Modern history





Central Africa Draws the Attention of East and West


NO ONE KNOWS EXACTLY WHEN DISASI MAKULO WAS BORN. But then neither did he. “I was born in the days when the white man had still not arrived in our area,” he told his children many years later. “We didn’t know then that there were people in the world with skin of a different color.”1 It must have been around 1870–72. He died in 1941. Not long before, he had dictated his life’s story to one of his sons. It would appear in print only in the 1980s; twice in fact, in Kinshasa and again in Kisangani, but Zaïre, as Congo was called in those days, was as good as bankrupt. The publications were sober, with limited print runs and distribution. And that is unfortunate, because the life story of Disasi Makulo is above all a fantastic adventure. To understand the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Central Africa there is no better guide than Makulo.

Where Disasi was born, however, he knew very well: in the village of Bandio. He was the son of Asalo and Boheheli, a Turumbu tribesman. Bandio lay in the district of Basoko, now Orientale province. The heart of the equatorial forest, in other words. Aboard the boat from Kinshasa to Kisangani, a few weeks’ journey upstream along the Congo, one passes on the port side a few days before arrival the large village of Basoko. It is on the northern bank, at the confluence with the Aruwimi, one of the Congo’s larger tributaries. Bandio is to the east of Basoko, a ways back from the river itself.

His parents were not fishing folk; they lived in the jungle. His mother raised manioc. With her hoe or digging tool she would chop at the earth to pry loose the thick tubers. She lined them up to dry in the sun and, a few days later, ground them to flour. His father worked with palm oil. Climbing high into the trees with his machete, he chopped off the bunches of greasy nuts. Then he would press them until the lovely juice ran out, a deep orange, a sort of liquid copper that has added to the region’s wealth since time immemorial. That palm oil could be used to trade with the fishermen along the river. Commercial ties had existed for centuries between the riverine inhabitants, who had fish in abundance, and the people of the forest with their surpluses of palm oil, manioc, or plantains. The result was a balanced diet: the protein-rich fish was taken to the rain forest, the starchy crops and vegetable oil were left on the banks.

Bandio was a relatively insular world. The radius of activity covered in a human lifetime was limited to a few dozen kilometers. People sometimes visited another village to attend a wedding or arrange an inheritance, but most of them left their region seldom or never. They died where they were born. When Disasi Makulo entered the world with a shriek, the villagers of Bandio knew nothing of the outside world. They knew nothing of the permanent presence of the Portuguese a thousand kilometers to the west, along the Atlantic, nor in fact of the existence of an ocean. The Portuguese colony of Angola had lost much of its splendor, as had Portugal itself, but—for Africans as well—Portuguese remained the major trading language along the coast south of the mouth of the Congo. Nor did Disasi’s people know that, since the eighteenth century, the British had taken over the trade of the Portuguese along the Congo’s lower reaches and embouchure. That the Dutch and the French had settled there as well: they could never have guessed that, for none of those Europeans ever made their way inland. They remained on the coast and the area immediately behind it, waiting till the caravans led by African traders reached them with their goods from the interior: ivory in particular, but also palm oil, peanuts, coffee, baobab bark, and pigments such as orchil and copal. Not to mention slaves. Although the trade in human beings had been abolished throughout the Western world in those years, it went on in secret for quite some time. The Westerners paid with precious cloth, bits of copper, gunpowder, muskets, and red or blue pearls or rare seashells. This latter commodity was no act of clever Western fraud. As with official coinage, those shells were piece goods of great value that could be transported easily and were impossible to counterfeit. But Bandio was too far away to see much of that. If such a white, gleaming shell or bead necklace actually happened to make it to their area, no one knew exactly where it came from.

Newborn Disasi’s fellow villagers may have known nothing about the Europeans on the west coast, but they were even less informed about the great upheavals taking place more than a thousand kilometers to the east and north. Beginning in 1850, the Central African rainforest had also attracted the attention of merchants from the island of Zanzibar, as well as from the African east coast (present-day Tanzania) and even from two thousand kilometers away in Egypt. Their interest was prompted by a natural raw material that had been valued around the world for centuries as a luxury good for the manufacture of princely Chinese tablets, Indian figurines, and medieval reliquaries. That material was ivory. High-grade ivory was found in huge quantities in the African interior. The tusks of the African elephant comprised the largest and purest pieces of ivory in the world, weighing up to seventy kilos and more. Unlike the Asian elephant, already rare by that time, the female of the African species bore tusks as well. In the mid-nineteenth century this seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove was the subject of increasingly close perusal.

In the northeast of what would later become Congo, where the rain forest meets the savanna, traders from the Nile Valley were active: Sudanese, Nubians, and even Egyptian Copts. Their clientele lived as far away as Cairo. The traders traveled to the south by way of Darfur or Khartoum. Slaves and ivory were the major export products, razzias and hunting parties the principle form of acquisition. By 1856 the entire trade had gradually entered the hands of a single individual: al-Zubayr, a powerful trader whose empire in 1880 extended from Northern Congo to Darfur. Officially, his trading zone was a province of Egypt; in practice, it comprised an empire unto itself. The Arab influence spread all the way to southern Sudan.

But it was above all Zanzibar, an unsightly island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of present-day Tanzania, that played a crucial role. When the sultan of Oman settled there in 1832 to control the flow of trade in the Indian Ocean, the move had far-reaching consequences for all of eastern Africa. Zanzibar, itself rich only in coconuts and cloves, became the global transfer table for slaves. The island exported to the Arabian Peninsula, the Mideast, the Indian subcontinent, and China.

In 1870 the villagers of Bandio noticed none of this. But the Zanzibar traders possessed excellent firearms and so they themselves moved farther and farther into the interior, farther than the Europeans to the west ever had. Some of them were pure Arabs, others were of mixed African blood. Often they included African converts to Islam, whom we refer to as Afro-Arab or Swahilo-Arab traders; in the nineteenth century, however, they were called les arabisés. Swahili, a Bantu language with many Arabic loan words, spread all over Eastern Africa. Starting at Zanzibar and the town of Bagamoyo on the coast, huge caravans began heading inland from 1850 on, until they reached the shores of Lake Tanganyika, eight hundred kilometers to the west. The settlement of Ujiji, where Stanley would “find” Livingstone in 1871, became a major trading post. From the lake’s far shore the caravans moved even farther inland, into the area now known as Congo. As with the trading empire of al-Zubayr, one saw spheres of commercial influence solidify into political entities. In southeastern Katanga, Msiri, a trader from the African east coast, took over an existing realm: the ancient, but by-then mordant Lunda Empire. From 1856 to 1891 he was lord and master over this region rich in copper and controlled all trade routes to the east. His interests, at first purely commercial, in this way took on political form.

