I got an email from a reporter on the Bolton News on Thursday, telling me that the memorial to Bolton-born William Lever in Port Sunlight had been put on a list drawn up by Black Lives Matter activists as one of many statues they would like to see removed, and asking me for my thoughts on the subject. It’s not quite as random a request as you might think: my first book, The King of Sunlight, which was published in 2004 was what I described as a “sort-of biography” of Lever, later Lord Leverhulme, founder of Lever brothers, eminent Victorian and one of Britain’s most eccentric businessmen of all time.
I wrote this response, much of which was quoted in the piece they published.
“I’m madly busy with the day job today, so can’t manage a chat I’m afraid – and it’s also a good 16 years since I wrote the book, so I’ve probably forgotten as much as I ever knew – but in a couple of lines, I’d say Lever was absolutely a product of his times and his attitudes undoubtedly racist (I describe his approach to overseas plantations as ‘imperial arrogance at its most basic’ at one point in the book), but compared to the utterly inhuman and horrific treatment of people in the Congo by Leopold II prior to his setting up of the Huilieres du Congo Belge he was in a completely different category. As I note in the book, his own empathetic attitudes didn’t necessarily always trickle down to the managers on the ground – I wrote about the appalling treatment of workers in his Solomon Islands plantations in particular – but he did insist on fair wages and decent housing, as well as building hospitals and schools. And I think it’s a thoroughly good thing that we’re talking about and discussing this stuff so much now, and the loss (or not) of a few old statues is an absolutely fair price to pay – history is there to be talked about and learned from, not occasionally registered in the corner of your eye as you walk past it covered in pigeon droppings on the street.
There were, incidentally, plenty of workers at Port Sunlight and his other British plants who resented his paternalism and bossiness in telling them how to live their lives, the unions even denounced the profit-sharing system there in 1920, and he was essentially booted out of Lewis and Harris where the locals had no time at all for his plans for the islands, so he was by no means an unqualified hero in his own lifetime!”
And I think most of that – particularly the bit about statues, on which I speak as a Bristolian from a mixed-race family who was educated at Colston’s Primary School – is pretty fair. But I’ve spent a bit more time thinking and reading over the past 48 hours and reflecting on what I got right and wrong when I was researching and writing the book back in 2002-03, and what I’d do differently now.
One clarification to someone else’s writing before I get onto the longer list for my own. The list of statues currently states that Lever “made his fortune in soap making through forced labour slavery on his palm oil plantations in the Belgian Congo which were leased to him from his close friend King Leopold II”. Lever’s business in the Belgian Congo, the Hulieres du Congo Belge (HCB) wasn’t set up until February 2011 and the earliest contact between Lever Brothers and the Belgian Colonial Ministry about the possibility of running plantations in the country I’ve been able to find any record of was at the end of 1909. Leopold handed the territory over to the Belgian government in March 1908 – he’d been running it as a personal fiefdom he called the Congo Free State up until then – and he was dead by December 1909. I don’t know of any evidence that Lever and he ever even met.
That’s important, because the treatment of the inhabitants of the so-called Congo Free State by Leopold and his lieutenants was unforgivably abhorrent, and having his own statues ripped down across Belgium last week is not even the beginning of what he deserves. The best account of his atrocities is in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, but I covered it in the King of Sunlight as best I could:
“Women were taken from villages to serve as concubines to state officials and traders. Men were forced to rape members of their own family, or killed for sport, the victims of wagers between soldiers as to who was the better shot. Children were taken from their families in their thousands and forcibly recruited into the military, a process that was aided and approved by Catholic missionaries, who were eager to save their souls by baptizing them before they were sent out to attack their own people. Often, instead of clearing the jungle, the difficult and time-consuming way to create space for plantations, inhabited villages were simply burned to the ground and rubber trees planted in their ashes. Most hypocritically, the Congo Free State ran an active and immensely profitable slave trade, buying men and women for a few pounds from collaborating chiefs, or simply kidnapping them and forcing them into labour. Their children disposed of – those too young to march were simply abandoned in the jungle to die – they were whipped regularly and made to work in chain-gangs, shackled so tightly by the neck that their skin wore away and flies fed in their open wounds.
