J.R. Johnson

Refugees – in Belgium and the Congo
– in War, in Peace

(June 1940)

The Negro’s Fight, Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 9, 10 June 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Millions of Belgians fleeing along the country roads, taking with them just as much as they can carry; women and children dropping down in the gutter, old men and children dying, children being born only to die again from exposure and want want. Tanks, heavy artillery, motorized divisions grinding their way through, for war is war, and when armies fight, they fight to win. Never were there so many refugees on the roads before; and this time armies circling and encircling, were the refugees were caught between bounded by artillery on all sides and from above. This is the fate to which capitalist society has reduced the Belgian people twenty-five years after the war to end war and to make the world safe for democracy.

But that is not the only Belgium. There is another area of this Belgian Empire – in Africa, a huge territory, the notorious Belgian Congo, with eleven million Negroes. All of them are refugees, have been reliable at any time to see their homes destroyed, their crops burned, themselves transported hundreds of miles to do forced labor, with violent death and disease rampant throughout the whole territory.

Bring in Enough Rubber – or Else!

The present Leopold’s grandfather took over the Congo in the second half of the nineteenth century. He took it just as Hitler has taken Belgium to-day, sent his soldiers, murdered and massacred. The Belgian people, the workers and peasants, had nothing to do with it. Leopold didn’t even allow the Belgian government to come in on the deal. He saw that the Belgian Congo was his personal private property. He wanted rubber, and the natives had to get it and if they did not bring in a sufficient quantity, a finger was cut off, then later another finger, often a whole hand. Get the rubber for the greater benefit of King Leopold’s private income.

Some of these people were backward and barbarous, but all were not. Many villages astonished explorers by the high degree of excellence and organization they had attained in agriculture and social life. Strange irony! One of the early explorers noted that the cultivation of certain fields was as fine as anything in – Belgium, of all places. But that did not save them.

It is easy to imagine the ruin and devastation that fell upon these unfortunate people. Wherever Leopold’s rubber-collectors passed, cultivation of food ceased, social organization went to pieces, new diseases swept away whole populations. Life reduced itself to one formula – get rubber.

Natives Benefit Little from World Exposé

This went on for a generation. Then in the early years of the nineteenth [1] century a tremendous campaign was waged all over the civilized world against the atrocities in the Belgian Congo. How pleasant it would be to believe all the ballyhoo that the conscience of mankind had awakened at last! What had awakened was the capitalist conscience. British and French capital didn’t see why Leopold should run this huge colony as a private estate. The Belgian Congo was a monopoly. The Belgian king laid down the conditions of trade for all outsiders. These conditions were hard. Whereupon the capitalists of Britain and France subsidized investigators and propagandists who said to the world: “Look at the poor natives. See how their fingers are cut off to get rubber for the wicked Leopold.”

The scandal was so great that Belgian Congo became a regular colony. The natives didn’t benefit much. Capitalist enterprise began to develop the industrial resources, for instance to build railways. As late a 1928 one piece of railway construction cost the lives of 28,000 men. Life is cheap and therefore the work that is done by machinery in Europe and America is done by muscle and bone in the Congo.

It is not only the drain of men for labor on European enterprises which ruin native life. When the able-bodied men from the village are rounded up for work, life in the village goes to pieces. Only the old men, the children and the women remain. They are refugees who stay at home, suffering from the blitzkrieg of the white labor-contractors.

A Colony by Any Name Smells –

After the war, another portion of Central Africa was handed over to Belgium. Not as a colony, oh no! The war for democracy changed that. Ruara-Urundi was given a new name – mandated territory. In 1932 M. Vandervelde, the late leader of Belgian labor, told what had recently been taking place in the mandate. Belgian officials had raped the wife of a native who, as is customary in native law, demanded compensation. The native was whipped, a fight broke out and one official was killed. White authority and prestige had to be restored. The Belgian governor organized a blitzkrieg. Armed troops swept down on the villages. The natives fled into the forest. Guerilla warfare lasted for weeks with natives using bows and arrows to defend themselves against troops armed with modern rifles. Thousands of natives, men, women and children died from bullets and starvation. The “revolt” was finally crushed.

Now what have the refugees in Belgium to do with all this? Nothing at all. When the Belgian Congo was first taken over they knew nothing at all about it. A small section of the Belgian workers can gel fairly good wages from the profits made by the Belgian capitalists. But of the millions of refugees in Belgium today few gain much, if at all, from the destruction of human life in the Belgian Congo. Now Leopold has made his army surrender, and the Belgian people are delivered to Hitlerite Fascism. Fascism in the colonies, fascism at home; refugees on the Belgian countryside, refugees in the Belgian Congo. That is the future of the Belgian Empire as long as capitalism lasts.

And Hitler? Hitler wants to exploit the Belgian colony himself. So that “war for democracy” or “war for Fascism” boils down to “war for colonies.” That is what the war was about in 1914. That is what the war is about in 1940.

Note by MIA

1. It was actually during the early twentieth century, or the early 1900s.

Last updated on 25 January 2019