A bit farther to the north, the notorious ivory and slave trader Tippo Tip reigned supreme. As son of an Afro-Arab family from Zanzibar he answered directly to the Sultan, but soon he became the most powerful man in all of eastern Congo. His authority was felt in the area that stretched between the Great Lakes to the east and the headwaters of the Congo (also referred to there as Lualaba), three hundred kilometers (185 miles) to the west. Tippo Tip’s power was founded not only on his exceptional business sense, but also on violence. At first he had acquired his luxury goods—slaves and ivory—in a friendly fashion: like other Zanzibaris, he established pacts with local leaders for the purposes of bartering. A number of those leaders became vassals of the Afro-Arab traders. Yet, from 1870 on, all that changed. As more and more tons of ivory began flowing eastward, traders like Tippo Tip grew in power and wealth. In the final account, the sacking and pillaging of entire villages proved more cost effective than bartering for a few tusks and adolescents. Why spend days chattering with the local village chieftain, refusing lukewarm palm wine that your religion forbade you to drink anyway, when you could just as easily torch his village? In addition to ivory, this new approach also produced additional slaves to carry that ivory. Raiding became more important than trading; firearms tipped the scales. The name Tippo Tip sent shivers down the spines of those inhabiting an area half the size of Europe. In fact, it wasn’t even his real name (that was Hamed ben Mohammed al-Murjebi), but probably an onomatopoeiac form derived from the sound of his rifle.

At Disasi Makulo’s home in Bandio, however, no one had ever heard of Tippo Tip. The stage was still empty, the world still a verdant green. In the wings, to the left and right, foreign traders—European Christians and Afro-Arab Muslims—stood awaiting their cues, ready to push on into the heart of Central Africa. It was only because the region’s power structures were already in a wretched state, due in part to the European slave trade carried out in the centuries before, that their offensive was even possible. Not much was left in those days of the once so-powerful native kingdoms, and social structures in the jungle had always been less complex than those on the savanna. The political vacuum in the interior, therefore, offered new economic opportunities for foreigners. That is putting it nicely. In reality, the period to come was one of administrative anarchy, rapaciousness, and violence. But not yet. Little Disasi still lay slumbering, tied to his mother’s back, his cheek pressed to her shoulder blade. The wind rustled in the treetops. After a thunderstorm, the rain forest went on dripping for hours.

“ONE DAY, a few people from the riverside came to visit my parents.” Thus begins Disasi Makulo’s earliest recollection. He must have been five or six at the time. The strangers brought with them a very peculiar story. “They said they had seen something bizarre on the river, a spirit perhaps. ‘We saw a huge, mysterious canoe,’ they said, ‘that rowed itself. In that canoe is a man, white from head to toe, like an albino, covered completely in garments, you could see only his head and his arms. He had a few black men with him.’”2

Besides fish and palm oil, the peoples of the river and the jungle also traded information. The river people, of course, had a tendency to come up with weird news anyway—you could hardly imagine the crazy things they heard from fishermen and traders further along!—but this report sounded particularly strange. What’s more, it was no secondhand account. The clothed albino they had seen was no one less than Henry Morton Stanley. The little group of black men were his bearers and helpers from Zanzibar. That huge, mysterious canoe was the Lady Alice, his eight-meter-long steel boat. After he had found the presumably lost physician, missionary, and explorer David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871, the New York Herald and the Daily Telegraph of London had commissioned Stanley to carry out, from 1874 to 1877, what would become the mother of all exploratory expeditions: the crossing of Central Africa from east to west, a staggering journey through festering swamps, hostile tribal territories, and murderous rapids.

It was around the middle of that same century that Europe had come down with the fever of discovery. Newspapers and geographical societies challenged adventurers to explore mountain ranges, chart rivers, and map jungles. A sort of mythical fascination arose for “the sources” of streams and rivers, in particular that of the Nile. Shortly before his meeting with Stanley, the Scotsman Livingstone had found the Lualaba, a broad but unnavigable river in eastern Congo that flowed north, and which he thought could very well constitute the headwaters of the Nile. In 1875 the Englishman Lovett Cameron stood on the banks of that same river. Cameron, however, realized that a bend to the west later on was all it would take to make this, in fact, the Congo, the mouth of which was already known thousands of kilometers away on the Atlantic coast. Neither of them succeeded in following that river. Stanley did.

He left Zanzibar with his caravan in 1874 and, just to be sure, took his own ship along with him. The Lady Alice could be taken apart and portaged like a set of Tinker Toys. What a strange sight that must have been: a long caravan threading its way across the boiling hot savanna of Eastern Africa, hundreds of kilometers from any navigable current, with at the back a group of twenty-four porters bearing the man-size, glistening sections of an otherworldly steel hull.

Stanley subjected Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika to a very close inspection. Then, setting out to the west in 1876, he entered the territory of the much-feared but, upon closer acquaintance, also gallant Tippo Tip, with whom he made a deal. In return for a generous reward, Tippo Tip and his men would accompany Stanley a long way to the north along the Lualaba. It was what we today might call a “win-win” situation: Stanley was protected by Tippo Tip, and Tippo Tip could expand into the new territories he discovered along with Stanley.

It worked, although the presence in Stanley’s entourage of the most notorious slave driver of all did generate great hostility among the local population. No one knew what an explorer was; Stanley was seen as just another trader. Spears and poisoned arrows came raining down on more than one occasion, and more than once, there were casualties. Although in his writings Stanley tended to exaggerate the number of such clashes (which did his reputation no good), their frequency indicates how much the Arab slave trade had disrupted the area. After passing a series of cataracts, the river became navigable and turned off to the west. Stanley named the spot Stanley Falls (later Stanleyville, today’s Kisangani). Bidding farewell to Tippo Tip and accompanied by several native canoes, he moved on alone into the area where no European or Afro-Arab trader had ever been before.

On February 1, 1877, at two in the afternoon, his ship passed the area where the friends of Disasi Makulo’s parents lived. Drums had warned the inhabitants along the banks of his approach, and they had prepared themselves well.3 A war party of forty-five large dugouts carrying a hundred men each headed for Stanley’s little flotilla. He noted: “In these savage areas our mere presence awakens the most furious passions of hatred and murder, as a low-lying ship in shallow water stirs up muddy sediment.” It was, indeed, one of the most impressive military confrontations on his journey. Hundreds of sinewy arms paddled in unison. The canoes approached the Lady Alice on waves of foam. At their bows, warriors with colorful feather headdresses were standing ready with their spears. At the stern sat the village elders. There was a deafening sound of drums and horns. “This is a bloodthirsty world,” Stanley wrote, “and for the first time we feel that we hate the filthy, rapacious ghouls who live here.”4 As soon as the first cloud of spears came raining down, musket fire rang out. Stanley shot his way to shore. Once on land he found piles of tusks, and in the villages he saw human skulls mounted on poles. By five that afternoon he was gone.

It seemed like a one-off incident, a terrible apparition, an inexplicable epiphany. Peace and quiet returned, or at least so the villagers thought. But that afternoon passage would change their lives, and especially that of Disasi Makulo.

