Much of the Congo River basin, we now know, lies on a plateau in the African interior. From the western rim of this plateau, nearly a thousand feet high, the river descends to sea level in a mere 220 miles. During this tumultuous descent, the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves 40 feet high, and tumbles over 32 separate cataracts. So great is the drop and the volume of water that these 220 miles have as much hydroelectric potential as all the lakes and rivers of the United States combined.The inland stretches of the river, however, are navigable, with water levels that tend not to vary. The Congo drains an area larger than India with seven thousand miles of interconnecting waterways. In the last quarter of the 19th century, as explorers considered how to open trade routes, or what might better be called plunder routes, to the Congo’s interior, they realised that if steamboats could be assembled above the rapids, timber could easily be found to burn in the boilers and power the boats; the river and its tributaries could be navigated. The river itself was a rich source of food, with five hundred different kinds of fish, and it helped that the territory which comprised the river basin was not a single kingdom with any form of centralised power which could defend itself. There were two hundred different ethnic groups with four hundred different languages and dialects. Many of these groups had been severely weakened by two centuries of the slave trade.
In 1887 surveyors charted the land route that a railway might follow to bypass the rapids; work began three years later. In the meantime, goods and equipment had to be carried between Matadi, at the mouth of river, and Pool Stanley, the point where the river was navigable, a journey that lasted between three weeks and a month. It took three years to build the first 14 miles of railway, and the line didn’t open until 1898. Just as the carrying of goods had been done by forced labour, some of the workers who built the railway line were also, in effect, slaves. ‘The railway,’ Hochschild writes, ‘was a modest engineering success and a major human disaster. Men succumbed to accidents, dysentery, smallpox, beriberi and malaria, all exacerbated by bad food and relentless floggings by the two-hundred-man railway militia force … Some estimates … place the non-white [deaths] close to 1800 a year in the first two years, which were the worst. Cemeteries dotted the rail line.’
Of the millions who died in the Congo while it was the personal fiefdom of Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908, we have very little information. Hardly any names; hardly any stories, other than accounts of violence and death. But of those who came from Europe or America in search of work or money or fame, many names emerge clearly: some because of their cruelty or greed, others because of the strangeness of their backgrounds, or the lives they lived and the causes they espoused. The three of these who stand out most are Henry Morton Stanley, who explored the route, the novelist Joseph Conrad, and the Irish patriot and human rights activist Roger Casement.
It was Casement and a Frenchman living in England, E.D. Morel, who first drew attention to the crimes committed in the Congo in the name of progress and trade. Mario Vargas Llosa wrote about them in an essay published in 2001: ‘Both deserve the honours of a great novel.’ Such a novel would have to live in the shadow of the short work Conrad produced nine years after he left the Congo, where he had been for six months. Conrad arrived in June 1890. ‘What makes me rather uneasy,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘is the information that 60 per cent of our Company’s employees return to Europe before they have completed even six months’ service.’ Conrad’s journey to his steamship from the coast by foot, with 31 Africans as porters, took from 28 June to 1 August. At one point in his very sketchy diary, he noted: ‘On the road today passed a skeleton tied up to a post. Also white man’s grave – no name – heap of stones in the form of a cross.’ Conrad then travelled from Kinshasa to Stanley Falls on the steamship Roi des Belges, a journey of a thousand miles, to bring back a company agent called Klein who was close to death. Unlike Marlow in his story, Conrad wasn’t in charge of the ship; his journey was rather more prosaic than the one in Heart of Darkness and Klein much more ordinary than Kurtz. Although Conrad later claimed that the story was ‘experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the facts of the case,’ he also admitted to Roger Casement in 1903 that it was ‘an awful fudge’, bearing little resemblance to his experience. He found a style for the book that was far from the style of his diary: poetic and stilted, awed and solemn, depending on voice, rhythm and the controlling of time and the use of powerful and stark images and odd details. He invented a narrator who was not himself. He didn’t set out to dramatise an enterprise that might be reformed but to expose the abiding and mysterious sense of evil at the heart of the human enterprise itself. His story shows the distance which fiction can go: how accurate and enduring it can be when it allows substance and shadow to nourish each other, and yet how ambiguous it remains when we read it as a version of what happened.
The value of Congo was at first its ivory. But in 1888, John Boyd Dunlop, an Ulster Scot living in Belfast, made a discovery which would make the Congo Basin one of the most lucrative places on earth. In The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber, John Tully describes the moment when Dunlop
took his son’s bicycle into his workshop and equipped it with primitive pneumatic tyres made of cloth wrappings and inflated lengths of rubber sheeting. The other children laughed at the bulbous wheels, but their derision soon turned to admiration when Dunlop Junior was able to comfortably navigate rough surfaces with a greater turn of speed than they had imagined possible. The new tyres were soon afterwards used in cycle races with the same effect and the guffaws of spectators subsided into respectful murmurs.By 1895 there were seven million bicycles worldwide, using most of the world’s rubber. Soon the automobile created even more demand: in 1910 the United States was building two hundred thousand cars a year; by 1920 the figure was two million. The problem was that rubber didn’t grow in places where it could easily be collected: it grew most abundantly in the tropical forests of the Congo and Amazon basins. Since there were no roads in these areas, the rubber would have to be carried long distances under appalling conditions. The Congo was under the direct and personal control of Leopold II, which meant that the treatment of those who did the carrying was not tempered by any law or set of humane rules. The transporters were flogged and tortured, had their hands amputated, were raped, held hostage and murdered as a matter of course. Their fragile society was decimated. More or less the same happened in the Putumayo in Peru, organised by a company registered in London. This is how we got the bicycle and the car until rubber was planted in more accessible places.
Mario Vargas Llosa had this to say to an interviewer about the figure of Roger Casement, who wrote reports for the British governments on atrocities in Peru as well as the Congo:
He is a man without any trace of self-interest, without any political or professional ambition. He was extraordinarily generous. He had a set of values that were both very strict and based on solidarity. At the same time, there is the man who appears in the diaries, the mysterious Roger Casement. We do not know how much of himself we put into those diaries, or whether they were also a fantasy, a fiction through which he attempted to fill the emptiness of his life … He was a hero, of course; he was a man of admirable courage, of extraordinary moral conviction, who had the tenacity to live this secret double life. But he was also a weak person, whose body was sometimes at odds with values he espoused. He evidently could not contain or restrain certain behaviours, and this, I think, is what makes him a tragic hero, a hero who generates discomfort among even those Irish nationalists who would otherwise have identified with him more readily.There is another version of Casement’s personality, offered by Conrad in the spring of 1916 in a letter to John Quinn, when Casement was on trial for treason for importing arms to Ireland from Germany. Conrad had spent three weeks at Matadi Station with Casement in 1890, when Casement was trying to recruit labour to work on the railway and Conrad was waiting to begin his journey by foot to his boat. They also met subsequently in England. Conrad’s version of Casement has to be viewed with care, since he wouldn’t have been in sympathy with a man who had sided with Germany in the First World War, but his description is interesting: ‘He was a good companion; but already in Africa I judged that he was a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid. I mean that he was all emotion … A creature of sheer temperament – a truly tragic personality: all but the greatness of which he had not a trace. Only vanity. But in the Congo it was not visible yet.’
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