold’s ghost, which then became Felix Charmettant’s ghost, and then W. Somerset Maugham’s ghost, haunted and tormented Maugham.

1901

African Peace Journal sees a story of hope as we look forward to the future. African Peace Journal is interested in the “Unscramble fro Africa”.

In the 21st Century, the African continent is on the eve of an “unscramble” and the African Peace Journal is documenting this Unscramble for Africa.

The dictionary definition of the word “unscramble”:

1. To separate (as from a tangle) into original components – to resolve and to clarify

2. To restore to original form, to reinstate as new

The Scramble for Africa

A good place to begin to understand the Scramble is with Thomas Pakenham’s seminal work, The Scramble for Africa.

scramble“In scarcely half a generation during the late 1800s, six European powers sliced up Africa like a cake.

The pieces went to Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Belgium; they acquired 30 new colonies and 110 million subjects. Although African rulers resisted, many battles were one-sided massacres.

In 1904 the Hereros…revolted against German rule. Their punishment was genocide–24,000 driven into the desert to starve; those who surrendered were sent to forced labor camps to be worked to death. In a dramatic, gripping chronicle, Pakenham floodlights the “dark continent” and its systematic rape by Europe. At center stage are a motley band of explorers, politicians, evangelists, mercenaries, journalists and tycoons blinded by romantic nationalism or caught up in the scramble for loot, markets and slaves.

In an epilogue Pakenham tells how former colonial powers still dominate the economies of African nations, most of which are under one-party or dictatorial rule.”

- Publishers Weekly on Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa

Scramble

Villas in the South of France

A villa in the South of France can sometimes cost well over $10 Million.

Premium prices apply to such desirable areas in the Côte d’Azur as Cap D’Antibe, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and Cap Ferrat.

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Hôtel du Cap in Antibe in the South of France

The Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc first opened its doors to guests in 1870, or, 15 years before the Scramble for Africa in 1885.

It was a hotel where both the 19th Century King Leopold of Belgium and the 20th Century “President-for-Life” of Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, enjoyed cocktails.

King Leopold and President-for-Life Mobuto owned French villas in successive centuries of profitable exploitation of The Congo.

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Mobutu Sese Seko, President for Life of the Congo

Petrus-1947Mobuto enjoyed the best wines while at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in France. When he was at his castle in Portugal, he enjoyed dipping into his $2.3 Million wine collection in the castle cellar.

In the early 1990′s, Mobuto held a banquet at his villa in the South of France manned with 35 servants. He opened two bottles of wine for his table – a Chateau Petrus 1947 and a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945.

The cost of Mobuto’s two wine bottles: over US $9,000.

Below is the Villa Leopold, one of the many homes of King Leopold II of Belgium (source: Forbes dot com).

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Villa Leopold on the French Riviera

Adam Hochschild explains the alignment in values between European King Leopold in the 19th Century and African President Mobuto in the 20th Century:

leokingThose who are conquered,’ wrote the philosopher Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, ‘always want to imitate the conquerer in his main characteristics – his clothing, his crafts, and all his distinct traits and customs’. 

Mobuto’s luxurious Villa del Mare, a pink-and-white marble colonnaded chateau at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riveria, complete with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, gold-fitted bathrooms, and heliport, lay a dozen miles down the coast from estates Leopold once owned at Cap Ferrat.” 

Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, page 304

Hôtel du Cap on the French Riveria

The swimming pool built into the cliff at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibe

The price of King Leopold II’s villas in the South of France

Placed beside Leopold – Nero, Caligula, Attilo, Torquemada and Genghis Khan are mere amateurs.”

 

Mark Twain in a statement published in the New York World, 1905

The most accurate – and gruesome – way to measure the cost of King Leopold’s villas in the South of France is in the numbers of people whipped and numbers of hands severed.

whipping“Under the reign of terror instituted by King Leopold II of Belgium (who ran the Congo Free State as his personal fief from 1885 to 1908), the population of the Congo was reduced by half — as many as 8 million Africans (perhaps even 10 million, in Hochschild’s opinion) lost their lives

Some were beaten or whipped to death for failing to meet the rigid production quotas for ivory and rubber harvests, imposed by Leopold’s agents. Some died of the diseases introduced to (and spread throughout) the Congo by Europeans. And still others died from the increasingly frequent famines that swept the Congo basin as Leopold’s army rampaged the countryside, appropriating food and crops for its own use while destroying villages and fields.

leopoldhands

Hostage-taking and the grisly severing of hands (from corpses or from living human beings) were part of the government’s policy — a means of terrorizing others into submission.

As the “rubber terror” spread through the Congolese rain forest, Hochschild adds, entire villages were wiped out: Hundreds of dead bodies were dumped in rivers and lakes and baskets of severed hands were presented to white officers as evidence of how many people had been killed.

Michiko Kakutani’s review of King Leopold’s Ghost, New York Times, September 1, 1998

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“Like the hostage taking, severing of hands was deliberate policy as the government officials would later admit:

 

‘During my time in the Congo I was the first commissioner of the Equator district,’ recalled Charles Lemaire after his retirement. ‘As soon as it was a question of rubber, I wrote to the government, ‘To gather rubber in the district … one must cut off hands, noses and ears. If a village refused to submit to the rubber regime, troops shot everyone in sight, so nearby villages got the message.”

 

– Adam HochschildKing Leopold’s Ghost, page 165.

AliceHarris

heart_of_darknessIt was Joseph Conrad, more than any other writer of his time, that saw “the horror, the horror” of King Leopold’s Congo. Published in 1902, Heart of Darkness had a rapid political impact and was cited by writers such as TS Elliot.

“Joseph Conrad’s slim novel may be the single most influential hundred pages of the 20th century… Conrad’s artistic challenge was to make the world he saw visible to others. It’s a political challenge too. Sometimes writers reveal a hidden situation, sometimes campaigners do, and sometimes it’s just an accident. Few of us had much idea about the conditions in which copper is mined—everyday copper for plumbing, electrics, saucepans and coins—before 33 Chilean miners found themselves trapped 2,000 feet underground.” 

R. Butler, The Economist Magazine, Winter 2010

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.” 

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902

anthillsAs I had mentioned in a previous post referencing colonialism (Burmese Days), African author Chinua Achebe creates a thinly veiled character reference to Mobutu in his novel, Anthills of the Savannah.

The most awful thing about power is not that it corrupts absolutely but that it makes people so utterly boring, so predictable.

 

– Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

Mobuto had amassed a personal fortune of some $5 Billion while serving as President-for-Life of The Congo.

He was practicing the kleptocracy that the 14th Century poet Ibn Khaldun had predicted as inevitable in the quest to “imitate the conquerer” – the conquerer in this case being King Leopold II.

Unknotting Africa

When I was in the boy scouts growing up in Nairobi, our scout masters taught us how to tie very firm and durable knots.

Boy scout knots are tied in a manner that can be untied and untangled at a moment’s notice.

bs_knot_board

Everything Starts Somewhere

The chaotic constrictive knots clumsily cobbled together by the European powers who cruelly colonized Africa are a scrambled mess of botched borders and broken spirits. They will take a long time to restore and untangle and unscramble. The people who historically tied these tangled knots, from Leopold to Mobuto to Cecil Rhodes to Idi Amin, were not exactly boy scouts. So the knots they tied in countries like Congo and South Africa and Uganda were intensely tangled. Nevertheless, the process of untangling and unscrambling Africa must now start with unconstrained and inspired ideas for peace. We need to start somewhere.

Everything starts somewhere.