American Imperialist: Cruelty and Consequence in the Scramble for Africa

  • By Arwen P. Mohun
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 328 pp.
  • Reviewed by Elizabeth J. Moore
  • January 16, 2024

King Leopold didn’t exploit the Congo all by himself.

American Imperialist: Cruelty and Consequence in the Scramble for Africa

The “scramble for Africa” of the 19th and early 20th centuries has come down through history as a largely European affair, with the bulk of the continent under formal European control by 1914. The United States may have been busily trying to dominate the Western Hemisphere, but with the possible exception of efforts to repatriate freed slaves to Liberia, it had little connection with imperialist activities in Africa.

Or so we are told.

In American Imperialist, however, University of Delaware professor Arwen P. Mohun takes exception to this narrative. During this age of “new imperialism,” in fact, Americans could be found in any corner of the globe where raw materials might be extracted for profit. This included Africa. Until now, the U.S. connection to European imperialism in Africa has been “one of the great under-told stories of American history,” writes Mohun, who seeks to correct the record in a unique and personal way: through the experiences of her own great-grandfather Richard Dorsey Mohun (referred to as “Dorsey” in this review to avoid confusion with the author).

Dorsey was a relative rarity in that he was an American enabler of King Leopold II in Belgium’s plunder of the Congo. Although Dorsey died in 1915, his trove of papers only recently became available and serves as the basis for a story that is simultaneously fascinating and troubling.

Readers of Adam Hochschild’s 1999 King Leopold’s Ghost will be familiar with the basic outlines of how the monarch — driven by a noxious combination of greed and megalomania — created the so-called Congo Free State (CFS) as his own personal fiefdom in the 1880s. This move was blessed by Europe’s other colonialist nations because of Leopold’s (meaningless) promises of free trade and the abolition of slavery within the Congo. His realm was in reality marked by such grisly practices as forced labor, torture, and the displacement and killing of countless Congolese in the pursuit of ivory and rubber. But Leopold, who never actually set foot in Africa, was aided by a number of white “imperialists-for-hire” from Europe and America.

Dorsey was one of them. Born to faded Southern gentry in Washington, DC, at the end of the Civil War, he had to help support his family from an early age. He never aspired to a career in Africa, but his family’s concept of suitable employment, combined with a lack of other viable choices, conspired to land him in the Congo. At his vetting by Leopold — although he was technically a U.S. commercial agent charged with exploring the Congo for economic possibilities, nobody entered the CFS without the king’s say-so — Dorsey fell for Leopold’s idealized portrait of the place.

Disillusionment was quick to follow. The heat was unbearable. Supplies never materialized. Railroads and reliable steamship service were yet to come, meaning everything had to be carried on the backs of native porters. Like many white colonialists, Dorsey vented his frustrations by brutalizing his African workers:

“Europeans learned the habit of callous violence from each other.”

Ill and desperately wanting out — it had become clear to Dorsey that “service in the Congo was a job that few competent, not to mention scrupulous, people wanted” — he did indeed try to escape from Leopold’s orbit. But his growing family and lack of other paying work kept dragging him back.

So did the fact that atrocities committed in the CFS were now under a harsh global spotlight, leaving Dorsey irretrievably tainted by his connection to Leopold. Now he was truly stuck: His best option for earning a living, writes Mohun, was “continued association with a king and an organization that had become the target of the first great humanitarian and anti-imperialist campaign of the twentieth century.”

Dorsey would spend the bulk of his remaining years on various field assignments in Africa; he died of malaria-related complications at the relatively young age of 51.

In its depiction of the Congo at a pivotal time in history, Mohun’s book goes well beyond an interesting piece of family lore. But if her vivid and readable account has a flaw, it is the author’s sometimes belabored efforts to draw significance from Dorsey’s life rather than just letting the story tell itself. For example, Mohun asserts that:

“Historians’ neglect of figures like Dorsey…has present-day implications. The conviction that Americans are uniquely equipped to successfully help others while simultaneously serving their own self-interests continues to powerfully influence individual behavior, business decisions, and national policy.”

That may be, but it endows Dorsey with far more agency than he actually had. He was but one of Leopold’s foot soldiers — regarded with distaste by the U.S. government and operating in a part of Africa where American power meant little. Mohun’s sweeping assertions about bit players’ motivations require far more than this one case study to back them up.

And speaking of “foot soldiers,” it might’ve been more convincing to represent Dorsey as a prototypical example of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” At the outset, writes Mohun, he “was not that dissimilar from his contemporaries in either ethics or worldview,” but he somehow ended up “not only benefitting from European imperialism, but also participating directly in it.”

Thus, the real utility of Mohun’s unflinching look at her ancestor might be the better understanding it gives readers of how otherwise decent people allow themselves to engage in horrible deeds. That would certainly be an invaluable aid in examining some of the heinous events from both the last century and this one.

Elizabeth J. Moore is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. She was a longtime senior analyst and instructor who worked in the Defense, State, and Treasury departments, on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s President’s Daily Brief staff, and at the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. She holds a master’s degree in international politics from American University.

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