The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa
by Milton Allimadi
Mr. Allimadi is CEO and Publisher of The Black Star News, based in New York City. He has graciously given BAR permission to serialize his work.
Time Magazine Denigrates Congo Nationalism
was once the mouth-piece for Western domination of Africa, serving as apologist for the British in Kenya
during the Mau-Mau uprising, and later in the Congo
when Patrice Lumumba
was agitating for independence, and later when he was fighting for his life.
One memorable Time magazine article was published on December 4th, 1964, when the Simba guerrillas were defeated by a mercenary army backing the Belgian stooge, Moise Tshombe, who led the secessionist Katanga province. Time magazine’s cover carried the photograph of Paul E. Carlson, a 36-year-old American doctor, who had volunteered to work in the Congo and had reportedly been murdered by the Simba. He had been killed along with 26 other whites in Stanleyville (now Kisangani), in the north.
“Lumumba was demonized by Western media as a pro-Soviet Communist leader.”
The Congo at that time was torn by chaotic civil war following Lumumba’s murder, with at least four rival administrations in place. Belgian mining and business interests, determined to continue their colonial exploitation of the Congo’s resources, had backed Tshombe and other secessionists amenable to their business interests. Tshombe, in turn, had declared himself prime minister of mineral-rich Katanga. He was favored by the Belgian mining companies and backed Western occupation of the Congo, so he became a darling of the Western media.
Lumumba, the elected leader of the central government and a nationalist, was demonized by Western media as a pro-Soviet Communist leader. This paved the way for the military intervention of Colonel Joseph Desire Mobuttu (later Mobuttu Sese Seko) and Lumumba’s eventual murder with backing from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Belgian government.
The United States assisted Belgium when it mounted a paratroop mission to “rescue” 1,300 Europeans reportedly trapped in Stanleyville as a result of the fighting reported by Time magazine. After the paratroopers landed on the outskirts of the city, the Simba rounded up 250 whites, Time reported. Also foreshadowing the use of radio to incite violence, as occurred in Rwanda 30 years later, Radio Stanleyville broadcast a simple message, “Ciyuga! Ciyuga! (Kill them all),” according to Time, and the targets were presumably meant to be whites.
The message was from a “major Babu,” described by Time as a “deaf-mute ex-boxer addicted to hemp.” The article added, “Babu’s order could not have been a scream, but in its strangled, inarticulate, ferocity must have expressed the blood lust of the Simbas.”
According to the article, all but 60 of the whites were rescued by the paratroop operation. Twenty-five of the dead were identified as Belgians, along with two Americans, including Dr. Carlson – the others were not accounted for.
Perhaps recognizing that it needed to explain why one American’s death commanded so much attention in the publication, while an entire country was aflame and disintegrating, Time magazine explained it this way: “A single life, or even a hundred may not appear to mean much in the grim reckoning of Africa. The tribes butchered each other for centuries before the white man arrived and in colonial days when white soldiers killed countless, nameless Africans. Dr. Carlson’s murder, along with the massacre of another hundred whites and thousands of Blacks, had a special tragic meaning.”
“Time magazine: ‘The rebels were, after all, for the most part, only a rabble of dazed, ignorant savages.’”
Why was this? “Carlson symbolized all the white men – and there are many – who want nothing from Africa but a chance to help,” the article stated. “He was no saint and no deliberate martyr. He was a highly skilled physician and who, out of a strong Christian faith and a sense of common humanity, had gone to the Congo to treat the sick.” Then came the punch line that the magazine had wanted to deliver all along: “His death did more than prove that Black African civilization – with its trappings of half a hundred sovereignties, governments and U.N. delegations — is largely a pretense. The rebels were, after all, for the most part, only a rabble of dazed, ignorant savages, used and abused by semi-sophisticated leaders.”
When Tshombe’s brutal mercenaries, led by major Mike Hoare, described by Time as “a starchy South African,” committed atrocities when they retook Stanleyville, the magazine glossed over their violence. “They were not above searching bodies for cash or blowing a few safes in the Stanleyville banks,” the article stated. “But a great many of them are fighting for Tshombe’s government out of conviction. Certainly, the ‘mercenaries’ are no more mercenary – and far less brutal – than the African soldiers on either side of the Congolese civil war.”