One week later, for the umpteenth time, Stanley asked a native what this river was called. For the first time he was told: “Ikuti ya Congo” (This is the Congo).5 A simple answer, but one which filled him with joy: now he knew for sure that he would not end up at the pyramids of Giza, but at the Atlantic. He soon began seeing the first Portuguese muskets as well. The attacks from the riverbanks tapered off, but malnutrition, heat, illness, fever, and rapids continued to take their toll on this historic crossing of Central Africa.

On August 9, 1877, more than six months after passing through Disasi’s homeland, to the extreme west of that vast area, near the sleepy trading post of Boma close to the Atlantic, an exhausted and emaciated white man dropped his things. No one knew that this bundle of starvation and misery was the first European to have followed the entire course of the Congo. Of the four white men who had left the east coast with him, Stanley was the only one who survived. Of the 224 members of the expedition, only ninety-two reached the west coast of Africa. It was a heroic journey, and one with far-reaching consequences: within the space of three years, from 1874 to 1877, Stanley had circumnavigated and mapped two gigantic lakes, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria; he had unraveled the complex hydrology of the Nile and the Congo and charted the watersheds of Africa’s two largest rivers; and he had carefully documented the course of the Congo and blazed a trail through equatorial Africa.6 The world would never be the same. Today, Stanley’s name is associated sooner with that one, awkward sentence—“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”—with which he tried to maintain Victorian decorum in the tropics, than with his much more impressive achievement, which would change forever the lives of hundreds of thousands in Central Africa.

THE PEOPLE in Disasi Makulo’s region thought they had seen a ghost. How could they know that many thousands of kilometers to the north there was a cold and rainy continent where, in the course of the last century, something as mundane as boiling water had changed history? They knew nothing of the industrial revolution that had altered the face of Europe. The existence of a society, largely agrarian as their own, which had suddenly acquired coal mines, smokestacks, stream locomotives, suburbs, incandescent lighting, and socialists, was beyond their ken. In Europe it was raining inventions and discoveries, but none of that had trickled down to Central Africa. It would have taken the large part of an afternoon to explain to them what a train was.

The forest inhabitants could not have dreamed that the industrialization set in motion by the power of steam would change not only Europe, but the whole world. More industry meant greater production, more goods, and so more competition for markets and natural resources. The circles within which a European factory did its buying and selling were expanding all the time. Regional became national, national became global. World trade was growing like never before. Around 1885 steamships replaced sailing ships on the long-distance routes. The tea drunk by a rich Liverpool family came from Ceylon. In Worcester, a sauce was made on an industrial scale using ingredients from India. Dutch ships carried printing presses to Java. And in South Africa, special ostriches were being raised so that women in Paris, London, and New York could wear large, bobbing feathers on their bonnets. The world was growing smaller and smaller, time was going faster and faster. And the nervous heartbeat of this new era could be heard everywhere in offices, train stations and border posts in the hectic tapping of the telegraph.

Industrialization definitely served the European powers’ expansive urge. In faraway places one found inexpensive raw materials and, with a bit of luck, even new customers. But that did not immediately lead to colonization. No one out to maximize operational profits would thinking of founding an expensive colony. Anyone swearing by the principles of free trade (and every industrialist did so in those days) would be loath to turn to anything as protectionist as an overseas territory. Industrialization alone, therefore, cannot explain the rise of colonialism. In purely commercial terms, a colony was not even necessary. In Central Africa, one could have gone on for a time trading bales of cotton for tusks. No, there was another element needed to make colonial fever break out, and that was nationalism.

It was the rivalry between European nation-states that caused them, from 1850, to pounce so promptly upon the rest of the world. Patriotism led to a craving for power, and that craving, in turn, to territorial gluttony. Italy and Germany had only recently become distinct, united nations and they found overseas territories something that befit their newly acquired status. France had been shamefully whipped by the Prussians in 1870 and attempted to remove the blot on its reputation with colonial adventures abroad, particularly in Asia and Western Africa. England derived great pride from its navy, which had ruled the world’s waves for decades, and from its empire, which stretched across the globe, from the West Indies to New Zealand. Proud tsarist Russia was interested in expansion as well, and set its sights on the Balkans, Persia, Afghanistan, Manchuria, and Korea.

The bitter struggle manifested itself in Asia before reaching Africa. Europeans had been familiar with that region much longer and knew that lucrative dealings lay in wait there. (They were still less sure about Africa.) By the time Disasi saw his first white man, in the person of Stanley, the British already controlled the entire Indian subcontinent with offshoots to Baluchistan in the west and Burma to the east. To the southeast the French were busy acquiring Indochina, which included the present-day Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The Dutch still ruled over the enormous island group that would later be called Indonesia, and had done so for more than two centuries. The Philippines were in Spanish hands, but would soon become American territory: the United States, a cluster of former British and French colonies, had itself become a colonial power. China and Japan resisted on all sides the pressure of Western colonizers, but were forced with great reluctance to sign treaties concerning trade tariffs, concessions, spheres of influence and protectorates. From 1850 the globalization that had begun in the sixteenth century entered a period of decisive acceleration. And it was the heady mix of industrialization with nationalism that would lead to the colonialism typical of the nineteenth century.

That applied most definitely to Central Africa too. At first the European interest in the region had been largely commercial. Until 1880 the players did not feel much of an urge to transform their economic activities into political ones. Colonies were not really called for. Without the rise of national rivalries in Europe, large parts of Central Africa would most probably have fallen under the political sway of Egypt and Zanzibar.7 That process was already under way. In the east, Tippo Tip and Msiri ruled over empires that owed allegiance to the sultan of Zanzibar. Farther north, al-Zubayr ran a huge area that was officially a province of the khedive of Egypt. In other words, the creation of an entity like “Congo” was anything but inevitable. Things could have gone very differently. The region was not predestined to become a single country. That Disasi would ever become a countryman of Nkasi, the old man I had met in Kinshasa, was not written in the stars. The two boys may have differed less than ten years in age, but one of them lived in the equatorial jungle and the other along the lower reaches of the Congo, some twelve hundred kilometers (about 750 miles) away. They spoke different languages, had different customs and knew absolutely nothing about each other’s culture. That they became compatriots was not due to them or to their parents, but was the result of envy in that mad, northern part of the world of which they had no cognizance.

No, the contemporaries of those two children could not have known that envy cropped up more often in Europe. And that it was precisely for that reason that the major nations had agreed in 1830 to the formation of a new, minuscule country. Belgium, as that ministate was called, had turned its back on the the United Kingdom of the Netherlands after a fifteen-year mariage de raison, and could still serve as a buffer between ambitious Prussia, powerful France, and proud England. It could, perhaps, even temper the mutual envy between those countries. That was how it had been viewed in 1815, too, after the Battle of Waterloo. For centuries, the region had served as a battlefield for the armies of Europe, and now it was to be a neutral zone for the promotion of peace. In 1830 it declared its independence. One big step for the Belgians, one small step for mankind. No one in Central Africa lost any sleep over it.

