The Power of Truth
Keynote Speech for the Lettre Ulysses Award 2005, held on October 15, 2005 in Berlin
Half past eight one sunny winter’s morning in July I knocked at the door of No 775 La Mar in Jauja, a small mountain town in Peru, requesting an interview with Senor Pablo Landa.
According to several sources Landa was one of the must brutal and exploitative of the local landowners, and his peasants had for decades been fighting to free themselves from an almost serf-like condition. I had read up on the history of the estate, I had interviewed some of the peasants and now, here I was, on the doorstep of their oppressor, asking for his side of the story.
This was in a way just a routine visit, one among hundreds of others during a more than year-long reportage journey. It added a few pieces to the huge jigsaw puzzle I was building up of the struggle between landowners and landless in South America.
But that was not the only reason why I wanted to see Pablo Landa. I also had a personal curiosity, an almost existential curiosity, to satisfy. How could anyone be Pablo Landa? How did he see himself? The person he saw in the mirror each morning must be a very different person from the monster the peasants saw in him. But what kind of person? That’s what I wanted to find out.
Perhaps because my visit was so totally unexpected, he found it difficult to make up his mind who to be. He tried out one face after another.
As one man-of-the-world to another he was inclined to make light of the whole affair. An irritating episode, wasn’t it? But one of a kind all too common in this transitional period when old agrarian Peru was being turned into a modern industrial state.
On the other hand he felt himself to be deeply wronged. A bunch of disloyal Indians, who had him and his family to thank for everything, had pulled him by the nose. Twenty-five years of his life had been poisoned by the struggle over a few miserable acres, he’d never really wanted in the first place.
These different roles were not too easy to unite in a single image. On the one hand he was anxious to stress that both his father and he himself always had been humane men ? men who had never had recourse to the dogwhip, the Indian whip. On the other hand he couldn’t stop himself from showing it to me ? hanging there behind a cupboard door in his office, thongs of entwined leather, crowned with a dog’s head in silver.
“That’s what my ancestors used to keep the Indians in order. Particularly my uncles, oh yea, they gave the Indians a tough time. And I must say: history has taught us that the Indians are a decadent race. Not that they have ever been so brilliant as the archaeologists make out; but in those days they did at least have some kind of culture. Now they are nothing but gangsters.” And he gave a crack of the whip.
There, standing before my eyes, was the monster the Tingo peasants had fought. With a chuckle the charming fifty-year-old hung the whip up again and closed the cupboard door.
Pablo Landa and his fellow landowners were not used to being confronted with facts and values that put their own values in question. Half a century ago when Landa called in armed police to crush the harvest strike of his serfs, his action had been regarded by everyone that counted, as obviously the proper thing to do. Nobody dreamed of asking the peasants for their opinion.
The establishment press in those days always sided with the landowners. South American newspapers rarely carried any genuine reportage. Hard-talk interviews, eyewitness accounts, not to mention thoughts and feelings of the eyewitnesses ? such copy was virtually non existent. The image of reality in the South American press was, from start to finish, second hand. Oppressors were never made to face up to their deeds.
It is important to realise how completely protected from outside observation Pablo Landa felt himself to be. When he had Manuel Grijalba thrown into goal and came to bully Cancho’s wife, when he took her oldest boy to Jauja and had him too jailed for a day, when he slaughtered her six lambs and wrung the neck of her chicken ? never for a moment did it occur to him, that one Monday morning, at half past eight, a foreign visitor with a set of values different from his own, would be standing at his front door asking for an explanation of these events.
He felt as safe as could be.
And still today, on a hundred thousand South American estates, reside lords and masters who feel no less safe from observation.
This sense of security is part of their power.
As long as they feel that nobody knows or cares what they do to their peasants and workers, they’ll do as they please.
As long as they never have to answer for what they are doing, they’ll go on doing it.
This holds good not only for estate-owners but for all power-holders. Knowing that nobody sees you and checks on you is the seedbed of fraud, violence and oppression.
Knowing that you are being observed and can at any time be confronted with the facts of what you are doing, is a tremendous help to the morality of those in power.
That’s why I have made the reportage, especially the fact-finding, confrontational reportage an important part of my life’s work.
How did it all begin? It started, I think, with a little yellow-paged book that belonged to my Grandmother.
Every now and then my mother would raid Grandmother’s room clearing out “a whole lot of rubbish”. I understood perfectly well how desperate Grandmother was when the “rubbish” was to go. Mother’s attempts to keep the place clean was to me a loveless outrage, perfectly in keeping with those I myself was exposed to. So I rummaged among potato peels and household refuse in the bin to save Grandmother’s things. I hid them among my own, until the danger had passed and Grandmother could get her oddments and newspapers and books back again. They probably didn’t smell any better for having spent time in the bin, but, anyway, they were safe.
One of the books I saved from destruction was an old book with the innocent title In the Shade of the Palms (i). It turned out to be the most gruesome book I had ever read.
It was the diary of a Swedish missionary, Edward Wilhelm Sjöblom. He arrives in the Congo in July 1892 and travels by steamer up the Congo to choose a suitable place for his mission station. On board the boat are three hundred black boys taken prisoner in the war between the colonial government and the Africans. They are now to be transported to a camp to be trained as child soldiers in the service of the whites.
One of them tries to escape but is captured. He is bound to the steam engine, where the heat is greatest. Now and again the captain shows him the chicotte, the hippo-hide whip.
“The moment of suffering came”, writes Sjöblom. The first lash tores the skin from the back of the boy and he screams like an animal. Then there is silence. The body is just a piece of bloody flesh that quivers for ever lash.
