Monday, February 2, 2015

Esperanto Marching Orders

What's Esperanto for
"crime against humanity"?
The story is probably apocryphal, or to put it more bluntly, fiction. The item below, which appeared in the Point Pleasant Register of Point Pleasant, West Virginia on February 2, 1910, makes reference to King Leopold II of Belgium, who had died the year before. A bit of research shows no indication that the anecdote was current when the king was alive. Posthumous tales, particularly amusing anecdotes, aren’t typically reliable history.

Other signs are the general vagueness of it all. The time in which the the story is set is “once,” which is close to “once upon a time.” Those involved are “the leading generals.” Just who were Leopold’s leading generals? And while it’s probable that in countries with two official languages there might be some issues with military service, it’s not as if Belgium was the first of such countries. I think the typical answer is to group units by native tongue.

A glance at the adjacent items shows that they are all of the same kind. The item above it is a joke about Scotsman (and not even a particularly funny one). There’s another joke about a Scotsman (even less funny) to the right of the story. The Point Pleasant Register seems to have printed four columns of filler in the hopes that someone might linger on the two columns of advertisements to their right. Since I have no desire to sell you a bottle of Parker’s Hair Balsam or to convince you to do trade with B. F. Biggs (the “Shingle king”), let’s get back to their (not particularly credible) story.
King Leopold’s Answer.
Few monarchs have possessed a more caustic tongue than the late King Leopold of Belgium when he chose to exercise it. Once a debate was raging in the Belgian army as to whether the words of command should be given in Flemish or French. Neither side would give in, and at length it was agreed that King Leopold should decide the matter. The aged monarch asked for a week in which to consider the question. At the end of that period he summoned the leading generals and announced that he had decided that in the future all orders should be given in Esperanto. Needless to say, the disputants managed to come to some amicable arrangement.
Ha. Ha.

When I think of Leopold II of Belgium, a “caustic tongue” is not what comes to mind. My first thought is, of course, brutal policies in the Congo, which was Leopold’s personal possession (what’s amazing is that he got away with it as long as he did; weren’t people worried about what the king would do with personal real estate larger than his actual country and a personal army?) Leopold’s greed led to ruthless policies in the Congo Free State.

Leopold had died less than two months before this anecdote appeared. It was probably still fresh in people’s minds that the Belgian government had deprived the king of his lands in Africa due to the inhumane conditions there. It’s hard to imagine the king whose policies lead to the Congolese working under threat of death to cheerily suggesting Esperanto to his generals.

As Joseph Conrad might have put it, were he an Esperantist: “La hororo, la hororo!”
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