My travels through this natural paradise in 2015...........................Ramdas A. Iyer
Growing up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan,the mysteries of Africa have always played in my mind and fantasies. Growing up in India, tales about fabulous Indian kingdoms, tigers and rope tricks written by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, were less exciting to me than that of Africa. Lee Falk, who created the 'Phantom" comic strip was also a hero of mine. Written in 1936, he culled all the interesting stories that came out of Africa from French and Belgians who were busy with the brutal enterprise of slavery, ivory trade and colonialism at that time.
My interest in Africa transcends books. Since 1992 I have collected over 100 pieces of wooden African sculptures belonging to over 25 tribes of anthropological re known like the Bambara, the Fang, The Luba, The Dogon etc to name a few. The stories attached to the usage of masks and fetishes, mostly to invoke both human and animal spirits, is a testament to these first peoples.
Last week, I was having a long conversation about the plight of Africa with my cousin Venkatram Santosh of Richmond, Virginia. Living in the capital city of the old confederate America we talked at length about Africa and slavery, until such time his surgeon's emergency button beeped. So I decided to continue that conversation by penning my thoughts here while using the framework of great writers on this subject.
During the past two decades I have managed to get a glimpse of East Africa through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, that of the North through Egypt and Ethiopia, Mali in the west and the southern countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Angola and Zimbabwe. Alas it was time to penetrate the darkest deepest jungles of Africa- the Congo Basin. While I was filled with excitement to explore I was also anxious to avoid the many conflicts and diseases that has afflicted this area . After spending 2 weeks in the Republic of Congo(ROC of Congo-Brazzaville), I both was amazed and shocked by the riches of the country along with the corruption and poverty endured by the people. This article will mostly deal with its neighbor on the other side of the river, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC -Kinshasa) but by extension includes the entire basin. I could not obtain a visa in time to the DRC-Kinshasa, but spent many an evening sipping beer at the Brazzaville- Congo river front looking at Kinshasa on the other bank just 4 km away.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is potentially one of the richest countries on earth, but colonialism, slavery and corruption have turned it into one of the poorest . The world's bloodiest conflict since World War II is still rumbling on today. It is a war in which more than five million people have died, millions more have been driven to the brink by starvation and disease and several million women and girls have been raped.
The DRC borders the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It is the second largest country in Africa by area and the eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 75 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most populated officially Francophone country, the fourth most populated nation in Africa.
The Great War of Africa, a conflagration that has sucked in soldiers and civilians from nine nations and countless armed rebel groups, has been fought almost entirely inside the borders of one unfortunate country - the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the country's mining operations are connected to the waters of the mighty Congo River. It is a place seemingly blessed with every type of mineral, where even the more fortunate live in grinding poverty. It is consistently rated lowest on the UN Human Development Index,) ranking 176 out of 187 countries in 2004 .
In order to understand the reasons for this penury and suffering I did some research using the web and by reading books about its ancient history, its ethnic composition, politics, colonies, impact of slavery and corruption that has spread like blight into African society. The land of the Congo river is split between DRC-Democratic Republic of Congo (Belgian Congo) and ROC- Republic of Congo ( formerly French Equatorial Africa). The DRC is the most violent part of the world today while the ROC is a dictatorship which is poor, corrupt but stable. Two books; King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hoschild and Blood River-A Journey through Africa's Broken Heart. by Tim Butcher, enabled me to grasp the depth of suffering in these accursed nations.
The Congo River is the largest river in western Central Africa and the most powerful on the continent. Its overall length of 2,900 miles makes it the second-longest in Africa (after the Nile). It is the fifth-longest river in the world, draining a basin of nearly 1.5 million square miles. The river also has the second-largest flow in the world, with a discharge of 1.5 million cubic feet of water per second, trailing only the Amazon. The river and its tributaries flow through the second-largest rainforest in the world, the Congo Rainforest, second only to the Amazon Rainforest in South America. The dense rain forest, heavy rainfall, and poor soil of the basin that is traversed by the Congo results in sparse population, except for small settlements of hunters, farmers, and fishermen along or near the river. Since it is close to the equator, the climate is hot and humid.
The Congo Basin spans across six countries—Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. There are approximately 10, 000 species of tropical plants in the Congo Basin and 30 percent are unique to the region. Endangered wildlife, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas inhabit the lush forests. 400 other species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish can also be found here.
The Congo Basin has been inhabited by humans for more than 50,000 years and it provides food, fresh water and shelter to more than 75 million people. Nearly 150 distinct ethnic groups exist and the region’s Ba’Aka (Pygmy) people are among the most well known representatives of an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Ancient history and Ethnicity:
Most of my readers may understand Aryan, Viking, Mongol and Arabic migrations that has impacted much of China, India, Iran, Middle East and both western and Eastern Europe. Some of these migrations were gradual while others were through trade and mostly conquests. The Aryan impact happened around 2000-500BC BC, the Vikings were active around 800-1100 AD, the Arab conquests between 780-1100 AD and the Mongol/Turkic incursions around 1200 AD. However, the largest human migrations in history happened in Africa with the Bantu speaking tribes pushing south from west Africa.
The Bantu migration was one of the first formative events in African history The great southward Bantu migration in Africa took place in sub-Saharan Africa (south of the Sahara Desert), over some 2,000 years between 1000 BC and 1700 AD. With the development of the iron blade( iron age), reaping became easier for the bantu people and agriculture took on a whole new meaning. This necessitated the enlargement of territory since the foragers settled down to form communities. A linguistically related group of about 60 million gradually migrated down to the continent into southern Africa from the west and equatorial Africa.