No one at all, in fact, had ever heard of Belgium. No one could imagine that the first king of that little country would soon sire a son who would bring to bear a most disturbing ambition. The father, a melancholic prince who became a widower at an early age, was satisfied enough with his kingship. But his overweening son, the future Leopold II, seemed to bridle at the limited territory over which he ruled. “Il faut à la Belgique une colonie” (Belgium must have a colony), he had engraved on a paperweight destined for the desk of his finance minister when he was only twenty-four. Precisely where that colony should be, that was less important. Even before assuming the throne, he had cast a wistful glance at Dutch Limburg, Constantinople, Borneo, Sumatra, Formosa (Taiwan), Tonkin (Vietnam), parts of China or Japan, the Philippines, a few islands in the Pacific or, if need be, a few islands in the Mediterranean (Rhodes, Cyprus). But from 1875 he fell under the spell of Central Africa. He devoured the reports sent back by explorers, licked his chops at the prospect of a glorious adventure, and daydreamed about a heroic enterprise. It was not merely personal ambition or megalomania, as is often claimed. No, Leopold believed with all his heart that an invigorating involvement abroad, wherever that might be, would benefit both the finances and the morale of the young Belgian nation. Whatever else may be said about him, he did it not only for himself, but also for people and fatherland. Fully in tune with his times, the young king effortlessly reconciled warm-blooded patriotism with coolly calculating commercialism.

In 1876 the impetuous young ruler brought together thirty-five explorers, geographers, and entrepreneurs from all over Europe to discuss the status of Central Africa. Officially, his intention was to halt the Afro-Arab slave trade and promote science, but those closest to him knew that he himself desired a healthy slice of “ce magnifique gateau africain” (this magnificent African cake).8 His outrage about the slave trade was, for that matter, selective: that Westerners had also dealt in human cargo until quite recently, and that some of them still continued with that even in his day, were things about which he remained silent. The meeting was to be an illustrious one. For four days, adventurers from all over Europe, men more commonly found poking about the tropics in sweat-soaked shirts, were his guests at the royal palace. They dined with the king and his wife and were driven through the streets of Brussels in chic coaches. Lovett Cameron was there, the man who had crossed Central Africa from east to west via the savanna south of the equatorial forest, as was Georg Schweinfurth, the maker of important discoveries on the savannas north of the jungle, and Samuel Baker, who had approached the region from the upper reaches of the Nile. During the previous few decades, awesome progress had been made in the exploration of Africa.

Until somewhere around 1800, the continent that lay closest to Europe was also the one most unfamiliar to Europeans. Since the sixteenth century, Portuguese, Dutch, and British merchants on their way to India had become more or less familiar with its coastlines, but for centuries the African interior remained terra incognita. The West’s presence went no further than a few European outposts on the west coast. At the start of the nineteenth century, Africa comprised one of the two blank spots on the map of the known world; the other was Antarctica. By then, the Amazon Basin had been largely charted.

Three-quarters of a century later, however, European cartographers knew with fair precision where the oases, caravan routes, and wadis of the Sahara lay. They had accurately localized the volcanoes, mountains and rivers in the savanna of Southern Africa. The sketches on their drawing tables filled rapidly with exotic place names and the descriptions of peoples. But the map pored over by the conferees in Brussels in 1876 contained one large, white spot in the middle. All of them had circled around it at some point. It looked like a nameless plain without words or color, a yawning chasm covering no less than one-eighth of the continent. At most, it contained the occasional, hesitant squiggle or dotted line. That spot, that was the equatorial jungle. That forlorn dotted line, that was the Congo River.

While the delegates in Brussels were talking and attending plays at the king’s expense, Stanley was making his crossing of Central Africa. On September 14, 1876, the day that Leopold officially closed the conference, Stanley left the western shore of Lake Tanganyika and advanced on the upper reaches of the Congo. If there was one day on which the political fate of the region was, if not sealed then certainly determined to a great extent, it was that one. It must have been the least of Stanley’s worries at that point (he was more concerned about the rain forest, the natives, and the slave drivers), but starting in on that stage of the journey would ultimately lead him to the mysterious river that guided him through the ostensibly impenetrable forest of Central Africa. That day in Brussels, the decision was made to set up an international association, the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA), in order to open up the area scientifically by means of establishing a number of outposts. The association had national committees, but its leader was Leopold.

In Europe, the news of Stanley’s crossing came as a bombshell. King Leopold understood immediately that Stanley was the man who could help him realize his colonial ambitions. He immediately sent two emissaries to Marseille to welcome him back to Europe in January 1878 and to invite him to the royal palace at Laeken. As an Englishman, however, Stanley first tried to interest Britain in his adventure, but when he was turned down in London he decided to accept Leopold’s invitation. The two men discussed plans at length. The king became so caught up in his enterprise that the queen began to wonder what would become of him “should he ruin himself with chasing after shadows.” The first secretary of the AIA complained to the queen: “Madame, let us stop this—I am unable to do anything else, all I do is argue with His Majesty, but he works behind my back with rogues. It is driving me mad! And the King is bringing himself to ruin, but then completely.”9 It was to no avail. The king had his way: in 1879, Stanley left again for Central Africa, now at Leopold’s expense, for a period of five years. This time the explorer was going to travel in the opposite direction, from west to east, upstream. But that was not the only difference. Stanley’s journey from 1879 to 1884 was fundamentally different from that from 1874 to 1877. On that first occasion he was commissioned by a newspaper; now he had been hired by Leopold’s international association. The first time he had set out to cross Africa as quickly as possible; this time he was charged with establishing outposts here and there along the way—a time-consuming business. He had to parley with local chieftains and man the stations as well. The first time he had been an adventurer and a journalist, now he was a diplomat and official.

DISASI MAKULO TURNED TEN, then twelve, and began hearing more and more about a new tribe, the “Batambatamba.” The older children and adults spoke of them in fear and horror. Batambatamba was no ethnic name, but an echoism that designated the Afro-Arab traders. They had arrived in his region now, the farthest west they would ever come. In his village he heard the stories: “We have seen people who walk to and fro; they carry a kind of hollow stick, when they strike it you hear a sound, Bam Bam, and grains come out of it that wound people and kill them. Terrible!”10

Still, it all seemed very far away, as bizarre as that story about the albino and his boat without rowers. One day, Disasi Makulo’s parents let him go off with his aunt and uncle.11 It was 1883, but the years still had no numbers.

It was very hot that day. When we came to a river called Lohulu, between Makoto and Bandio, my uncle and I decided to bathe. My Aunt Inangbelema waited for us a little further along. While we were swimming and splashing each other cheerfully, the Batambatamba heard us and surrounded us. My aunt was singing lullabies to soothe her crying baby. None of us were thinking of possible danger.

Suddenly there was a scream. “Help! Help! Brother Akambu, the warriors are attacking me . . . .”

