Victims in Europe, Masters abroad. Part One
French and Belgian colonial mastery, modern neo-colonialism and weakness in national self-preservation.
Part One – The long nineteenth century and one great war.
Modern Western European history has embroiled itself in the events that have occurred in France and its smaller Northern neighbour of Belgium. The two nations an integral part of the origins and influence of Western Europe, during the Revolutionary period it was France that helped to spawn so much rhetorically powerful language while conveying such a horrible reality. In the Industrial age small Belgium realised its potential as a fledgling and definitive powerhouse as far as the machinations of mechanical design and progress went for a nation of such size and youth. As the maps of Europe thrived and writhed with change during the long 19th Century, it was these two imperial nation states that were part of the enthusiastic grab for territory, trade and influence abroad. While the older Empires were already established in the World, some fading in influence while others becoming all the more dominant, it was the French Republic and the Belgium Kingdom that found its hungry claws in the many parts of the globe with such vicious success, most notably to the South in the dark and fertile lands of Africa. It was these two Imperial Nations that so perfectly exploited so many peoples and lands abroad all the while crying foul whenever a nearby neighbour did as they did or threatened their domestic safety and peace.
It was at Waterloo in 1815, where the French Republic suffered humiliation and defeat beneath the guns of the other European powers in the end to a war that had dominated much of the continent and wider world. Modern France born in the bloody days of revolutionary murder and mayhem soon reemerged as an anti-Monarchist, led by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The Napoleonic wars of 1799 to 1815 helped to define perspectives and the modern era, it created a dualistic view of events between two soon to unify worlds. The English speaking World united in its perspective of a small funny nosed French Emperor that suffered from hemorrhoids and ruled a dangerous Empire. For the French this era was one of glory and virtue, one where the old world of kings and aristocracy was checked by a Republic seeking egalitarianism and justice.
Born from the ashes of the Napoleonic wars rose a new Europe, new radicals and a shift in alliances that come one hundred years after the battle of Waterloo would see old rivals as loyal friends before another continental enemy, the Germans. France would suffer the humiliation of defeat at the hands of the Prussians and her other Germanic allies in 1870 when Paris was under siege and the new German nation soon entered the stage as a dominant force to be reckoned with. The French State embarrassed and forced to concede did so with its nation in tact after the war. Despite the many thousands dead, it was humiliation that mattered most to many in the French Republic.
The defeat to Prussia saw the French look towards the Imperialist Russian Empire, one of feudalistic aristocracy, an Empire of the Slavs. The very Russian Empire that only two decades earlier had been bitter enemies to the Anglo-French coalition in a war that made little sense and lacked any objectives, despite its horrific loss in human lives it was a war that depicted European obsessions for violence. The Crimean War of 1854 that had English and French support the Ottoman Turks against the Tsarists Russian military in the Crimea, the war being an extension of Britain’s great game with the Eastern Russian Empire. Despite this futile and bloody Crimean war of the middle 1850s, France looked to a new friend in the form of the former Russian enemy.
While the French Republic sent diplomatic envoys across the borders of Europe its missionaries and military abroad sent expeditions into the far reaches of South East Asia, establishing the colony of French Indo-China. An Oriental pearl to be added to the French Empire that saw its colonies spanning the breadth of the globe from the Americas, across much of Africa and now to the Eastern parts of Asia. France had maintained colonial possessions in the days before the Republic, most notably in North America, it was however in the apparently liberty minded French Republics of the 19th Century that the French were one of the most enthusiastic imperialists of non-Europeans in the great race of Empires. France would spend the next century plus holding on to and controlling many of these colonies, at first with wars of denial as independent movements rose up in the years after World War Two and eventually in the more modern age when with aid, connivance, coups and manipulation the modern French State controlled some of its former colonies with a puppetry of neo colonial supremacy. The very same France that had been invaded and occupied five times since the birth of its egalitarian Republic with absolute rule and cultural supremacy maintained a vast Empire throughout, never once seeing the bitter irony nor allowing its own prose for Liberté, égalité, fraternité ou la mort. For the peoples of the colonial Empire, the French Republic would deny them the ‘Liberty’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Fraternity’ often instead it would simply leave them with the ‘or Death’.