The Bantu-speaking peoples brought agriculture to the southern half of Africa, which was mostly populated by foragers, herders, and hunter-gatherers. Bantu peoples settled land and created great empires like the Great Zimbabwe and the Zulu kingdom, and continued to expand and settle more land. Bantu refers to several similar languages, or a 'family' of languages, that can be found throughout central and south Africa.
If you look at the map showing the Bantu migration, the southern Africa was primarily peopled by the Xhosas ( San and Bushmen) while the Congo region was peopled by the Mbuti (Pygmy- Aka, Baka, Twa and Mbuti). In this migration, these people were displaced, exterminated ,marginalized and in some cases enslaved until this day.
The first sub Saharan kingdoms emerged in the early 4th century( barring the Ethiopian and Egyptian kingdoms of earlier periods). These Sahelian kingdoms were a series of kingdoms or empires that were centered on the Sahel, the area of grasslands south of the Sahara. They controlled the trade routes across the desert, and were also quite decentralized, with member cities having a great deal of autonomy. The Ghana Empire may have been an established as early as the 4th century AD. It was succeeded by the Sosso in 1230, the Mali Empire in the 13th century AD, and later by the Songhai and Sokoto Caliphate. There were also a number of forest empires and states in this time period.
Following the collapse of the Songhai Empire, a number of smaller states arose across West Africa, including the Bambara Empire of Ségou ( Mali-Ivory Coast), the lesser Bambara kingdom of Kaarta, the Fula/Malinké kingdom of Khasso (Mali)), and the Kénédougou Empire of Sikasso ( Mali-Burkina Faso) emerged. We will not go into details of the other minor kingdoms that existed during my focus on Congo.
The Kingdom of Kongo was established around 1390 in west central Africa in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the southernmost part of Gabon.( Please see modern map attached). At its greatest extent, it reached from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Congo River( Kwango in Bantu)in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in Angola to the south. I was basically traveling that section during my recent trip, reaching almost 30 miles near the Gabon border. Since I was a bit inland and in a dense forest, I must have been about 100 miles east of the coast.
The kingdom largely existed from c. 1390 to 1891 as an independent state, and from 1891 to 1914 as a vassal state of the Kingdom of Portugal. In 1914, the titular monarchy was forcibly abolished, following Portuguese victory against a Kongo revolt. The remaining territories of the kingdom were assimilated into the colony of Angola ( which was under Portugal since 1575).
The Congo River and Slavery 17th-19th Century:
In 1482 when the Portuguese sailor Diego Cao accidentally came upon the river as it emptied into the Atlantic, he was astounded by its sheer size. Modern oceanographers have discovered more evidence of the great river's strength in its 'pitched battle with the ocean' a 100-mile-long canyon, in place 4,000 feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor... It pours some 1.4 million cubic feet of water per second into the ocean; only the Amazon carries more water.
Thanks to satellite technology, the world now knows that much of the river's basin lies on a plateau which rises nearly 1,000 feet high 220 miles from the Atlantic coast. Thus the river descends to sea level in a furious 220-mile dash down the plateau.
During this tumultuous descent the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves of 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."
Diogo Cão, became the first European to visit the Congo when he reached the mouth of the Congo River and sailed a few miles upstream. Soon thereafter the Portuguese established ties with the king of Kongo, and in the early 16th cent. they established themselves on parts of the coast of modern Angola.
The Portuguese had little influence on the Congo until the late 18th cent., when the African and mulatto traders whom they backed, traveled far inland to the kingdom of Mwata Kazembe ( Katanga province of DRC in eastern Congo bordering Zambia). In the mid-19th cent. Arab, Swahili, and Nyamwezi traders from present-day Tanzania penetrated into E Congo, where they traded and raided for slaves and ivory. Some of the traders established states with considerable power. With the discovery of the Americas, slaves were in great demand in South and North America. As a result raiding villages in all of Congo took place in the entire length of this huge country from the Atlantic to its borders with Lake Tanganyika almost 3000 miles away.
From the 17th century to the early 19th century, many Congolese and Angolans were brought as slaves to the United States. The first Angolan slaves of Virginia (15 men and 17 women) were Mbundu and Bakongo, who spoke bantu based Kimbundu and Kikongo languages respectively. Many of these early slaves were literate due to their conversion to Catholicism by the Portuguese.
Later, slaves were stolen by English and Dutch pirates from the Portuguese from the Angolan port of Luanda. Many of these slaves were imported by the Dutch to New York, which, at that time, was called New Amsterdam and was under Dutch control. As a New Yorker I find it interesting that the Angolans also were the first slaves in New York City. According to Harvard university professor Jill Lepore, the slaves of Angola who arrived in New Amsterdam were also Ambundu of Angola and, to a lesser extent, Kongos, as was the case with the first slaves who arrived in Virginia. The Congolese-Angolan slavery trade in the United States reached its greatest magnitude between 1619 and 1650. In 1644, 6,900 slaves on the African coast were purchased to clear the forests, lay roads, build houses and public buildings, and grow food. During the colonial period, people from the region Congo-Angola made up 25% of the slaves in North America.
Based on the data mentioned, many slaves came from distinct ethnic groups, such as the Bakongo and the Tio and Northern Mbunbu people. However, not all slaves kept the culture of their ancestors. The Bakongo were Catholics, from the kingdom of Kongo who had voluntarily converted to Catholicism in 1491 after the Portuguese conquered this territory. Many of the Bakongo slaves who arrived in the United States in the 18th century were captured and sold as slaves by African kings to other tribes or enemies during several civil wars in Kongo.