We jumped out of the river and saw that my aunt had already been seized by our enemies. One of the attackers pulled the baby out of her hands and laid it on a red ants’ nest. We were so shocked that none of us could get to him. Uncle Akambu and my little cousin ran away and hid in the bushes. I remained at a distance, to see what they would do to my aunt. Unfortunately, one of the men spotted me. He ran after me and caught me. Then my Uncle Akambu and my cousin were captured as well.

Until that hideous day, Disasi’s life had taken place in his village and a few nearby settlements. Now he was brutally torn away from those familiar surroundings. Stanley’s journey, and his deal with Tippo Tip in particular, had opened up the equatorial forest to Afro-Arab slave hunters. That resulted in a wave of violence. The Batambatamba plundered villages and put them to the torch, they murdered, and they took prisoners. The local inhabitants in turn painted their faces and attacked the foreigners’ camps at night, slaughtering the intruders with their spears amid loud war cries.

Disasi’s assailants were probably slaves themselves, plundering on their master’s behalf. Disasi would soon meet that master, a man who traveled through the jungle in a spotless white robe: Tippo Tip! He probably also saw Salum ben Mohammed, Tippo’s cousin and close associate.12 The fresh slaves were assembled at the village of Yamokanda.

Here one could buy back prisoners. Many prisoners were let go because their parents brought ivory. My father came with a few tusks as well, but Tippo Tip told him that it was not enough for four people. He let my Uncle Akambu, my Aunt Inangbelema and my little cousin go. Concerning me, he told them: “Go home and come back with two more tusks.” I remained behind, along with the other prisoners who had not been bought back.

The slave driver in question, however, decided not to wait and left that very same day. The adult prisoners were shackled, the children were not. Huge canoes were waiting along the banks of the Aruwimi. “All you could hear during that ghastly cruise was the sound of weeping and sobbing.” Disasi knew he was leaving his home ground and could no longer be bought back. Later he heard that his father had returned to the camp with the ivory, as demanded, but that the caravan had already left.

The trip eastward was not a fortunate one. “For us, that journey downriver was nothing but a departure towards death, although they told us that they wanted to protect us and make us like them.” That latter statement was not meant cynically. The slaves of the Afro-Arab traders were not sent to huge cotton or sugar cane plantations, as in America. Some of them would go to gather cloves in Zanzibar, but most of them would serve as domestic slaves to wealthy Muslims, in places as far away as India. Many converted to Islam and climbed the social ladder. A start was made on their conversion during the journey itself.

One day something strange happened to us. While our mwalimu [teacher] was teaching us to read the Koran, we saw downstream something like very large canoes coming in our direction. There were three of them. Everyone, both we and the locals, were startled, because we believed that these were new assailants coming upstream to murder and plunder as well. The locals fled in their canoes, to hide on the little islands in the river, others of them disappeared into the forest immediately. We remained where we were, our gazes fixed on those strange canoes. Before long they moored along the banks. We saw white men and black men getting off: it was Stanley with a few whites, on his way to establish a post in Kisangani [Stanleyville]. Stanley was no stranger to the people along the banks. The Lokele called him “Bosongo,” meaning “albino.”

Stanley was indeed traveling with three steamboats. He was carrying out King Leopold’s orders to establish stations here and there and negotiate with local chieftains. It was during this journey that he noted that his crossing had opened up the interior not only to Western trade and civilization, but also to the slave drivers from the east, who were moving farther downriver all the time. It was then that he realized that the Arab traders could very well beat him to the punch and arrive at the river’s lower reaches in no time. They had now come to just below Stanley Falls (Kisangani); soon they could be at Stanley Pool (Kinshasa). If that happened, Leopold’s plans could be relegated to the rubbish bin. It was during this journey that he realized what he was up against: the slave traders had dozens of canoes and a few thousand troops. He had three little boats and a few dozen helpers.13

In Disasi’s area, Stanley saw along the banks only burned villages and charred huts, “the remains of once- populous settlements, scorched banana plantations and felled palms . . . all bearing equal testimony to merciless destructiveness.” Further along he saw the slave camps beside the river. In late November 1883 he arrived at the camp where Disasi was being held:

The first general impressions are that the camp is much too densely peopled for comfort. There are rows upon rows of dark nakedness, relieved here and there by the white dresses of the captors. There are lines or groups of naked forms, standing or moving about listlessly; naked bodies are stretched under the sheds in all positions; naked legs innumerable are seen in the positions of prostrate sleepers; there are countless naked children, many mere infants, forms of boyhood and girlhood, and occasionally a drove of absolutely naked old women bending under a basket of fuel, or cassava tubers, or bananas, who are driven through the moving groups by two or three musketeers.14

First he went to establish a post at Stanley Falls, but on December 10, 1883, he returned to the slave camp. Little Disasi witnessed a remarkable scene. “Tippo Tip went to meet Stanley. After a long talk in an incomprehensible language, Tippo Tip called out to our overseer. He gathered us together and brought us over to the two gentlemen.” Disasi had no idea what was going on. Once the discussion was over, Stanley’s men fetched two rolls of cloth and a few bags of salt from the ship’s hold. His Koran teacher told him, with pain in his heart, that this white man wanted to buy him and his companions. Stanley took eighteen children with him.15 Militarily, he was too weak to take any action against the Batambatamba. The only thing left was for him to take the fate of a few children to heart. He bought them away.

A new phase in Disasi’s life began. The atmosphere on board was cheerful. “We shout, we laugh, we tell stories. No one has a rope around his neck and we are not treated like animals, as we were when we were with the Arabs.” But it would be too simple to state that Stanley had freed them from slavery. Traditionally, slavery in Central Africa was seen principally as a matter not of robbing you of your freedom, but of uprooting you from your social setting.16 It was gruesome, to be sure, but for reasons other than commonly assumed. In a society so characterized by social feeling, “the autonomy of the individual” did not equal liberty at all, as Europeans had been proclaiming since the Renaissance, but loneliness and desperation. You are who you know; if no one knows you, you are nothing. Slavery was not being subjugated, it was being separated, from home. Disasi had been uprooted from his surroundings and would remain uprooted. He valued Stanley therefore not so much as his liberator, but as a new and better master.

Never was that clearer than on the next day, when he sailed past his home ground again. Disasi thought Stanley would return him to his parents, but to his surprise the boat did not slow. “That’s where we live! That’s where we live!” he shouted. “Take me back to my father!” But Stanley spoke, as Disasi would recall a lifetime further along:

My children, do not be afraid. I did not buy you in order to harm you, but in order that you might know true happiness and prosperity. You have all seen how the Arabs treat your parents and even little children. I cannot let you return home, because I do not want you to become like them, cruel savages who do not know the True Lord. Do not mourn the loss of your parents. I will find other parents for you who will treat you well and teach you many good things; later you will be like us.

Having said that, Stanley immediate cut a roll of cloth into pieces and gave each child a loincloth, so that they would be decently clothed. “That present pleased us,” Disasi recounted, “and his goodness made us feel his fatherly love already.”17

Meeting Stanley constituted a drastic turn in Disasi Makulo’s life. For many of his contemporaries, however, there were very few changes at all. The men continued to burn off their plots, the women planted corn and manioc, fishermen mended their nets, old people talked in the shade, and children caught grasshoppers. Everything seemed to go on the way it always had.

