A Geo-Political Expression of Sociopathy


Propaganda leaflet of the Belgian Ministry of Colonies, early 1920s

by Alexander McGregor

One hundred and fifty years ago, Leopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor became the king of the Belgians. Distressed that he had become the sovereign of a ‘small’ country, his desire for national greatness led to a criminal epoch almost defying human comprehension.

In 1876, Leopold II employed the popular explorer Henry Morton Stanley to cut him a piece of the ‘magnificent African cake’. Morton, so benignly remembered for his famous salutation, “Dr. Livingstone I presume”, set about his task in earnest. Stanley was referred to as ‘the Rock Breaker’, and his enormous baggage caravan is generally thought to be responsible for the spread of sleeping sickness across Central Africa.

Leopold soon took possession of a mighty swathe of land, and what transpired there from 1895 leads us to describe the so-called Congo Free State as a geo-political expression of sociopathy. During the years 1895 to 1908 this territory and its some twenty million people became the personal fiefdom of a European monarch. According to one of his ministers, Leopold had two ambitions in his life. The first was to disinherit his daughters; the second was to die a billionaire. The first goal was achieved with the arbitrary use of insane asylums, and the through the violent extraction of rubber from the Congo. According to Adam Hochschild, this came at the cost of an estimated 10 million Congolese lives, or 50 per cent of the population, in what amounts to a genocide the trauma of which is still felt today.

Leopold II of Belgium

Leopold II was himself considered a peculiar oddity by his European monarchical cousins. He could barely ride a horse and took instruction on sexual technique from Prince Albert. He appears to be the perfect argument against a determinist view of history. Yet, responsible as he may have been for the plague that struck the Congo, violence and terror are mutating viruses and once unleashed gleefully express their own desire for consumption and ruination.

The police mechanism tasked with administering the will of the king, the Force Publique, was instructed to account for each bullet fired from their rifles by providing the foot or the hand of the victim struck. This led to a grotesque wave of forced amputation, especially of children who did not possess the physical strength to resist, in order to meet the strict demands of the commanding officers. The suffering cannot be measured in the statistics of the dead. The high fever of this madness was beautifully expressed by Joseph Conrad in his novel Heart of Darkness, in which the full horror of Kurtz’s ambition to ‘exterminate the brutes’ is laid bare.

In the 19th Century, there was a general consensus that two sorts of European monarchs existed: the tyrant and the soldier. Leopold represented something different, something beyond perhaps the comprehension of the Liberal statesmen of the day. Of course, history is replete with such monstrous reputations. Robert Graves’ I, Claudius is a persuasive account of Caligula’s poisonous madness. Yet Leopold was not a ranting berserker, deranged and frothing at the mouth. Nor indeed was Kurtz. Both were intelligent, articulate, educated men, who justified genocide as one might the draining of marshland. Malaria breeds in swamps. Our actions are for the health and safety of the commonwealth. It is of course perhaps easier to approve or dictate the actions of your representatives from an austere office decorated in the legitimising paraphernalia of both state and history.

Meanwhile, according to Henry Borne, one junior European officer wrote,

The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. … The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber… They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace… the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.

“The mind of man is capable of anything because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future”, wrote Conrad in Heart of Darkness. This rather begs the historical question of responsibility. Were these actions the result of Leopold’s capriciousness or will? Or had the creation of a modern, bureaucratic, industrialised Europe bred this worldview? Both, either separately or working in tandem are popular explanations.

A part of this rationale is derived from the enduring legacy of Nazism. The existence of a possibly insane, certainly murderous tyrant exploiting to its fullest extent the destructive capacity of modern industry to both create an empire and purge it of perceived vermin provides a template with which we can explain what might otherwise be beyond explanation. Indeed, there is more than an echo of Nazi rhetoric in the musings of Kurtz. “Your strength”, Conrad has him claim, “is just an accident owed to the weakness of others”.

As a historical explanation this template serves a useful purpose. It articulates the sense of crypto-fascistic, racial superiority that was arguably held by Leopold. But it also suggests that there were environmental or functionalist factors that inspired or influenced events. This is why historians need always to be mindful of rushing to a conclusion that explains the past through the madness of one man’s mind. Certainly, in a figurative sense madness is perhaps the single, most perfect word to use to describe the nature of what happened in the Congo Free State but to ascribe it as the root cause of Leopold’s actions feels reductionist. After all, H. P. Lovecraft has taught us that there are older forces, lying just out of our reach that drives us to insanity.

It is beyond the historian’s skills to clinically diagnose the dead but we must certainly discuss the architecture of that madness. An understanding of psychology and cognitive sciences could help us to gain insight into the mechanisms of sociopathy and, more broadly, enable us to rehumanise the study of history. But, as implied above, there are also deeper historical trends that we need to comprehend in order to produce that architecture. How corrosive were the 19th century ideological trends of nationalism and imperialism? To what extent had they been built on the trauma suffered during the Napoleonic Wars before them and the 30 Years War before that? Here we are able to operate a certain Orwellian doublethink. Popularly, we can recognise that both nationalism and imperialism, certainly in unfettered forms, led to disaster. Again, Nazism, sometimes helpfully and sometimes not, provides the template for this, but simultaneously we still hold that the nation state is a natural and legitimate concept. And whilst the existence of a nation state does not inherently mean the presence of dehumanising imperialism, there remains connective tissue, however thin, between the two. It is the compartmentalisation of this sentiment that has allowed governments of European nations to process their own bloody history. As if somehow the existence of greater acts of horror somewhere else by someone else erase one’s own deeds.

On the 150th anniversary of Leopold II’s assent to the throne of Belgium, it is perhaps an appropriate time to remember that history does not happen in a vacuum nor spring solely from the whims of a single mind. Kurtz had gone mad and he had committed unspeakable atrocities. The rubber company wanted him quietly removed so as to spare them embarrassment but Marlowe, the man they sent up the river to extract him, came face-to-face with the full horror of Kurtz’s actions and held him rightly responsible. History’s story should not end there. What had brought Kurtz to the Congo in the first place? And indeed what could be learnt from his story that might help us to ensure that such things never happen again?

About the Author:

Alexander McGregor is the author of The Catholic Church and Hollywood (2013) and The Shaping of Popular Consent (2007). He was awarded a PhD in History from the University of East Anglia and is the head of history at the United World College of South East Asia. His research interests include cultural theory, ideology, propaganda and education.