European , Stanley and King Leopold- 18th -20th century
Until the middle of the 19th century, the Congo was at the heart of independent Africa, as European colonialists seldom entered the interior. Along with fierce local resistance, the rainforest, swamps, and attendant malaria, and other diseases such as sleeping sickness made it a difficult environment for European invasion forces. Western countries were at first reluctant to colonize the area in the absence of obvious economic benefits. Those who tried to sail upriver encountered a narrow gorge that compressed the water into a powerful opposing current. In the river's final 220 miles from the edge of the central plateau to the coast, the Congo River drops more than a thousand feet and has 32 rapids. Difficult terrain made exploration on foot also treacherous. Following Cao, more than three hundred years elapsed before serious exploration of the Congo was undertaken.
Francisco José de Lacerda, a Portuguese explorer, reached the copper-rich Katanga region from the east in 1798, as did Arab traders in the first half of the 1800s. The Arabs extended their influence over the eastern Congo River Basin, engaging in the slave and ivory trades. In 1816 a British expedition went as far as Isangila ( see map). Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone visited the Luapula and Lualaba rivers in 1871, believing them to be sources of the Nile.
Henry Morton Stanley was the first European to navigate the river's length during his search for Dr. Livingston and reported that the Lualaba was not a source of the Nile, as had been suggested. After leaving Livingstone, Stanley sailed for 1000 miles (1600 km) down the Lualaba (Upper Congo) to the large lake he named Stanley Pool, near Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Then, rather than perish in the impenetrable country of the cascades, Stanley took a wide detour overland to come within striking distance of the original Portuguese trading station at Boma on the Congo estuary. In 2004, a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Tim Butcher, was the first person to have retraced his route. -"Blood River'-A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, in under 24 hours last week. Any fan of Congo should get hold of this amazing modern day adventure book.
When Stanley returned to Europe in 1878, he had not only found Dr. Livingstone (an event remembered to this day), resolved the last great mystery of African exploration-exploring the Congo, and ruined his health: he had also opened the heart of tropical Africa up to the outside world. This was to be his most enduring legacy.
Stanley was lionized across Europe. He wrote articles, appeared at public meetings, lobbied the rich and powerful tirelessly; and always his theme was the boundless opportunity for commercial exploitation of the lands he had discovered or, in his own words, to "pour the civilization of Europe into the barbarism of Africa".
"There are 40,000,000 nude people" on the other side of the rapids, Stanley wrote, "and the cotton-spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them... Birmingham's factories are glowing with the red metal that shall presently be made into ironwork in every fashion and shape for them... and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold."
Though trade in goods was the initial impetus for the Europeans, they quickly discovered that the slave trade was much more lucrative, and the river was the means to deliver them to the coast from inland areas once the supply of slaves dwindled on the coast. As the wealth from the slave trade filtered inland, the demand for slaves grew, leading to raids by some groups and migrations by others to escape the slavers. But the increased trade and multiplication of towns along the river had the unforeseen benefit of lifestyles becoming more similar and new crops and technologies being shared.
Europe was less than keen on the idea: the great European scramble for Africa had not yet begun. Outside of the Cape of Good Hope and the Mediterranean coast, Europe had no African colonies of any significance. The focus of the great powers was still firmly on the lands that had made Europe's fortune: the Americas, the East Indies, India, China, and Australasia. There seemed no economic sense to investing energy in Africa when the returns from other colonies were likely to be both richer and more immediate. Nor was there a strong humanitarian interest in the continent now that the American slave trade had been extinguished. Stanley was applauded, admired, decorated—and ignored.
As a constitutional monarch, Leopold was charged with the usual constitutional duties of opening parliaments, greeting diplomats, and attending state funerals. He had no power to decide policy. But for over 20 years he had been agitating for Belgium to take its place among the great colonial powers of Europe. Leopold noted, "Our frontiers can never be extended into Europe." However, he added, "since history teaches that colonies are useful, that they play a great part in that which makes up the power and prosperity of states, let us strive to get one in our turn."
At various times, he launched unsuccessful schemes to buy an Argentine province, to buy Borneo from the Dutch, rent the Philippines from Spain, or establish colonies in China, Vietnam, Japan, or the Pacific islands. When the 1860s explorers focused attention on Africa, Leopold schemed to colonize Mozambique on the east coast, Senegal on the west coast, and the Congo in the centre. None of these schemes came anywhere near fruition: the government of Belgium resolutely resisted all Leopold's suggestions, seeing the acquisition of a colony as a good way to spend large amounts of money for little or no return.
Leopold's eventual response was extraordinary in its hubris and simplicity. If the government of Belgium would not take a colony, then he would simply do it himself, acting in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen.
In 1876 Leopold II sponsored an international geographical conference in Brussels, inviting delegates from scientific societies all over Europe to discuss philanthropic and scientific matters such as the best way to coordinate map making, to prevent the re-emergence of the west coast slave trade, and to investigate ways of sending medical aid to Africa. The conference was a sham: at its close, Leopold proposed that they set up an international benevolent committee to carry on, and modestly agreed to accept the chairman's role. For the look of things, he held one more meeting the following year, but from that time on, the Association Internationale Africaine was simply a front for Leopold's ambition. He created a baffling series of subsidiary shell organisations, culminating in the cunningly named Association Internationale du Congo, which had a single shareholder: Leopold himself.
