What are the key details or points in the documentary Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death?
Peter Bate's 2003 documentary Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death is an indictment of Belgian King Leopold II's 19th to early-20th century colonization and rape of the vast Congo region of Central Africa. King Leopold II didn't invent European colonialism, but he was surely its most avaricious, brutal manifestation.
Leopold, under the guise of benevolence, seized the resource-rich region of Central Africa with the stated intent of introducing to the indigenous tribes Christianity and Western culture. Had that been the true sum of his contributions, it would have been bad enough. The reality behind the king's rhetoric, however, was far more malevolent than was understood for years after his death in 1909. As Bate's documentary points out, King Leopold II's reign over the Congo (later Zaire; later still, the Democratic Republic of Congo) was as brutal and bereft of humanitarian sentiment as that of European dictators who followed, particularly the reign of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Millions of innocent African citizens were murdered, starved, or left to die of disease while Leopold's colonial administrators systematically ravaged the nation's natural resources (those that were known of and desired at that time). First ivory and then rubber were harvested for the king's benefit, the former obviously coming at the expense of thousands of elephants. Furthermore, the king did not even colonize and exploit the Congo and the Congolese (the "black deaths" of the documentary's title) for the betterment of Belgium. Rather, he treated the Congo as his private possession: something to be exploited for his personal benefit.
Congo is not only about King Leopold II's brutal colonization of the Congo; it is also about that period of history's legacy. Early in his film, Bate's shows a contemporary citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo being questioned about the king's one-time rule. The gentleman's reply: "He was a big boss, the Belgian who colonized us. . . . He colonized us. He taught us about civilization." And that is the point of Bate's documentary. King Leopold II was so successful at presenting himself as a benevolent ruler of a primitive, pagan territory that the extent of his crimes against humanity would remain largely unknown for many years, although readers of Joseph Conrad's classic novel Heart of Darkness were introduced to the devastation wrought by Belgium's colonization of the Congo and its treatment of the region's people. Conrad, of course, had operated a steam boat on the Congo River during the years of the king's reign, although as a British subject in the employ of British interests, he was not subject to the Belgian monarch's dictates. Conrad did, however, see for himself the effects of European imperialism on Africa and its people.
Bate's documentary covers all of this, including the role of Henry Morton Stanley in serving the king's interests along the Congo River. The film covers the ironic designation by the Belgians of the territory as the "Congo Free State," an Orwellian use of language that served Leopold's marketing interests while obscuring the depth of his depravity as a ruler. While Bate notes the ignorance among some contemporary Congolese regarding their nation's history, as the quote above illustrates, he does emphasize the extent to which the king's legacy has finally been tarnished in the Congo. Monuments to both King Leopold II and to Stanley have been toppled and serve as an ugly reminder of a heritage that permanently scarred this region.
Congo illuminates for viewers the steps King Leopold II took to conceal his avarice. Other European imperialists had neglected this huge region during their colonization of the continent. It was Leopold who recognized the region's potential and who took the steps necessary to fully exploit the Congo. The documentary painstakingly reconstructs the historical record that reveals the magnitude of the king's reach and of his greed. The point of Bate's film is to educate viewers on an otherwise neglected period of history. Most know of the crimes of Hitler; some know of the crimes of Stalin (although, unlike Hitler, many continue to ignore the scale of Stalin's crimes), and a few are aware of the Armenian genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks. Extremely few know the history of the Congo and of King Leopold II's role in its suffering--suffering that continues to this day. The mass murders and beheadings of African citizens by Leopold's colonial enforcers were commonplace. Such behavior today is attributed only to extreme Islamist organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Back then, under Leopold's rule, it was business as usual for a "civilized" European monarch.