History is chock full of dark examples of people’s inhumanity to each other. From the throwing of slaves into the ocean to drown then filing insurance claims for their value, to blind faith in the market philosophies during a famine that led to the death of millions, there is no shortage of historic dark moments. Following are forty things about these and other dark but lesser-known moments from history.
40. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Saw Millions of Africans Shipped to the New World
The transatlantic slave trade was one of history’s darker episodes, which lasted for almost four hundred years, from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. It was part of a triangular trade that linked the New World, Europe, and Africa. Raw goods were shipped from the New World to Europe, and manufactured goods were shipped from Europe to Africa, where they were traded for slaves who were shipped to the New World, to toil in the production of more raw goods.
While it lasted, the transatlantic slave trade saw the transportation of an estimated 12 – 15 million Africans to the New World for a life of slavery that was often dark, cruel, brutal and short. At least it was for those who survived the horrific Middle Passage from Africa to the New World, during which millions of slaves perished.
The journey of Africans from what the Europeans referred to as the Dark Continent to the New World was broken into three stages, often referred to as passages. Each passage was marked by its own cruelties and challenges, but it was the Middle Passage that was most infamous for the depths of inhumanity in that stage of the slaves’ journey.
The First Passage saw the marching of captives to African ports for loading onto ships. The Middle Passage saw the Africans loaded onto slave ships, packed like sardines to maximize the number of human cargo units, and chained in place in horrific conditions. The Final Passage was the surviving slaves’ journey from the port of disembarkation in the New World, such as Charleston, South Carolina, to the plantation or other destination where they would be put to work.
Depending on weather conditions and the prevailing winds, slave ships packed with chained unfortunates could take from one to six months to complete the Middle Passage journey. The slaves’ journey from Africa to the New World was often described as hellish, and for once, it was no literary hyperbole: few things were more dark and grim than the hold of a slave ship during the Middle Passage.
To save space, slaves were chained by their ankles in pairs, and shackled to a post. Some ships allowed the slaves to move about during the day, but most kept them shackled in place for the entire journey. They were fed one meal a day with water, if at all. Bodily functions were done in place, and the slaves often spent the entire journey soiled in urine, vomit, and excrement. Diseases in the slave holds were rife, and mortality rates were high. Crews avoided going into the dark and fetid slave holds, and slaves sometimes spent days shackled to rotting corpses. The stench was horrific, and sailors in other ships often described being able to smell slave ships from miles away, long before they hove into view.
37. The Cruel Math of Rationing Sustenance Aboard Slave Ships
If food and water ran low on slave ships during the Middle Passage, the ship’s crew took care of themselves first. When transatlantic sailings took longer than expected and sustenance ran low, slave ship captains often turned to cruel and cold calculations in order to salvage what they could of their human cargo.
To figure out how to stretch the remaining food and water in order to arrive at port with at least some living slaves to sell, slavers were not above turning to cold-blooded murder. Once they figured out that the remaining food and water could sustain only a certain number of slaves, the dark logic of the situation called for getting rid of the excess slaves. So they were thrown overboard, to drown or be devoured by the sharks that routinely trailed slave ships.
The most infamous and best-documented incident of slavers throwing living Africans overboard occurred on the slave ship Zong, in late November 1781. Starting on November 29th, and for days afterward, the Zong’s captain went on a dark killing spree, during which he had over 130 Africans thrown overboard to drown in the Atlantic. The event came to be known as the Zong Massacre.
The incident is shocking to modern sensibilities, but at the time such events were sufficiently common that the massacre would probably have been forgotten, save for one twist. The event was saved from vanishing into obscurity because, when the ship finally reached port in Jamaica, its owners filed an insurance claim to recover the value of the slaves thrown overboard. It was the subsequent litigation, and the legal precedents set, that preserved the details of the Zong Massacre for posterity.
The Zong was owned by Liverpool’s Gregson Slave-Trading Syndicate. In what was common business practice at the time, the syndicate took out insurance on the lives of their human cargo. While crossing the Atlantic loaded with slaves, navigation mistakes caused the journey to take longer than expected. As a result, the food and water ran low. So the captain decided to reduce the number of mouths to feed and water by throwing over 130 Africans overboard.