Stanley returned on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium in 1876 and claimed huge swaths of land in the Conger River basin for the king, an area more than 76 times the size of Belgium. By 1885 Leopold ruled this huge area as his personal domain through his private army, the Force Publique. His legacy is one of exploitation and human rights abuses such as slavery and mutilation of the peoples. He was eventually forced to cede this land to Belgium in 1908.It is estimated that nearly 5 million perished under his brutality and is known as the second Holocaust. Other than scholars and students of Africa, this fact is little known to everyone. This is another reason that prompted me to write this blog.
Having established a beachhead on the lower Congo, in 1883 Stanley set out upriver to extend Leopold's domain, employing his usual methods: negotiations with local chiefs buying sovereignty in exchange for bolts of cloth and trinkets; playing one tribe off another; and if need be, simply shooting an obstructive chief and negotiating with his cowed successor instead. However, as he approached Stanley Falls at the junction between the Congo proper and the Lualaba (close to the general vicinity of Central Africa where he had found Livingstone six years before), it soon became clear that Stanley's men were not the only intruders.
Tippu Tip, the last and greatest of the Zanzibari slave traders of the 19th century, was well-known to Stanley, as was the social chaos and devastation that slave-hunting brought. It had only been through Tippu Tip's help that Stanley had found Livingstone (who himself had survived years on the Lualaba by virtue of Tippu Tip's friendship). Now, Stanley discovered, Tippu Tip's men had reached still further west in search of fresh populations to enslave.
Four years before, the Zanzibaris had thought the Congo deadly and impassable, and warned Stanley not to attempt to go there, but when Tippu Tip learned in Zanzibar that Stanley had survived, he was quick to act. Villages throughout the region had been burned and depopulated. Tippu Tip had raided 118 villages, killed 4,000 Africans, and, when Stanley reached his camp, had 2,300 slaves, mostly young women and children, in chains ready to transport half-way across the continent to the markets of Zanzibar.
Leopold's Rule of Congo Free State 1885-1908)
When Leopold finally ascended the throne in 1865, his undying desire was to own colonies. He tried everything under the sun to get a colony to no avail, including offering to buy the Philippines from Spain, buying lakes in the Nile and draining them out, or trying to lease territory on the island of Formosa.
He despised Belgium's small size. "Small country, small people" was how he described his little Belgium that had only become independent in 1830. The brutal expeditions of Stanley in Africa finally offered Leopold the chance to land his prized jewel, Congo in 1876.
The agents of King Leopold II of Belgium massacred 10 million Africans in the Congo. Cutting off hands as we see in Sierra Leone today, was very much part of Leopold's repertoire. Today, Leopold's "rubber terror" has all been swept under the carpet. Adam Hochschild calls it "the great forgetting" in his brilliant new book, King Leopold's Ghost(1999, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This is a story of greed, exploitation and brutality that Africa and the world must not forget. I learnt about this book from a British English language teacher, Eric G. with whom I played Scrabble during a boring a 2015 Xmas party in Brazzaville where many UN and Embassy workers were present.
While Stanley was staking out land for Leopold's colony( Congo Free State) in the eastern Congo, the French where greedily establishing their own on the western side of Stanley pools in Brazzaville- Republic of Congo ( ROC). It is in the ROC where I spent nearly two weeks with Brazzaville its capital, which was formally established as the French Congo in 1882. Its borders with Cabinda, Cameroons, and the Congo Free State ( Belgian Congo)were established by treaties over the next decade. The plan to develop the colony was to grant massive concessions to some thirty French companies. These were granted huge swaths of land on the promise they would be developed. This development was limited and amounted mostly to the extraction of ivory, rubber, and timber. These operations often involved great brutality and the near enslavement of the locals.
Even with these measures most of the companies lost money. Only about ten earned profits. Many of the companies' vast holdings existed only on paper with virtually no presence on the ground in Africa. The French Congo was sometimes known as Gabon-Congo.
"In France's equatorial African territories including the Republic of Congo where the region's history is best documented, the amount of rubber-bearing land was far less than what Leopold controlled in Belgian Congo, but the rape was just as brutal. Almost all exploitable land was divided among concession companies. Forced labor, hostages, slave chains, starving porters, burned villages, paramilitary company 'sentries', and the chicotte were the order of the day. [The chicotte was a vicious whip made out of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip. It was applied to bare buttocks, and left permanent scars. Twenty strokes of it sent victims into unconsciousness; and a 100 or more strokes were often fatal. The chicotte was freely used by both Leopold's men and the French].
"Thousands of refugees who had fled across the Congo River to escape Leopold's regime (Congo-Leopoldville) eventually fled back to escape the French (in Congo-Brazzaville). The population loss in the rubber-rich equatorial rainforest owned by France is estimated, just as in Leopold's Congo, at roughly 50%." writes Hoschild.
Many excerpts from his book review constitute the bulk of the next few paragraphs. Adam Hoschild, a Professor of Journalism from University of California, Berkeley has done a yeoman's service in researching and exposing Belgian rule and brutality in Congo.
Leopold never set foot in "his" Congo Free State - for all the 23 years (1885-1908) he ruled what Hochschild calls "the world's only colony claimed by one man".
It was a vast territory which "if superimposed on the map of Europe", says Hochschild, "would stretch from Zurich to Moscow to central Turkey. It was bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. Although mostly rainforest and savannah, it also embraced volcanic hills and mountains covered by snow and glaciers, some of whose peaks reached higher than the Alps."