The article added, “Tshombe’s tough Katangese gendarmes hunted down Simbas. Black residents of Stanleyville took to wearing white headbands to show their allegiance to the Leopoldville government, but that did not always work, and many a headband was soon stained red.”
The article also accused every African of “insanity” because African presidents had backed the Simba “without even a hint of condemnation for their bestialities.” It continued, “Virtually all these nations echoed the cynical Communist line in denouncing the parachute rescue as ‘imperialist aggression.’ When this happened, the sane part of the world could only wonder whether Black Africa can be taken seriously at all, or whether, for the foreseeable future, it is beyond the reach of reason.”
Finally, anyone who knows anything about Africa will attest, no Western writer ever departs from a visit to Congo without invoking that racist novel, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. “Stanleyville, the ‘Inner Station’ of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, stands at the very center of the continent,” the Time magazine article stated, obligingly. “As Conrad wrote of the journey upriver to Stanleyville, ‘It was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rotted on earth and the big trees were kings. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. You thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps.’ So it must have seemed to the soldiers who last week made the voyage to the Inner Station.” One can almost envision the Time writer flipping feverishly through Conrad’s novel to lift a suitable section for his article.
“Tshombe was praised effusively by the writer as the antithesis of the savage African.”
Tshombe, on the other hand, was praised effusively by the writer as the
antithesis of the savage African because he pursued a “patient formula” and recognized that white men “will hold as many positions as possible for as long as it takes to mold an effective army and administration.” For that reason, Tshombe was “beyond the pale of his peers in other African nations.”
Thankfully for the rest of the world, concluded the article, “Africans respect a winner and so Tshombe banked on his firm stand against the rebels in Stanleyville. If he succeeds, the Congo could become a watershed in the history of emerging Africa. For five years, African politicians have indiscriminately whip lashed the Western world with such airy phrases as ‘African personality’ and ‘African socialism.’ Tshombe – that rarest of Africans who seems to have no complexes about being black – recognizes the brutal side of the African personality, and the phony side of African socialism.”
Africa’s Coming Anarchy & Doom
Responding to the spread of civil conflict in Africa during the 1980s and the early 1990s major Western publications including The New York Times intensified their tribalization of Africa. Finally, the series of disastrous wars in Africa had paved the way for frustrated racists to openly express themselves again.
An article by Alan Cowell – the same Cowell the Zimbabweans had denied permission to cover their country while based in South Africa – was published in The New York Times Magazine under the headline “Mobuttu’s Zaire: Magic and Decay,” on April 5, 1992. The article began with the author informing readers about his adventures with “new friends” through La Cite which he described as a “reptilian slum” in Kinshasa where the “music throbbed with primal energy.”
“All the worn truths about modern Africa,” Cowell explained, “it’s myriad tribes and fake boundaries, its recourse to tyranny; the absence of hope or accountability – seem to tumble together in the streets of Kinshasa, the hot moist capital.”
“The bush has grown over the Belgian-built roads so that no one can even find them,” he continued, without noting that Belgium was more notorious for chopping off the hands of Congolese rather than building the country. “There is no single highway or railroad connecting north and south. The best route to the interior is by a river ferry laden with whores and traders dabbling in parrots and monkeys and booze and dope. Somewhere out there are Pygmies and rebels, diamond smugglers and jungle.”
“There are many others like him,” Cowell wrote, of Mobuttu, without focusing on the fact that this kleptomaniac and Patrice Lumumba
‘s assassin was created and sustained by the United States. “In Zambia
, before his fall in 1991, President Kenneth Kaunda devised ‘one-party participatory democracy’ and decreed that the country’s currency bear his portrait, as a symbol of national unity. In Guinea
, President Ahmed Sekou Toure
‘s image likewise adorned the national currency, which was called the Syli (pronounced silly) – a frivolous sideshow to a bloody despotic rule.”
