Review: King Leopold’s Ghost (Adam Hochschild)

King Leopold’s Ghost has the most compelling opening I have ever read

 

The beginnings of this story lie far back in time, and its reverberations still sound today. But for me a central incandescent moment,  one that illuminates long decades before and after, is a young man’s flash of moral recognition.

The year is 1897 or 1898.  Try to imagine him, briskly stepping off a cross-Channel steamer, a forceful, burly man in his mid-twenties, with a handlebar mustache.  He is confident and well spoken, but his British speech is without the polish of Eton or Oxford.  He is well dressed, but the clothes are not from Bond Street.  With an ailing mother and a wife and growing family to support, he is not the sort of person likely to get caught up in an idealistic cause.  His ideas are thoroughly conventional.  He looks-and is- every inch the sober, respectable business man.

Edmund Dene Morel is a trusted employee of a Liverpool shipping line.  A subsidiary of the company has the monopoly on all transport of cargo to and from the Congo Free State, as it is then called, the huge territory in central Africa that is the world’s only colony claimed by one man.  That man is King Leopold II of Belgium, a ruler much admired throughout Europe as a “philanthropic” monarch.  He has welcomed Christian missionaries to his new colony; his troops, it is said, have fought and defeated local slave-traders who preyed on the population; and for more than a decade European newspapers have praised him for investing his personal fortune in public works to benefit the Africans.

Because Morel speaks fluent French, his company sends him to Belgium every few weeks to supervise the loading and unloading of ships on the Congo run.  Although the officials he works with have been handling this shipping traffic for years without a second thought, Morel begins to notice things that unsettle him.  At the docks of the big port of Antwerp he sees his company’s ships arriving filled to the hatch covers with valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory.  But they case off their hawsers to steam back to the Congo, while military bands play on the pier and eager young men in uniform line the ships’ rails, what they carry is mostly army officers, firearms, and ammunition.  There is no trade going on here.  Little or nothing is being exchanged for the rubber and ivory.  As morel watches these riches streaming to Europe with almost no goods being sent to Africa to pay for them, he realizes there can be only one explanation for their source: slave labor.

Brought face to face with evil, Morel does not turn away.  Instead, what he sees determines the course of his life and course of an extraordinary movement, the first great international human rights movement of the twentieth century.  Seldom has one human being- impassioned, eloquent, blessed with brilliant organizing skills and nearly superhuman energy- managed almost single-handedly to put one subject on the world’s front pages for more than a decade.  Only a few years after standing on the docks of Antwerp, Edmund Morel would be at the White House, insisting to President Theodore Roosevelt that the United States had a special responsibility to do something about the Congo.  He would organize delegations to the British Foreign Office.  He would mobilize everyone from Booker T. Washington to Anatole France to the Archbishop of Canterbury to join his cause.  More than two hundred mass meetings to protest slave labor in the Congo would be held across the United Sates.  A larger number of gatherings in England- nearly three hundred a year at the crusade’s peak- would raw as many as five thousand people at a time.  In London, one letter of protest to the Times on the Congo would be signed by eleven peers, nineteen bishops, seventy-six members of Parliament, the presidents of seven Chambers of Commerce, thirteen editors of major newspapers, and every lord mayor in the country.  Speeches about the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo would be given as far away as Australia.  In Italy, two men would fight a duel over the issue.  British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, a man not given to overstatement, would declare that “no external question for at least thirty years has moved the country so strongly and so vehemently.”

This is the story of that movement, of the savage crime that was its target, of the long period of exploration and conquest that preceded it, and of the way the world has forgotten one of the great mass killings of recent history.

This kind of thing is my heroism porn. Most movies are about people that set out to be heroes; they look at the costs and benefits and decide it is a trade off worth making.  That is great, and I don’t want to diminish it.  But they can build their lives around it, and that does reduce the costs.  What I find most affecting is people that were living ordinary lives who encounter something they cannot let stand, and don’t.  It was particularly touching in the case of Morel, who didn’t have to know what he knew.  Lots of people were on that dock and didn’t know or didn’t care.  He figured it out and switched tracks in his life when it would have been easy to pretend everything was okay. Everyone I talked to for the last two weeks heard how beautiful I found that.   I used the story to talk myself into doing things that were a little bit hard because they were so much less hard than what Morel did.

