June 11, 2011

Heart of Darkness

A couple of posts back I quoted a passage from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That got me thinking that I hadn't read the story in quite a while, so I downloaded it on to my Nook. As I got caught up in the story, I remembered a piece I wrote a few years back about a man named E. D. Morel, whose story may well have inspired Conrad. I've reprinted most of it below. It's a bit long but well worth reading through to the surprising end to an astonishing life.

E. D. Morel is at the center of a wonderful book by Adam Hochschild, called ''King Leopold's Ghost.'' Morel was hired by a shipping agent to oversee shipments of goods and services between Belgium and it's colony in Africa, the Congo. It would be more accurate to say the colony of Belgium's King, for Leopold owned the colony in his own right, separate and apart from the Belgian government. Pretty sweet deal for Leopold. Not so great for the Belgians.

Anyway, Morel right away noticed something peculiar about how things operated. The ships coming to Belgium from Africa were laden with rubber and ivory, the two principle exports from the Belgian Congo. That was okay. What struck Morel as odd was the nature of the return cargo going back to the Congo: guns and bullets.

It didn't take Morel long to put two and two together. Elephant tusks and rubber coming in. Guns and bullets going out. Oh, maybe a few beads and copper wire and trinkets, but mostly just guns and bullets. No trading goods. Just guns and bullets.

Morel decided to take a closer look at the paperwork. This led him to the inescapable conclusion that all those guns and bullets could have only one purpose: to force the native Africans to perform labor for the white colonists. What he was looking at was the infrastructure that supported a vast system of coerced labor.

Horrified by his discovery, Morel set out on a decades long crusade to first uncover and then eliminate the use of slave labor in the Belgian Congo, for that is surely what was going on. Morel published a newsletter devoted exclusively to the topic of the brutal treatment of native Africans. Soon it became pretty widely known that if you had dirt to dish about what was happening in the Belgian Congo then Morel was your guy.

Morel was joined by two Baptist missionaries, The Reverend John Harris and his wife Alice, who had lived in the Belgian Congo and who were as determined as Morel to eliminate the brutal conditions they had seen and heard about. Eventually Morel and the Harrises went on speaking tours throughout Britain and the United States, speaking at hundreds of gatherings.

Ultimately, enough public pressure built up so that the worst abuses were eliminated. Not bad. Almost singlehandedly, E.D. Morel had taken on a king and a whole colonial structure and had forced change. But it didn't end there for Morel.

In the months leading up to World War I, Morel became an outspoken critic of British policy. He warned against the war fever that was building up against Germany, and he alleged that the British government had entered into secret agreements with other governments, agreements that would tie Britain's hands in the event that hostilities broke out. A group he formed, the Union of Democratic Dissent, became the main voice for antiwar sentiment.

For his pains, Morel was vilified as a German sympathizer. The British government adamantly denied the existence of any secret agreements. More ominously, a serious effort was made to discredit Morel. Eventually, Morel was arrested on charges of sending antiwar literature to a neutral country. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months at hard labor.

Upon release from prison, his health seriously weakened, Morel resumed his speaking and writing. After the war ended, it came out that Morel had been right all along, that there had been secret treaties. Morel became the darling of Britain's Labor Party and in 1922 ran for Parliament against a former Cabinet official who had been in the government that had sent Morel to jail, a chap named Winston Churchill. Morel won that election, and the next, and the next. By then, he was so popular that 20,000 people came to see him off to London.

Although relatively young, Morel was in very bad health, having suffered a series of heart attacks. On November 12, 1924, when Morel was but 51 years old, he went out for a walk in the woods, and sat down against a tree to rest. He never got up.

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