Ode to Ota Benga

by Lester Allyson Knibbs, Ph.D.
(formerly Hakeem Muhammad)

Background:
Events in the Congo 1885-1908
    The regime [the "Congo Free State"], under [the King of Belgium] Leopold's unrestrained personal control, became notorious for the treatment of the inhabitants.  Forced labour was used to gather wild rubber, palm oil, and ivory; lashings and the taking of hostages were techniques for encouraging villages to meet their rubber quotas.  Belgians introduced mutilation as a common punishment even for minor offenses.  Brutality was widespread in mines and on plantations.  The population of the entire state is said to have declined from 20,000,000 or 30,000,000 to 8,000,000.  Finally indignation among people in England and other parts of Europe rose to such a point that Leopold agreed to transfer his personal powers in the Congo to the Belgian government.  In 1908 the Congo Free State was abolished and replaced by the Belgian Congo, a colony controlled by the Belgian parliament.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed.  MICROPAEDIA: s.w. "Congo Free State"
... at the Berlin Conference of 1884, the ... European powers handed over to the Belgian monarch the greater part of the Congo basin -- an area covering about one million square miles.  The Berlin Conference ... turned over this vast territory to King Leopold's International African Association.  In August, 1885, the king gave notice that his Association would from then on be known as the "Congo Free State," with himself as the sovereign of the realm.  Leopold issued decrees declaring all land, ivory, and rubber as property of the state -- namely, himself.  Then the Belgian Secretary of State ordered the Governor-General of the so-called Congo Free State to "neglect no means of exploiting the forests."  This was done with murderous cruelty; and Leopold derived a profit of about $1,500,000 a year from the operation.  In the words of [Bertrand] Russell:
    The methods by which these vast profits were accumulated were very simple.  Each village was ordered by the authorities to collect and bring in a certain amount of rubber -- as much as the men could bring in by neglecting all work for their own maintenance.  If they failed to bring the required amount, their women were taken away and kept as hostages in compounds or in the harems of government employees.  If this method failed, native troops, many of them cannibals, were sent into the village to spread terror, if necessary by killing some of the men; but in order to prevent a waste of cartridges they were ordered to bring one right hand for every cartridge used.  If they missed, or used cartridges on game, they cut off the hands of living persons to make up the necessary number.  The result was ... that in fifteen years the native population was reduced from about twenty million to scarcely nine million [Freedom and Organization: 1814-1914, p. 453, by Bertrand Russell].
Introduction to African Civilizations, pp. 310-311, by John G. Jackson.
Comments by Lester Allyson Knibbs:

This area, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is as large as Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland and France combined.  It is the third largest country in Africa.

The commonly used maps, showing the world in Mercator projection, exaggerate the size of northern hemisphere areas and minimize the size of equatorial and southern hemisphere areas.  It is best to look at a globe to get an accurate idea of the relative areas of nations.

To this day, it is not generally understood that the incidence of cannibalism in Africa was a direct result of European intervention, as documented above.

We are living in the Age of European Domination, which was established by Europeans going all over the world and declaring themselves the owners and masters of other people, their lands, and their resources.  Resistance was frequently overcome with extermination.  This is how Europe became rich and powerful and the rest of the world poor and weak.  In today's Global Economy, Europeans (having established themselves in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa and Asia) continue to declare themselves the owners and masters of other people, their lands, and their resources.

In New York City's American Museum of Natural History, non-European people are depicted as part of "natural history," but European people are not.  Europeans exploit and conquer nature.  Non-Europeans are part of nature.  That is what these exhibits mean.  How is this different from displaying a human being in a cage at the Bronx Zoo?  This was the experience of
Ota Benga, a man from the Congo.
Bibliography by Category      Alphabetical Bibliography (by author)  
Congo Project Home Page