[Updated, 18 May 2012.]
I've been alternating between anger and despair every since I found this ad on the back page of C-ville, my home town's "alternative" weekly. As absurd -- as impossible -- as it sounds, the Devils Backbone Brewing Company, of Roseland and Lexington, Virginia, is marketing an ale that celebrates a colonial regime that was responsible for the deaths of 10 million people, a crime that some argue constituted genocide.
[Click on either image to see a larger versions.]
It's hard to know what the people at the Devils Backbone Brewing Company were up to. Part of me hopes that the name of the ale represents nothing more than rank ignorance. After all, not every college graduate has taken a class in African history or the history of genocide. Not every reader has come across Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, a best-selling popular history of the atrocities in the Congo. Yes, it's possible that nobody at the company knew that Belgium's King Leopold and his minions were responsible for one of the most brutal and all-encompassing forced labor systems that the world has ever known.
It's possible. But how, then, would we account for the ad's tag line: The Horror?
That tag line tells us that whoever designed this ad knew about the crimes of the Congo. Knew that Joseph Conrad had written about them in his great novella Heart of Darkness. Knew that Conrad had put the words "The horror! The horror!" into the mouth of his character Mr. Kurtz, the colonial agent who decorated his outpost with the severed heads of his African victims.
Heart of Darkness is fiction, but it's fiction based on Conrad's experiences in Leopold's Congo. The book, Conrad once said, "is experience... pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case."
If we've eliminated ignorance, how do we make sense of the people at Devils Backbone Brewing Company and their ale?
At the very least, they've decided to attract attention in one of the most cheap, cynical, and distasteful ways I can imagine.
At worse -- and, under the circumstances, this is plausible -- they are indeed celebrating genocide.
Anti-Slavery International: Congo. Photographs of Congolese persons mutilated by rubber sentries, by Alice Harris and W. D. Armstrong, c. 1905. Reprinted from Mark Twain's pamphlet, "King Leopold's Soliloquy."
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Russell Schimmer, of Yale University's Genocide Studies Program, has written about the atrocities in the Congo:
[During Leopold's personal rule and after he had relinquished control to Belgium, the forced labor regime was designed to produce extravagant profits from the exploitation of African labor. The commodities in question were ivory and, especially, rubber.]
Male rubber tappers and porters were mercilessly exploited and driven to death. Leopold's agents held the wives and children of these men hostage until they returned with their rubber quota. Those who refused or failed to supply enough rubber often had their villages burned down, children murdered, and their hands cut off.
Although local chiefs organized tribal resistance, the FP [Force Publique, colonial Congo’s military police] brutally crushed these uprisings. Rebellions often included Congolese fleeing their villages to hide in the wilderness, ambushing army units, and setting fire to rubber vine forests. In retribution, the FP burned villages and FP officers sent their soldiers into the forest to find and kill hiding rebels. To prove the success of their patrols, soldiers were ordered to cut off and bring back dead victims' right hands as proof that they had not wasted their bullets. If their shots missed their targets or if they used cartridges on big game, soldiers would cut off the hands of the living and wounded to meet their quotas.
From 1885 to 1908, it is estimated that the Congolese native population decreased by about ten million people.
Belgian parliament refused to hold any formal commission of inquiry into the human rights abuses that had occurred in the CFS [colonial Congo]. Over the next few decades, inhumane practices in the Belgian Congo continued and a huge number of Congolese remained enslaved.
You can read Schimmer's full account, here.
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Update: 18 May 2012:
Jason Oliver, the head brewer at Devils Backbone, has responded to my criticism. In explaining why he chose the name, he writes:
1) I named it because I was interested in the hypothetical “what if” premise of a pale hoppy beer the Belgians would have brewed (right or wrong for their “infamous” colony) that could have survived a tropical journey. It was born of historical (revisionist) curiosity that has since morphed into a more contemporary Belgian-style IPA. Even though I was aware of the terrible legacy of the colony, I was first and foremost interested in the technical aspect and not the cultural weight of Belgians involvement in the Congo.
2) “Belgian” added to the name was meant to help identify what vein of beer it is, for example : “Belgian IPA” or “Belgian Witbier”. Belgian beers are complex and varied but often share the thread of being somewhat fruity in nature (from the unique yeast strains used). “Belgian” being added to “Congo Pale Ale” was not meant to make light of the brutal colonial horror but to help describe some of the beers flavor to the consumer.
You can read Oliver's entire response, here.