Leopold's "rubber terror" raised a lot of hairs in Britain, America and continental Europe (particularly between the years 1900-1908). But while they were condemning Leopold's barbarity, his accusers were committing much the same atrocities against Africans elsewhere on the continent. Hochschild tries to be fair here by pointing to what the Americans and the British were doing, or had done, elsewhere.
"What happened in the Congo was indeed mass murder on a vast scale, but the sad truth is that the men who carried it out for Leopold were no more murderous than many Europeans then at work or at war elsewhere in Africa. Conrad said it best (in his book, Heart of Darkness, based on the brutalities in the Congo): 'All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz'."
Kurtz is Joseph Conrad's lead character in Heart of Darkness. He is "both a murderous head collector and an intellectual, an emissary of science and progress, a painter, a poet and a journalist, and an author of a 17-page report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, at the end of which he scrawls in shaky hand: 'Exterminate all the brutes'."
Conrad had himself gone to Congo in 1890 and claimed that Kurtz was created after Leon Rom, who in real life was committing his atrocities. "The moral landscape of Heart of Darkness", writes Hochshild, "and the shadowy figure at its centre are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy." Rom was born in Mons in Belgium. Poorly educated, he joined the Belgian army aged 16. Nine years later, aged 25 in 1886, he found himself in the Congo in search of adventure. He became district commissioner and was later put in charge of the African troops in Leopold's murderous Force Publique army in the Congo.
Rom's brutality knew no bounds. It was such that even the white people working with him were shocked to their boots.
So, how did Leopold come to own such a vast territory, exploited it, killed its people, took away its riches and never set foot in it?
Three things stand out in this sad story - the naivety of the African kings and people; the misfits of Europe sent to subdue the Africans; and the superior weapons of war that the Europeans possessed which the Africans lacked.
When the first Europeans (the Portuguese) arrived in Congo in 1482, they met a thriving African kingdom. "Despite the contempt for Kongo culture," says Hochschild, "the Portuguese grudgingly recognized in the kingdom a sophisticated and well-developed state - the leading one on the west coast of central Africa. It was an imperial federation, of two or three million people, covering an area roughly 3,000 sq miles, some of which lie today in several countries after the Europeans had drawn arbitrary border lines across Africa in 1886."
The great fascination of the Congo at the time was its mighty 3,000-mile river, variously called Lualaba, Nzadi or Nzere by the people who lived on its banks. Nzere means "the river that swallows all rivers" because of its many tributaries. Just one tributary, the Kasai, carries as much water as Europe's longest river, the Volga in Russia and it is half as long as the Rhine. Another tributary, the Ubangi is even longer. On Portuguese tongue, Nzere became Zaire which was adopted by Mobutu when he renamed the country in 1971. Like most things African, the Europeans changed the river's name to Congo.
In all, the river (Africa's second longest) drains more than 1.3 million square miles, "an area larger than India," Hochschild testifies. "It has an estimated one-sixth of the world's hydroelectric potential... Its fan-shaped web of tributaries constitute more than seven thousand miles of interconnecting waterways, a built-in transportation grid rivaled by few places on earth."
Thus, Congo was a jewel any colonialist would kill for. And the lot fell to Henry Morton Stanley to colonize it for King Leopold II.
Stanley was Welsh but he passed himself round as an American. He had first stumbled on the river on his second trip to Africa. Because the river flowed north from this point, Stanley thought it was the Nile.
Stanley's background tells a lot about the brutality he unleashed on the Africans he met on his journeys. He had been born a "bastard" in the small Welsh market town of Denbigh on 28 January 1841. His mother, Betsy Parry (a housemaid) had recorded him on the birth register of St Hillary's Church in Denbigh as "John Rowlands, Bastard". His father was believed to be a local drunkard called John Rowlands who died of delirium tremens, a severe psychotic condition occurring in some alcoholics.
John Rowlands Bastard was the first of his mother's five illegitimate children. After an exceptionally difficult childhood spent with foster parents and in juvenile workhouses, John Rowlands Bastard moved to New Orleans (USA) in February 1859 where he changed his name several times - sometimes calling himself Morley, Morelake and Moreland. Finally he settled on Henry Morton Stanley which he claimed was the name of a rich benefactor he lived with in New Orleans.
Stanley would become a soldier, sailor, newspaperman and famous explorer feted by the high and mighty on both sides of the Atlantic. He was knighted by Britain and elected to parliament. Despite his lowly background, Stanley, I have come to believe, rose above the fray as a great explorer, author and leader. Like how racism has kept many a talented individual down in the west and around the world, Stanley was subjected to many torments by his peers. On one hand as a modern day traveler I find him to be an exalted explorer without a peer. On the other, I find his cruelty and indiscretions utterly revolting.
Stanley had made two "journalistic" trips to Africa, first in 1869 to find David Livingstone. The second was in 1874 where, starting from Zanzibar with 356 people (mostly Africans), he "attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages" (his own words) as he plundered his way down to Boma and the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic coast.
In 1879, Stanley was off again to Africa, this time under commission from King Leopold to colonize Congo for him. Stanley used the gun, cheap European goods and plain-faced deceit to win over 450 local chiefs and their people and take over their land.
Stanley apparently remembered how the 22-sq-mile Manhattan Island in New York Bay had been "bought" from the Native Americans by the Dutch colonial officer, Peter Minuit, with trinkets valued at just $24.
If Minuit could do it in Manhattan, Stanley could do it, too, in the Congo. Only that in his case, he just asked the Congolese chiefs to mark Xs to legal documents written in a foreign language they had not seen before. Stanley called them treaties, like this one signed on 1 April 1884 by the chiefs of Ngombi and Mafela:
"In return for "one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand, they promised to freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever...give up to the said Association [set up by Leopold] the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories...and to assist by labor or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which they said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories... All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association."