The European staff employed in the Congo Free State neatly absolved themselves from all guilt or independent thought by adopting the reductive thought-processes common to mass-murderers from the Crusaders to the Nazis: their victims were stupid, lazy, sub-human worse than animals. Holding that as their central belief, there is little that human beings are not capable of. One man, Leon Rom, had trained as a book-keeper for a firm of customs brokers in a provincial town in Belgium: as station chief at Stanley Falls he decorated the flower-beds at his home with the severed heads of African women and children from the surrounding area.”
What was going on was eventually exposed by a handful of whistleblowers, journalists and missionaries, and Leopold was forced to hand over the colony to his country’s government (he made them pay over 200million francs for it). And it was three years after that that Lever and his HCB arrived.
When I first pitched the book that became the King of Sunlight to the publishers I promised I would go round the world visiting the various places the super-egotist Lever had named after himself: Leverburgh (now An t-Ob) on the Isle of Harris and Leverville (now Lusanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) amongst them. I never made it to the DRC because there was a pretty spectacular war going on there during the period I was doing research. And that meant I was more than usually reliant on second-hand sources, many of them contemporary, such as the speeches in which Lever displayed what struck me as an unusually empathetic attitude for the Edwardian era:
“The Congo natives, although regarded as savages, nevertheless possessed the fundamental attributes of humanity – love of home, children and so forth – and the methods that brought out the best in ourselves were equally applicable to the dark-skinned people.”
As did his own account of negotiating with one of the locals when he visited the country in person in 1912:
“The Commissaire told the Chief that I was a great Chief from the White Man’s country, that I wanted his village clean and sanitary, and that I was willing to help him build a village on the new site… The Chief asked for time for himself and his headmen to talk it over which was, of course, accorded. I watched closely the faces of both men and women, and they were set in a critical, non-committal, intelligent way, which showed they knew well all that was said and had no intention of giving themselves away by too hasty grunts or nods of approval.”
Or the support given by one of the most vociferous opponents of King Leopold’s activities in the Belgian parliament, the socialist leader Emil Vandervelde, who declared that “Had the suggested concessions been offered to any other firm, he would have opposed them, but he was aware of the conditions which existed at Port Sunlight” and therefore whole-heartedly supported him running plantations.
Which is not in any way to say I gave Lever a free pass: I accuse him of “imperial arrogance at its most basic”; criticise his “use of that singular ‘the native’ to describe the 200 or so separate and enormously diverse communities that inhabited the Congo area”; and go into quite a bit of detail about the beatings and abuse meted out by the “violent, unprincipled rednecks” he employed to oversee his plantations in the Solomon Islands. I conclude the chapter on his Congo business like this:
“I am making no attempt to rehabilitate colonialism: the system that existed in the Congo was exploitative and Lever, like all his staff, was, by today’s standards, deeply racist. But by the standards of the day he was exemplary. He made good on all his promises: ten hospitals, two schools (with teaching in the native languages) and a generous wage for every one of his 17,000 employees. Best of all, just six years after New York’s Bronx Zoo had exhibited a member of an Ituri tribe of pygmies from the Congo in the same cage in their monkey house as an orang-utan from Sumatra, Lever was doing his best to understand his employees as human beings capable of making perfectly valid lifestyle choices.”
But I now think I got some of those important details wrong. In 2008, four years after my book came out, Verso published Lord Leverhulme’s Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo by Jules Marchal (I think there might have been a French version at the point I was writing my book, but I never knew about it and wouldn’t have been able to understand most of it even if I did). I became vaguely aware of its existence at some point between then and now – I abandoned Victorians not long after the King of Sunlight and haven’t looked back much since – but it was only yesterday that I bought the Kindle version and sat down to read it. And it makes clear that I fell for the PR version of how the HCB operated in the Belgian Congo, and gave the “official” version from the boss too much credence: the company, which was co-run by Lever and the Belgian colonial authorities, used forced labour, in a system which worked like this:
“The enforcement mechanism of taking women or chiefs as hostages was gradually replaced by that of taxes – and the threat of severe punishment for Congolese who did not pay them. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, European colonists and settlers used head taxes or hut taxes to force people away from subsistence agriculture and into mines, factories and other parts of the colonial economy that required labour.”
