After coming back from a trip to Africa, I started read the book Africa, A biography of a continent from the British author John Reader.
A week ago I stumbled upon the story of Nsala. Nsala was a man living in Congo during the rule of Leopold II of Belgium over the country at the end of the 19th Century. At that time people were extracting rubber from trees and some special vines, but there was no special use for the product. When the automobile industry started expanding and someone discovered that if you use tires for a bicycle, it will go much smoother than whatever they were using before that time. This put an incredible pressure to the production of rubber in Congo.
The production was given in concession to private enterprises who started exploiting the people in a way that was described as an “enormous and continuous butchery.”
A report made from the British Consul Roger Casement tells: “We tried, always going further into the forest, and when we failed and our rubber was short, the soldiers came to our town and killed us. Many were shot, some had their ears cut off; other were tied up with ropes around their necks and bodies and taken away. The white men at the posts sometimes did not know of the bad things the soldiers did to us, but it was the white men who sent the soldiers to punish us for not bringing enough rubber”. These concessions were employing something like 20.000 soldiers at that time.
These reports were already making their way to Europe, but king Leopold was able to counter it. It all changed with the invention and the diffusion of photography. People traveled to Africa and started bringing back evidence.
“One horrifying picture among many shows a man named Nsala sitting on a missionary’s porch, looking sorrowfully at the small hand and foot that lie before him. This was all that remained of his five-year-old daughter. She, together with his wife and son, had been killed, dismembered, cooked, and eaten by armed sentries.”
Before the arrival of these enterprises in Congo, the population was estimated to be around 20 million people, in 1911 there were only 8.5 million people. The photographs, apparently raised a big scandal, but no way could damage Leopold II, neither in his rule nor in his richness.