I’ve just finished an amazing book (and a lousy cold) called King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild. Brilliant. An expose on what happened in the Congo under the rule of King Leopold II of Belgium, one of the most rapacious and greedy tin pot tyrants that ever lived. Leopold’s reign of terror in his private domain of the Congo yielded him millions of dollars, international prestige, and a death toll of 10 million (from 1890 -1908) that even Stalin would have been proud of. How does this happen?
Hoschschild starts his book with a brief examination of medieval myths about Africa (pp 6-7). He mentions these, without expounding on the effect that they could have had on European/colonial thinking. So, I thought that I’d give it a crack, considering that A.H has done all the work but this…
Myth 1: Africa contained one eyed people who used their feet to cover their heads…the continent held people with one leg, three faces and the heads of lions…
These theories emerged during the 1300s and 1400s. Before Africa was “explored” (a colonial term on a par with “discovered”), the would be explorers were already portraying the inhabitants as lesser people, a race that was (literally) half human, half beast. Freaks. Aberrations of nature, so to speak.
What does this sort of myth lead to? First and foremost, this means that the people who inhabit this new continent are not on the same level of humanity as the Europeans. Possibly – and this may be a harsh interpretation – they are “subhuman”. And the 20th century has shown clearly what we do to those we consider subhuman: the Congo under Leopold, Armenia, the Soviet purges, the Holocaust, Rwanda, and back to the Congo again.
Myth 2: as you passed the Canary Islands you would be in the Mare Tenebroso, the Sea of Darkness…this was a region of uttermost dread…where the giant hand of Satan reaches up from the fathomless depths to seize him [the sailor], where he will turn black in face and body as a mark of God’s vengeance for the insolence of his prying into this forbidden mystery…
Oh my. How does God punish these sailors for sailing so far south? He turns them black. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it seems that medieval myth portrays Africa as a place literally in the grip of Satan, and that to be black is to be cursed by God. The missionary movements that went to Africa after this responded in two ways: trying to free the Africans from Satan’s grip, and in many instances to turn them white in all but appearance. The commercial aspects of church and State simply saw the Africans as cursed, lesser, inferior…and therefore able to be exploited and disposed of in order to sustain and grow the European (read Christian) way of life.
Myth 3: They were also driven by…the legend of Prester John, a Christian king who was said to rule a vast empire in the interior of Africa, where, from a palace of translucent crystal…he reigned over forty-two lesser kings…No traveler was ever turned away from his dinner table of solid emerald, which seated thousands.
But at the heart of Africa was wealth, wealth that was the legacy of a Christian king. When church and State are mixed like this with a liberal dose of riches, is it any wonder that Africa was carved up and exploited by European powers for centuries? Is it any wonder that when you combine the three myths, and get a sub-human, black is cursed, and Africa contains great riches myth, that Africa has been treated the way it has by the European powers up until the mid 20th century, and by the industrialised West since then and China most recently?
Myths are powerful. The actions of Leopold II in the Congo are but one example of a colonial worldview that incorporated medieval myths.
I guess if I want to be a part of this bigger story, I have to contribute to new stories that expose these old myths as dangerous, depraved, and medieval.