Yet that was only the surface. Those who had actually seen those peculiar Europeans were often deeply impressed. These shabby men showed up to buy a few chickens and spent the afternoon talking to the village chieftain, but they did all they could to make an impression on the local population. Mirrors, magnifying glasses, sextants, compasses, timepieces, and theodolites were produced intentionally, for effect. That did not always result in enthusiasm. In some villages, people believed that the death by natural causes of some inhabitants could be blamed on the strange thermometers and barometers demonstrated by the white men.18 Awe was mingled with suspicion. Only later would this lead to large-scale violence, when the local population was subjected to European authority by force of arms.

There was often doubt about whether these Europeans were actually common mortals. The shoes they wore made it seem as though they had no toes. And because white, in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, was the color of death (the color of human bones, of termites, of tusks), they almost had to come from the land of the dead. They were seen as white ghosts with magical powers over life and death, men who popped open umbrellas, and could bring down an animal at a hundred yards. The Bangala referred to Stanley as Midjidji, the spirit; the Bakongo called him Bula matari, the stonebreaker, because he could blow up rocks with dynamite. Later, the term Bula matari would also be used to refer to the colonial regime. In Disasi Makulo’s village too, he was seen as a phantom. E. J. Glave, one of Stanley’s helpers, was first referred to as Barimu, ghost, and later asMakula, arrows. The Bangala gave Herbert Ward, another helper, the nickname Nkumbe, black hawk, because he was such a skilled hunter.

And the way these white people moved from place to place was so peculiar as well. By steamboat! The Bangala who lived along the river in the interior thought these travelers ruled over the water and that their boats were drawn by huge fish or hippos. After a parley, when they saw the white man disappear into the hold to fetch pearls, cloth, or copper bars, they thought he had a special door in the ship’s hull through which he could descend to the bottom of the river and collect these means of payment.19

A first wave of evangelization followed immediately in the wake of exploration. It was carried out by Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian Protestants who had started on the west coast right after Stanley’s crossing. The Livingstone Inland Mission began its proselytization in 1878, starting from the mouth of the Congo. In 1879 the Baptist Missionary Society set out from its base at the Portuguese colony to the south, the Svenska Mission Förbunet began in 1881, and the American Baptists and Methodists followed in 1884 and 1886. Two French Roman Catholic congregations were also active from 1880: the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit in the west and the White Fathers (Society of Missionaries of Africa) in the east. Such undertakings were anything but without risk. Anyone setting out for Central Africa in those days knew that it could be the death of them. Sleeping sickness and malaria took a heavy toll. The British Baptist Thomas Comber lost his wife only a few weeks after they arrived in Central Africa. He himself would later die of a tropical illness as well, as would his two brothers, his sister, and his sister-in-law: six members of a single family. A third of all Baptist missionaries sent out between 1879 and 1900 died in the tropics.20 With no prospects of financial gain or worldly power, the first missionaries were truly deeply devout people who saw it as their duty to let others share in the truth that possessed them so completely.

When it came to impressing people, the early missionaries had their own bag of tricks. This was advisable, particularly in those areas that had been in contact with the white man for some time. The ivory trade had had more consequences than prosperity alone. In 1878, when the British Baptists George Grenfell and Thomas Comber headed north as the first white missionaries from the Portuguese colony, they stumbled upon the town of Makuta, halfway between Mbanza-Kongo in Angola and the Congo River. The local chieftain didn’t like the newcomers’ looks.

Ah, so they haven’t come to buy ivory! Well then, what do they want? To teach us about God! About dying, more likely. We already have more than enough of that: the deaths in my city go on and on. They must not come here. If we allow the white man in, that will be the end of us. It’s bad enough that they are on the coast. The ivory traders already take far too many spirits away in the tusks, and they sell them; we are dying too quickly. It would have been better if the whites had not come to cast a spell over me.21

Although one of the two men would later suffer a gunshot wound at Makuta, the Protestant evangelists—thanks in part to the miracle of technology—succeeded elsewhere in winning the hearts and minds of the local population. To the chief of the Bakongo, British Baptists displayed a number of mechanical toys. In addition to a wind-up mouse, they also showed him what they called a “dancing nigger,” a mechanical doll that played the fiddle and hopped about.22 Merriment and awe were guaranteed. Music boxes were another fine example. But the cleverest of all were the slide shows, depicting scenes from the Bible, that some missionaries projected at night with the help of magic lanterns. For the native population, such things must have seemed absolutely out of this world.23

Talking with Nkasi in his stifling room about those first pioneers was a mindboggling experience. The conversation went in fits and starts; all I received were wisps of memory, but the fact that more than a century later he still recalled the arrival of white missionaries indicated how very special those wisps were. In reference to the British Baptists he had spoken quite precisely of “English Protestants who came to Congo from Mbanza-Kongo in Angola.” He mentioned the mission posts at Palabala and Lukunga, both founded by the Livingstone Inland Mission and transferred to the American Baptist Missionary Union in 1884. He also remembered “Mister Ben,” as I jotted down phonetically in my notepad. Later I discovered that this must have been Alexander L. Bain, an American Baptist particularly active in the area from 1893 on.24 But most of all he talked about “Mister Wells” or “Welsh,” mister and not monsieur, for French was not yet spoken in Congo. “I saw him at the Protestant mission at Lukunga. He was an English missionary who gave us lessons. He lived with his wife in Palabala, close to Matadi.”

For a long time, I wondered who that man might have been. Was it the American Welch, a follower of the energetic American Methodist bishop William Taylor, who established three missions in the area in 1886 (although not at Palabala or Lukunga)?25 Or was “Mister Welsh” the nickname of William Hughes, a British Baptist who had manned the Bayneston mission post in the same area from 1882 to 1885?26 Finally I arrived at Ernest T. Welles, an American Baptist who had sailed for Congo in 1896 and who had translated Bible passages into Kikongo as early as 1898. He had to be the one. He was a direct colleague of Mister Bain and turned out to have been associated with the Lukunga mission for a time. In his letters home he wrote about native assistants who had helped him print his Bible translations.27 That was interesting. Nkasi, after all, had told me that his father’s youngest brother had worked for that missionary. Those first evangelists, in any case, made an indelible impression on the young Nkasi. What he still remembered best was their simplicity and friendliness. “Mister Wells,” he mused during one of our talks, “went everywhere on foot, he was extremely kind.”