Modern Belgium was born in revolution when it seceded from the Netherlands, north of France the small nation soon emerged as not a major European continental power but as an enthusiastic colonial force abroad. Belgium was both tolerated and supported by the major nations because it provided a convenient buffer between greater powers, as though its guaranteed neutrality would avert war or deter aggressors from passing across its borders. Two World Wars displayed that clearly this hope was in vain and misplaced. For the Belgium nation after finding self-determination to be free from the Netherlands, the government and monarch of Belgium soon set under way to put non-European peoples under bondage abroad, not only under their rule but under a bloody and repressive tyranny. It was not until 1839 that Belgium was recognised by other European governments to be independent of Dutch rule and it was by the 1840s that the Belgian monarch started to explore the possibilities of informal colonialism. None of which bearing much fruit, one such endeavour included the potential exploitation and colonisation of the republic of Hawaii for the American sugarcane company, Ladd & Co. An expedition where the Belgian Kingdom would invade and consume the islands, granting business rights exclusively to the American company. It would not be another fifty or so years until Hawaii was invaded and taken as a colony, not by a European power but by the apparent anti-colonial Empire of the United States, when in 1898 it would absorb Hawaii eventually allowing it to become a State in the Union, a place rarely granted to its more recent colonies.
It was in 1885 however that Belgium truly got under way with it colonial expansionism. It was for the people of the Congo to suffer this first stab at foreign Imperialism by the young Belgian kingdom. With support from other European powers, the new empire began to spread like an infection throughout the Congo basin, oppressing and forcing the people of the region to assimilate beneath its Crown. Beyond the traditional exploitation experienced by foreign colonials, where natural resources are extracted, the profits and benefits netted by the outsiders while the locals endure the cost of labour suffering beneath more than just the whip. It was the near 10 million lives that were taken in a horrible near genocide that truly showed the vicious nature of King Leopold II and his eager colonial enforcers. Despite the great numbers and horrible murder that was imposed upon these people of the Congo the rhetorically virtuous people of Europe disregarded such tragedy as a sacrifice for Empire. As the many other European and American Empires spread and ruled, the killing of so many millions of Congolese went not unnoticed, but simply was accepted to be the nature of colonialism. While the Germans slayed peoples throughout their African territories, the Japanese consumed mainland Asian possessions with greater violence, the English fighting so many wars against upstart locals to be celebrated in Victorian depictions of heroic civility to the American Cavalry rescuing so many white faces as they chase of scalping native Americans, at least according to the popular dime fictions depictions, thus justifying subjecting these peoples to mass slaughter and concentration reservations of misery. It was a late 19th Century of Imperial dominion. It was the accepted reality and fate it seemed that cultures and civilisations of technology and commanding theories should dominate those inferior races and peoples with a guiding though harsh hand. And even to this day, while middle 20th Century Germany is held up as the ultimate example of evil delusion as far as cultural and racial chauvinism went, before and after its rise and fall, so many more examples of such malicious minds and actions are forever on display and taken for granted. Accepted as simply how it is their many legacies staining and scarring this World.
King Leopoldo II’s treatment of the peoples in the Congo was one of malice and greedy arrogance, his personal estate that was the entire region of the apparent Congo Free State was a place of racial slavery and human misery. A putrid campaign performed under the guise of benevolence and paternal guidance, it was as is always the case of Colonialism, an example of cruelty and rule. While many may have bought into the Belgian regents claims of helping the backwards people of Africa to find civility while also apparently creating a free trade zone, in actual fact all he did was introduce a controlled economy where he and his Kingdom benefited most while inviting in other companies so as to be better exploit the people of the region while pillaging it of its natural and living resources. Those critics that were vocal in their condemnation of the King’s private armies and those destroying the lives in the Congo, notably Joseph Conrad, William Sheppard and George Washington Williams, were unable to inspire the supposedly righteous powers of the World to do anything besides token condemnation as the British parliament did so briefly in words of limp objection. And in that instance that condemnation was more about the fact that the Congo was in fact not a free trade zone as opposed to objections to any humanitarian abuse and use of forced labour. As usual the splendid rhetoric of civilised peoples and nations built upon delusions of virtue looked the other way when genocide and human horror was being performed wholesale by a dear friend, the criticism could only be reserved for those ‘enemies’ of one’s own interests.
