"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.