When the Zong’s owners made a claim for the murdered slaves, the insurers refused to pay on grounds that the claimants had murdered the slaves they now wanted to get paid for. So the Gregson syndicate sued – and won in a jury trial. In Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug. KB 232, it was held that murdering slaves was legal in the circumstances of the case, which meant that the insurers could be made to pay up.
The insurers appealed the trial court’s verdict, to have it set aside and for the case to be retried. In a hearing before the Court of the King’s Bench, the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield, and two other King’s Bench judges, reversed the lower court’s decision.
The reversal was not made on grounds of humanity, or because the slavers had committed murder. Instead, the court reversed based on newly introduced evidence showing that the slaves had been thrown overboard because of the ship captain’s negligence. The case was sent back to the lower court for a new trial.
33. Escaping Punishment, and Launching the Abolition Movement
There is no evidence that another trial was ever held after the case was reversed on appeal. By then, the Zong Massacre – thanks to the efforts of a former slave named Olaudah Equiano – had been brought to the public’s attention, and became a sensation. Led by anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, the abolitionists demanded justice for the drowned slaves and sought to have the ship’s crew prosecuted for murder.
Their efforts to secure justice for the drowned slaves were unsuccessful, and nobody was ever criminally prosecuted for the killings. However, the massacre shocked many into taking a stand against slavery and helped launch the abolition movement. In 1807, the British Royal Navy was tasked with suppressing the international slave trade, and in 1833, Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire.
During the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902), the British had their hands full trying to subdue the Boers of the Orange Free State and of the Republic of Transvaal. The British initially assumed that a swift campaign would quickly put an end to the fighting, but their opponents proved tougher and more resilient than expected. Although greatly outnumbered, the Boers went on the offensive and achieved some remarkable early successes.
Before they knew it, the British had a full-scale war on their hands, that required the commitment of roughly 600,000 troops and auxiliaries to the fight. It also required the British to turn to a dark recent innovation to subdue the obstreperous Boers: the construction of concentration camps.
Greatly outnumbered, the Boers avoided pitched battles and relied instead on hit and run tactics and guerrilla warfare. That caused the British no end of trouble. In late 1900, Herbert Kitchener was given command of the British effort, and he proceeded to defeat the guerrillas by depriving them of the civilian support upon which they relied. The British adopted a scorched earth policy of burning down Boer farms and homesteads, killing their livestock, poisoning their wells, destroying their crops, and salting their fields.
The British also adopted a new and ominous innovation that had recently been introduced by the Spanish while suppressing guerrillas in their Cuban colony: concentration camps. Tens of thousands of Boer civilians, mostly women and children, were forcibly gathered from the countryside, to be interned, or “concentrated”, in vast camps behind barbed wire.
Things got dark pretty quick in the concentration camps, where conditions were atrocious. The administrators were incompetent, supplies were spotty, and the internees suffered from bad sanitation, poor hygiene, overcrowding, inadequate shelter, and often nonexistent medical care. Food rations were scanty, and the British targeted the families of Boer men who were still fighting, giving them even smaller rations than the meager portions provided the rest.
Many internees died of malnutrition, which left many more vulnerable to a host of contagious diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and measles, that swept the camps. About 115,000 Boer civilians were herded into 45 concentration camps. In the eleven-month period from June, 1901, to May, 1902, roughly 28,000 Boer internees perished – a tenth of the entire Boer population. The Boers’ African servants were held in separate concentration camps, where conditions were if anything even worse. Those camps did not garner the same attention as the camps housing the white Boers, but an estimated 20,000 Africans died in them.
SS extermination camp doctor Josef Mengele (1911 – 1979) became infamously known as the “Angel of Death”. The son of a Bavarian farm machinery manufacturer, Mengele grew up in comfort and developed an early passion for music, skiing, and art. He studied philosophy in university and joined the Brown Shirts in 1934. A year later, he got a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Munich, which got him into the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene. It was the start of a dark journey.
Mengele joined the SS in 1938, and served as a combat doctor on the Eastern Front until he was wounded in 1943. After recovering, he was transferred to Auschwitz as camp doctor. There, he greeted new arrivals, cursorily sorting out those who got to live as slave laborers from those to be sent immediately to the gas chambers. He was also a sadist who conducted gratuitously cruel and deadly human experiments upon the camp’s prisoners, with little regard to the safety or well-being of his victims. Unfortunately, he got away with it.
