Modern history

MAP 4: CONGO FREE STATE, 1885–1908




Congo Under Leopold II


ON JUNE 1, 1885, KING LEOPOLD II AWOKE IN HIS PALACE AT Laeken a different man: in addition to being king of Belgium, from that day on he was also sovereign of a new state, the Congo Free State. That latter entity would continue to exist for precisely twenty-three years, five months, and fifteen days: on November 15, 1908, it was transformed into a Belgian colony. Congo began, in other words, not as a colony, but as a state, and one of the most peculiar ever seen in sub-Saharan Africa.

To start with, its head of state lived more than six thousand kilometers (about 3,700 miles) to the north, a four-week journey by ship from his empire—a journey that he himself, by the way, never undertook. From his investiture in 1885 to his death in 1909, Leopold II never set foot in his Congo. In view of the inherent risks to personal health engendered by such a journey at the time, that is hardly surprising. The heads of state of other European powers did not travel to their recently acquired holdings in Central Africa either. The more curious fact is that the Belgian king, unlike his colleagues, was the complete and absolute ruler over his overseas territory. Kaiser William I, Queen Victoria, and Jules Grévy, president of France’s Third Republic, also ruled over vast stretches of Africa in 1885, but none of them owned those areas personally. Their colonial policies were not a private matter but a government affair, watched over by parliament (chamber of deputies) and cabinet. But the Belgian king ruled over the new state in a personal capacity.

Officially, the Kingdom of Belgium at that point still had nothing to do with Congo; it only happened to share a head of state with that remote tropical backwater. In Belgium, Leopold was a constitutional monarch with limited powers; in Congo he was an absolute ruler. This extremely personalized regime made him more closely resemble a fifteenth-century king of the Kongo Empire than a modern European monarch. And he acted as though he truly did own this empire of his.

Leopold’s acquisition of so much power, incidentally, took place almost by sleight of hand. The European superpowers had not recognized him, but his Association Internationale du Congo, as sovereign administrator over the Congo basin. Yet when he abandoned that paper tiger for what it was after the Berlin Conference and began behaving ostentatiously as ruler of the Congo Free State, no one seemed to protest. People saw him as a great philanthropist with a great many ideals and even more means at his disposal.

On the ground, however, things went quite differently. His ideals turned out to be rather pecuniary, his means often extremely shaky. At first, the Congo Free State existed only on paper. Even by the end of the nineteenth century, Leopold had no more than fifty stations, each of which ruled—in theory, at least—over a territory the size of the Netherlands. In actual practice, large parts of the territory eluded his effective occupation. Katanga was still largely in the hands of Msiri, Tippo Tip was still lord and master to the east, and various native leaders refused to bow to his authority. Until the very end of the Free State itself, the number of representatives of his government remained limited. By 1906 there were only fifteen hundred European state officials among a total of three thousand whites (the rest were missionaries and traders) in the country.1

Indicative of the sketchy state of affairs was that no one knew exactly where the borders of Leopold’s empire lay. Least of all Leopold himself. When it came to those borders, he had a tendency to change his mind. Before the Berlin Conference that, of course, was understandable: nothing had as yet been fixed. On August 7, 1884, he, along with Stanley, had drawn up a preliminary sketch of the future territory at the royal villa in Oostende. Stanley unfolded the very tenuous map he had made after his African crossing, a large blank roll showing only the Congo River and its hundreds of shoreline villages. It was to this sheet of paper that the king and Stanley added a few hastily penciled lines. It could almost not have been more arbitrary. There was no natural entity, no historical inevitability, no metaphysical fate that predestined the inhabitants of this area to become compatriots. There were only two white men, one with a mustache, the other with a beard, meeting on a summer afternoon somewhere along the North Sea coast to connect in red pencil a few lines on a big piece of paper. Nevertheless, it was that map that Bismarck would approve is a few weeks later and that would set in motion the process of international recognition.

On December 24, 1884, the king pulled out his pencil once again. He was on the verge of losing to the French the area to the north of the Congo’s mouth, a region for which he had entertained great hopes and that he would surrender only with pain in his heart. As compensation, on that dark day before Christmas, he set about annexing another area: Katanga. Quite literally, annexation in this case meant poring over a map and thinking, like that mythical first landowner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s: “Ceci est à moi” (This belongs to me). Not a single soldier was involved. It was a game of Risk, not of Blitz. So Katanga it was, Katanga it would have to be. Leopold was not particularly delighted. Katanga consisted of savanna, with less ivory to be found than in the rain forest. Only decades later would it become clear that the earth there abounded in ores and minerals. But Leopold simply doodled it into the picture.