The atrocities that were conducted in the Congo were beyond the gory imaginations of any despot’s fantasy. While women and girls were raped with such routine it is hard to consider it as being systematic or organised. It was simply as it usually is in a colony, where the masters can at will choose who it is that they should take. Children and adults would have their hands cut off crudely should they not produce enough rubber. An activity of arduous and horrible labour, the individual would be expected to climb up a great height, delicately slice the rubber was then poured into a leaf or a collector and then eventually the individuals would cover their entire person with the sap and carry it to the point where it would be painfully extracted and collected. The process being gruelling and searing as rubber stuck to the skin with a sickly tenacity. Those who did not perform the often ludicrously expected amounts of rubber collection would be maimed or slaughtered on the spot and then maimed. The hands being lopped off from dead and living so that the murdering agents could then collect more bullets. It was often said that the trade in hands was more profitable than the collection of rubber. Other Congolese were unknowingly donors to the academic fields as perverted elites experimented on them with all of the enthusiasm that perverted Darwinism and Eugenics would allow. Body parts, skeletons, skin and live subjects being transported abroad and to the best universities and museums the World over so that the better enlightened beings of this Earth could look with morbid pride and curiosity at the pieces of the lesser humans. The exploitation and conduct was so widespread that complicity was near universal.
(Image Congolese children victims of the Belgian Regime of King Leopold II)
Meanwhile the French under Napoleon III had seen its Empire swell with the accumulation of Senegal and many other parts of Western Africa, the absorption of the Pacific island of New Caledonia and the complete colonisation of both Algeria and Indo-China all by the 1870s. It was also with wide spread Imperialist aggression that the French intervened militarily in Mexico between 1862-67, when the new Mexican government refused to pay the debts accumulated by the old regime, France one of the major debtors sent forces into the American nation in order to secure its funds along with supporting elements from Britain and Spain. Despite negotiations being under way by the Mexican government and the three European powers, it was the French that invited themselves to expand their operation. The French regime sought to set up a French Dominated Catholic nation state in Mexico, a puppet under the control of Paris in the middle America region. The British and Spanish forces soon withdrew upon the realisation of French aims. After some defeats the French were soon able to install a loyal leader, who in turn was eventually over thrown in rebellion. And once the War between the United and Confederate States ended in a Union victory, France was invited to leave Mexico by the United States of America. Despite the mayhem and bloodshed that her expedition had caused. The Mexican campaign by the French regime ended up costing more francs than what was owed while also leading to the deaths of six thousand French soldiers and untold amounts of non-combatants both maimed and killed in the fruitless foray.
Algeria became under complete control of France in 1852, after the French attempts to wrest most of it from the natives of the previous twenty years was fully realised. The North African colony becoming an important prize to the French Republic. In the coming decades native born French citizens would migrate to Algeria while the many native Arabs soon found themselves displaced both geographically but also socially as a litany of reforms sought to convert the ‘backwards’ North Africans into more acceptable European like citizens. The rift between French and Algerian never truly being closed ultimately leading to a bitter and bloody war of independence some one hundred years later.
The Mexican interventions and conquests of Africa were some of the major operations of the French Republic it was however its Syrian and Lebanese actions which set the grounds for future the French Republics obsessions with these regions. In 1860 after conflict between Christians and some Muslims in the Lebanon, Napoleon III sent an expedition after a massacre of Maronite Christians. The expedition though brief and as an act of seemingly benevolence on the Emperors part would go on to stamp Syria as a place of French interest, which it would gain from the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.
