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Colonization as civilizing mission

There’s hardly any controversy today about the motivation for Europe’s colonization of other nations that it was driven by commercial interests and geopolitical rivalry.8 But at the time, it was rationalized as a civilizing mission to make it palatable to those who might otherwise object.

In any case, the combination of the two national interests and their camouflage made European explorers national heroes in their respective home countries. That was especially the case of the French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. A pervasively glowing account of his exploits in Africa “recast the often sordid, inhumane, and unsuccessful history of French imperialism into the heart-warming story of a gentle explorer who persuaded Africans to devote themselves and their lands to a generous France.”9

More than anyone else though, it was the accounts of Henry Morton Stanley, the 19th-century Welsh-American journalist and explorer, that created the most enduring image of Africa and the colonial mission. Stanley is widely known for “finding” Dr. Livingston in Africa and greeting him, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Not as widely known is that he was also the one who coined the pejorative phrase “the dark continent” in reference to Africa. Stanley was by no means the first explorer to portray Africans pejoratively, but he was a talented journalist, and that gave his dispatches and books much appeal and exposure. In effect, there was symbiosis between the colonial enterprise and journalistic pursuits in Africa.

The economic motivation for colonization is readily traceable to the industrial revolution, which gave rise to mass production. That in turn created immense need for raw materials as well as the market for exports. Colonialism provided an expeditious fulfillment of both needs. In fact, so valuable were the colonies that European countries nearly fought wars over Africa. It took a conference—the Berlin Conference in 1885—to avert that spectacle.

Beyond commercial interests, colonial occupation was also a status symbol, much as slave ownership was subsequently to become in the United States. France, for example, needed to boost its self-image and global stature after the carnage of its revolution and the debilitating

Dark history of distinctions 81 aftermath. And some established countries sought to preserve their status. “By the 1880s, competition from France, Germany, and Russia forced Britain to aggressively defend its once unshakable standing in the world.”10

And then there was the factor of press history. Until the early 1800s, the press in the United States and Europe were political or mercantile in orientation. Either they catered to the political interests of their owners or they focused on news that facilitated industry and business operations. Then came an occupational revolution, a transition to press independence, and a focus on mass circulation. That entailed a shift in emphasis to news that appealed to the general public, which meant a good dose of the scintillating.

It was in this context that Stanley chronicled Africa for British and American newspapers, especially the New York Herald. He also wrote a number of widely read books, including Through the Dark Continent. 11 In neither media was Stanley’s contempt for Africans subtle. In one book, he likened the natives’ manner of speech to that of the great apes. Listening to the apes from a distance, he wrote, he “could not distinguish any great difference between the noise they created and that which a number of villagers might make while quarrelling.”12 And in the same work, he described as “barbarous and exhilarating chorus”13 the singing by natives paddling him down a river.

And then there is the tragic irony that Stanley had no qualms narrating his brutality to the natives. In a dispatch on how he found Dr. Livingston, for example, Stanley wrote this of his treatment of exhausted escorts:

The virtue of a good whip was well tested by me ... and I was compelled to observe that when mud and wet sapped the physical energy of the lazily-inclined, a dog-whip became their backs, restoring them to a sound—and sometimes to an extravagant activity.14

Such brutality was actually the norm of the colonial enterprise. Natives who resisted colonial incursion were massacred, and when captured their leaders were often executed or exiled. And coercion was often implicit in the gunboats offshore. Given that the colonial enterprise was ostensibly a civilizing mission, it would seem that force and brutality were the normal means of civilizing the uncivilized.

Such practice was commonplace among all the colonial powers. Even then, Belgium’s rule of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo stood out. That has been attributed to the fact that Congo was administered as a personal possession of King Leopold II.15 The autocratic and brutal colonial rule is also blamed in part for Congo’s post-independence despotism and perennial civil war.

In June 2020, the current holder of the office, King Philippe, acknowledged the uncommon brutality of Belgium colonial rule of Congo and expressed regrets. Philippe expressed the regrets in a letter to the Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi on the occasion of Congo’s 60th independence anniversary. It was also in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests that spread from the United States to Europe, including Belgium.

“At the time of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory,” the letter reads in part.

The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation. I would like to express my deepest regrets for these injuries of the past, the pain of which is now given new life by the discrimination still too present in our societies.

The Washington Post reported on June 30 that Philippe stopped short of an apology because that would have required an act of Parliament.

Even then, the expression of regret contrasted sharply with what the then reigning Belgian monarch said on the occasion of Congo’s independence in 1960. Rather than condemn the violence and brutality, King Baudouin praised his predecessor for ruling Congo with “tenacious courage” and “not as a conqueror but as a civilizer” (Washington Post, June 30, 2020).

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