In 1885 France and England approved the new borders. Which is not at all to say, however, that they would be incontestable from then on. During the twenty years that followed, a great many territorial disputes would arise: with France about Ubangi, with England about Katanga, and with Portugal about Luanda, the area that bordered on Angola. And as though that were not enough, during the first years of the Free State, Leopold tried to press on to the headwaters of the Zambezi River, to Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, and the headwaters of the Nile, in fact to the whole area to the east of his holdings. His lust for land was insatiable. Why all the hurry? His African state was still extremely shaky. Wouldn’t it have been better for him to clean up his own internal backyard before thinking about moving on to something else? After all, his means were considerable but they were not inexhaustible, were they? All true enough, but Leopold realized that soon there would no more opportunities for new acquisitions in Central Africa. An understandable concern. As easily as he had swept together hundreds of thousands of square kilometers before 1885, as ploddingly did that go afterward. Until 1900 he kept alive the hope of further expansion, but none of his plans succeeded. He had his sights set on the Nile in particular, and even made a grab for the Sudan, where he apparently hoped to become a new-fangled pharaoh. But Uganda and Eritrea attracted him as well. And meanwhile, outside of Africa, he also lay in wait to appropriate the Philippines or parts of China . . . .

Congo’s definitive borders would be established only in 1910. But then what is definitive? In 1918 the map was altered anew when Belgium received Rwanda and Burundi (formerly part of German East Africa) as mandated territories. During World War I, the eastern border had already been tampered with. A piece of Katanga was added in 1927. And even as late as 2007, discussions were still going on concerning the exact border between Congo and Angola.

TODAY, THE CONGO FREE STATE is notorious not so much for its vague borders as for its crushing regime. And rightly so. Along with the turbulent years before and after 1960, the year of independence, and the decade between 1996 and 2006, that period is seen as the bloodiest in the nation’s history. But during the first few years, there was none of that. From 1885 to 1890 history ran its course in relative calm. Europeans were still engaged primarily in trading in ivory, and made use of the stations established by Stanley beginning in 1879. The governing of the state itself remained a rather minimalist affair.

Yet things were not all sweetness and light. Some areas were marked by outspoken native resistance to the new authorities, but that resistance did not essentially differ from what had been seen in the past. Expeditions were attacked, local chieftains refused to fly the newcomers’ flag, and they besieged government stations. It was hardly coincidental that these acts of resistance took place largely in areas on the periphery, such as Kwango in the southwestern Congo, parts of Katanga in the south, and Uélé to the northeast. There the traditional power structures had been less eroded by the turbulent events along the river, there one still had relatively robust empires. Which were, as that is called, then forcefully “pacified.”2

Leopold II invested a great deal of his own money in expanding his state, particularly in the new outposts, which helped to extend his grasp on the territory. It constituted, however, an extremely light form of governance. He set up no bureaucratic state apparatus, but only created the minimum conditions needed to allow free trade to flourish. Costs were to be kept as low and profits as high as possible. His imperialism was based on decidedly economic motives. The revenues for which he hoped were not meant to develop the Free State, but to be funneled off to Brussels. Later that was often seen as avarice, and not entirely without good reason. Yet it is only part of the story. Leopold used one of his states, Congo, to provide the other, Belgium, with new élan. He dreamed of economic prosperity, social stability, political grandeur, and national pride. In Belgium, that is—near was his shirt, but nearer yet his skin. To reduce one’s view of his enterprise to a case of unbridled self-enrichment would be to do injustice to the national and social motives for his imperialism. Belgium was still young and unstable; it had lost huge sections of its territory in Dutch-Limburg and Luxembourg, the Catholics and liberals of his day fought each other tooth and nail, and the proletariat was beginning to stir: altogether, this formed an explosive cocktail. The country was like a “boiler without a safety valve,” Leopold thought.3 Congo was to become that safety valve.

