[I would normally post something like this on my other blog, The Last Ditch, but since it’s about AIDS, which is sexually transmitted, I’ve decided to be a little bit of a shit disturber and post it here for a larger audience. I’m interested to hear your thoughts…]
I’ve been fascinated by the history of the Congo for some time now, thanks to the brilliance of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghosts and the history of the first real genocide, the slaying of ten million Congo Africans during the rise of the rubber trade and height of African colonialism at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century.
10 million Africans slaughtered for rubber. Never mind the millions stolen and forced into the slave trade from other regions, or those slaughtered when colonial interests take over.
I’m fascinated by genocides. I’m more fascinated by the horrors of Africa today, though. The legacy of that death and brutality.
It’s sadly funny, the justifications of whites and ‘manifest destiny’, how they felt Africans were “savages” who required a civilizing hand.
Now, Africa has descended into chaos — Somali pirates, Darfur’s genocide, South Africa’s rape crisis, and list goes on and on — and still you hear the pundits saying how Africa’s just a different kind of place. They’re uncivilized and brutal. It’s the African Way, they’ll say, in quiet, hushed voices that don’t get a lot of airplay.
It’s kind of like Bush saying the terrorists were in Iraq, so the war went there. And now, of course, terrorists are in Iraq. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yes, Africa has become a savage place.
We talk so much about head-shrinking (the psychology kind) here in the west, how our little childhood traumas stay with us for a lifetime.
But how about the systemic slaughter of millions of your countrymen for a little thing called rubber? How about the legacy of foreign invaders who put the heads of your people on stakes along the river to remind you to collect as much rubber sap as you can? After all, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a virtually-true account of legendary rubber trade captains, like Captain Leon Rom of the Force Publique, a Belgian military force in the Congo.
How long does THAT stay with a country? How long does THAT influence the society? How do you, as a people, get past knowing you were so devalued that a bucket of rubber was worth more than a life?
So… I think about these things sometimes, the societal ramifications of the ills of the past. It’s the historian in me. And no place in the world has greater, more horrific, or even more recent ills and horrors than that of Africa.
And I find it interesting now, that the BBC has run a story this morning stating that it’s the early 1900s, in Leopoldville, in the Congo, that now appears to be the birthplace of AIDS, when AIDS made the jump from primates to humans.
The rubber trade was at the height between 1885 and 1920, the very same years (1889-1924) they say AIDS made the jump. In the Congo. Where millions of Africans were brutalized, murdered, and forced into hard, brutal labour that often involved getting hurt or maimed as they tried to extract rubber for a growing rubber trade. (The main cause of the desperation for rubber? The need for bicycle and car tires as the transportation evolution began, oddly.)
Had these Congo Africans not been forced into this labour, would the virus have jumped from apes to humans? Had so much blood not been shed, and people not injured, in the jungles in those years, would AIDS have made the jump? Had the brutality of Western civilizations not been forced upon these people, would we even know of AIDS today?
Of course, the article focuses primarily on the growth of cities and how living in close proximity to one another would have been the main reason for its spread. But Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, was created as the hub of the rubber trade. It was Ground Zero for the genocide and slaughter of 10 million Africans.
It just makes one wonder, I guess, if we’re really aware of just how evil some of the evil we do really is. And just how far-reaching the consequences of our actions can be.
I’m not saying AIDS is entirely the fault of Belgian imperialists. I’m just saying we need to take this into consideration. We need to think about just how much that may have played a role. We need to accept that there could be more to this story than we’d like to assume.
But it breaks my heart a little to think this disease that threatens the entire continent of Africa, thus the world, may be yet another consequence of imperialism. And it bothers me that our legacy of imperialism remains that dirty little secret no one really wants to talk about.