With treaties like this, Stanley set forth to colonize Congo for Leopold. But the French would not let them have all the laugh. They sent Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza on their own colonizing mission. De Brazza landed north of the Congo River, carved out an enclave for France and had a town named after him (Brazzaville). The enclave eventually became known as Congo Brazzaville, where the French too unleashed their own brutality on the local people.
Meanwhile Stanley was doing a "good" job across the river for Leopold, building a railway and a dirt road to skirt the 220-mile descent of the river. This was to facilitate the shipping of Congo's abundant ivory and other wealth to Belgium to enrich Leopold and his petit pays. In 1884, Stanley finally left for home in England, his work for Leopold done.
Leopold next sent in his hordes, including Leon Rom, to use absolute terror to rule the land and ship out the wealth. It was the brutality of Leopold's agents that would catch the eye of the world and lead to his forced sale of Congo to the Belgian government in 1908.
Ivory had been the initial prized Congo export for Leopold. Then something happened by accident in far away Ireland that dramatically changed the fate of Leopold, his Congo and its people. John Dunlop, an Irish veterinary surgeon, was tinkering with his son's bicycle in Belfast and accidentally discovered how to make an inflatable rubber tire for the bike. He set up a tire company in 1890 named after himself, Dunlop, and a new major industry was up and running. Rubber became the new gold, and Leopold was soon laughing all the way to the bank.
The huge rainforest of Congo teemed with wild rubber, and Leopold pressed his agents for more of it. This is when the genocide reached its peak. Tapping wild rubber was a difficult affair, and Leopold's agents had to use brutal force to get the people of Congo to go into the forests and gather rubber for Leopold. Any Congolese man who resisted the order, saw his wife kidnapped and put in chains to force him to go and gather rubber. Or sometimes the wife was killed in revenge.
As more villages resisted the rubber order, Leopold's agents ordered the Force Publique army to raid the rebellious villages and kill the people. To make sure that the soldiers did not waste the bullets in hunting animals, their officers demanded to see the amputated right hand of every person they killed. As Hochschild puts it, "the standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse. 'Sometimes', said one officer to a missionary, 'soldiers shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man'. In some military units, there was even a 'keeper of the hands', his job was the smoking [of them]."
Fortunately for the people, Edmund Dene Morel, a clerk of a Liverpool shipping line used by Leopold to ship out Congo's wealth, discovered on his several journeys to the Belgian port of Antwerp in the 1890s that while rubber and ivory were shipped from Congo to Antwerp, only guns and soldiers were going from Antwerp to Congo. This marked the beginning of his massive newspaper campaign to expose Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo.
Newspaper accounts of "sliced hands and penises was far more graphic and forceful than the British government had expected. In the end, the Belgian government was forced to step in and buy Congo from Leopold in 1908. Negotiations for the buy-out started in 1906. Leopold dragged his feet for two years, but finally, in March 1908, the deal was done.
"From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left for Africa was not democracy as it is practiced today in countries like England, France and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder. On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.
"When independence came, the country fared badly... Some Africans were being trained for that distant day; but when pressure grew and independence came in 1960, in the entire territory there were fewer than 30 African university graduates. There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists or physicians. The colony's administration had made few other steps toward a Congo run by its own people; of some 5,000 management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans." , writes Hochschild.
Yet on the day of independence, King Baudouin, the then monarch of Belgium, had the gall to tell the Congolese in his speech in Kinshasa: "It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that you are worthy of our confidence".
No cheek could be bigger! And you could well imagine how mad the Congolese nationalists like Patrice Lumumba were jumping.
After Leopold and Independence from Belgium in 1960:
In May 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Belgian Congo achieved independence under the name "République du Congo" in English). Shortly after independence, the provinces of Katanga (led by Moise Tshombe and the west) and South Kasai engaged in secessionist struggles against the new leadership at the behest of the Belgian expats.
Most of the 100,000 Europeans who had remained behind after independence fled the country, opening the way for Congolese to replace the European military and administrative elite.[( Katanga Rebellion).
As the neighboring Brazzaville based French colony also chose the name "Republic of Congo" upon achieving its independence, the two countries were more commonly known as "Congo-Léopoldville" and "Congo-Brazzaville", after their capital cities.
Within 4 months, Lumumba was arrested by forces loyal to Joseph Mobutu. On 17 January 1961, he was handed over to Katangan authorities and executed by Belgian-led Katangese troops. Lumumba had previously appointed Joseph Mobutu chief of staff of the new Congo army, Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC). Taking advantage of the leadership crisis between President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, Mobutu garnered enough support within the army to create mutiny. With financial support from the United States and Belgium, Mobutu paid his soldiers privately. The aversion of Western powers to communism and leftist ideology influenced their decision to finance Mobutu's quest to maintain "order" in the new state by neutralizing Kasavubu and Lumumba in a coup by proxy. A constitutional referendum after Mobutu's coup of 1965 resulted in the country's official name being changed to the "Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1971 Mobutu changed the name again, this time to "Republic of Zaïre".
One more time we can see USA supporting the wrong guy to avert communism. The list goes on Mossadeh in Iran, Allende in Chile, Nkhruma in Ghana, Chiang Ki Shek in China, Arbenz in Guatemala, Aristede in Haiti, Saddam Hussain ( we installed him) in Iraq, Sandanistas in Nicaragua. In every country we have interfered the outcome has not been great for either parties. Our track record is as bad as the British.