The place in Congo where the new state was most highly visible was, without a doubt, the town of Boma. In 1886 it became the country’s first real capital. Today, time there seems to have stood still. There are few places in Africa where nineteenth-century colonialism has remained so visible. In 1926 it surrendered its status as capital to Léopoldville, and as port of call it was eventually outclassed by Matadi. To walk through Boma today is to wander through time. At the waterfront is an enormous baobab that has been poking its gnarly limbs at the sky for centuries. A little farther along one finds the old post office, dating from 1887. Like almost all buildings from that day it stands on cast-iron pilings, to prevent rotting and to ward off insects. Atop a little hill nearby is “the cathedral,” a pompous name for an extremely modest chapel built entirely of iron. The walls, doors, and windows consist of prefabricated plates that were sent from Belgium in 1889 and assembled on the spot, as a sort of IKEA furnishing avant la lettre. But most impressive of all is the governor general’s residence from 1908. That too was built on iron pilings and constructed of prefab metal plates; around them, however, was built a beautiful wooden façade featuring a spacious verandah, high-beamed rooms, plaster ceilings, and windows of skillfully cut glass. It was from here that the Free State was run: the governor general’s instructions were given to his provincial governors, who passed them in turn to their district commissioners in the interior, and from there they went to the chef de secteur and, further down, to the chef de poste. At Boma, letters were postmarked, statistics compiled, and soldiers trained. Cases were judged and a regime was founded. It served, in truth, as the hinge between Congo and the outside world. And it was here, a few decades later, that the inhabitants, who had already grown accustomed to steamboats, printing presses, and marching bands, saw the strangest thing that had ever been seen: an automobile. A British industrialist had shipped in an eight-cylinder Mercedes with spoked wheels, followed a few years later by a LaSalle from the United States. “For his wife,” the people of Boma will tell you today; the wrecks of those old-timers, the first two cars in Congo, still stand rusting beneath a lean-to just outside of town.

But it was not just the inhabitants of Boma who came in contact with the European way of life. Here and there around the country young Congolese were entering service as “boys.” In that way they literally made their way into the white man’s home, kitchen and bedroom. They saw that he did not sleep on a mat, but a mattress. They collected his sheets and his dirty laundry. They scrubbed sweat stains out of shirts and urine stains out of underpants. Hanging on the walls they saw photographs, of which they later told their friends: “When I was in the white man’s house I saw people hanging straight up on the wall, but they couldn’t speak, they remained silent. In fact, those were the dead. The white man had taken them prisoner.”4 It was an awkward acquaintanceship. Boys wondered why their boss swallowed pills every day and did not eat with his hands, why he became so angry about a spot on his glass, and why he always left the fish’s head on his plate. (Wasn’t that the tastiest part, after all? How wonderful to feel the little bones crack between your teeth and hear the eyes pop in your mouth.) In the evening they saw him writing beside a lamp, smoking a pipe or putting on a pair of spectacles. How peculiar, how peculiar it all was. The boy learned to cook in the Western fashion, he set the table, washed the dishes, and made the beds. He made sure that while doing the ironing—another bizarre habit!—no holes were burned in the linen. When the boss went on a journey he was often allowed to go along, and so found himself in places he would never have known otherwise. A good boy often received kudos, sometimes a beating, but rarely autonomy. Leopold had sworn to put an end to the Swahilo-Arab slave trade, but in essence there was no difference between the life of a Central African domestic slave on the Arab peninsula and a boy in the household of a European official in Congo.

And this was the life Disasi Makulo had led since Stanley entrusted him to Anthony Swinburne. He could have done worse, for Swinburne was patient and amiable and the station at Kinshasa comfortable and lively. Neither boy nor boss, however, however, could have guessed that their lives were about to be brutally upturned. But Leopold II had decided to do just that.

The country of Belgium may not have been directly involved in setting up the Free State, but the king increasingly began sending his subjects off to Congo. Belgian officers led expeditions, Belgian diplomats manned a consulate for him on Zanzibar, and the stations along the river were placed under the leadership of Belgian citizens. The British helpers appointed by Stanley began to be phased out. English as administrative language made way for French, although place-names such as Beach, Pool, and Falls remained. Words like steamer and boy, due in part to the influence of British and American missionaries, never disappeared. In Lingala, the language spoken along the river, a book was by then referred to as a buku, and the verb beta meant “to hit,” a bastardization of “to beat.”

Once the Berlin Conference was over, Leopold II had less and less use for the British. What’s more, he had been forced to promise the French that Stanley—in their eyes the devil incarnate who had thwarted “their” Brazza—would never be given a senior post in the Free State.5 In 1886 Leopold instated Camille Jansen as first Belgian governor general of Congo. The auspiciously inaugurated Association Internationale du Congo was gradually becoming an owner-run business with Belgian personnel. Among the three thousand whites who remained in Congo in 1900, seventeen hundred were Belgians.6 They were well aware that one could easily lose one’s life in this place, but they hoped above all to garner honor, fame, and money. This budding Belgian enthusiasm is not very well known. The lack of imperial zeal in the king’s European homeland was not due to the fact that the monarch stood alone at the helm of his overseas enterprise. He may never have succeeded in galvanizing a broad cross-section of the Belgian people, but an urban elite of officers, diplomats, jurists, and journalists did warm to his plans. While in the provincial towns young men from the lower middle class dreamed of a life more heroic and glorious as a soldier, government agent, or missionary.