Sjöblom counts 60 lashes. Then the boy lies there in his torment, wriggling like a worm, and every time the captain or one of the trading agents passes by him, they give him a couple of kicks.
“I had to witness all this in silence”, writes Sjöblom in his diary.
At dinner they are comparing notes on the treatment of blacks. “Only the whip can civilise the black”, they say. “The best of them is not too good to die like a pig”.
This is what I read in Grandmother’s book that I had just saved from destruction. I read it with tremendous empathy. I had myself been beaten. Not in the same way, for sure, but enough to be able to identify with the black boy.
But even more I identified with Sjöblom. I wanted to become like him. Not a missionary, maybe, but one who travelled the world and experienced it. I wanted to be an eyewitness to the cruelties and injustices and report on them. Like Sjöblom, I wanted to sound the alarm and appeal to world opinion.
Sjöblom’s reports were first published in the Swedish Baptist weekly Weckoposten, hardly a shortcut to world opinion. But what Sjöblom wrote was so sensational that the major Swedish dailies reprinted his articles. And from there they were picked up by papers in Germany, France and Belgium. These were the first reports on the ongoing genocide in King Leopold’s Congo.
Some of his articles Sjöblom wrote in English and sent to the Congo Balolo Mission in London. In May of 1897, Sjöblom was invited to London and appeared in a meeting arranged by the Aborigines Protection Society.
With his intense gravity and dry, detailed, rather pedantic way of speaking Sjöblom made a great impression. His testimony on the mass murders in Congo made the front page of the Times and received widespread publicity.
For me, a nine-year-old, Sjöblom became a great hero. My grandmother never got her book back. I kept it and hid it behind other books in my parents’ bookcase.
I was at an age when one devours books: boys’ books, Red Indian books, adventure books of every kind. But when I read Sjöblom, I realised that his book was different from all the others. The others were invented, made up. They were just stories. The things that were told had never happened. The people they were about, never existed.
This was, of course, a nine-year-olds primitive view of fiction. But later in life I have found that many writers of fiction try to achieve the autenticity of a true story by posing as documentarists. They pretend their fiction to be someone’s personal diary, someone’s autobiography, or someone’s reportage. They use the names of existing streets and real life persons in order to make believe that the stories they are telling, really happened. Still, most of us can see through these documentary trappings and recognise the fiction behind it.
The reportage is born with a veracity, that fiction uses a hundred tricks to reach, but never quite attains.
Sjöblom’s diary, with all its imperfections, was much more powerful than anything I had read before, because it was about real people and real events. This was the original experience that from the very beginning came to determine my own writing.
The power of truth is such that it will always produce denial. After Sjöbloms appearance in London, King Leopold himself took the matter in hand. In June and July 1897 he went on a journey of denial to London and Stockholm, reassuring Queen Victoria and King Oscar II that Sjöblom’s accusations were unfounded.
In Brussels he created a monument of denial: The Tervuren Museum of Central Africa. The old exhibition from 1900 continued to be shown decade after decade. When Congo achieved independence in 1960 the word “belge”, “belgian”, in the expression “Congo belge”, was blotted out with black ink. Otherwise everything remained the same. Denial rained sublime. Tervuren was standing there in Belgian consciousness as a huge dinosaur, surrounded by fossilised colonial thinking.
Today, 2005, the Tervuren Museum claims to have made a fresh start. A modernised museum wants to become a “center for the study of Central Africa”. A new exhibition depicts “the memory of colonial times in the Congo”. This would have been a splendid occasion for Belgium to face the crimes of the past and admit what they have been denying for more than a century.
But old habits are hard to break.
The museum now admits that murders and massmurders did happen, but emphasises that they never were sanctioned by the highest Belgian authorities. No, of course not. The highest authorities in every country always prefer to look the other way.
The number of deaths has been wildly exaggerated, claims the Museum. It cannot be proved that ten million Africans met a violent death under King Leopold’s rule. Perhaps it was a mere 2 million. And all of them were not murdered outright. Some of them might have been worked to death, others starved to death, when the colonial regime requisitioned their food-stores and their labour. But since they were not actually murdered, there was, according to the Museum, no genocide.
Evasions and excuses abound. The terrible truth disappears among extenuating circumstances. The murderers are never accused, the accused are those like myself who have collected the evidence and put it before the public. My book Exterminate All the Brutes (ii) is held up in the exhibition as the shameful example.
“The story of inhuman cruelties in the Congo has given rise to its own genre”, says the catalogue. “Prominent writers” are serving us a tall tale of European brutality. “The most daring and extreme of these writers even try to insert the Congo into a great story of the barbarities of the 20th century, especially the history of mass murders.” This, according to the catalogue, is creating a new legenda negra, a false black tale of atrocities that never, in fact, occurred.
I must confess that I am proud to have been singled out as the whipping-boy of the Museum Tervoren.
I am proud to have brought Sjöblom’s testimony once more before international public opinion and to have placed the Congo atrocities in the context of 20th century European barbarism.
I am especially proud to-night, in your company dear fellow reporters. We are all practising an art of truth, ein Wahrheitskunst, that even after a hundred years will still have the power to produce vigorous denial.
© Foundation Lettre International Award
i Edvard Wilhelm Sjöblom, I palmernas skugga, Göteborg 1907, Neuauflage Stockholm 2003
ii Sven Lindqvist: Durch das Herz der Finsternis. Ein Afrika-Reisender auf den Spuren des europäischen Völkermords, Frankfurt/M., 1999, Campus. English Edition: Exterminate All the Brutes, New York/London, 1996, Granta. Swedish Edition: Utrota varenda jävel Stockholm, 1992, Bonnier