As Europe became griped with war fears and arms flexed with new military muscles, bonds of uncertain promises tethered before many rattling sabres in the new 20th Century. French national policy and psyche’ had been embittered by a Revanchism, hate and a need for revenge against Germany. After the 1870-71 defeat, the French had lost its territories in Alsace and Lorraine to the German Empire. This in turn had lead a martial desire to not only reclaim these lands but for the insecure French Republic to not only flex its own muscles but to seek bigger and perhaps better friends which in turn lead to their alliances with the repressive Imperial Empire of Russia and their other recently former enemy Britain. These new friends allowed a certain arrogance and confidence in the many French policy makers and men of martial importance, this added to the fact that many parts of the World flew ironically the French tricolour a flag born from a need to revolt against Imperialism, which for many symbolised it so terribly.
The French governments had been instrumental in assisting the modernising Japan with its own military growth and eventual imperial expansion. The Japanese were seen as an emerging and helpful ally in the Asian Pacific region for many of the European powers, from the 1870s onward France began to aid, train and supply the Japanese military. The French Republic came to blows with the Chinese government over its possession in Indochina, victories over China further expanded French colonial control into Annam and the Ton kin while also weakening China and helping Japan in turn go on to flex its own growing muscles against the ‘weak man of Asia’ in a bid to expand its young Empire in China and eventually in Korea. French presence and eventual alliance with both Japan and Russia isolated the small German coaling, telegraph and outposts of Tsingtao in China, New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Bougainville. All vulnerable, hard to reinforce and threatened by the presence of so many potentially belligerent more native and established Empires to the Asian Pacific region.
Europe in the early years of the 20th Century suffered a number of ‘crisis’ events that threatened to expand into war between the ‘great’ powers. Even after a combined and unified campaign in China where the great colonial powers of the Americas, Asia and Europe united to defeat Chinese boxers and nationals who desperately fought to liberate parts of their homeland from so many foreign invaders, these mostly European powers soon found reasons of colonial greed to near clash arms. It was with the Moroccan Crisis of 1905-06 that saw a dispute arise over the status of this North African nation. The Kaiser had visited the Sultan of Morocco in 1905 in a bid to show his support for the nation to be independent of French rule. This in turn lead to the French and Germans tethering on a war footing, the German’s demanded that the French attend a conference so as to determine the sovereignty of Morocco while the French government disputed a need for such an event in order to determine the fate of what they considered their property.
Eventually after much tension and international mediation, a conference was made in Algercircas in 1906. At this conference it turned out that the French got their own way, not having to relinquish control of Morocco, though some minor concessions were to be granted to the people of Morocco for the most part it was to remain a French colony. Out of the thirteen nations present to determine the fate of the North African nation, it was only Germany and Austro-Hungary that voted for Moroccan independence while nations such as Britain, the United States, Italy and Russia all supported the French claims over the region. In less than a decade, a war would be fought over the apparent right to self-govern, where hundreds of thousands of lives would be taken but here with the ease of imperial pen strokes, sovereignty of an ‘inferior people’ could be brushed away to suffer the fates of rule. The Moroccan Crisis would further secure the alliance between the British and French governments and help to settle the coming fates of war.
And so after the death of an Imperial Austro-Hungarian regent and with the enacting of so many outwardly known and secretive promises the World fell into World War in August of 1914. The French and Belgian nations would find themselves suffering occupation and humiliation as German forces invaded and conquered them. It would take not only the might of their own armies, but the support of so many others including Russian volunteers, the British Expeditionary Force, British Commonwealth forces from Australia to Canada and the United States to combine in the defence and liberation of France and Belgium as the German army threatened to conquer it. And with Imperial self-perpetuation the many peoples of the French Colonial Empire were dragged from their home lands, conscripted, incentivised and press ganged into service in the defence of the mother country. Arabs, Nubians and Indo-Chinese fought and laboured on the muddy and bloody battle grounds of the Western Front while French nationalism thrived, nationalism in the colonies was suppressed and punished. With no sense of irony or hypocrisy did either the French of Belgian people and their leaders see in their defeat and occupation at the hands of Germany being any similar to those that they imposed upon the many ‘inferiors’ abroad suffering beneath their own rules.
