Over my Thanksgiving break, I finally finished reading the novel King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, which illustrates in great detail the horrible atrocities committed during the Scramble for Africa by King Leopold II of Belgium, including the genocide of natives and rape of a country in a grievous display of greed and hubris on the part of the European monarch Leopold. I highly recommend reading this novel, for many different reasons, if not simply to learn about the deaths of roughly 10 million Africans at the hands of white colonialism that inspired the very accurate Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, that occurred only a little over one hundred years ago, an event that has since lost its impact and place in the minds of people across the globe.
Although I had a passing familiarity with the Scramble for Africa and its depiction by Conrad, I never knew the full horror of the events that occurred, and the “black shadows of disease and emaciation” that Conrad mentions never crossed over into the realm of reality from the page until I read Hochschild’s novel. His is a work heavily dependent on other published research and material, but it tells the story in a way that I had never heard it and that truly forces the reader to reckon with this little thought of holocaust that was perpetrated by the king of Belgium. The titular ghost of the novel, however, takes multiple forms for me as a reader. There are the lost souls of a land pillaged and raped by monstrous white murderers, but there is also the general fading of consciousness of these events in the social mind into obscurity and detachment. King Leopold was only one of many exploiters of the African continent, accompanied by almost every major European power at the time, each with proportionate blood on their hands to his own. The US committed a similar extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and during the US occupation of the Philippines. We are thoroughly familiar with the Nazi concentration camps, but the Japanese counterparts to these awful crimes against humanity are not nearly as well known. For whatever reason, and I am not going to speculate on these reasons now, we do not accept our own history, especially the negative portions.
A majority of history is inaccessible to us on a purely literal level, as we do not have inscrutable accounts of the majority of human civilization, but even the small parts that we do have access to, that we can learn about and internalize and consider, are often willfully forgotten and disregarded, sometimes at the hands of individuals, sometimes societies, and sometimes simply time. Whatever the reason, the past becomes a specter that is seen and felt by few, but affects all. The only way to deal with these ghosts of our pasts is to fully engage them, to recognize their significance and our duplicity and fault in them, and to move forward to a better society in which such mass killings and enslavement and cruelty can never happen again.
But first, in order to make progress, the stories must be told. And here is literature’s power. Literature has the ability to not only recount the facts and figures and empirical realities of such events, giving us a solid foundation of understanding with which to examine the atrocities and their causes, but also, in the best cases, forces an empathy and a catharsis upon the reader that reaches deep inside them and forces them to not only see the facts presented, but to truly internalize and struggle with them. Writing these crimes forces them out into the light and brings them back into our consciousness, demanding they be addressed, understood, and rectified. Art and literature are the best tools at our disposal to exorcise these demons of our past of our own creation, demons which bar the way forward and whom society is often content to gloss over and forget. But in order to grow, in order to make right the wrongs of the past, to repair the ruins of our forerunners, we have to face them, take responsibility for them, and cast them out while ensuring that they will never gain a foothold in the world again, and art and literature allow us to take the field and ,eventually, end them for the betterment of all.
Images courtesy of Goodreads at http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/347610.King_Leopold_s_Ghost