July 15, 2010

Belgians in the Congo!: On King Leopold's Soliloquy

In Billy Joel's song _We Didn't Start the Fire_, there are a lot of lyrics that seem nonsensical unless you can get a hold of a written copy of the lyrics. One of the lines that you don't an interpreter to understand is the words: "Belgians in the Congo". When I was younger I just thought that that was a key word for a generalized dislike of all imperialism.

Naturally, as a product of the American school system, I did not have my earlier ideas refuted. I have learned only tangentially of the horrors that stands behind the idea of what "Belgians in the Congo" really means. It means more than imperialism. What it means is one of the first stabs at genocide in the world, decimating the people of central Africa to take advantage of the natural resources.

King Leopold of Belgium's reign in the Congo was lamentable for many, and a point of inspitation for too many. The actions taken prefigured a bloody twentieth century where the powerful make the powerless submit or be disfigured or killed. As one of the main human rights issues of the time (as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth), not just King Leopold was at fault, but the entire industrialized was complicit in allowing its continuance.

Twain saw the hypocrisy in allowing this to continue, and penned this fine text against the atrocities of the Congo. He takes the persona of King Leopold himself, embattled by the reformers who wish him to change. By taking this voice, or master satirist shows why he in many ways is still the conscious of our country. The argument is made with such force I wanted to go out and do what I could to stop them, even if they are too far away to reverse.

The Soliloquy itself is short, and padded out with extra explanatory detail and historical context the book is still under a hundred pages. I read through it quickly and enjoyed the contextual material. I might search out more of this untold history, but nothing can have the voice Twain gives Leopold.