For a person like Anthony Swinburne, this Belgification was a particularly bitter pill to take: the man who had kept Kinshasa out of French hands and so hoped quietly for an appointment as provincial governor received a pat on the back and was then sent packing.7 For his two boys, however, his dismissal was a chance in a million. Their master’s employment was terminated in 1886; Swinburne headed back to England and took them with him. And so Disasi Makulo, once Tippo Tip’s slave and destined to be shipped to Zanzibar and from there to the Arab peninsula or India, suddenly found himself in Europe.

It was horrible to see the big boat and the sea for the first time. After we had lifted anchor to cross the sea, we felt ill and had to vomit. Despite all the care with which we were surrounded, we barely recovered during the entire crossing. After many days we arrived in England. Europe seemed to us like a dream, we could not believe that we were in the real world! The huge buildings, the streets that were paved so neatly, the cleanliness one found everywhere, the houses so well decorated inside. In the house where we stayed there was a sort of cupboard in which food could be kept for a long time without spoiling. The lives of the whites were truly very different from our own. Every day we were happy, the only thing from which we suffered was the cold. But they had us wear warm and heavy clothing.8

With that, Disasi became one of a handful of Congolese—a few hundred individuals at most—to arrive in Europe before 1900. Missionaries occasionally brought a few children back with them, to serve as teaching material during their lectures, and promotional material during their collection drives. To whet the young Africans’ appetites for industry and diligence, they were taken along to shipyards, coal mines, and glass-blowing plants. A tiny group went to study at the Congo Institute in Wales. There, at Colwyn Bay, the British Baptist William Hughes had started a training institute for young Congolese with a calling: twelve of them left home for Europe between 1889 and 1908.9 A group of around sixty boys and girls went in the year 1890 to the eastern Flemish village of Gijzegem, where they received schooling from the Reverend Father Van Impe. The boys boarded at the schools, the girls were spread over convents in Flanders. They wore blue and white sailor suits.10 Others Congolese visitors ended up in ethnographic exhibitions; Pygmies in particular were a popular attraction at circuses and fairs. At the Antwerp World’s Fair in 1885 one could view a “Negro village” with twelve Congolese. By 1894 their number had grown to 144. But the largest group of natives, some 267 of them, traveled to Tervuren in 1897 as exotic features in the colonial exhibition there. They built huts beside the park’s pond and during the day played at being themselves, stared at by hundreds of thousands of Belgians who had come to see that for themselves: a Negro.

In addition to the wonders of the Western world, they were also regularly confronted with the inclemence of Europe’s moderate climate. During the wet summer, seven of the delegation members to Tervuren died of influenza. Lutunu, a former slave who, like Disasi, had become a boy to a white agent, left for England with a few other children in the winter of 1884–85, along with the British Baptist Thomas Comber. Some of them developed earaches and sore throats, but refused to use Western medicines, which they believed caused one to go blind (true in any case of the quinine they had seen whites use to combat malaria in the tropics). Even though there was no respectable féticheur (traditional African healer) among them and no palm oil suitable for ritual use in all of Liverpool, they still succeeded in healing each other in the traditional manner.11

In 1895 a young man by the name of Butungu left for England with John Weeks, another Baptist. Butungu had received schooling at a mission post in the equatorial jungle along the river and could read and write. He too came home with a pile of tall tales about steamboats, seasickness, and salt water: stories about the sea, in other words. He recorded them in Boloki, his native language. It is the only known text by a Congolese from the nineteenth century.12

And I saw so many things: sheep, goats, cows, you name it. There are all kinds of things in their country. If you don’t believe me, just look at their cities, that’s the way they are. And their villages are so clean. One day we went to a rifle show, with bullets fired in the air that exploded in light . . . . And when the cold arrived, I saw things like flakes, the flakes from the molondo tree. And I asked: “What is this?” The people told me: “That is snow.” At our feet were hailstones, but hailstones are hard and this was soft. That was also the end of the year’s circle. For six months there is only cold, and for the other six the sun shines . . . . So their country is not like ours at all. I did not see a single snake. The little animals they raise and that we have in our country as well do not live in the people’s yards, although they too have cockroaches, rats, and cats. But they have built barriers around all the animals. If you go through one of those barriers you can see all the animals, and even there the people have built houses for the animals. Only the horse is allowed to move about freely.