Corruption became so prevalent the term "le mal Zairois" or "Zaïrean Sickness",]meaning gross corruption, theft and mismanagement, was coined, reportedly by Mobutu himself. International aid, most often in the form of loans, enriched Mobutu while he allowed national infrastructure such as roads to deteriorate to as little as one-quarter of what had existed in 1960. Zaïre became a "kleptocracy" as Mobutu and his associates embezzled government funds.
In a campaign to identify himself with African nationalism, similar to the local leaders in India who changed British given names that I am familiar with, Mobutu renamed the nation's cities: Léopoldville became Kinshasa (the country was now Democratic Republic of The Congo – Kinshasa), Stanleyville became Kisangani, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Coquilhatville became Mbandaka. This renaming campaign was completed in the 1970s.
In 1971, Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaïre, its fourth name change in 11 years and its sixth overall. The Congo River was renamed the Zaïre River.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he was invited to visit the United States on several occasions, meeting with U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union U.S. relations with Mobutu cooled, as he was no longer deemed necessary as a Cold War ally. No wonder no one trusts our foreign policy!.
Civil wars involving Rwanda and Congo (1996–present)
By 1996, following the Rwandan Civil War and genocide and the ascension of a Tutsi-led government in Rwanda, Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe) fled to eastern Zaïre and used refugee camps as a base for incursion against Rwanda. They allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) to launch a campaign against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaïre.
A brief history of the Tutsi- Hutu conflict / genocide needs to be explained here. In 1994, Rwanda’s population of seven million was composed of three ethnic groups: Hutu (approximately 85%), Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%). The Tutsis historically were herders and therefore organized and administered their lives in a notable manner. This trait had established them as the elite in Rwanda then and as a model East African Nation today. The ruling Hutus were basically hunter gatherers and marginalized the Tutsis .
In the early 1990s, Hutu extremists within Rwanda’s political elite blamed the entire Tutsi minority population for the country’s increasing social, economic, and political pressures. Tutsi civilians were also accused of supporting a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Violence began almost immediately after that. Under the cover of war, Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Political leaders who might have been able to take charge of the situation and other high profile opponents of the Hutu extremist plans were killed immediately. Tutsi and people suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee at roadblocks set up across the country during the genocide. Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped. It is estimated that some 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide.
In the weeks after April 6, 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population.
Talking to Rwandan scientists in Odzala National Park in the ROC, I finally understood the reasons behind the genocide and penetration of Rwandans into Congo to kill the perpetrators of genocide. One interesting information that I garnered during several hours of conversation in the middle of an equatorial rainforest made me shudder: France, which was a peacekeeper in the Rwandan conflict allowed the fleeing Hutu criminals into Congo since they were Francophone while the Anglophone Tutsi army were watching helplessly.
A coalition of Rwandan and Ugandan armies ( Anglophone) invaded Zaïre to overthrow the government of Mobutu, and ultimately to control the mineral resources of Zaïre, launching the First Congo War. The coalition allied with some opposition figures, led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, becoming the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL). In 1997 Mobutu fled and Kabila marched into Kinshasa, naming himself president and reverting the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese Civil Wars, which began in 1996, brought about the end of Mobutu Sese Seko's 31-year reign and devastated the country. The wars ultimately involved nine African nations, multiple groups of UN peacekeepers and twenty armed groups, and resulted in the deaths of 5.4 million people
Kabila later requested that foreign military forces return to their own countries—he had concerns that the Rwandan officers running his army were plotting a coup in order to give the presidency to a Tutsi who would report directly to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Rwandan troops retreated to Goma and launched a new Tutsi-led rebel military movement called the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) to fight against Kabila, while Uganda instigated the creation of new rebel movement called the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), led by the Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. The two rebel movements, along with Rwandan and Ugandan troops, started the Second Congo War by attacking the DRC army in 1998. Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian militaries entered on the side of the government.
Kabila was assassinated in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him and called for multilateral peace-talks. UN peacekeepers, MONUC, now known as MONUSCO, arrived in April 2001. Talks led to the signing of a peace accord in which Kabila would share power with former rebels. By June 2003 all foreign armies except those of Rwanda had pulled out of Congo. A transitional government was set up until the election was over. A constitution was approved by voters, and on 30 July 2006 DRC held its first multi-party elections. An election-result dispute between Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba turned into an all-out battle between their supporters in the streets of Kinshasa. MONUC took control of the city. A new election took place in October 2006, which Kabila won, and on December 2006 he was sworn in as President.
The DRC today:
In 2009 people in the Congo continued to die at a rate of an estimated 45,000 per month estimates of the number who have died from the long conflict range from 900,000 to 5,400,000.The death toll is due to widespread disease and famine; reports indicate that almost half of the individuals who have died are children under five years of age. There have been frequent reports of weapon bearers killing civilians, of the destruction of property, of widespread sexual violence, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and of other breaches of humanitarian and human rights law. One study found that more than 400,000 women are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo every year.
One more important fact that cannot go unmentioned here is the plight of the Pygmies. In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum that during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. ( The German Colonists did the same to the Bushmen in Namibia in 1938). In neighboring North Kivu province there has been cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs ("the erasers") who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation. Both sides of the war regarded them as "subhuman" and some say their flesh can confer magical powers.