Tax collection was undertaken by armed soldiers on behalf of the colonial government, but the purpose of it was made very clear in a letter from an HCB managing director to the local military commander in June 1915: “promoting labour recruitment by making tax-collecting trips.”
The company also employed child labour (Marchal quotes a memo from 1923 in which the company acknowledges this and claims to have instructed local managers to “rely as little as possible on non-adult labour”, and requested powers to impose prison sentences on workers for absenteeism, dishonesty or “violations of work discipline.” And contrary to what I wrote, the wages they paid were far from generous. Here’s a quote from a letter from district commissioner Emmanuel Schmitz in October 1924, seven months before Lever’s death:
“The HCB offers its workers a wage that in no way compensates them for their sacrifices – I refer here as much to the monetary question as to the changes in the way of life of the person hired – which they are ‘persuaded’ to accept. The workers’ principal grievance against the firm is the fact that they do not receive a ration in kind.”
Official records claim that the daily wage for plantation workers in October 1921 was 1.50 francs for those who climbed the trees to cut down the oil-rich fruit, and 0.55 – 0.65 francs for non-cutters, plus rations money of 1.20 francs and 2 kilos of rice and a kilo of fish per week. But Marchal also makes it clear that workers often got far less food than that. And while the brick-built housing I saw photographs of was of good quality, a doctor who visited the Barumbu plantation in 1923 said there were “not enough of them. Although designed to hold 3 single men or one married man, there were when I visited overcrowded dwellings containing 6-8 single men.” There was apparently little in the way of sanitation or cooking facilities for workers, and the hospitals and nursing stations lacked facilities. And HCB seem to have resisted all pressure to improve conditions on economic grounds. Here’s the governor-general of the country reporting back to Brussels in 1924:
“It seems we ought not to expect the Societe des Hulieres to go to any great expense to improve the situation of its workers. Bosses in Africa persist in blaming their failure to recruit workers on the indolence of the blacks, while the real cause is to be sought in the fashion in which they treat those in their employ.”
So: Mea Culpa (and it’s taken me nearly as many words as the entire chapter on the subject in the original book to get there). If I was writing it now, I’d write it differently, and I definitely wouldn’t call the chapter “A Good Man In Africa” which is a rubbish title anyway. I still stand by my original point that Lever wasn’t even close to King Leopold’s league, but he and HCB didn’t deserve a belated PR job, and I’m sorry that was what I delivered in pages 214-222. I went into detail on this stuff in the chapter about his plantations in the Solomon Islands, and I should have found out more about the ones in the Congo, as I now have. I am at least pleased to say that looking back at the King of Sunlight as a whole, my sort-of biography is very far from being any sort of hagiography.
Incidentally, a claim I’ve seen bandied about a bit on social media in the past few days is that “Leverhulme set up a private kingdom reliant on the horrific Belgian system of forced labour, a programme that reduced the population of Congo by half and accounted for more deaths than the Nazi Holocaust.” That comes from the back-cover blurb which Verso put on Marchal’s book, which was published after he had died (nice easy cut-and-pasteable version here. It’s not a sentence that appears anywhere within its 272 pages. The closest thing I can find to it in the text is in the introduction provided by Adam Hochschild, who notes that:
“Between 1880, when Leopold started to assume control of the Congo and the 1920s, when the forced labour system became less severe… Jan Vassina, professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Winsconsin and the leading ethnographer of Congo basin peoples, calculates that the Congo’s population dropped by some 50% in this period, an estimate with which a number of other modern scholars concur. Interestingly, a long-time high colonial official, Major Charles C. Liebrechts, made the same estimate in 1920.”
Lever was involved in the area for precisely 9 of those 40 years. And just a few lines later, when Hochschild estimates a figure of ten million deaths, he refers to it as “the toll in King Leopold’s Congo”, which isn’t the same thing. By all means let’s condemn Lever and his colleagues, but let’s condemn them for what they actually did.