Why you should care
King Leopold of Belgium couldn’t have wrought such havoc in the Congo Free State without the efforts of sadists like Léon Fiévez.
To King Leopold of Belgium, Léon Fiévez was a hero. He arrived in the Equateur District of the Congo Free State (CFS) in 1888 just three years after the king had founded it, and rose rapidly through the official ranks, lauded for the amount of rubber he was able to procure from his local subjects.
To natives of the region, he was a living nightmare. “All Blacks saw this man as the Devil of the Equator,” said Congo native Tswambe when describing Fiévez to the Catholic priest Edmond Boelaert some 45 years after Fiévez’s reign of terror. “From all the bodies killed in the field, you had to cut off the hands. He wanted to see the number of hands cut off by each soldier, who had to bring them in baskets.” Tswambe described one of Fiévez’s subordinates drowning 10 natives in a net weighed down with stones.
Fiévez’s success was built on levels of cruelty that stood out — even by the brutal standards of the CFS. He eventually faced trial for his excesses on two separate occasions — and although he was acquitted both times, he was forced out of the CFS in 1900.
It turns out murdering your workforce is not a long-term solution.
All of this has led Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, to wonder whether Fiévez was the real-life inspiration behind Kurtz — the central character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, who’s famous for his collection of (human) heads on stakes. Fiévez had once boasted of “a hundred heads cut off at his orders,” notes Hochschild, whose research shows that Conrad’s steamboat almost certainly stopped for fuel at the heavily fortified post that Fiévez commanded. Ultimately, Hochschild decided that Conrad was more likely inspired by Léon Rom, another young Belgian whose flower bed was bordered by a mere 22 heads on stakes. Rom, Hochschild reasoned, was — like Kurtz — a rounded individual who enjoyed painting, writing and butterfly collecting in addition to casual cruelty.
When the world went crazy for rubber in the 1890s (John Boyd Dunlop’s invention of the bicycle tire was a catalyst), Leopold saw his opportunity to make his economically unsustainable private colony profitable. Leopold, who never once set foot in the Congo, wrote impassioned letters exhorting his men on the ground to send more and more rubber. And none answered the call more emphatically than Fiévez.
The CFS’s Bulletin Officiel for June 1896 notes that “The results obtained by M. Fiévez are unrivaled. The district produced in 1895 more than 650 tons of rubber, bought at 25 centimes per kilo … and sold in Antwerp at 6 francs 50 centimes per kilo.” (That’s a markup of 2,500 percent, for the business-minded among you.) Of course, these incredible profits came at a price. After one expedition, Fiévez reported killing 1,346 people with “only 2,838 cartridges,” and devastating “162 villages, burn[ing] the houses and cut[ting] down the crops to reduce the population by hunger.” In return, the chiefs promised to “supply each month 1,562 portions of 15 kilos of rubber.”
Not that any of this made it into the reams of marketing material put out by the CFS machine. In a series of pseudo-anthropological articles published in Le Congo Illustré, Fiévez cataloged the customs and culture of the Equateur District. After discussing the diet, dress and ablutions of the Mongo people, he moved on to their many “fetishes.” Local fishermen, for example, inserted a magic powder into a small incision made in their right wrists: “It operates immediately and you only have to beat the water with a stick to be sure to take in the course of the day the most beautiful fish of the river. Witch Doctor’s fees: 100 mitakos.”
While this may have fooled people back home, it was easily seen through by the missionaries Leopold had invited to partake in his great humanitarian project. Joseph Clark, an American Baptist, was the first to sound the alarm, sending a series of ever-more-agitated letters to anyone who would listen. Clark at first assumed that neither Fiévez nor Leopold knew of the atrocities being committed by the Force Publique (the CFS’ brutal native militia was overseen exclusively by White officers like Fiévez), and in November 1894 he wrote to Fiévez asking him “to help us to have peace on the Lake.”
When Clark and his colleagues John B. Murphy and E.V. Sjöblom were rebuffed by the CFS, they spoke to the press, including Reuters and The Times of London. An 1896 article in the German newspaper the Kölnische Zeitung stated that on one day alone Fiévez had taken delivery of 1,308 severed hands. (To the end, Fiévez vehemently denied cutting hands off living people — to do so would have been barbaric, he argued — so each hand signified one death.) Despite being republished on two further occasions, the accusations were never challenged by the CFS, notes Hochschild.
The combination of bad publicity and dwindling rubber revenues — it turns out murdering your workforce is not a long-term solution — forced the CFS to act. Confidential correspondence from the acting governor-general of the CFS, Felix Fuchs, complained that Fiévez needed to review and change his policies to avoid disadvantaging the government.
Fiévez was quietly moved to a new district, but old habits would die hard. When he appeared before the court in Boma on charges of violence in Bangala (1898) and extrajudicial killings in Ubangi (1899), the controversy around his person had become untenable and he was returned to Belgium, where he eventually died — a decorated military hero — in 1939.
Fiévez’s obituary in the Biographie Coloniale Belge praises his “tenacity, patience and persuasiveness” in bringing “the wild indigenous to submit to the laws of the state.” The “exquisite goodness” with which he accomplished his civilizing work, it continues, “was judiciously highlighted by the blacks who dubbed him Tata, or father.”
Fiévez himself put it rather more bluntly: “My goal is ultimately humanitarian,” he remarked after one of his military forays. “I killed a hundred people … but that allowed five hundred others to live.”