Makelo asked the UN Security Council to recognize cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. According to Minority Rights Group International there is extensive evidence of mass killings, cannibalism and rape of Pygmies and they have urged the International Criminal Court to investigate a campaign of extermination against pygmies. The greatest environmental problem the Pygmies seem to be facing is the loss of their traditional homeland, the tropical forests of Central Africa. In several countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo this is due to deforestation and the desire of several governments in Central Africa to evict the Pygmies from their forest habitat in order to cash in on quick profits from the sale of hardwood and the resettlement of farmers onto the cleared land. In some cases, as in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this conflict is violent. Certain groups, such as the Hutus of the Interahamwe (of genocide fame), wish to eliminate the Pygmy and take the resources of the forest as a military conquest, using the resources of the forest for military as well as economic advancement. Since the Pygmies rely on the forest for their physical as well as cultural survival, as these forests disappear, so do the Pygmy.
Raja Sheshadri, one of my fellow Indian expatriates of fPcN-Global.org has conducted extensive research on the pygmies. This human rights organization states that as the forest has receded under logging activities, its original inhabitants have been pushed into populated areas to join the formal economy, working as casual laborers or on commercial farms and being exposed to new diseases. This shift has brought them into closer contact with neighboring ethnic communities whose HIV levels are generally higher. This has led to the spread of HIV/AIDS into the pygmy group.
Since poverty has become very prevalent in the Pygmy communities, sexual exploitation of indigenous women has become a common practice. Commercial sex has been bolstered by logging, which often places large groups of male laborers in camps which are set up in close contact with the Pygmy communities.
Human rights groups have also reported widespread sexual abuse of indigenous women in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite these risks, Pygmy populations generally have poor access to health services and information about HIV. The British medical journal, The Lancet, published a review showing that Pygmy populations often had worse access to health care than neighboring communities.[ According to the report, even where health care facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, they do not have the documents and identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, and they are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment
In 2015 major protests broke out across the country and protesters demanded that Joseph Kabila step down as President. The protests began after the passage of a law by the Congolese lower house that, if also passed by the Congolese upper house, would keep Kabila in power at least until a national census was conducted (a process which would likely take several years and therefore keep him in power past the planned 2016 elections, which he is constitutionally barred from participating in).As of 2015 elections are scheduled for late 2016 and a tenuous peace holds over the Congo.
The ROC today:
Despite the military's claims that its interests are not divorced from those of the people, it is clear that the military undermines human security when it attempts to govern rather than follow the lead of the elected civilian authorities. The military barely understands the nature of its own institutions-and still less those of the democratic civilian governments. The military is undemocratic, order-oriented, and hierarchical, and does not tolerate differences of opinions. My own experiences during arrival into Brazzaville was a 2 hour ordeal. The local Government is not interested in tourism or world opinion since they are content with plundering and enriching themselves from their own people.
In ROC power is concentrated in the hands of one group. To consolidate its position, the power wielders exclude others from fully participating in national life. Violence is used to force them to cooperate with the authorities. Detention, persecution, mistreatment, and other human rights violations become a common practice. The victims of the politics of exclusion rarely achieve a fair hearing before courts, which further exacerbates their conditions. They are not allowed to become active players in the key areas of the economy, lacking access to agricultural lands, investment opportunities, or the higher positions that their counterparts enjoy. Modern African history is replete with examples of leaders enriching their own groups while paying little attention to the plight of their fellow citizens. Some leaders have even made their birthplaces into exclusive development zones.
I was traveling through the town of Edo en route to Odzala National Park in the north west of the country. The airline, airliner and the airport belonged to the daughter of the ruler Denis Sassou-Nguess. There were multiple checks on the passengers akin to traveling to Israel. Flights are only on weekends to suit his traveling needs. There are elaborate homes along the poverty stricken villages; a clear slap across the face of his citizens. In the west we are more subtle and have learned to hide them in distant places.
These powerful men live behind high walls, sun shades and automatic weapons unable to face their citizens. Internationally, Sassou's regime has been hit by corruption revelations despite attempts to censor them. One French investigation found over 110 bank accounts and dozens of lavish properties in France; Sassou denounced embezzlement investigations as "racist" and "colonial".
Around Edo new schools, colleges ,hospitals including a 4 star hotel have been built along with the nations only cattle farm to feed the elite( milk is imported from France and not affordable by most). None of these institutions have staff since the country has not developed any form of professionals other than gun toting militia.
In the Republic of Congo, where Pygmies make up 2% of the population, many Pygmies live as slaves to Bantu masters for over a millennium. The nation is deeply stratified between these two major ethnic groups. The Pygmy slaves belong from birth to their Bantu masters in a relationship that the Bantus call a time-honored tradition. Even though the Pygmies are responsible for much of the hunting, fishing and manual labor in jungle villages, Pygmies and Bantus alike say Pygmies are often paid at the master's whim; in cigarettes, used clothing, or even nothing at all. As a result of pressure from UNICEF and human-rights activists, a law that would grant special protections to the Pygmy people is awaiting a vote by the Congo parliament. Pygmies are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying jobs. At a state level, Pygmies are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling. Government policies and multinational corporations involved in massive deforestation have exacerbated this problem by forcing more Pygmies out of their traditional homelands and into villages and cities where they often are marginalized, impoverished and abused by the dominant culture.
Today there are roughly 500,000 Pygmies left in the rain-forest of Central Africa. This population is rapidly decreasing as poverty, intermarriage with Bantu peoples, Westernization, and deforestation all gradually destroy their way of life and culture along with their genetic uniqueness.
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King Leopold's Ghost- Adam Hoschild
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Blood River- A journey through Africa's Broken Heart- Tim Butcher
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