Mengele ended up in a British POW camp after the war. However, he hid his true identity with an assumed name, so his stint in captivity was relatively brief, before he was released. Mengele then went into hiding, and through a network of Nazi sympathizers in the Vatican, he was able to reach South America, settling in Argentina in 1949. By the early 1950s, he had resumed living under his real name, and made a good living as a salesman for his family’s farm equipment business, Karl Mengele & Sons. He also acquired an interest in a pharmaceutical company.
In 1960, however, Mengele’s deeds in Auschwitz became more publicly known, and West German prosecutors sought to have him arrested and extradited. Between that and fears that the Israelis – who had recently seized Adolf Eichmann in Argentina – might be after him, Mengele went on the lam once again. This time, he headed to Brazil, where with the help of Nazi sympathizers, he settled down and purchased a coffee and cattle farm in Sao Paulo. He was never held accountable for his crimes and died in a swimming accident in 1979.
One of Ireland’s darkest moments occurred in the nineteenth century, in large part because of British misrule. England began colonizing Ireland in the twelfth century. Over time, the colonists exploited the island, dispossessed the natives of the best lands, and literally lorded it over the locals. By the nineteenth century, Ireland was an agricultural nation, populated by about eight million people who were amongst the poorest in the Western World. Most Irish were illiterate, life expectancy was short, and infant mortality was high.
A predominately Protestant Anglo-Irish hereditary ruling caste owned most of the land, which had been confiscated from the native Irish Catholics. Most landowners were absentee landlords who seldom visited their estates, but simply lived off their rents, often quite lavishly. Their tenants were poor Catholic farmers who scratched a subsistence living from plots that kept shrinking over the generations.
The potato became an appealing crop to subsistence level farmers because it was hardy, nutritious, calorie-rich, and easy to grow on Irish soil. It became a staple crop, and by the 1840s, about half the Irish population, and especially the poor farmers, had come to rely almost exclusively on potatoes for their diet. That reliance on a single crop set the stage for disaster.
Ireland was vulnerable to catastrophe if the potato crop failed, which it did in 1845 when a blight caused much of that year’s crop to rot in the field. It was followed by even worse blights in subsequent years, and famine ensued. The Potato Famine was not caused by Britain, but British policies and reactions ensured that it became far more deadly than it otherwise would have been.
The British government’s response ranged from inadequate to outright incompetent. Among other things, its Conservative government continued to allow the export of grain from Ireland to mainland Britain, even as starvation stalked millions of Irish. A Liberal government replaced the Conservatives in 1846, and continued its predecessor’s policies of allowing grain exports from a starving Ireland to a well-fed Britain.
Things got dark because the authorities in London also adopted a hands-off laissez-faire approach. The burden of relief efforts was shifted to local Irish resources, mainly in the form of local poor relief paid for by the landlords. However, because the starving peasants were unable to pay the rents, the landlords soon ran out of money to pay the taxes for poor relief.
The British also imposed work requirements on the indigent and starving Irish in need of relief. It backfired spectacularly because many were too debilitated by hunger to work. Additionally, many of those who managed to get some form of food relief was given cornmeal that Irish stomachs were unaccustomed to, and that was nutritionally deficient, anyhow.
As a result, over a million Irish starved to death during the Potato Famine, and another million were forced to emigrate, reducing Ireland’s population within a few years by a quarter. The famine became a watershed in the island’s history. It greatly altered its demographics, politics, and culture, and boosted Irish nationalism and republicanism in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora. The population continued to decline due to emigration in subsequent decades. By the time Ireland became independent in 1921, its population was only half of what it had been in the 1840s.
The Irish Famine was not the most lethal famine to occur because of the ineptness of British rulers. A deadlier one occurred in India during WWII, thanks in large part to Winston Churchill. Britain’s greatest wartime leader, Churchill was one of the twentieth century’s giants and a hero of the modern era. He is rightly celebrated for his tenacity and steadfastness in the war’s early years, when he rallied a reeling Britain and kept it in the fight against Nazi Germany – the first step in the Third Reich’s defeat.