Butungu stayed in England for almost a year and a half. In addition to farms, snow, and fireworks, he also saw London and “the many things the people there have made.” That was all he said about it. The homecoming to his own village, however, he described most touchingly:

I went to the Reverend’s house and talked to myself. I looked around and saw my mother and I said: “That is really my mother.” I went to her and called her, and she said: “Where is Butungu?” And I replied: “It is me.” And she said: “So you have come back.” I said: “Yes.” We walked through the village and many came out to greet me.

Anyone who had traveled to mythical Europe had to tell his story a hundred times over. Parents and children clung to his every word, family members begged him for details. Only a tiny number of Congolese had been there, but the whole village eavesdropped as he talked about his first train trip: “The train went as fast as a fly, it was unbelievable!” Those who had stayed at home saw the strangest objects up close. In addition to suits and shirts, those who returned from Tervuren brought back bowlers, brooches, walking sticks, pipes, watches, armbands, and necklaces as well as hammers, saws, planes, axes, fishhooks, coffee pots, funnels, and magnifying glasses with which to light fires. Many of them had also bought a dog in the village of Tervuren. Young Lutunu, after his journey to England, had even sailed to New York, where he stayed with a missionary’s sister. When he left, she gave him an extremely peculiar present: a bicycle! Lutungu took it back with him to Congo and so became Central Africa’s first cyclist.

It was handy, many whites reasoned, to have your boys with you in Europe. Not only did it draw a lot of attention, but it was also educational for the young people themselves. Still, one had to be careful. Before you knew it, a young man might learn too much during his journey. The British Baptist George Grenfell traveled with a boy and a girl of nine to England, but warned his hosts: “If we shower them with attention, we shall have trouble relegating them to their former status once we return.”13 The Belgian socialist Edmond Picard mocked those colonials who paraded about in their home country with their “model servants”: “Often it does not take long before that luminous person drives to despair his incautious master, who has introduced him all too intimately to our refined civilization and our chambermaids.”14 The number of Congolese able to travel to Europe would always remain limited. Travel did not necessarily make a person more licentious, but it apparently made one less docile. That would manifest itself later on. Congolese veterans who returned from World War II in 1945 began to resent the colonial authorities. The intellectuals and journalists who returned in 1958 from the world’s fair in Brussels began to dream of independence.

Disasi Makulo returned as well. Swinburne no longer worked for the Free State, but was still bound and determined to make his fortune as a trader in Congo. Along with Edward Glave, another Brit expelled by Leopold, he began buying up ivory. As soon as he arrived in Kinshasa, Congolese people began offering it to him. At a certain point there were no less than sixty tusks of ten to fifty kilos (22 to 110 pounds) each around his house. As soon as Swinburne was able to obtain a steamboat of his own, however, he sailed upriver; there he could buy up ivory for less than a third of the price.15 And he was not the only one, not by a long shot. Riverine commerce, the exclusive domain of local carriers for almost four centuries, was now taken over entirely by Europeans. In a twinkling Leopold’s free trade had devoured the old trading network. European trading posts and storehouses arose. Ocean steamers docked at Matadi and hoisted the ivory on board with cranes. In Antwerp there were warehouses packed full of tusks. In 1897, 245 metric tons (about 270 U.S. tons) of ivory were exported to Europe, almost half the world’s production in that year. Antwerp soon outstripped Liverpool and London as the global distribution center for ivory.16 Pianos and organs everywhere in the West were outfitted with keys of Congolese ivory; in smoky saloons the customers tapped billiard balls or arranged dominoes that were made from raw materials from the equatorial forest. The mantelpieces of middle-class homes sported statuettes made of “elfin wood” from Congo; on Sunday the people went out strolling with walking sticks and umbrellas whose handles had once been tusks. All this international free trade, however, stole bread from the mouth of local commerce.

It was primarily children and teenagers who became closely familiar with the European lifestyle. Young men got to know it as boys, the girls as menagères. Despite the name, the menagère was less concerned with managing the household in the classic sense than with managing the hormones of her employer. Because European women were considered unsuited to life in the tropics, while at the same time it was recognized that an all-too-lengthy period of sexual deprivation was bad for the white man’s zest for work and life in general, a great tolerance arose toward forms of concubinage with a native woman. In 1900 there were eleven hundred white men in Congo and only eighty-two white women, sixty-two of whom were nuns.17 A great many of the men therefore developed long-term, intimate relations with one or more African women. Some of them spoke openly of their menagère as “my wife,” others developed a profusely libertine lifestyle. Often the girls chosen were very young, twelve or thirteen; often the line between affection and prostitution was unclear; often pure lust went hand in hand with tenderness. Yet the relationships always remained asymmetrical. The menagère slept under the same mosquito net as the white man, but she often, voluntarily or not, did so on a mat on the floor.