JANUARY 1884. Stanley had been preparing his journey home for weeks. The eighteen children he had with him he distributed among the stations established on his way upriver, such as Wangata and Lukolela. Disasi Makulo and one of his young comrades were the last on board, and wondered what was going to happen to them. Finally they arrived at the “pool,” where the river widened and Stanley had established the Kinshasa station. He had left the running of that station in the hands of his faithful friend Anthony Swinburne, a young man of twenty-six who had traveled with him for a decade. It was to Swinburne’s care that Disasi and his friend were entrusted. Saying farewell to Stanley was hard: “From the first day of our liberation to the moment of farewell, he had been a father to us, full of benevolence,” Disasi wrote. In our day Stanley is often criticized as an archracist, a reputation he owes to his hyperbolic writing style and his association with Leopold II. In fact, however, his attitude was much more nuanced.28 He had great admiration for many Africans, maintained deep and sincere friendships with a number of them, and was greatly loved by many. His combination of kidnapping and bargain hunting was, of course, highly idiosyncratic, but he seems to have been sincerely concerned with the welfare of the children he had bought out of slavery. Disasi recounted:

Mister Swinburne received us with open arms. What Stanley had predicted proved true. Here we found ourselves in a situation that in no way differed from what a good father and a good mother offer their children. We were fed well and clothed well. During his free hours, he taught us to read and write.29

That Swinburne had any free hours whatsoever is little short of a miracle. Within only a few years he had developed Kinshasa into the best of all stations along the Congo. It lay close to the river, among the baobabs. He had bananas, plantain, pineapple, and guava planted nearby, as well as rice and European vegetables. He kept cows, sheep, goats, and poultry. The air was fresh and healthy. The station was known as the Paradise of the Pool.30 His clay house had a grass roof and three bedrooms. The verandah around it was a place where people came to eat and read. Behind Swinburne’s house were the huts of his Zanzibaris. The stations of that day were often no more than a simple dwelling inhabited by a white man. It served to assist travelers, promote scientific research, disseminate civilization, and, if at all possible, do away with slavery. In practice, it was actually a sort of minicolony aimed at exercising a certain authority over the surrounding region. Little islands of Europe. The Zanzibaris made up its standing army. There was, as yet, nothing like a general occupation of the interior.

Behind Swinburne’s station began a huge plain, bordered on the horizon by hills. Today this is the site of one Africa’s biggest cities; in the nineteenth century it was a marshy area full of buffalo, antelopes, ducks, partridges, and quail. On the drier stretches the villagers raised manioc, peanuts, and sweet potatoes. Their villages were a few kilometers away. Swinburne was on very good terms with the local population. His patience and tact made him not just respected, but loved. He spoke their language and they called him the “father of the river.” Yet he was not, when he deemed it necessary, shy about intervening. When a local chieftain would die, for example, he would regularly do his best to prevent the man’s slaves and wives from being killed and buried along with him. This greatly amazed the villagers: how could anyone worthy of the name of chieftain be allowed to arrive all alone in the kingdom of the dead?

In order to set up a station, Stanley and his helpers first had to establish contracts with the local chiefs. That was the way European traders at the Congo’s mouth had been doing it for centuries. They rented plots of land in exchange for a periodic payment. Swinburne, too, had closed several such contracts, often after palavering for days. Starting in 1882, however, Leopold grew impatient. His international philanthropic association had meanwhile been transformed into a private trading company with international stakeholders: the Comité d’Études du Haut-Congo (CEHC). The king ordered his agents to obtain larger concessions, within a much shorter period, and preferably for perpetuity. Rather than carry out lengthy negotiations to rent a plot of land, they now had to quickly buy up entire areas. And even that was not enough: Leopold wanted to purchase not only the ground, but also all rights to that ground. His commercial initiative had become a clearly political project: Leopold dreamed of a confederation of native rulers fully dependent on him. In a letter to one of his employees, he made his aims perfectly clear: “The text of the treaties Stanley has signed with the chieftains does not please me. It should at least contain an article stating that they relinquish their sovereign rights to those territories . . . . This effort is important and urgent. The treaties must be as brief as possible and, in the space of one or two articles, assign all rights to us.”31

As a result, Stanley’s helpers entered into real treaty-making campaigns. They went from one village chieftain to the next, armed with Leopold’s marching orders and terse contracts. Some of them lost no time in doing so. During the first six weeks of 1884, Francis Vetch, a British army major, established no less than thirty-one treaties. Belgian agents like Van Kerckhoven and Delcommune both signed nine such contracts in a single day. Within less than four years, four hundred treaties were established. They were written without exception in French or English, languages the chieftains did not understand. Within an oral tradition in which important agreements were sealed with blood brotherhood, the chiefs often did not understand the import of the cross they made at the bottom of a page filled with strange squiggles. And even if they had been able to read the texts, they would not have been familiar with concepts of European property and constitutional law like “sovereignty,” “exclusivity,” and “perpetuity.” They probably thought they were confirming ties of friendship. But those treaties did very much indeed stipulate that they, as chieftain, surrendered all their territory, along with all subordinate rights to paths, fishing, toll keeping, and trade. In exchange for that cross the chieftains received from their new white friends bales of cloth, crates of gin, military coats, caps, knives, a livery uniform, or a coral necklace. From now on the banner of Leopold’s association would fly over their village: a blue field with a yellow star. The blue referred to the darkness in which they wandered, the yellow to the light of civilization that was now coming their way. Those are the dominant colors in the Congolese flag even today.

The reason behind Leopold’s sudden haste could be traced, once again, to rivalry among the European states. He was afraid that others would beat him to the punch. And some of them did. To the south, the Portuguese were still asserting their rights to their old colony. And to the north, Savorgnan de Brazza had begun in 1880 to establish similar treaties with local chieftains. Brazza was an Italian officer in the service of the French army, officially charged with setting up two scientific stations on the right bank of the Congo. France itself took part in the Association Internationale Africaine chaired by Leopold, and those two stations were the French contribution to the king’s initiative. But Brazza was also a fanatical French patriot who, at the behest of no nation whatsoever, was busy establishing a colony for his beloved France: it would later become the republic of Congo-Brazzaville.32 By 1882 people in Europe had begun to realize that someone was independently buying up large sections of Central Africa. That led to great consternation. Leopold had no choice but to act.

An Italian personally buying pieces of Africa for France, and an Englishman, Stanley, buying others for the Belgian king: it was called diplomacy, but it was a gold rush. In May 1884 Brazza crossed the Congo with four canoes in an attempt to win Kinshasa for himself. But there he ran into Swinburne, the agent with whom Disasi had now been living for the last four months. Brazza tried to make the local village chieftain a higher bid and so nullify the earlier agreement, but that resulted in an unholy row. There was a brusque discussion with Swinburne, followed by a scuffle with the chieftain’s two sons and Brazza’s hasty departure. For Leopold’s enterprise, the loss of Kinshasa would have been disastrous. It was not only the best but also the most important of his stations; it was located at a crossing of the trade routes, a place where boats moored and caravans left, where the interior communicated with the coast. The import of the incident with Brazza was almost certainly lost on Disasi, but for generations to come it remained vitally important: the area to the north and west of the river would become a French colony, known as French Congo; the area to the south would remain in Leopold’s hands.