However, Churchill was a complex man, and there was far more to him than the year or so when he and Britain held the line against the Nazis, until joined by the USSR and USA. The man had a dark side. During a public career that lasted more than half a century, Churchill had no shortage of missteps, or outright villainous misdeeds, that contrast jarringly with the nobility of his heroics against Hitler. One such misdeed was the decisions he took during WWII regarding food distribution in India, which led directly to the deaths of about three million people in Bengal.
The British Empire had long justified itself by claiming to govern for the benefit of its colonized subjects. Its conduct during the Bengal Famine of 1943 gave the lie to such pretenses. In the years leading up to the famine, many Bengalis had barely eked out subsistence from their lands, supplemented by imported rice, mainly from Burma. When the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, Bengal was cut off from those imports, and the precarious existence of millions of Bengalis was tipped over into famine.
It was made worse by the British colonial authorities’ decision in 1942 to adopt a preemptive scorched earth policy in parts of Bengal that they feared the Japanese would overrun after conquering Burma. That entailed a “Denial of Rice” policy, which came down to the British removing or destroying rice and other foodstuffs in Bengali districts that had a surplus.
With traditional rice imports from Burma cut off, and home grown surpluses destroyed by the British, famine roared through Bengal. Relief efforts were hampered by Churchill’s decision to divert food shipments intended for the starving Bengalis to already well-supplied British soldiers in the Mediterranean. The result was one of the more dark moments in a war full of darkness. In order to add to the stockpiles of food in Britain, ships loaded with wheat sailed past Indian cities whose streets were littered with the corpses of those who starved to death.
Offers of Canadian and American food aid to the starving Indians were turned down by Churchill’s government, even as it prohibited India from using its own sterling reserves or its own ships to import food. Indeed, India was made to export over 70,000 tons of rice in the first half of 1943, while millions of Indians were starving to death. When the government in Delhi sent the Prime Minister a telegram informing him of the devastation and that millions of Indians were dying, Churchill replied churlishly: “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?”
The Viceroy of India described Churchill’s attitude towards India as “negligent, hostile, and contemptuous“. Churchill was unrepentant, however. In addition to being shockingly callous about the millions of deaths sure to result from his orders, he seemed viciously gleeful about the predictable consequences when they actually occurred. As he put it, referring to the deaths of millions of Bengalis under his watch: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits“.
That was the essence of colonialism: an imbalance of power between colonists and colonized. It created dynamics whereby respected figures such as Winston Churchill, widely praised for their moral virtues, could engage in morally reprehensible conduct without any qualms. It allowed the government that ruled both Indians and Britons to callously tolerate famine in India, while remaining sensitive to British views that bread rationing in wartime Britain was an intolerable imposition.
19. There Was No Shortage of Horrible Nazi Doctors
Josef Mengele is probably the best-known evil Nazi doctor, but an equally horrible colleague of his who wrote another dark chapter in Nazi medical horrors was Doctor Walter Schreiber (1893 – 1970). A medical student when WWI began in 1914, Schreiber voluntarily enlisted in the German army. He was wounded early in the conflict, and after his recovery resumed his studies, then served as a military doctor until the war’s end.
After the war, he became a professor of biology and hygiene, and gained renown as one of the world’s foremost experts on epidemics. In the Nazi era, Schreiber introduced the use of lethal phenol injections “as a quick and convenient means of executing troublemakers“. During WWII, he rose to the rank of major general in the Wehrmacht Medical Service. He was also a member of the Reich Research Council, and in that capacity, he conducted cruel and sadistic medical experiments upon prisoners.
Dr. Walter Schreiber experimented upon prisoners in Auschwitz by freezing them in order to examine the effects of extreme cold. He conducted other sadistic medical experiments on female prisoners in Ravensbrueck concentration camp by cutting open their legs, deliberately infecting them with gangrene, then giving them bone transplants.
The subjects of his experiments usually suffered slow and agonizing deaths. At war’s end, Schreiber was captured by the Red Army and taken to the USSR, where he was held in the infamous Lubyanka prison in poor conditions. His conditions improved when his captors discovered his true identity, and the Soviets put him to work providing medical care to high-ranking German prisoners.