The missionaries, of course, viewed this with dismay. Church attendance by Europeans in Congo, however, was many times lower than in Europe itself: the minuscule cathedral at Boma was more than large enough to accommodate the crowd on Sunday mornings. The Roman Catholic rites were observed only at funerals. Disasi Makulo saw this with his own eyes. In 1889, less than three years after his trip to Europe, his master Swinburne came down with gastric fever. Horrible sores covered his legs and he declined visibly. Disasi and a friend fashioned a litter from hammocks and started off with him for Boma. Along the way they stopped at the mission post at Gombe, where the British Baptist George Grenfell attended to the sick man for two weeks. When that did not help, they set off again on their gruelingly long journey. At the Dutch trading post at Ndunga run by Anton Greshoff, father of the writer Jan Greshoff, Swinburne died. He was only thirty. “The whites we had met at the trading post hastened to prepare the funeral. All of the whites in lovely suits and a crowd of blacks attended the funeral,” he noted. And he added: “That day we found the world the bitterest place of all, and our thoughts froze when we did not know whether our lives would be subject to any further support.”18

After the funeral Greshoff decided to bring the two boys back to Grenfell’s mission post. Grenfell was a living legend who owed his reputation to his remarkable combination of enthusiastic evangelization and a feverish urge to explore. He had arrived in 1879 as one of the very first missionaries in Congo and died there in 1906, seemingly immune to all tropical illnesses. Beginning in 1884 he began piloting his steamboat Peace up countless, previously unexplored tributaries of the Congo. Within two years he covered twenty thousand kilometers (over twelve thousand miles) on the Congo, the Ubangi, the Kasai, the Kwango and other side rivers. He drew maps and set up posts. He was in fact, after Stanley and Livingstone, the third greatest among Congo explorers. Disasi Makulo had been enslaved by Tippo Tip, had been bought by Stanley, and had served as boy to Swinburne. Now, at around the age of eighteen, he and his friend became helpers to the most celebrated of all nineteenth-century missionaries in Congo.

Grenfell received us as though he had known us for a long time. He took us along in his boat and, look, there we were on the river again. We made many trips on the river and the side rivers. At first we didn’t understand the purpose of all that traveling back and forth. Only later did he explain to us that it was in order to explore the rivers and to study the various areas, so that they could set up mission posts there.19

The missionaries were dauntless. While many European civil servants were sowing their wild oats, the missionaries acted against what they saw as pernicious native customs such as human sacrifices, trial by poison, slavery, and polygamy. But all that, of course, was subjective. Many natives were not at all anxious to be Christianized. Disasi Makulo knew all about it:

When the boat approached Bolobo, a huge crowd of villagers came and stood on the banks. They shouted and waved knives, spears, and weapons, because they thought we had come to wage war. To show them that we had not come to fight, Mrs. Bentley [the wife of another missionary] picked up her baby, held him in the air and showed him to the crowd. It was the first time the people had seen a white woman and a white baby. Curious now, they put down their weapons and came to us, whooping with enthusiasm, to admire these creatures. The boat landed quietly.20

Bolobo became the site of one of the most important missions. In the absence of white babies, the Protestants also availed themselves of native children. Grenfell always took a few of “his” children along on his forays. They chopped wood for the steamboat, held the rudder, and served as interpreters. As freed slaves they often spoke the language of their native region, where the Christianizing had yet to begin. At Yakusu, the missionaries’ activities clearly benefited from the presence of a converted native girl. The villagers recognized her tribal tattoos and knew that she was one of them.21 The spreading of the Word was therefore not simply a matter of white versus black; black people too evangelized and played an important role in the oncoming religious turnabout. Disasi Makulo also became such an intermediary. Baptized in 1894, he helped with the Christianizing, and not without success. In one of his letters, Grenfell wrote: “Disasi . . . worked well and created quite a favourable impression among the natives.”22

During his travels with Grenfell, Disasi returned to his homeland for the first time. The reunion with his parents was gripping. The gong sounded out news of the lost son’s return. Relatives immediately slaughtered a few goats and dogs, and proposed en passant that two slaves be sacrificed as well. “When I saw that I was deeply indignant that such barbaric customs of slavery and cannibalism continued to exist within my tribe.” He protested vehemently and even released the slaves, to the bewilderment of his former neighbors. “Many of them wondered in amazement why I felt pity for these slaves. Others accused me of having prevented them from eating the delicious flesh of a human. The dancing went on for two days, without a stop.”23 Disasi Makulo was now a man caught between two cultures, loyal to his tribe and to his new faith.