Cowell’s portrayal of Zaire was not any different from Homer Bigart’s contemptuous representation of the Congo and Nigeria more than 30 years earlier. “Julius K. Nyerere in Tanzania became the Teacher, although the lessons were only in how to run an economy to the ground. Kamuzu Hastings Banda in Malawi – the conqueror – waved a fly whisk. At festivals, he had big-bottomed women dance around his diminutive figure so that all the spectators could see was the fly-whisk – the wand of power – held magically, quiveringly, irrepressibly aloft.”
“The author lamented that British colonial rule in Africa had ended prematurely.”
Western writers cannot resist the temptation of dumping on Pygmies whenever they write about the Congo. In his article, Cowell recalled that many years earlier, in 1977, he had gone in search of Pygmies when he learned that Mobuttu employed a crack military unit to help fight rebels. “When later in the campaign, in the town of Kasaji, I found a man of no great stature clad in government uniform, carrying a bow and poisoned arrow,” Cowell wrote, “I felt obliged to ask him: Are you a Pygmy? ‘No,’ he replied, politely but firmly and with wry dignity. ‘I am a small Zairian.’”
On April 18th, 1993 The New York Times Magazine published an article under the pernicious headline, “Colonialism’s Back – And Not A Moment too Soon.” The article, by Paul Johnson, praised the intervention by the United States and the United Nations to try and restore order in Somalia, a mission initially supported by many Somalis and other Africans. Might not this intervention serve as a model for other operations in African countries facing similar political collapse, the writer wondered? The author lamented that British colonial rule in Africa had ended prematurely.
It never occurred to Johnson to argue that preparation for self-rule had never been part of the agenda in all the years of colonial misrule. After dominating the Congo for more than a century, Belgium managed to produce only a half-dozen college graduates to take over a country of millions when they left the vast territory. In almost four centuries of contact with Mozambique and Angola, the Portuguese were unable to produce educated Africans. Now, suddenly, these countries were to be blamed for their political, economic and social malaise after 30 years of self-rule, following more than a century of ruin in some cases? “There is a moral issue here,” Johnson insisted, in his article. “The civilized world has a mission to go out to these desperate places and govern.”
When editors believe there is a vigorous organized constituency, they often solicit an opposing opinion when they publish controversial, pernicious, or outright racist viewpoints. By 1993, with several African countries engulfed in conflict, with images of starvation, death and destruction flashed all over the world, editors felt no need to offer counter-balancing arguments. After all, Africa was simply reverting to its natural state – barbarism.
The Times’ magazine article paved the way for the publication of similar articles. “The Coming Anarchy,” by Robert D. Kaplan, the most apocalyptic of them all, was published by The Atlantic Monthly magazine in its March 1994 issue, and years later, it was published as a book.
“Kaplan wrote that people in West Africa no longer resembled human beings.”
Kaplan’s gloomy Malthusian observations and doomsday prognoses were similar to those found in Richard Burton‘s Wandering In West Africa (1862), a book he happily consulted, and quoted from. “Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increased erosion of nation-states and international borders,” Kaplan warned, “are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism.” Things became so bad that people in West Africa no longer resembled human beings, he emphasized.
Wherever he traveled in a taxi, Kaplan wrote, young men, with “restless scanning eyes” surrounded him. “They were like loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid that was clearly on the verge of igniting.” In order to protect himself against the diseases, the author complained that he had spent $500 in inoculations. Even then, he was not sure whether this precaution was sufficient since mutation in malaria and AIDS made Africa more dangerous today than in 1862 when Burton traveled there before antibiotics were available.
As Burton had observed in the 19th Century, and as Kaplan repeated in 1994, the health conditions in Africa were “deadly,” “a golgotha,” “a jehanum.”
The Rwanda war, beginning with the 1990 invasion by Uganda-backed Tutsi insurgents, and the subsequent genocide four years later, offered the best case study of stereotypical Western reporting on Africa. The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) insurgents, many of whom were soldiers in the Ugandan national army, cultivated and exploited the sympathy of gullible, or culpable, Western reporters, years before the 1994 genocide.