Doctor Walter Schreiber was produced at the Nuremberg Trials to testify against Herman Goering, who had been in charge of Germany’s biological weapons development. Goering was convicted and sentenced to death, but Schreiber was never held accountable for his atrocities. He slipped his handlers in 1948 and fled to the West, where he was hired by the US military and the CIA to work as chief medical doctor in Camp King, a clandestine POW interrogation site in Germany.
Schreiber arrived in America in 1951 as part of Operation Paperclip, which recruited German scientists, engineers, and technicians, and sent them to the US to work for the government. He began work at the Air Force School of Medicine in Texas, but the publication of newspaper articles soon thereafter about his medical atrocities led to a public outcry. So his intelligence handlers relocated him and his family to Argentina in 1952. There, Schreiber worked as an epidemiologist in a research laboratory, until his death from a heart attack in 1970.
16. The Conquistadors’ Conquest of Mexico Led to One of the Darkest Moments of History
Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes landed with a small force on Mexico’s eastern coast in February 1519. After subduing the region surrounding modern Vera Cruz, he marched inland towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, defeating and allying with natives en route. Natives who refused to join Cortes were massacred, as occurred in the city of Cholula.
As Cortes described it in his letters, after capturing the city, he destroyed it and burned it to the ground, while the conquistadors ran riot, killing about 3000 Cholulans in a few hours. Another Spanish eyewitness put the actual number of massacred Cholulans as high as 30,000. By the time he reached Tenochtitlan, Cortes had a large native army, surrounding a core of Spaniards. A dark era had dawned upon the natives: 90% of them would perish by the time the Spanish Conquistadors had consolidated their rule over today’s Mexico.
Aztec ruler Montezuma II grew indecisive upon learning of the Spaniards’ landing. He invited Cortes and his conquistadors into Tenochtitlan in November, 1519, in the hopes of better understanding them and their weaknesses. He then foolishly plied his guests with lavish gifts of gold, which only excited their lust for plunder. Cortes treacherously seized Montezuma in his own palace, held him hostage, and ruled Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire through the captive emperor.
In April 1520, Cortes had to rush back to Mexico’s east coast in order to ward off another Spanish expedition sent to oust him. He left behind a Spanish garrison of 200 men under a trusted deputy. In Cortes absence, his deputy massacred thousands of Aztecs in Tenochtitlan’s Great Temple, triggering an uprising. Cortes sped back to Tenochtitlan and trotted out the captive Montezuma in hopes that he would placate the natives. Instead, the livid Aztecs stoned the Spaniards’ puppet ruler to death. Things were about to get even darker.
Cortes fled Tenochtitlan, then returned with a powerful native army to subdue the city. After vicious street-by-street fighting that wrecked the Aztec capital, Cortes finally subdued the city, whose population had been decimated by Old World diseases against which the natives had no immunity. According to sources: “On the day that Tenochtitlán was taken, the Spaniards committed some of the most brutal acts ever inflicted upon the unfortunate people of this land. The cries of the helpless women and children were heart-rending“.
The Spanish built Mexico City and their colony of New Spain atop the ruins of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire. The Natives – former allies and enemies alike – were reduced to de facto serfs, working the large estates, or haciendas, which the conquerors apportioned to themselves. Between massacres, mistreatment, overwork, and Old World epidemics, the native population of New Spain crashed from an estimated thirty million when Cortes arrived, to a mere three million by 1568.
Baron Otto Gustav von Wachter (1901 – 1949) was an Austrian aristocrat and fervent Nazi. A member of the SS as well as a practicing lawyer, he represented Austrian Nazis until 1934. Then he took part in a failed coup that included the assassination of Austria’s Chancellor and was forced to flee to Germany. Von Wachter returned to Austria in 1938 after it was annexed by Germany, and ran a commission that oversaw the firing or compulsory retirement of all Austrian officials who did not conform to the Nazi regime.
In 1940, von Wachter was made governor of Krakow in the recently conquered Poland. Things immediately took a dark turn for the locals. In his capacity as governor, von Wachter ordered the killing of numerous Poles in retaliation for partisan activities. He also directed the expulsion of tens of thousands of Jews from their homes, and their forcible relocation to the Krakow Ghetto.
