Books and Arts
The Congo-Ocean Railway - Blood on the tracks
In the Forest of No Joy. By J.P. Daughton.
The statue of King Leopold II of Belgium that stands in sight of the royal palace in Brussels has been defaced dozens of times in recent years. Activists have painted its hands and eyes red as a reminder of the brutality that Leopold unleashed in the Congo Free State, a territory in central Africa, at the end of the 19th century. As many as 10m Congolese — or half of the population — might have perished as Europeans forced entire villages to collect rubber and ivory for export.
Leopold’s exploitation of Congo was a scandal. In 1908, after years of campaigning by journalists, the Belgian state stripped the king of his private possession. The Belgian Congo joined other European colonies in Africa where wanton extraction was to be replaced by a supposedly civilising mission. Yet though less transparently murderous, the “benign” colonialism of elsewhere was often not that different from what happened under Leopold. A new book, “In the Forest of No Joy”, by J.P. Daughton, an American historian, exposes how forced labour in the French Congo (now the Republic of Congo), on the other side of the river from Leopold’s possession (now the Democratic Republic), led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Africans.
The book is a masterful, if relentlessly bleak, account of the construction of the Congo-Ocean Railway, a route designed to connect the central African interior to the Atlantic. What makes it so compelling is the divide it exposes between the often admirable intentions of colonial bureaucrats, who did genuinely think they were lifting Africans out of poverty, and the grim reality that they enabled. The application of “modern” government to conquered people could be almost as savage as plunder, Mr Daughton shows.