It is with peculiar interest that one can look to the motivating factors that inspired the Allies to take up arms against the Germans. Beyond the leaders and their cynical gamesmanship and statesmanlike greatness are the many peoples of these Allied nations who eagerly enlisted and threw donations of support at the war effort. From those in the British Empire, one that had so many territories across the globe one that had defeated the Boers, Zulu, Berbers, Mahdi and so on in its many recent wars of oppression, now looked across the Channel and upon hearing the propaganda exaggeration of Teutonic atrocities being imposed upon the people of Belgium, news of rape, pillage and murder of the Belgian people by German soldiers. One can only wonder if the same sense of indignation and call for justice would arise if the British peoples heard the same tales, non-exaggerated or fictionalised, of rape, theft and murder though on a far wider scale suffered by the people in the Congo at the hands of the Belgian monarchs? Unfortunately, most in Britain had heard such claims, had seen images of the horrible bondage enforced upon the Congolese and very few if any exhibited any indignation least of all a call to arms in the name of Congolese liberation. Justice and Liberty it seems is not for coloureds.
Or perhaps in the United States as the superb British information machine fed the American people stories and reports of German military crimes in the French and Belgian homelands, should many have cared to look South of the Border or across to Asia in its recently acquired Spanish colonies to see horrible and violent repression at the hands of their own government and military. Magazines and newspapers reporting with surprising honesty about examples of water torture, near genocide and extermination of Filipino’s as young as ten all seemed to roll from the collective shoulders of the American people but with the news of French and Belgian lives, these nations themselves also colonial masters, the American regime and many of its people demanded action and did all that they could to meander the nation into a course of war with Germany. For the liberation of the peoples of the World as President Wilson would claim, just not for his oppressed or those beneath the boots of the allied empires. Meanwhile scores of Native American corpses still had decaying flesh on their bones as they rotted in so many unmarked graves with US bullets embedded deep inside of their corpses, but the splendid self-depiction of a democratic and liberty minded America ending oppression and colonialism was a splendid call to war made for a great speech by a segregationist president.
So while the French and Belgian nation found victimhood in the early years of the 20th Century while they suffered a war against Germany, international opinion and support flooded in. History books would be filled about the defiance and courage of these two nations as they stood firm against the Kaiser, their invasions would depict the opening and uncalled for blows of a wider war while war graves, tombs for unknown soldiers and widespread necropolis’ that would fill sacred Earth across the world. These symbolic graves for the dead, shrines of remembrance sanctifying the sacrifice of noble souls who fought in a war for so many apparent virtues, with religious adherence the citizenry celebrate and honour these heroic depictions of nationalist martyrs. No tombs however are erected or dare to be considered for the victims of those of the brave unknown soldiers for national domination. No unknown civilians, no unknown slaves, no unknown colonial servant, no unknown rape child and no unknown comfort slave, a war fought for liberation and freedom was selective in whose it was fought for. So while France and Belgium were the popular locations for much of the Great War, the bloody wet soil of Flanders a sacred alter of sacrifice beyond the map of Europe bled in greater numbers over a longer period of time so many non-European souls that history and the Western civilised considerations have all but ignored and has thus relegated as unessential in their plight and toil. In the end, the narration of European victim cannot sit alongside International imperialist. As Europe and those that fought in the Great War mourned their dead, around ten million in the Congo alone died beneath the tyranny of one Belgian King. This does not come close to counting the millions of others murdered by the other French and Belgian rulers in their colonies, let alone the other colonial masters who fought for European independence. It certainly does not include the rape, abuse, torture, torment, slavery and disfigurement of so many millions of individuals who have no poetic prose, popular songs or monuments to be adorned annually in some self-serving ritual of many national observances. Instead before and during the war to End all Wars, the powers that fought all did so with the hypocritical brutality of owning and oppressing so many others who according to the narrative were simply inferior.
End of Part One.
Part Two – Versailles and the war to destroy the illusion of European supremacy.
Kym Robinson, July 2016
Half Caged but never without a fight