To well-meaning people educated in African history, Belgium’s King Leopold II is not one of those complicated figures from the past. There is no large area of grey – he was evil.
He has been compared to Adolf Hitler owing to his callous inhumanity towards the people of the Congos. Some have even said the fact that his iniquities seem to be little-known is “The Biggest Coverup In European History“.
But it is not hard to find those who make excuses for Leopold, as do today’s white nationalists for Hitler. Sometimes, we are told the reason Hitler is worse than Leopold is that the latter “never deliberately sought to exterminate an entire group of people based on their race“.
Putting aside this contortionism, there are certain things that remain unclear about King Leopold. Like a purported 1883 letter to Christian missionaries serving in the Congos.
The Congos, even before the Berlin Conference, had then been under Belgian occupation. The conference only sanctioned an international understanding that the place was the personal property of whoever was the Belgian king.
In line with the arrogance of white European supremacy of the time, Christian missionaries came to Africa along with exploitative merchants.
And as David Livingstone had said, they came to impart civilisation, convert the “heathens” to Christianity and effect commerce.
The said letter, 420 words long, carries instructions on how missionaries would have to weaponise Christianity for the benefit of the white man.
Many centres of African studies can neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the letter yet, it has been carried by some of Africa’s most popular news and analysis platforms.
It reads: “Reverends, Fathers and Dear Compatriots: The task that is given to fulfill is very delicate and requires much tact. You will go certainly to evangelize, but your evangelization must inspire above all Belgium interests. Your principal objective in our mission in the Congo is never to teach the niggers to know God, this they know already.
“They speak and submit to a Mungu, one Nzambi, one Nzakomba, and what else I don’t know. They know that to kill, to sleep with someone else’s wife, to lie and to insult is bad. Have courage to admit it; you are not going to teach them what they know already. Your essential role is to facilitate the task of administrators and industrials, which means you will go to interpret the gospel in the way it will be the best to protect your interests in that part of the world.
“For these things, you have to keep watch on disinteresting our savages from the richness that is plenty [in their underground. To avoid that, they get interested in it, and make you murderous] competition and dream one day to overthrow you. Your knowledge of the gospel will allow you to find texts ordering, and encouraging your followers to love poverty, like “Happier are the poor because they will inherit the heaven” and, “It’s very difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” You have to detach from them and make them disrespect everything which gives courage to affront us. I make reference to their Mystic System and their war fetish – warfare protection – which they pretend not to want to abandon, and you must do everything in your power to make it disappear. Your action will be directed essentially to the younger ones, for they won’t revolt when the recommendation of the priest is contradictory to their parent’s teachings.
“The children have to learn to obey what the missionary recommends, who is the father of their soul. You must singularly insist on their total submission and obedience, avoid developing the spirit in the schools, teach students to read and not to reason. There, dear patriots, are some of the principles that you must apply. You will find many other books, which will be given to you at the end of this conference. Evangelize the negroes so that they stay forever in submission to the white colonialists, so they never revolt against the restraints they are undergoing. Recite every day – “Happy are those who are weeping because the kingdom of God is for them.”
Some have pointed to this letter as evidence of the evil intent of Christian missionary work during colonisation. For them, Christianisation was a project necessary for the distortion, if not destruction, of the African identity.
With the harming of African identity comes self-perception founded in an identity crisis. Thus, we have been taught to hate our own and to reject the improvement of our kind.
The idea of European imperialism as an attack on the black psyche was mentioned over half a century ago by Kwame Nkrumah. However, Ghana’s first president did not root his argument in this letter.
So far, very few are willing to dismiss the letter even if its authorship is sketchy. It is probably in the eyes of Africans, the only grey area when it comes to King Leopold II.