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A disappointing treatment of an epic theme
am 23. November 1999
Leopold II's acquisition and ruthless exploitation of the Congo as a personal fief was an undertaking that was simultaneously epic and squalid. Untold hundreds of thousands of Africans - perhaps even millions, the statistics are uncertain - died under conditions of the most appalling suffering to satisfy this egomaniac's greed. Worse still, the whole callous process, which descended at times into orgiastic sadism, was aided and abetted by a range of administrators, business interests and even missionaries. Leopold dominates the narrative, a malign, hypocritical and wealth-obsessed spider at the centre of a vast web of his own making, busy until the last in creating schemes of breath-taking ambition and of true, unadulterated evil, never visiting the lands he made a hell, never glimpsing the wretches whose lives he ruined. Villains outnumber the heroes in the story by a substantial margin, and the efforts of the magnificent trio of E.D. Morel, Roger Casement and the shipping magnate John Holt to expose the scandal and end the abuses were rewarded with only qualified success. This book covers the basic facts of the story, often in a somewhat sketchy manner, and one longs repeatedly for more detail and for imposition of a firmer chronological sequence on the events described. The writing lacks a real sense and feel for Africa, its landscapes and its peoples, and indeed Thomas Packenham's treatment of the same topic in his "The Scramble for Africa", though more summary, is considerably more convincing and rewarding. An interesting footnote is that when Irish forces went to the Congo in 1960 as part of the UN response to the secession of Katanga, they did so as "The Casement Brigade" and the airbase near Dublin they flew out from has been known thereafter as the "Casement Airfield". One feels that the old champion of Congolese rights and of Irish independence would have approved fully.