Thursday, April 17, 2014

King Leopold's Soliloquy 

Look at these maps.  The one on the left is a map of Africa before the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885.  The one on the right is a map of Africa after representatives of 13 European countries and the U.S. met in Berlin, with a map of Africa on the table before them, and not a single African person present, and decided among themselves which countries would be "given" what territories.  "The African politico-geographical map is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the three months of ignorant, greedy, acquisitiveness during a period when Europe's search for minerals and markets had become insatiable" (Blij and Muller).
When I teach literature, I feel it necessary to share the historical context of the text, greatly increasing students' understanding. So before we discussed "King Leopold's Soliloquy," a pamphlet written by Mark Twain in 1902, wherein he puts words in King Leopold's mouth, I taught the class about the "scramble for Africa" and explained how one person, King Leopold, came to own over 905,000 square miles of prime land in Central Africa - the large red-shaded land in the middle of the map on the right.

"King Leopold's Soliloquy" is similar, in some ways, to "A Modest Proposal," in that Twain wrote the satirical pamphlet to alert the world to the atrocities being committed by King Leopold in Congo.  He had promised to bring education, health care and Christianity to the Congo, but what he did bring was enslavement, oppression and death.  Over a period of about 20 years, over 10 million Congolese died.  The majority of my students had never heard of King Leopold or what happened in the Congo.

The actual pamphlet is very well written, in typical irreverent, unapologetic Twain style.  The reader learns all about what King Leopold has done, supposedly from King Leopold's own mouth (through Twain).  He even incorporates primary sources, reports from missionaries who are trying to help the Congolese, and eyewitness accounts from others.  After we discussed the text, a Kenyan student shared his personal insights into the effects of colonialism in Kenya.  That personal, first-person account was enlightening.

We also read a short letter by George Washington Williams, an African-American author, soldier and legislator who traveled to the Congo to see firsthand if King Leopold was truly helping the Africans.  Williams met first with King Leopold in Belgium, and the king tried to dissuade Williams from traveling to the Congo.  Pretty suspicious, wouldn't you say??  When Williams' highly critical first-person account was printed, King Leopold staged an aggressive attack against Williams, vilifying him in the press.  I read an incredible article in the New York Times in 1891. The illustrious New York Times believed the character attacks, and thus Williams' true account of what happened in the Congo was not believed, and millions more Congolese died over the next ten years.  Williams died shortly after returning from the Congo, at the young age of only 42.  He is a pretty fascinating guy -- and may end up in one of my books in the future.

So my students learned  a bit of history, literature, and politics.  It was a great class.  Next week is the poet laureate of India -- Rabindranath Tagore.

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