Caveat Empty

Memolition has a post asking if the reader can name the ten worst mass murderers in history. Take the test. Write your answer down on a piece of paper and click the link to check your score.


The big surprise for most people is finding King Leopold II of Belgium at number 4, below Hitler and above Hideki Tojo. The idea that little Belgium’s monarch could have killed more people than Tojo will shock a great many.

And they were black people too. The enduring image of Leopold’s African empire were The Hands.

The Force Publique (FP) was called in to enforce the rubber quotas. The officers were white agents of the State. Of the black soldiers, many were from far-off peoples of the upper Congo while others had been kidnapped during the raids on villages in their childhood and brought to Roman Catholic missions, where they received a military training in conditions close to slavery. Armed with modern weapons and the chicotte—a bull whip made of hippopotamus hide—the Force Publique routinely took and tortured hostages, flogged, and raped Congolese people. They also burned recalcitrant villages, and above all, took human hands as trophies on the orders of their officers to show that bullets hadn’t been wasted. (As officers were concerned that their subordinates might waste their ammunition on hunting animals for sport, they required soldiers to submit one hand for every bullet spent.)

Of course none of this will be news to those who’ve read the Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo.  Doyle is still read these days, but mostly for his fiction: Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger.


Joseph Conrad may be politically incorrect these days, probably for having written the Nigger of the Narcissus, where the black guy is actually the hero of the story. “In the United States, the novel was first published with the title The Children of the Sea: A Tale of the Forecastle, at the insistence by the publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, that no one would buy or read a book with the word nigger in its title, not because the word was deemed offensive but that a book about a black man would not sell.”

What the book actually says won’t help Conrad. These days people get to the N word and stop reading. In 1995 the NYT reported a lawsuit against an online encyclopedia by a man who found Conrad’s novel listed.

The plaintiff, Thomas D. Wallace of Omaha, says he and his sons suffered emotional distress after finding the word “nigger” in the Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, published by Compton’s Newmedia of Carlsbad, Calif. The suit also names Compton’s owner, the Tribune Company of Chicago, and Best Buy, the store that sold Mr. Wallace the software. … citing ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus,’ the novel by Joseph Conrad.

Mr. Wallace should have searched “King Leopold the II” if he really wanted to get incensed.  But I wouldn’t blame Mr. Wallace too much.


A few months ago I attended a talk by an Australian journalist who summarized a book describing, among other things, the campaign of Gough Whitlam in 1972. Whitlam was the first major Australian poltician to campaign for the prime ministership through advertising methods. He hired the ad agency responsible for selling Johnny Walker whiskey to handle his campaign.

The agency told him that Johnny Walker had captured a dominant market share of whiskey in Australia while dozens of other brands struggled for the meager remainder. Yet in blind test after blind test, nobody could tell the difference between Johnny Walker and the other brands. They told Whitlam the secret of their success: ‘we sell the label, not the whiskey’. They explained that what’s in the bottle doesn’t matter, it’s the packaging that counts.

And so it may be with genocidaires. We don’t remember mass murderers on the basis of the facts. Hitler is remembered as bad like Che is revered as good; pop culture recalls Leopold not at all and Bull Connor as a Republican, not because of any fact, but because what of what today’s distracted, overloaded public sees — or didn’t see — on a T-shirt. Perhaps the saddest quiz on the Internet is this: “was Hitler a Democrat or a Republican?”

By the way, Gough Whitlam became the 21st Prime Minister of Australia.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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