L’horreur de la colonisation : les mains coupées du Congo

Yakomas au Congo belge, agence Meurisse, 1911 – source : Gallica-BnF




 

Au tournant du XXe siècle, la presse internationale révèle les atrocités commises au Congo belge par les agents de Léopold II, souverain du pays depuis 1885. L’opinion est scandalisée.




Le 30 avril 1885, Léopold II, roi des Belges, réalise enfin son rêve. Il vient de prendre le contrôle de l’État indépendant du Congo (EIC), devenant ainsi le maître absolu d’un pays de 2,5 millions de km². Pays dont les frontières ont été créées de toutes pièces l’année précédente au cours de la conférence de Berlin, consacrée au partage de l’Afrique centrale entre les puissances occidentales participantes.




Léopold, qui s’est vu attribuer le Congo en son nom propre (et non en celui de la Belgique), se prévaut d’une mission civilisatrice et humanitaire. Il modernise la région, développant des infrastructures, favorisant le commerce et l’agriculture, fondant des villes. En parallèle, il fait main basse sur les richesses locales, notamment le caoutchouc, s’arrogeant dès 1891 le monopole de son exploitation.

Comme l’opinion occidentale va bientôt le découvrir, le prix à payer pour les populations autochtones est énorme.

À partir de 1895-1896, une série de révélations sur les atrocités commises par les agents royaux et leurs miliciens va susciter une grande vague d’émotion. Le 1er septembre 1896, La Croix publie ainsi le témoignage d’un Européen anonyme tout juste revenu du Congo belge :




« Et notre interlocuteur nous communique des lettres particulières qu’il vient de recevoir, donnant d’affreux détails sur les atrocités commises par les Belges dans l’État indépendant et particulièrement dans le district de l’Équateur.

Une photographie accompagne une de ces lettres : elle est telle que nous aurions peine à ajouter foi à de pareils faits, si nous ne l’avions sous les yeux en écrivant. Elle représente deux enfants nègres, un petit garçon et une petite fille. Le petit garçon a eu le poignet coupé, parce que son village n’avait pas fourni assez de caoutchouc !




Détail inouï ! Sur le bras gauche de l’enfant se voit une entaille cicatrisée : on avait d’abord commencé à lui couper le poignet gauche quand, s’étant aperçu qu’on se trompait de côté, on interrompit l’opération.

La petite fille, d’un an à peine, a été trouvée aux côtés de sa mère morte fusillée, après avoir subi la même mutilation.

Ces atrocités, nous dit notre interlocuteur, ne sont pas des faits isolés. »

Le 29 septembre, La Justice, le journal de Clemenceau, rapporte à son tour le récit de missionnaires suédois passés par le Congo belge :




« Travail forcé des indigènes dont les villages sont incendiés quand ils n’apportent pas assez de caoutchouc (le missionnaire dit n’avoir pas vu moins de quarante-cinq villages réduits en cendres) ; mains coupées et fumées, pour contrôler la comptabilité des cartouches confiées aux soldats noirs envoyés en expédition ; terrorisation des indigènes, dont quelques-uns seraient abattus de temps à autre pour l’exemple, par les soldats qui racontent ensuite à leurs chefs les avoir tués parce qu’ils recueillaient du caoutchouc (le missionnaire dit que de ce fait il y a des preuves innombrables) ; dépopulations, famine et stérilisation du pays, tel est, d’après la Gazette de Cologne, l’effroyable tableau que tracent les journaux suédois de l’œuvre civilisatrice accomplie au Congo. »




Dans les années qui suivent, les témoignages vont se multiplier dans la presse, suscitant l’indignation générale. Ils révèlent que l’administration de Léopold II a mis en place au Congo, outre des pratiques esclavagistes, la torture et la mutilation des autochtones – hommes, femmes, enfants et vieillards – qui cherchent à se soustraire au travail forcé ou ne sont pas jugés assez productifs.

Ces exactions sont confiées à des Africains du Congo, souvent enrôlés contre leur gré par la Force publique, une milice créée en 1888 par Léopold II et dont l’encadrement est mené par des mercenaires européens (souvent belges), ces derniers ne se montrant guère regardants quant aux méthodes employées pour mater les révoltes.




