The Congo’s Hidden “Holocaust”

We all know of the Holocaust and the 11 million Jews who were killed by Hitler. Many of us know about the Armenian genocide which took place during WWI – over two million Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontic Greeks were killed during that time. Unfortunately, these were not isolated incidents in the history of humanity, and I have just learned about yet another mass murder. This particular slaughter of people was not a genocide but rather an indiscriminate killing for the sake of prophet. It occurred over a hundred years ago in the area we now call the Congo. These evils came from the most unsuspecting country – Belgium. The nation of waffles and Brussels sprouts – has a hidden history which not many people know about. To learn how Belgium terrorized the Congo, I read King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. The real villain in this story is not Belgium but rather Belgium’s King – Leopold II.

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King Leopold II was viewed as the world’s greatest African philanthropist. His generous donations to the continent and his desire for funding scientific explorations were proclaimed across Europe as progressive measures to bring civilization to the savages. Unfortunately, there was a hidden objective in Leopold’s philanthropy – he was collecting as much research as possible so he could found his own colony. In the 19th century, Africa was a piecemeal conglomerate of European colonies – England, France, Germany, and Italy all claimed a portion of the raw material pie. Leopold had a small country complex – Belgium was nowhere close to competing with the big dogs regarding intercontinental control. Nevertheless, the King of a country the size of Maryland was able to weasel his way into Africa. He performed this feat of diplomatic chicanery by founding his own company which was designed to provide humanitarian needs for the newly discovered Congo. This company had its own flag and was technically independent of the Belgian government – allowing King Leopold complete control. The other European forces permitted the company to control the Congo with the aim to promote free trade while preventing major disputes between land-hungry countries. In short order, King Leopold II confiscated all of the native’s property for his “state” and began exploiting the virgin land for elephant tusks and rubber.

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Vast quantities of raw materials left the Congolese ports – the only import for the people of the Congo was hired soldiers who enforced the status quo of exploitation. This military force ruled by the rifle and the chicotte – a whip made of hippopotamus hide cut into long corkscrew strips. These “humanitarians” were given commissions based on how much ivory could be collected. This capitalistic motivation led to the forced labor of the Congolese at a time when Europe was aghast at all forms of slavery. Things only got worse after scientists discovered new and useful applications for rubber – the pneumatic tire being one example. The Congo was full of wild rubber, and this brought new terror for the natives. Men of all ages were forced to meet quotas of rubber; If they did not comply they were shot, or their families were forced into labor. As the rubber began to run out, the Congolese were required to travel longer and longer distances – draining villages of work for harvest and subsequently causing thousands to starve. A typical punishment for the Congolese was to cut off a member of their body – a missing right hand was a ubiquitous sight.

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Between murder, starvation, susceptibility to disease, and labor exhaustion, the population of the Congo dropped by half during Leopold’s control: 1885 – 1908. That is a total of 10 million people! A scary number, especially since very few people know about this history. It is as if I were writing this blog post about the Holocaust and people were reading about the acts of Hitler for the first time. Of course, this was not a pure genocide, but it was a well-documented atrocity which affected the lives of various Congolese tribes; that is why many are beginning to call this point in history the “Hidden Holocaust” and why I think it is more important than ever to keep learning about our past. If WWII is our only knowledge of the mass murder, we will think it is an isolated occurrence – something that was an anomaly and will never happen again. I wish I could say it was an anomaly but it is a sad pattern which we need to understand to truly prevent. Did you know anything about King Leopold before this post? What are your thoughts on history repeating itself? Should schools do a better job of teaching these lessons? I love your comments.

“The Congo Free State is unique in its kind. It has nothing to hide and no secrets and is not beholden to anyone except its founder.” – King Leopold II (Founder)

Old World vs. New World

One of my wife’s favorite Disney movies is Pocahontas. She likes it for its fun music, its dark-skinned-female-protagonist, and its historical accuracy. We all grew up with some vague idea of what it was like for Native Americans before the advent of the “white man.” There were happy tribes scattered throughout the country which cherished the Image result for native american stereotypesearth and went about their lives in natural simplicity. These Paleolithic people lacked technology, advanced government, and large-scale societies like their European counterparts. Unfortunately all of those beliefs are flat out wrong. What did the Americas look like before 1492 – the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean? Thankfully, I came across a fascinating book which answers this very question: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. With the advent of new technologies in archaeology there has been an explosion of discoveries that were never known about the early inhabitants of the New World; suffice it to say, the Western Hemisphere was comprised of sophisticated societies which rivaled any European, Asian, or African empire at the time.