Relocating Jews to Krakow’s Ghetto was the first step on the road to extermination. From there, most Jews were transported to the death camps, from which few emerged alive. However, that was not the worst for von Wachter, who went on to write even more dark chapters in the Nazis’ book of horrors.
The baron’s activities in Krakow were just a prelude to the atrocities he would visit upon hundreds of thousands, when he was made governor of Galicia, in today’s Ukraine. When Galicia’s governor was arrested and shot for corruption and extensive black market activity, Hitler personally picked Otto von Wachter to fill the vacant slot in 1943. The baron did not disappoint his idol.
As Galicia’s governor, von Wachter capitalized on the Ukrainians’ hatred of the communists to recruit a Waffen-SS division from the local population: the SS Division Galicia. He also continued overseeing the rounding up and transportation of Jews and others to their deaths. During his time as governor, about half a million in his province were sent to their deaths, and thousands more were murdered in reprisals for partisan activities.
The horrors in Galicia only ended when the province was lost to the advancing Red Army in July, 1944. As a major war criminal, indicted for atrocities by the Polish government in exile as early as 1942, von Wachter went on the lam as soon as the war ended. He evaded capture, hiding in the Salzburg mountain district in Austria for four years, before crossing the border into Italy. There, he was sheltered by a pro-Nazi Austrian bishop, who hid von Wachter in the Vatican until his death in 1949 of kidney failure.
When April 13th, 1919, dawned on Amritsar, in the Punjab, few could have predicted the dark deeds destined to occur that day. A crowd of about 10,000 Indian civilians gathered to protest the colonial authorities’ recent arrest and deportation of two Indian nationalist leaders. In response, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer of the British Indian Army ordered his troops to open fire on the unarmed protesters. An estimated 1,000 were killed in the ensuing massacre, and 1,500 more were wounded.
The protesters’ grievances went back to WWI and India’s significant contributions to the British war effort. In addition to furnishing material resources and goods, millions of Indians had served their colonial overlords as soldiers or laborers in the war’s various theaters. Even as the Indians fought and toiled on Britain’s behalf, the British authorities in India enacted a series of repressive laws to counteract potential subversion, and gave the military and police broad emergency powers.
When the war ended in 1918, Indians expected that the emergency powers would be repealed, now that the emergency was over, and that India would be granted more autonomy. They were sorely disappointed when the colonial authorities, rather than ease up, enacted new laws in early 1919 that not only cemented the repressive wartime measures, but expanded them even further.
That was not the reward many Indians had expected for their wartime patience and sacrifices in what had essentially been an intra-European conflict. Protests erupted throughout India, and Punjab in particular became a hotbed of anti-colonial activity. Indians poured into the streets in massive rallies, strikes erupted, rail, telegraph, and communications systems were disrupted, and the local colonial administration was nearly paralyzed. Many officers in the British Indian Army believed that the protests were a prelude to an uprising, along the lines of the 1857 Indian Mutiny.
In Amritsar, protests were further fueled in April, 1919 when two popular Indian nationalists, adherents of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha nonviolent resistance movement, were arrested. In the days leading up to the massacre, troops had fired on protesters, killing several. Mobs retaliated by attacking Europeans in the streets, which led to yet more retaliatory fire from colonial troops. It presaged a dark and steady escalation of violence.
Brigadier Dyer was ordered to restore order, and he ordered a ban on public gatherings. On the afternoon of April 13th, 1919, about 10,000 Indian men, women, and children, gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh, a seven-acre public garden in Amritsar. It is unclear how many had gathered to protest, and how many were simply passing through after celebrating Baisakhi, a religious spring festival, at a nearby temple. What is clear is that they were unarmed civilians, and that their numbers included many women and children.
Amritsar’s public garden, the Jallianwala Bagh, measured about 200 yards by 200 yards, and was enclosed by walls on all sides. There was one main entrance, plus some smaller gated exits. At 4:30 PM, Dyer arrived with about 90 troops, and without warning the crowds to disperse, blocked the main exits. He then ordered his men to open fire. They kept on firing for the next ten minutes, until their ammunition was exhausted. The troops then withdrew, leaving the carnage behind.
