Books: Still darkest Africa

bunyonyi1A long, long time ago, I was about eight years old and I had a friend whose father had been serving in the UN mission in the Congo. As a result, hanging on the ‘good room’ wall was a real bow and arrow, brought back as a souvenir. We were told – probably to stop us from going crazy and taking it down to play with (what romance!) – that the tip was poisoned. Maybe it even was. But I suspect this vignette had a long-range impact and fed  my ongoing interest in that strangest of countries, currently labelled the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). It’s a huge country, pretty much a no-go area, but contains an astounding variety of minerals that have always been needed for the Western world to function. Most recently, you probably have a mobile phone that has Coltan or Cobalt mined from the Congo in the setup. And Donald Trump is considering dismantling the controls over ‘conflict minerals’ (as opposed to the blood diamonds) which will give carte blanche to the warlords in the DRC to translate the products of the mines they control into weapons and into bulging foreign bank accounts. Recent news reports featured kids as young as four working in semi-slavery in these industries.

In the last month I read a book called ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ about just one of the many tragedies to beset this country. And it caused me to reflect on some of the other great books I have read on the topic. There’s no point in recounting all the events that happened in DRC from about 1870 to today, but here’s a short guide to some of the best books that peel back layer after layer of tragic history (with a historically accurate and famous ‘novel’ thrown in for good measure).

In ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ by Adam Hochschild, the author recounts in chilling detail how King Leopold of Belgium decided around 1870 that he (personally) absolutely wanted to own a colony, and set about finding one. The so-called ‘scramble for Africa’ was still a relatively low key affair, so after some false starts he managed to connive and secure this vast country as his personal fiefdom. He was aided by some unscrupulous adventurers (explorer Stanley prominent among them) and basically through a combination of trickery and superior firepower he managed to get most of the chiefs of the country to unknowingly sign away their territory to his so called ‘protectorate’.

Thereafter, all hell broke loose. The natives were treated like animals, shot casually and worked to death by their ‘masters’. The masters, who tended to be brutish functionaries, claimed – if challenged – to be ‘just following orders’. The sad sequence of events is excellently chronicled in the book, and the quota of ‘horror’ shot through the roof when the rubber boom hit in the late 19th century. Maiming, torture and casual killing accelerated, and woe betide any native who did not meet his rubber quota. Often his hand was chopped off. And natives were shipped to Europe and ‘shown’ in thinly-disguised cages in the World Exposition held in Brussels in 1897. Hard to believe.

From the early days of the ‘adventure’ Leopold’s actions were tracked (with great difficulty, given the diversionary powers at Leopold’s disposal) by a man called Morel, who had worked for a shipping company that drew many assets from the Congo and sent very little back, apart from munitions. This aroused his suspicions and he began to dig for whatever information he could glean. He managed to get some momentum and – in fairness – the British government sent it’s envoy Roger Casement to explore the allegations filtering out from ‘darkest Africa’. In general he corroborated what Morel had alleged, and pressure mounted on the King. However he still hung onto power until he died early in the 20th century, and the Belgian State inherited the country, but at a price.


But there’s a direct link also between the events in the Congo and the ‘fictional’ work ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, who briefly shared a room with Roger Casement as they waited to ascend the river into the interior. The short but powerful book was based on Casement’s telling to Conrad of ‘what he saw upriver’. It’s now recognised as a classic of all ages and, as you no doubt know, provided the storyline behind the film Apocalypse Now when transplanted to Vietnam. An interesting side-bar. Enter Mr Kurtz. And by the way that’s the same Roger Casement who was hanged for treason after the 1916 Irish Rebellion, despite having been knighted.

Other colonists also ‘followed the Belgian model’ and to be honest there is ample evidence that most Western nations had blood on their hands. Germany, Portugal, France, Britain, the Dutch and the Americans themselves have all participated enthusiastically in ‘subduing the natives’ and effectively stripping them of their natural resources in different parts of the world. But the Belgians seemed to have perfected the model.

Another BIG book but well worth your time is ‘Congo’ by David Van Reybrouck, which is an amazing modern history of all the facets of this country, from around 1880 up to the present day. So it broadens the narrative and the knowledge and provides some great insights into Congolese music, the ‘rumble in the jungle’, Patrice Lumumba, the UN involvement, and the wars centred in the Eastern Congo – to name but a few highlights. I was already interested in the Congo for various reasons and stood at its border with Rwanda in 2015, but was unable for visa reasons (and possibly a bit scared) to enter. I had to accept that while I might be able to get a visa to enter, getting back into Rwanda was likely to be a struggle. Plus my travel insurance might be invalidated AND North Kivu province, as well as having an active volcano and mountain gorillas, also has armed bands whose propensity to violence is well known. So I did the safe and logical thing and just took a selfie at the border post.

And finally, in terms of books, I would have to recommend Tim Butcher’s wonderful and very readable ‘Blood River’, both travelogue and history lesson about crossing the vast country (read – war zone) by motorbike and on foot in recent times. He finds traces everywhere of these past eras, that have now been reclaimed by the jungle, and asks searching questions about ‘progress’ and the impact of naked greed and corruption.

Funnily enough, back in 1992 a Scottish-French friend and I were having a strange conversation in a pub (back when I used to go to the pub a lot more than I do now). The essence of this conversation was ‘Which was the worst country to be colonised by’. Being Irish I had a clean conscience in this regard, given that we were never in any position of power. On his Scottish side my friend had a free ride also, but his French side caused him some vague unease. But at the end of the day, based on what we both knew about the Congo, we reckoned the Belgians were top of the tree when it came to abhorrent behaviour. I think we may well have been correct in our perceptions, and it’s still going on today, one way or another. Plus ca change…


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