He was not the only one to find himself cut loose in a new moral universe. The first inhabitants of the missions were often children whom the authorities of the Free State had taken away from areas marked by conflict. They did not always come from the slave traders; some of them were victims of tribal violence. Lungeni Dorcas, a girl from Kasai, was captured by warriors from the neighboring Basonge tribe. She had watched as her mother and brothers were beaten and her youngest brother, still an infant, was pounded against the ground till dead. Hers is one of the few female voices known from that period:

After a few days we heard that a white man would come to fight against our enemies and free us. Our captors, having heard that, began selling their prisoners. Then the white man came, he was an authority from the government and accompanied by a great many soldiers. He summoned the head of the village and said that he wanted to free all of the prisoners, including those of his subjects. He had them open a chest containing all kinds of beads, necklaces, mitakos [copper currency ingots], and textiles. We were struck by the beauty of those objects and were introduced to the Europeans. After he had freed us, he took us to Lusambo. That day a boat arrived there, steered by a white man. Our government official handed us over to him and it was he who took us to the Protestant mission at Kintambo. There we met many boys and girls from different tribes, all of them bought free like us.24

The importance of this account can hardly be overestimated, for it shows us in detail how mission posts acquired their first believers through the government’s intervention and how that led to the establishment of the first interethnic communities. Young people totally unfamiliar with each other’s language and culture suddenly lived together closely. The missionaries even went a step further. As the children grew up, the Europeans became multicultural matchmakers. Once again, Lungeni Dorcas: “To save us from all manner of complications in the future, the missionaries wanted us to marry only young Christians who had been raised by them as well.” In her case, this meant marriage to an old acquaintance: “That was why they arranged for me to marry Disasi. And that is what came to pass.”25

One generation earlier it would have been unthinkable for her to marry a man born eight hundred kilometers (five hundred miles) away; now she bore him six children—three boys and three girls. The mission deemphasized tribal ties, eased people away from their villages, and promoted the nuclear family as the alternative.

As a newlywed, Disasi remained deeply distressed with la terrible barbarie (the terrible barbarism) in his village.26 He therefore proposed to Grenfell that he begin a mission post of his own. In 1902 he set up the mission at Yalemba, one of the first black-run posts in Congo. Grenfell came by to visit on occasion. After his many wanderings, Disasi had come home again:

The objective of my return was to help my own, to protect them and bring them the light of civilization . . . . I had decided that all the inhabitants of my village would come to live with me at the mission. I began with the members of my own family: my father, my mother, my sisters, my brothers, my nieces and nephews. At first, the other villagers did not want to leave their village. Only later, after great effort, was I able to persuade them to leave and settle down with me.27

Black catechists formed a bridgehead between two worlds. Old Nkasi had already told me something along those lines during our conversations. His father’s youngest brother, Joseph Zinga, went after all with the Protestant missionary Mr. Welles to Palabala to become a catechist. That was how he had absorbed European ideas and knowledge and became familiar with our Christian calendar. “It was because of him that I know that I was born in 1882,” Nkasi had said.28

MEANWHILE, THE CATHOLICS were also on the move. After early efforts by the Holy Ghost Fathers and the White Fathers, following the Berlin Conference, the Catholic mission work quickly gathered momentum. Now that Leopold II had withdrawn from his international association, he granted preference to Belgian missionaries, who were without exception Catholic. In 1886 Pope Leo XIII, who was on very good terms with Leopold, announced that the Congo Free State was to be evangelized by Belgians. The White Fathers, originally a Franco-Algerian congregation, now dispatched only Belgians. Young Scheutists and Jesuits, followed by Trappists, Franciscans, fathers of the Sacred Heart, and sisters of the Precious Blood, left from countless villages and towns throughout Belgium. They divided Congo’s interior neatly among themselves. Protestant missionaries from England, America, and Sweden continued to be active, but lost some of their influence: they were forced to work in accordance with the dictates of the new country and to learn to live with the badgering of Catholic missionaries who absconded with their converts.