Yet still, this episode highlighted a major weakness. In military terms, Stanley could easily deal with someone like Brazza—he had troops and Krupp cannons, while Brazza traveled virtually alone—but as long as Stanley’s outposts were not recognized by the other European powers, not a round could be fired.33 Leopold knew that too. Starting in 1884 he devoted himself to a diplomatic offensive unparalleled in the history of the Belgian monarchy: the drive for international recognition for his private initiative in Central Africa.

Leopold cast about in search of a masterstroke. And found it.

Central Africa was at that point exciting the ambitions of many parties. Portugal and England were quibbling over who was allowed to settle where on the coast. The Swahilo-Arab traders were advancing from the east. A recently unified Germany hankered after colonial territory in Africa (and would ultimately acquire what was later Cameroon, Namibia, and Tanzania). But Leopold’s biggest rival was still France, that much was clear. That country, in the face of all expectations, had finally been rash enough to accept Brazza’s personal annexations, even though it had not asked for them in the first place. Brazza had gone too far. Leopold could have turned his back on France in anger, but instead the king decided to calmly seize the bull by the horns. His proposal: would France allow him to go about his business in the area recently opened up by Stanley, on condition that—in the event of an eventual debacle—it be granted the droit de préemption (right of first refusal) over his holdings? It was an offer too good for the French to refuse. The chance that Leopold would fail, after all, was quite real. It was as though a young man had discovered an abandoned castle and set about restoring it with his own hands. To the neighbor he says: if it becomes too costly for me, you’ll have the first option! The neighbor is all too pleased to hear that. It was a brilliant coup de poker, and one that would also impact other parts of Europe. The agreement took Portugal down a notch or two; obstructing Leopold might mean it would suddenly find itself with mighty France as its African neighbor. The British, on the other hand, were quite charmed by the guarantee of free trade that Leopold presented so casually.

The mounting competition over Africa between European states called for a new set of rules. That was why Otto von Bismarck, master of the youngest but also the most powerful state in continental Europe, summoned the superpowers of that day to meet in Berlin. The Berlin Conference ran from November 15, 1884, to February 26, 1885. Tradition has it that Africa was divided then and there, and that Leopold had Congo tossed in his lap. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The conference was not the place where courtly gentlemen with compass and straightedge convivially divided African among themselves. Their aim, in fact, was the complete opposite: to open Africa up to free trade and civilization. To do that, new international agreements were needed. The drawn-out conflict between Portugal and England concerning the mouth of the Congo made that clear enough. Two important principles were established: first, a country’s claims to a territory could be based only on effective occupation (discovering an area andleaving it to lie fallow, as Portugal had done for centuries, was no longer sufficient); second, all newly acquired areas must remain open to free international trade (no country was to be allowed to impose trade barriers, transit charges, or import or export duties). In practical terms, as Leopold would soon notice, this meant that colonization became very expensive. In order to allow free access to merchants from other countries, one had to invest a great deal in one’s effective occupation. But although the criteria of effective occupation did speed up the “scramble for Africa,” no definitive divvying up of the continent took place as of yet. The delegates to the conference met no more than ten times over a period of more than three months; Leopold himself, in fact, never made it to Berlin.

In the corridors and backrooms, however, any number of arrangements were made. Multilateral diplomacy was practiced during the plenary meetings, but bilateral diplomacy set the tone during coffee breaks. Before the conference even started, the United States recognized Leopold’s Central African claim. It accepted his flag and his authority over the newly acquired territory. Yet that sounds more impressive than it actually was. The America of that day was not the international heavyweight it would become during the twentieth century, and it had no interests whatsoever in Africa. Of much greater importance was the German stance. Bismarck considered Leopold’s plan quite insane. The Belgian king was laying claims to an area as large as Western Europe, but he held only a handful of stations along the river. It was a string of beads, with very few beads and a lot of string, to say nothing of the enormous blank spots to the left and right of it. Could this be called an “effective occupation”? But, oh well, as ruler of a little country Leopold hardly posed much of a risk. Besides, he was anything but impecunious and he was terribly enthusiastic. What’s more, he guaranteed free trade (something you could never be sure of with the French and Portuguese) and pledged to extend his protection to German traders in the area. After all, Bismarck figured, perhaps the territory was indeed an ideal buffer zone between the Portuguese, French, and British claims to the region. Rather like Belgium itself in 1830, in other words, but then on a much larger scale. It might make for a bit of peace and quiet. He signed.

The other countries at the conference could do little but follow the host’s lead. Their recognition was not granted at a formal moment during the plenary session itself, but throughout the course of the conference. With the exception of Turkey, all fourteen states agreed: that included England, which had no desire to cross Germany on the eve of an important agreement concerning the Niger. Later, more or less accidentally, the conference even agreed to the vast boundaries of which Leopold had been dreaming. And so Leopold’s latest association, the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC), was internationally recognized as holding sovereign authority over an enormous section of Central Africa. The AIA had been strictly scientific-philanthropic in nature, and the CEHC commercial, but the AIC was overtly political. It possessed a tiny, but crucial, stretch of Atlantic coastline (the mouth of the Congo), a narrow corridor to the interior bordered by French and Portuguese colonies, and then an area that expanded like a funnel, thousands of kilometers to the north and south, coming to a halt only fifteen hundred kilometers (over nine hundred miles) to the east, beside the Great Lakes. It resembled a trumpet with a very short lead pipe and a very large bell. The result was a gigantic holding that was in no way in keeping with Leopold’s actual presence. The great Belgian historian Jean Stengers said: “With a bit of imagination one could compare the establishment of the state of Congo with a situation in which an individual or association would set up a number of stations along the Rhine, from Rotterdam to Basel, and thereby obtain sovereignty over all of Western Europe.”34

At the close of the Berlin Conference, when Bismarck “contentedly hailed” Leopold’s work and extended his best wishes “for a speedy development and for the achievement of the illustrious founder’s noble ambitions,” the audience rose to its feet and cheered for the Belgian ruler. With that applause, they celebrated the creation of the Congo Free State.

Shortly after gaining control over Congo, Leopold received a visit at his palace from a British missionary who brought with him nine black children, boys and girls of twelve or thirteen, all contemporaries of Disasi. They came from his brand-new colony and wore European clothing: dress shoes, red gloves, and a beret—their nakedness had to be covered. They were, however, allowed to sing and dance, the way they did during canoe trips. The king, his legs crossed, watched from his throne. When they were finished singing he gave each child a gold coin and paid for their journey back to London.35

Meanwhile, ignorant of all this, Disasi Makulo was sitting on Swinburne’s veranda in Kinshasa, practicing his alphabet. The weather was lovely and cool. A slight breeze blew across the water. He saw steamboats and canoes glide across the Pool. On the far shore lay the settlement of Brazzaville, by then part of a different colony that would, from 1891 on, be called the French Congo. How his life had changed, in only eighteen months! First a child, then a slave, now a boy. No one had experienced the great course of history firsthand the way he had. He had been uprooted and borne along on the current of world politics, like a young tree by a powerful river. And it was not nearly over yet.

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