Here’s the story I told:  Under a humanitarian guise that fooled most Europeans at the time, Leopold created a form of slavery even worse than that of North America or even the Caribbean.  Men were worked to death attempting to free their wives and children from slavery.  Against that, Edward Morel and and increasing number of allies publicize the atrocities until Leopold backs down.  

This would be a really good story, and it’s what I thought was happening for most of the book, even while my knowledge that the modern Congo isn’t all sunshine and roses gnawed at me.  

In the last hour, it gets more complicated.     Yes, slavery went away and the rubber harvest (driver of much of the atrocities) declined.  But… the rubber decline could have been caused entirely by cultivated rubber farms coming online.  And Belgium may have stopped anything called slavery, they got about the same amount of financial value for about the same amount of violence out of their taxation system.  I realize the phrases “taxation is slavery” and “taxation is theft” are fairly loaded, but I think everyone can agree that people coming in from elsewhere to demand taxes and provide nothing of value to their subjects is Bad.  

And while there are the statistics that make the Congo look particularly bad, they’re mostly an artifact of size.  Per capita the other European powers in Africa were just as bad, and at the same time England (Morel’s home) was exterminating aborigines in Australia and America was going scorched earth on the Philippines (plus its usual policy towards American Indians).  

I could forgive Morel for advocating for a gentler form of colonialism.  People can only be so much better than their time, and a more correct person possibly couldn’t have accomplished as much because no one would listen to them. But my admiration for this man was very tied to the fact that he saw something he didn’t have to see, and chose to pursue it.  If he was blinding to himself to similar atrocities closer to home- especially when a great deal of African colonization, including Leopold’s rape of the Congo, was done under the guise of protecting Africans from Arab Slave Traders.

We don’t know Morel did nothing.  He went on to lead the pacifist movement against WW1, which was probably the right side but it’s even harder to argue he changed history for the better there.  But we don’t know he did something either.

This is a disappointing ending for a man I was well into planning how to get a Petrov-day style holiday.  He did better than average at seeing the horrors in front of him, but still not the ones that were done by his in-group.  It’s debatable if he accomplished anything.  He still sacrificed a lot, but I’m not prepared to valorize that alone.  It’s not even a good effective altruist cautionary tale because even with 100 years of hindsight it’s not clear what he could have done better.  Even focusing on Leopold’s horrors instead of England’s might have been the correct decision, since it let him gather stronger allies.

The book is beautifully written and read.  For whatever reason I was sadder and less callous listening to this than I am to most atrocities- maybe it was the writing, maybe because it was entirely new to me and I hadn’t had time to develop a shell.  And as heartbroken as I was to have my new hero brought down, I really admire the book for being willing to include that complexity when it could have gotten away with ignoring it.  So I can’t recommend it highly enough, assuming you want to be very sad.

“But they’ve repaid the debt several times over”

This gets repeated a lot in Debt (David Graeber), and in the world in general.  It annoys me.

Would you rather have $100 now, or in a month?  I’m guessing now, unless your tax circumstances are about to change drastically.  How much additional money would it take for you to prefer payment in a month?  $10?  $15?  What if there were transactions costs to receive payment were significant?  What if there was risk involved?  The fact that you would rather have money sooner than later is known as the time value of money.

This is the principle behind interest on a loan: you’re compensating the lender for them not having the money until later.

How much of an increase would you need to agree to delay receiving some money by 50 years, instead of $100 now?  I’m guessing it is a lot.  Many times the original $100.  The implication of the phrase “but they’ve repaid the debt several times over” is that this is morally wrong.  But if you’re not referencing the timespan on which that repayment took place, the statement is meaningless.  To compare apples to apples you need to do a present value calculation, which tells you the equivalent of what they paid if it had been delivered as a lump sum at the beginning.