Most people know about the Incan and Aztec Empires. There are still many remnants from these cultures and many sites are visited by overweight tourists. What most people don’t realize is that each of these nations was home to millions of people during their peak. The Incan Empire, in the year 1491, was the Image result for incan empirelargest empire on earth, surpassing the Ming Dynasty in China, Ivan the Great in Russia, the Songhay in the Sahel, the Great Zimbabwe in West Africa, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and any European state at the time. Their dominion spread over 32 degrees of latitude which is the equivalent distance between Cairo and St. Petersburg. The Aztecs, located in modern day Central Mexico, numbered over 25 million which at the time was the most densely populated place in the world; twice the number of inhabitants per square mile than China or India; for reference, Spain and Portugal had a combined population of fewer than 10 million.

Concurrently, Tenochtitlan – the Aztec Capital – was the biggest metropolis on earth far exceeding the second largest at the time-Paris. When the Spaniards first walked into Image result for Tenochtitlan sketchTenochtitlan, they marveled at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, bustling markets, long aqueducts, immense banners, colorful promenades, and immaculate public spaces.
What was more astonishing than the structures were the people themselves: taller, healthier, stronger, and cleaner than their European counterparts. This pattern of civilization was common throughout the Americas from the Amazon Rain forest to the Appalachian Mountains: there was advanced technology, sophisticated government, and efficient agriculture. So what the frick happened?

One word – DISEASE. From the time that Columbus landed in 1492, various diseases like Hepatitis and Smallpox spread throughout the Americas with rapid force. When Pizzaro and Cortez conquered the Incans and Aztecs, disease had already destabilized the populace and the political foundation. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the epidemics killed 100 million Native Americans which would be 1 out of every 5 people on earth at the time – the greatest destruction of life in history. Image result for native american disease and epidemics
Overtime, disease would kill almost 95% of all peoples in the Americas. A great example of this death toll is the east coast of the United States. Before the Pilgrims landed, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans inhabiting that area. A smallpox epidemic swept through during the late 16th century and cleared all resistance – the English zealots settling on a mass-grave site.

What remained of the Native Americans were small bands of people which were restarting their personal lives, their families, and their societies; this is how Europeans viewed their perpetual state – subsequently writing the history books. The Inca and Image result for native american mound builders sketchAztecs were not exceptions but rather the rule in respects to American civilization; advanced civilization rose and fell for over five millennia. Even more fascinating was the manipulation of the landscape by these cultures. We imagine the virgin forest as a staple of the pre-Columbian landscape – wrong again.
Not only were structures built, but the forest was regularly manipulated for agriculture, harvesting, and wildlife management. All of these facts are extremely important for today because it gives us a greater understanding of human and ecological development. We can gain knowledge from past cultures to improve our environment and Disney movie plot lines. The more we know the less we think one group of people is “better” than the other – maybe the term “savage” was applied to the wrong hemisphere.

The Myths of Happiness

Once upon a time, an old farmer lived in a poor country village. His neighbors considered him well-to-do because he owned a horse, which he used for many years to work his crops. One day his beloved horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors gathered to commiserate with him. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically, “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors rejoiced. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors visited the farmer to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” said the farmer. The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” the farmer replied.

This insightful story is from the most recent book I read, Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t-What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The farmer is wise in the fact that he doesn’t presume an outcome to be positive or negative. This is extremely insightful because we are more times the “neighbors” who are quick to congratulate or commiserate. How can be go through life and know whether future events will bring happiness or dismay? We are not fortune tellers, but we can learn from those who have gone before us and experienced similar events first hand. Let’s go through some key life events and figure out what will and will not make us happy.

I will be happy when I find Mr/Mrs. Right-When you begin a relationship with a partner, who you see as your perfect match, the passion can be described as unworldly. Everyday is magical, sex is incredible, conversations endless, and compliments bountiful. This of course fades with time; fast forward into a busy marriage and you may find yourself bored of your partner and wondering why you even got married. This is called hedonic adaptation which is the process of us getting use to things overtime. This occurs in relationships because we remain with the same partner who presents us similar stimulus on a daily basis. How can we fight hedonic adaptation and keep our relationships strong and happy? Change up the stimulus: try a new sex position, go to a new restaurant, give out a compliment, write a note, spend a weekend apart, etc. Give your relationship a buffet of stimuli to maximize the variety.

