Monday, September 09, 2019

Annals of Cruelty

This post is about one article and one book, both of which dwell on cruelty, and the mind boggling capacity of people to inflict pain and suffering on others.

Both are more than a decade old -- the article "Invaders - Destroying Baghdad", by Ian Frazier is from the Annals of History series in the New Yorker magazine (April, 2005), describes the Mongol invasion of Iraq in 1257 CE, while the book, "King Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild (1998) is a detailed account of how one Belgian king became the 'owner' of a country that was more than 60 times the size of his own tiny European nation. 

Even though both these apocalyptic events are separated by about 500 years they have a lot in common. Firstly they are both painstakingly recreated records of how men of fairly unremarkable origins transform into leaders with a single minded determination to rule and conquer, totally unmindful of the costs involved. 

Hulagu was the grandson of Genghis Khan whose domains had been divided amongst four brothers - 
"Mongke, who outmaneuvered rivals to become khan in 1251, and who died of dysentery; Kubilai, arguably the most powerful khan ever, who occupied Peking and founded a Chinese dynasty that lasted almost a hundred years; Hulagu, an il-khan, or subsidiary khan, whose domains were in Persia and the west; and Arigh-boke, who rebelled against Kubilai and held out for years until Kubilai defeated him."
When Hulagu's horde reached the gates of Baghdad, then one of the greatest cities of the world, its leader, Caliph Mustasim, refused to surrender. Thanks to help from the Shiites whom Mustasim had insulted (eg. by tossing a poem into the Tigri river!) the mongols managed to breach the city's defences and then set out to destroy the city and slaughter most of its residents (200,000 to a million!) 
"So many books from Baghdad’s libraries were flung into the Tigris that a horse could walk across on them. The river ran black with scholars’ ink and red with the blood of martyrs."
The Europeans did the same things differently.

King Leopold started off in the guise of a philanthropist. He had no hordes at his command, and much of the known world had already been colonised by entrenched powers of the day - Spain, Portugal, France and Britain. So he started off by courting explorers like HM Stanley who was roped in to survey central Africa after he had managed to find Dr. David Livingstone.

Surveys turned to road building and proselytising and then to the collection and export of ivory. Then came the discovery something everybody needed desperately - rubber.  While the rest of Europe was wondering how to grow the South American rubber tree commercially, Leopold found that the next best source of rubber was a vine of the Landolphia genus which was growing wild in the vast forests of Congo.

Africans were now set against each other to fill Leopold's treasury. Men armed with the latest firearms from Europe raided villages to force them to collect the resin. Entire villages were burnt down, women and children kept as hostages until the men returned with the resin weeks later. Punishment for not meeting 'targets' were swift - hands and legs of men, women and children were hacked off as standard punishment. Soldiers had to account for each bullet spent with a severed hand to serve as proof.  It is estimated that Congo lost 10 million people as a direct consequence of Belgian rule.

We can draw the lessons we want from history but you cannot help wondering about massacres which may have been far worse, of all the accounts that still await a storyteller.