As Dyer later explained it, his goal “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience“. A week later, an unrepentant Dyer issued an order to humiliate the locals and emphasize British racial supremacy. It required every Indian man using a street where a British missionary had been attacked to crawl its length on his hands and knees.
In 1885, Belgium’s King Leopold II, painting himself as a humanitarian philanthropist, convinced the European powers to award him the Congo. It was the start of the darkest chapter in that country’s history. Leopold promised to develop the region and uplift its residents, but instead subjected the locals to atrocities that contemporaries described as the “Congo Horrors”.
It began when Leopold consolidated his power in the new colony by allying with a slave trader named Tippu Tip. He appointed the slaver governor of the eastern Congo, and gave him a free hand there, in exchange for Tippu’s promise not to interfere in the western Congo. Tippu immediately ramped up his slaving activities, until European public opinion forced Leopold to hire a mercenary army, with which he expelled Tippu. The Belgian king then reorganized his mercenaries into an occupation army named the Force Publique, and turned it loose to visit a reign of terror upon the natives.
King Leopold II transformed the Congo into a dystopian plantation, and the Congolese into de facto slaves. The natives were given quotas of rubber, ivory, diamonds, or other goods, to produce, and men who fell short of their quotas were mutilated by having their hands or feet amputated. If a man escaped, or it was deemed necessary that he keep his limbs to continue producing, the Belgian king’s goons would mutilate his family instead, amputating the hands of his wife and children.
Millions were mutilated for failure to meet production quotas. Millions more were murdered, starved, worked to death, or perished from various forms of mistreatment and misgovernment under Leopold’s colonial regime. Numerous villages were wiped out, with all their inhabitants massacred, for daring to protest. It is estimated that between ten million to fifteen million Congolese died in order to enrich Leopold.
In the 1880s, Germany established a colony in South West Africa, today’s Namibia. The territory was home to African pastoralists such as the Nama people, numbering about 20,000, and the Herero, a grouping of about 75,000 cattle herders. The German colonists ruled with a heavy hand and deliberate brutality that stood out even amidst the brutal norms of European colonialism. As the German commander in charge of subduing the region put it in 1888: “only uncompromising brutality will lead to victory“.
The African natives’ livestock and best lands were confiscated and given to German settlers, and the Africans themselves were frequently seized and used as slave labor. Racial discrimination was rife, and most German settlers viewed the natives as a source of cheap labor, while others simply called for their extermination. As things turned out, extermination – literal genocide – was what the Germans set out to do, in one of the darkest moments of colonial history.
The natives of German south west Africa had more causes for grievances against the colonists, in addition to the plunder of their livestock and the confiscation of their lands. The Africans’ resentment of the European interlopers’ depredations was further exacerbated by the settlers’ frequent rape of native women and girls. It was a crime that the German authorities rarely addressed, let alone punished.
Unsurprisingly, such abuses alienated the natives. When the Herero and Nama learned that the Germans planned to further divide their lands and herd them into reservations, they rose up in rebellion. In January 1904, they launched a surprise attack that killed about 125 Germans. In response, the Germans sent an expeditionary force of about 14,000 soldiers, led by General Lothar von Trotha.
2. “I Believe That the Nation As Such Should be Annihilated“
General Trotha stated his intent to end the uprising by exterminating the Herero, and his methods were as dark as dark gets. As he put it: “I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country“. In August, 1904, Trotha’s men defeated about 3000 Herero combatants. A guide employed by the Germans described what happened next:
“After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance“.
The Germans pursued the survivors into the desert, and prevented them from accessing water by placing armed guards on water sources, or poisoning the wells. As a result, thousands died from thirst. Things went from dark to darker. On October 4th, Trotha wrote his superiors: “I believe that this [Herero] nation as a nation must be exterminated… I prefer for the nation to disappear entirely rather than allow them to infect our troops with their diseases“.
As to the Nama, the German settlers called for their extermination. Those who did not flee were sent to concentration camps, with one-third of the captives dying en route before reaching the camps. Once in the camps, many more died of epidemics and mistreatment. The captives were subjected to forced labor, beaten, whipped, and tortured, while many of the women were raped or made into concubines. In total, about 65,000 Herero, 80% of their total population, perished in the genocide. 10,000 Nama, 50% of that people, were also killed.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading