Are bicycles evil? How the bicycle tire killed ten million Africans

I had no idea that over 10 million black men, women, and children died for the bicycle, until a friend referred me to the book “The Vertigo Years” and pointed me to the chapter on it.

John Dunlop, inventor of the air-filled tire
John Dunlop, inventor of the air-filled tire

The chapter tells with an inspiring story about capitalism – about an Irish veterinarian, Doctor John Dunlop of Belfast who devised air-filled rubber tubes for his son’s tricycle. He marketed these tires and found that the demand was so great that in 1890 he ceased to cure sick horses. He sold his rights to the pneumatic tyres to a company he formed with the president of the Irish Cyclists’ Association. Fitted with miraculously shock-absorbent rubber tires, bicycles became a symbol for the young generation, and for speed, freedom, and physical fitness. The worldwide demand for rubber boomed.

King Leopold II of the Belgians understood this was a historic opportunity. He had recently acquired a chunk of Africa as big as Europe – ranging from rain forests to snow-capped peaks, with a river that drained an area larger than India. The Congo also had caoutchouc vines, which could be made into rubber. Leopold did not trade with the natives, instead he implemented a regime of systematic terror. Belgians governed a mercenary army of Africans divided into garrisons each having about 2 white officers commanding several dozen black soldiers. The soldiers would hold workers families hostage, while

King Leopold
King Leopold

the workers harvested rubber. Any opposition (or even just a failure to meet a quota) was punished by villages being burned and the villagers murdered. The whites in charge worried that the black soldiers might use their guns to go hunting instead of enforcing, so they ordered the soldiers to bring back proof that they had killed villagers. This proof was the cut-off-hands of the villagers. Soldiers who wanted to get more money, would cut off the hands of the living, as well as the dead.

In his Belgian palace, King Leopold became rich beyond his wildest dreams.

The main hero of this story was Edward Dene Morel, an English shipping clerk, who found that outgoing cargoes to the Congo were overwhelmingly of arms and ammunition. He found no evidence of trading with those who produced the rubber. He also noticed that the official statistics reported only a fraction of the profits made. Morel said that “Forced labour of a terrible and continuous kind could alone explain such unheard-of profits..”

The hero: Edouard Morel
The hero: Edouard Morel

Before Morel’s sharp deductions, there was an expose by the black American journalist George Washington Williams, and also a book by Mary Kingsley titled “Travels in Africa”. However Morel , a small mustachioed man with no steady income, and no influential friends, became the champion of the brutally exploited people of the Congo, and the most persistent and stinging antagonist of Leopold. Morel would give lectures to crammed lecture halls, and newspapers throughout Europe and the U.S. would print revelations about the horrors in the Congo.

Leopold’s control ended when international outrage compelled the Belgian state to take control of the colony in 1908. Estimates for the number of people killed range between two and 15 million, easily putting Leopold in the top ten of history’s mass murderers. When he died in 1909 the king’s funeral cortege was booed.

There are several interesting aspects of this story. First, Leopold had pledged, when he received the Congo, that it would be studied and Christianized. He posed as a humanitarian. He even created a huge museum devoted to the cultures of central Africa. Yet “Vertigo Years” says ten million Congolese natives perished under Leopold’s rule, either murdered outright, or maimed and left to starve.

Where did the money go? It financed enlargements of the royal castle, and an extensive park with architectural follies, a promenade in a seaside town, a golf course, and a monumental triumphal arch.

It is also interesting that Leopold’s mercenary army was about 19,000 men, but was able to kill those ten million people. It obviously doesn’t take that many evil-doers to control a huge population.

As far as the other colonialists – like the French and Germans, they were sometimes just as bad as the Belgians. For instance, “Thousands of refugees who had fled across the Congo River to escape Leopold’s regime eventually fled back to escape the French [in Congo-Brazzaville]. The population loss in the rubber-rich equatorial rainforest owned by France is estimated, just as in Leopold’s Congo, at roughly 50%.”

A few more reflections on this: I came across a leftist blog post on this (see sources), which ends with this statement: “And since it isn’t talked about, what capitalism did to Africa, all the privileges that rich white people gained from the Congolese genocide, remain hidden. The victims of imperialism are made, like they usually are, invisible.”

I would disagree with the idea that “Capitalism” is the real culprit. It depends how you define “Capitalism”. I prefer the term “free enterprise”. Note the word “free” in “free enterprise”. The theory, at least, is that you freely exchange something of value (your labor, your knowhow, your time) for some other good (perhaps mediated by money) that is supplied by your employer or customers. You are free to leave at any time, to go into another line of work, etc. Slavery is not capitalism. It does exist in Capitalist societies – from India to Britain to the United States. But so does other types of crime. There are rules to free enterprise, just as there are rules to a basketball game. You can win a basketball game by putting a mild poison in the opposition’s Gatorade, but that is a crime.

Finally, it may be that forced labor was the ONLY way to make a fortune out of rubber at that time.  For instance, we read that: “Congolese workers were sent out into the jungle to slash down vines and layer their bodies with rubber latex. Later they would scrape it off their skin – often taking flesh and hair with it. The work was labour-intensive and injurious to health; the only economical way to collect it was via the forced mobilisation of Congolese society.” However, that still doesn’t make slavery the same as free enterprise, or make an argument for Socialism.

My father and mother took a trip with me (I was 5 years old) through sub-Saharan Africa in the early 60’s. They stayed for a while in Rhodesia, at the time a British colony. It did not have apartheid, and it did have successful white-owned farms, with black workers, who received a salary, and were free to leave. It was not ideal, certainly, but compared with today’s Zimbabwe, it was far better for all the inhabitants who were later handed over to the very radical Robert Mugabe, whose first act was to kill off a rival tribe, and who eventually imported Chinese to run the farms from which he had driven off the whites. And the very bitter truth about the Congo is that the deadliest war in modern African history took place there in the 1990’s, killing millions.

The story does show that an unrestricted profit motive, like any motive without barriers and boundaries, can cause horrors, and that racism, though unfortunately thrown around as an epithet to stop political conversations in this country, can lead to people being treated as a means to an end, where the end justifies the means. It also shows that altruistic rhetoric of bringing Christianity and civilization to Africa can obscure a much uglier reality.

The Beauty of the Congo
The Beauty of the Congo


The Vertigo Years by Philippe Blom (2008) (a leftist opinion)’s%20mercenary%20army%5C&f=false


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