One of the earliest apologias that romanticized the RPF insurgents, “Rwanda’s Aristocratic Guerrillas,” by Alex Shoumatoff, appeared in The New York Times Magazine on Dec. 13th, 1992. As already demonstrated in a previous essay, historically, Western writers portrayed Africans with “European” features relative to those with emphatic “negroid” features more sympathetically. In the Rwanda conflict the Tutsis, with their leaner frames and narrower facial features relative to the Hutus’ became “honorary” whites.
Shoumatoff traveled to Uganda where the RPF had its headquarters and had been met at Entebbe airport by RPF officials who led him to areas inside Rwanda that they controlled. Shoumatoff comfortably resorted to the 18th Century travel writers’ style, contrasting the “noble” Africans (Tutsis in this case) with the “true negroes” (the Hutus). He wrote that the Tutsis were “refined” with “European” features, while the Hutus were “stocky” and “broad nosed.” Once the article was placed in this context who do you imagine the majority of white readers all over the world wanted to prevail in this conflict?
“In the late 19th Century,” Shoumatoff continued, describing the Tutsis, “early ethnologists were fascinated by these ‘languidly haughty’ pastoral aristocrats whose high foreheads, aquiline noses and thin lips seemed more Caucasian than Negroid, and they classed them as ‘false negroes.’ In a popular theory of the day, the Tutsis were thought to be highly civilized people, the race of fallen Europeans, whose existence in Central Africa had been rumored for centuries.” He added: “They are not a race or a tribe, as often described, but a population, a stratum, a mystical, warrior-priest elite, like the Druids in Celtic society.” As for the Hutus, they were far from resembling warrior priests; they were the “short, stocky local Bantu agriculturalist.”
The New York Times was irresponsible and had no justification for publishing such racist nonsense, particularly when the editors knew that Shoumatoff was married to a Tutsi woman who was a second cousin to an RPF spokesperson. Shoumatoff may have as well been an RPF press agent posing as an independent journalist; he employed all the ugly words that have historically been used to denigrate and dehumanize Africans for centuries. Shamefully, he was aided and abetted by one of the world’s most influential and powerful media companies.
Shoumatoff published a second article in another major American magazine, The New Yorker, on June 20th, 1992. On that occasion, he wrote about how he reflected upon the difference in physical features between Tutsis and Hutus while he was in Burundi that year.
While traveling in a taxi in Bujumbura, the capital, he turned around and “checked out the ethnic mix” of the passengers, he recalled. “There were three obvious Tutsis. Tall, slender, with high foreheads, prominent cheekbones, and narrow features,” Shoumatoff wrote. “They were a different physical type from the five passengers who were short and stocky and had the flat noses and thick lips typical of Hutus.”
“Shoumatoff employed all the ugly words that have historically been used to denigrate and dehumanize Africans for centuries.”
The Hutus were thoroughly and effectively demonized by Shoumatoff, and many subsequent writers covering the conflict followed this racist theme. Suddenly there was no need for Shoumatoff to explain a critical point to his readers: How would the RPF, essentially a Tutsi insurgency, govern effectively, were they to seize power in Rwanda where Hutus made up 85 percent of the population? Shoumatoff had reduced the conflict to simplistic terms that uninformed readers in the West could relate to; a contest between the “beautiful” versus the “ugly.” So many Western writers, following a similar simplistic theme, ignored the critical role that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni‘s militarism and expansionism played in the conflict, with his training and arming of the RPF.
Shoumatoff had simply resurrected the Western writers’ tendency to venerate “European” looking Africans, which has been employed for centuries, including in Aphra Behn’s 17th century novel, Oroonoko, The Royal Slave. In the more recent era, three decades before Shoumatoff’s articles about the Tutsis, the notorious Elspeth Huxley used similar linguistic skills while glorifying Tutsis in her reports from Africa. “Their small, narrow heads perched on top of slim and spindly bodies,” Huxley wrote, in a report in The New York Times on February 23rd, 1964, “remind one of some of Henry Moore’s sculptures.” She went on to compare the original Tutsi conquest of Hutus in the 16th Century to the Norman invasion of Anglo-Saxon England.
Next week, Part Eight: Why Africans Are Not Tribesmen
The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist image of Africa
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