Une triste pratique marquera les esprits : celle dite « des mains coupées ». L’EIC exige des enrôlés africains partis dans les villages lever leur quota de caoutchouc auprès des populations qu’ils ramènent une main coupée par balle utilisée. Il s’agit ainsi de prouver que la balle n’a pas été utilisée à une fin autre (revente, braconnage) que le meurtre des indigènes insoumis ou improductifs.

Une règle qui, selon les témoignages de l’époque, conduit parfois les soldats à perpétrer les pires horreurs, certains coupant les mains de personnes vivantes afin de justifier l’usage des balles revendues ou utilisées pour braconner.

En 1900, L’Aurore dénonce l’hypocrisie belge sur la question :




« Il est vrai que l’on a bâti sur ce pillage de l’Afrique une vaste exploitation financière ; les sociétés coloniales ont surgi par dizaines qui distribuent d’énormes dividendes et sont l’objet d’un agiotage effréné à la Bourse de Bruxelles et d’Anvers.

Donc tout est pour le mieux et quand quelque missionnaire, quelque agent congédié, vient parler des horreurs qui se commettent librement en Afrique, des mains coupées, des villages incendiés, des indigènes massacrés parce qu’ils n’apportent pas assez de caoutchouc, des femmes et des enfants achetés ou razziés pour le service ou le harem des civilisateurs, on crie à la calomnie.




Quand un de ces blancs comparait devant les tribunaux congolais, accusé de quelque crime qui en Europe lui vaudrait le bagne, il a neuf chances sur dix d’être acquitté et récompensé, et félicité. Et en tout cas quand les noirs, exaspérés, protestent contre la tyrannie dont ils sont les victimes, on commence par les massacrer. »

Ailleurs, les écrivains Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain et Joseph Conrad (dans Au cœur des ténèbres) dénoncent la situation, tout comme le journaliste britannique Edmund Morel qui lance une vaste campagne de sensibilisation. Le Foreign Office anglais envoie au Congo le consul Roger Casement pour enquêter. Il ramène en 1903 un rapport accablant qui sera largement médiatisé et amplifiera la protestation internationale.

« Il ne peut y avoir l’ombre d’un doute sur l’existence de ces mutilations et sur leurs causes, écrit Casement. Ce n’était pas une coutume indigène antérieure à l’arrivée du blanc : ce n’était pas le résultat des instincts primitifs de sauvages dans leurs luttes entre villages ; c’était un acte délibéré de soldats d’une administration européenne, et ces hommes eux-mêmes ne cachaient jamais que, en perpétrant ces actes, ils ne faisaient qu’obéir aux ordres positifs de leurs supérieurs. »




Pourtant, dans la presse française, certains journaux comme Le Siècle se montrent sceptiques :




« Il est plus que probable qu’au début de l’occupation certains chefs blancs ont toléré cette coutume barbare […].

Il en est résulté ces faits éminemment regrettables qu’on nous a signalés ou que nous avons constatés : des mutilations de personnes vivantes que les soldats ou les sentinelles avaient crues mortes.




Mais ces mutilations, dit la commission, n’ont jamais eu le caractère de tortures infligées volontairement à des vivants. Cela va de soi, et nous ne croyons pas non plus que cette accusation ait jamais été portée nulle part contre les civilisateurs du Congo. »

Léopold a beau nier les accusations de Casement, qu’il attribue à une volonté de l’Angleterre de s’emparer du Congo, une Commission d’enquête est constituée. Elle confirme les conclusions du rapport britannique. Le 15 novembre 1908, la Belgique prendra en charge l’administration de l’État indépendant du Congo.




En l’absence de données démographiques fiables, il est très difficile de savoir combien de gens moururent à cause de la mainmise léopoldienne (1885-1908). Des estimations avancent le chiffre de plusieurs millions de personnes, certaines allant jusqu’à 10 millions. Un chiffre contesté par d’autres historiens qui jugent impossible qu’un tel massacre ait pu être perpétré, étant donné le faible nombre des agents royaux sur le territoire congolais.

La controverse sur la responsabilité directe de Léopold II est, elle aussi, encore vivace.

 

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