A King That Died As He Lived

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Pablo Edronkin

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Msiri was King of Yeke, a state from which there is scant memory because with Msiri's murder by some explorers trying to fetch control of the ivory trade, the state was obliterated.

Msiri was no saint at all and kept his power by using methods that we would classify between the boundaries of state-sponsored terrorism today; this methodology, however, was frequently used by the rulers of Africa during the nineteenth century and of course, the African king was seen as a savage by the few Europeans that knew about his existence. Msiri was also involved in the slave trade; however, had something that they wanted: Ivory. He controlled the trade in central Africa and was really amassing a fortune, and for that, he had his own kingdom located in what is the Congo today. This monarch was a pragmatist from the beginning: By defending a certain chieftain with the superior firepower of firearms, who was frequently attacked by neighbouring tribes, he gained a certain level of thrust. It is unclear how he got from there to the throne, but he did. Perhaps he managed to get into the succession line, or perhaps he simply got rid of the existing chief.

Msiri become a king by his own entrepreneurship, almost as if he had read Macchiavelli's work and followed it by the numbers. With an innate political ability as well as money that could buy him modern weapons, he built a state that was second to none in central Africa, keeping at bay any enemies thanks to his power that indeed, was used also for conquest. Central Africa during most of the nineteenth century was a region that found itself into anarchy. Control was enforced by irregular forces, mostly formed by armed mercenaries and smugglers of all kinds, at least until the conformation of the European colonies at the turn of the century. Msiri understood very well that the key for power there was the creation of potent military forces. The use that he made of those forces was, at least from a Western perspective, pretty cruel.

However, he also understood that force was an necessity but not enough to ensure control, so he made lots of alliances, represented sometimes in the form of marriages: He had hundreds of wives who also became promoting agents and - it seems - spies.

But perhaps the best evidence about his statesmanship and leadership skills comes from the fact that he managed to get advice from the earliest European settlers that formed missions in the region on how to deal with Europe. By doing so, he managed to survive for several years at a time in which European exploration and conquest seemed unstoppable. Not being naïve, Msiri, for example, always had someone translate the treaties and letters sent by European representatives instead of having them described or "read" by those representatives. In such a way he kept himself from being scammed like other local chiefs.

Both the British and the Belgians seriously wanted to deal with Msiri but could never fin in him a soft spot: The fellow was too smart to make concessions unwittingly or to fall into political traps. He wouldn't for instance, subordinate the sovereignity of the Yeke Kingdom to any foreign power, something that was seen as essential by European strategists. The king was indeed a despot but his standards of cruelty were - to put it somehow - in line with the standards of the time and place: Other tribal chiefs did similar things and even the Europeans. This becomes apparent from evidence that comes from other societies of the same era as well as from what the first missionaries that reached Yeke territory had to say. So it could be argued that Msiri's reputation was somehow tarnished by European propaganda. Anyway, I wouldn't like to deal with someone like Msiri or the conquerors of his land.

Understanding that a new factor comes into your equation and recognising that you don not know how to deal with, thus requiring advice is one of the hardest things to do for autocratic leaders. Msiri passed the test. And days went by until the then king of Belgium lost his patience and decided that he would like to have a share of Msiri's business - all of it, that is - no matter what, and sent a brutal expedition that murdered the king. Yeke, or Katanga, became so a Belgian colony.

The expeditionaries sent by the Belgian king under the leadership of William Grant Stairs, appointed by the monarch in direct contradiction to British interests and the fact that Grant Stairs was a British army officer that had sworn loyalty to his country, ostensibly had the goal of ending the cruel rule of Msiri and bring civilisation to the Central Africa region. Public opinion was, of course, applauding the venture and saw Msiri as a cruel dictator that deserved no better than conquest because he was, after all, an African, an inferior being, no matter what. But inferior or not, Grant Stairs knew that Msiri's kingdom was not exactly an easy target, so he assembled an arsenal of the most effective and modern military technology of the time, and went there with that. The eventual conquest of Msiri's kingdom was not the produce of moral superiority, but military firepower, plain and simple; then, the European expeditionaries proved in Congo that they were in fact, people with the same lust for cruelty as Msiri's troops.

This was, however, Msiri's Achilles' heel: His ruling style implied that rebellions of local chiefs remained always a possibility and in fact, the incredible number of women that he got for himself and his men fulfilled a purpose: They could be used as hostages during such situations. But as it always happens with those that employ such a methodology, fear of the fate of hostages might be surpassed by the desire to overthrow a despised leader. When the expedition led by Grant Stairs arrived, Msiri's forces were already facing rebellion and weakening because some local leaders assumed - wrongly, as it proved - that the Europeans would bring freedom for them and that the whole situation could only improve. They didn't stop to think about the qualities or goals of the expeditionary force.

Ruling on the basis of fear and coercion might produce results for a while but will never ensure a continuous position of advantage. A leader that uses it will last until someone more powerful comes or people stops fearing him either because they are philosophically searching for something different or because thy have no choice. The Spanish Conquistadores and Portuguese mariners exploited that very well, and with relatively few forces managed to overthrow the powerful Inca and Aztec rulers. Moreover: A leader that resorts to fear and coercion frequently ahs to enforce his authority by forceful means to make it evident that he is strong. This is a very costly thing that could lead to widespread, open violence and even retaliation, when the oppressed become fed up with the kind of rule they are suffering or simply because they need to survive. This immediately leads to a weakening of the leader's position because not the wars he win due to firepower but the battles he loses will be used by his opponents to build upon and rebuke in evident terms the shield of apparent invincibility that violent leaders are required to maintain at all times.

After Msiri's death at the hands of Omer Bodson, one of Grant Stairs' lieutenants, the European conquerors essentially massacred his remaining followers and started a non-government or unofficial occupation of the region until that lasted until the first years of the twentieth century, when the Belgian government officially took possession of the colony. Meanwhile, hanging corpses from walls and poles remained a common practice, as well as slave trade.

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