I will be happy when I obtain (fill in the blank)-In our consumer culture we are told that obtaining a certain amount of money, status, or power will bring us happiness. Money can buy happiness but only to a certain degree. Once we have food, shelter, heat, and safety (including health insurance) we derive minimal happiness from additional monetary funds. The additional money we earn frequently used to increase our luxuries which we become accustomed to overtime through hedonic adaptation. For example, my wife and I bought a house; in the first month we were on cloud nine but we soon got use to our surroundings and our happiness returned to normal levels. This happiness myth also applies to obtaining titles or promotions. The initial feelings we have after achieving new status is soon adapted to and often times replaced by unhappiness related to new stresses and unforeseen responsibilities.

I can’t be happy when the test results come back positive-Our predictions of the future are very inaccurate because we tend to only focus on the positives when we desire something and the negatives when we don’t want something. For example, when I think about going on my vacation I imagine the sun and relaxation but not the stressful travel and overpriced services. Conversely, when I think about having cancer I imagine vomiting from chemo but not celebrating holidays or listening to good music. We have a strong psychological immune system that tempers negative situations and allows us to be more optimistic than we thought possible. Adults who became blind were reported to have the same happiness after one year compared to when they weren’t blind. Time heals all things and terrible events are not so terrible because life is made up of many small happy events: having dinner with friends, seeing a full moon, reading a good book, etc. If the test result is positive, know that your post-tragedy happiness will in short be similar to your pre-tragedy happiness.

As you can see, happiness comes in many different forms and what we think will make us happy or unhappy is not always the case. To foster the most happiness we need to be conscious of the small things that bring us pleasure. I love yoga, coffee, conversations, reading, and tv shows; deliberate appreciation of these things makes my baseline happiness high. If those things that make me happy start to not make me happy then I take a break and come back to them-this is done to ameliorate hedonic apadtation. Lifelong happiness can be obtained if we understand our adaptability to both the positive and negative outcomes in life-when thinking about present and future events say to yourself “May be.”

 

The Blessing of Disease

SAPERE AUDE-Dare to be Wise

Is having a disease a blessing? That is a very counter-intuitive question but I have been thinking about this very idea while reading More Than Money: True Stories of People Who Learned Life’s Ultimate Lesson by Neil Cavuto. This book profiles several different successful individuals who overcame cancer, MS, and paralysis to lead fulfilling lives. These individuals focused their efforts on helping others and their families instead of solely seeking financial gain in their careers. They did this by starting charities, being public spokespeople for disease awareness, and trying to change government policies for the benefit of societies’ disadvantaged. Without their personal struggles with serious medical ailments they would have never led a life that was focused on fostering relationships and helping other people. It is this fact that makes me think that having a disease can be looked at as a blessing. Of course, having a life threatening disease can be extremely painful, isolating, debilitating, and a host of negative adjectives that are far from any semblance of the word “blessing.” However, through the suffering and pain, I see more times than not stories of people appreciating their lives and families more than when they were previously healthy. The onset of illness many times makes people stop and think about what is truly important in life: they may not skip out on talking with their kids instead of emailing, they may go on that trip that they have always been putting off, they may tell the ones they love that they “appreciate them with all their heart.”

A life well lived cannot be measured quantitatively. A life well lived is the sum of qualitative experiences that are completely independent of a person’s age. If you have a disease, cancer, or a debilitation do not look at it as a negative. You have the first-hand knowledge of life’s unpredictability and hence the power to take advantage of all the opportunities still accorded to you. If you are healthy then try your best to look at life with the lens of someone with a disease. Think about what is most important and truly take advantage of your health while you still have it. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Suffering can change our perspective on life and really make us examine what is worth doing while on this Earth. If you don’t examine your life and live it in the best way possible then you are throwing away your blessings and in my opinion you are worse off than having any possible disease. I am not wishing disease upon myself or anyone for that matter but I am encouraging you to think about how suffering is not always a negative and how we can take advantage of any situation. The cliché saying is to live like there is no tomorrow. There is merit to this but it is not realistic because most of the time there is a tomorrow. I would say for those who are healthy live like you will die in the next 5 years. This way you can still keep some financial balance while not pushing off all your hopes and dreams. For those who will not make it to the next five years I want to reemphasize that you can “live” more in those five years than most people will “live” in an entire lifetime. 

To end this post I recommend this inspirational video that profiles how a disease can truly be a blessing in disguise.

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