This statement often gets entangled with the idea of usury (unfairly or immorally high interest rates).  I am not a big fan of the usury taboo: you’re not hurting someone by giving them the option to take a loan .  The counterargument is that deal was opaque (which is a fair criticism) or that the borrowers circumstances were so bad they had no choice.  Which is definitely a thing, but… maybe we should fix the problem at that end?  Much like debt forgiveness this appears to be a call to give poor countries/people more money, with a layer of obfuscation added by debt.  I am extremely curious why this seems to be more attractive than my solution “just give them money”.

Debt: The First 5000 Years (David Graeber)

This book seriously changed my thinking when I first read it, and I’ve shared many cool ideas from it, but I’ve found that when the ideas are challenged I don’t know enough to defend them.  So I’m going to reread the book and really dig in, with the following goals:

  1. Understand and be able articulate Graeber’s ideas without ambiguity
  2. Look up the data he cites and opposing arguments
  3. Update my beliefs based on what I learn

And I’m going to publish it here, probably chapter by chapter but if I need to break it down smaller I will.

What I publish will be a mix of “my understanding of his arguments”, “steelmen of his arguments”, “his argument updated by other things I know” and “things this made me think about”.  I will try to make it obvious what’s my opinion and what is his, but the application of the principle of charity is inevitably biased by what I consider charitable.

A few people have expressed interest in doing a small group chat over Whatever, in response to my “talk to me for an hour” offer.  If there’s enough interest, this strikes me as a good topic for that, so let me know if you’re interested.

And now, Debt: The Introduction.

You know what would be helpful?  A definition of debt.  Here is my idealized definition of debt:

Person A has a way to spend money to make more money later, but not the initial starting money (capital).  Person B has money, but no way to spend it to make more money.  Person B gives person B the money and A gives B money on a set schedule, up to a certain amount.  Everyone is better off.  Hurray.  The difference between debt and investment is that debts are owed no matter what, whereas in investment the risk is shared.

Graeber definitely isn’t using that definition.  There are a number of examples he gives that make me want to scream the chronological distribution of payment is not the issue here.  E.g.:

  • France billed Madagascar for their own invasion, and for the building of infrastructure they didn’t want.  Madagascar not having the cash on hand to pay them, this became a debt paid by onerous taxes.  Graeber claims Madagascar is still paying France, but I don’t trust him that this is the same bill.  He provides no source for this claim and I couldn’t find one.  But the wikipedia article on the subject makes it sounds like France had a bit of a dust up and somehow found itself running Madagascar, so I’m not convinced it’s unbiased.
  • France billed Haiti for the property damaged and confiscated during the Haitian slave rebellion, and convinced the rest of the world to embargo Haiti (unclear how long this lasted).  Haiti finished paying this in 1947.  No seriously, they had to pay France for no longer being slaves.
  • A Japanese legend about a woman who committed various commercial misdeeds, including loaning rice with a small cup and reclaiming it with a large cup.  The problem here is theft by deception.
  • Also in Madagascar: in the early 80s Madagascar had a resurgence of malaria, after almost wiping it out, because they couldn’t pay for their anti-malaria programs any more.  Graeber blames the IMF, which imposed austerity in order to refinance loans made by first world banks to Madagascar.  He makes no mention of whether Madagascar would have been able to pay for mosquito programs absent the loans.
  • As late as the 1970s, moneylenders in the Himalayas would take borrowers’ daughters as collateral and rape them as interest payments.  (source: “Galey 1983”, which probably exists because google scholar found other citations to it, but not the piece itself).  No one would have been happier if fathers had the ability to compel their daughters into prostitution proactively.
  • Graeber’s strongest point is that much of the debt owed by third world countries was taken by dictators and used for either personal enrichment or to repress the populace that is now forced to pay it.  Which is an extremely fair point, but still not any worse than repressive taxation in general.

So that’s a whole bunch of times the economic concept of debt was not the problem.  But… maybe the social constructs around debt let humans do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (this seems especially likely in the dictator case).  This seems curiously tied up with the concept of quantification (which is how he distinguishes between a debt and an obligation).  The way this makes sense to me is that this is an anthropology of debt, not an exploration of the economics

 

This is not a comprehensive summary of the chapter but it’s odds and ends and I don’t want this to turn into liveblogging, so they’ll all wait till their own chapter.