While the Protestants focused largely on the individual, based on their doctrine of the personal connection between Christ and the believer, the Catholics went in search of groups from the very start. For them, the collective experience of faith took pride of place. But how, for heaven’s sake, did one go about finding groups like that? Once again, children provided the solution. Their first followers, like those of the Protestants, were often child slaves freed and entrusted to them by the state. At the mission post in Kimuenza, for example, the Jesuits began in 1893 with seventeen freed slaves, twelve workers from the Bangala tribe, two carpenters from the coast, two soldiers with their wives, and eighty-five children whom the state had “confiscated” from the Arabized slave traders. Together they formed une colonie scolaire (educational colony). Two years later, in April 1895, there were already four hundred boys and seventy girls, and even forty toddlers between the ages of two and three. In 1899 the mission had a church that could hold fifteen hundred worshipers, with three stained-glass windows and two bronze bells, one weighing two hundred kilos, the other six hundred (440 and 1,320 pounds). The bells had been cast in Belgium. One could hear them peal as far away as a two-and-a-half-hour walk from the mission post.29

Government help, therefore, was essential. But the intertwining of church and state went much further than the acquisition of new converts. When the Kimuenza mission was founded, an official called together the village chieftains to explain to them that the mission enjoyed the special protection of the state, and that they should not hesitate to sell to them chickens, manioc, and other provisions.30 The state even saw to the maintenance of the school, on condition that four out of every five children completing their studies enroll in the Force Publique, the Free State’s army! This much was clear: the Jesuits fought for Jesus, but also for Leopold. The school was run like a Belgian military academy.

The little black boys had to salute and even march . . . . The daily routine is no different. At five-thirty, get up quickly to the bugle’s call, wash quickly, then prayer: Pater, Ave, Credo in Fiote [Kikongo]. After prayers, breakfast. All gather on the square in front of the building that serves as refectory. The children line up. The sergeant screams: “Atten-shun!” Silence immediately descends over the ranks. “Right, face!” The little column starts to move and lines up, ramrod straight and silent, at the tables. “Sit!” and all are seated. Then comes the order for which everyone has been waiting impatiently. “Eat!”31

After some time had passed, such colonies scolaires also proved to have their limitations: the influx of slave children was not endless, and, despite all the bell ringing, conversion among the neighboring “heathens” did not continue once all the alumni had vanished into the barracks. That was why the Jesuits followed up with the system of the fermes-chapelles (chapel farms). Close to an existing village they would establish a new settlement where local children learned to pray, read, and garden in relative isolation. The emphasis lay precisely on that relative isolation: they were to be kept away from their familiar culture long enough to prevent them from backsliding into “heathendom.” “Civilizing these blacks, while leaving them in their own surroundings, is like reanimating a drowned man while at the same time holding his head under water,” was the subtle simile applied.32 At the same time, however, their new status as well-fed and well-dressed little catechists had to remain visible to the other, seminaked villagers: that, after all, provoked useful feelings of envy. The mission became a means to material welfare. For every child he brought to the chapel farm, the village chief received a gift. Little wonder then that one of them is known to have said: “White men, come to honor my village, build your house there, teach us to live like white men. We will give you our children and you shall make of them mindele ndombe, black white men.”33

Mission posts became large-scale farms and display windows for a different way of life. The number of baptisms skyrocketed. Between 1893 and 1918 the Jesuits alone made some twelve thousand converts. At their Kisantu post in 1896 they had fifteen cows; by 1918 there were more than fifteen hundred. There was a carpenter’s shop, a little hospital, and even a printing press.34 Those who had finished their schooling stayed at the mission post and married. They worked as farmers, carpenters, or printers, and started families. Like the Protestant missions, these newly formed villages did not fall under the authority of a native chieftain. The traditional village with its countless contacts and variegated forms of solidarity lost ground to the monogamous family. Other religious orders adopted the chapel farm formula as well, but the system also met with fierce criticism. To inflate their baptismal registers, the missionaries were extremely prompt in labeling children as “orphans,” even when there were still plenty of relatives to raise them in the African tradition. Whenever sleeping sickness broke out, children were plucked en masse from their villages. “The result was disastrous,” one contemporary realized, “and it made the natives hate us.”35

The missionaries’ affability had its darker facets. As friendly as their smiles when dealing with the local population, just as underhanded were their methods at times. The Belgian missionary Gustaaf Van Acker explained how he, as White Father, dealt with the “talismans” of the native religion (“bones, hair, animal droppings, teeth, hundreds of filthy objects and more”) that he found in “hovels” along the road”:

So as not to annoy the people and to safeguard our studies, we could not act against all that diabolical filth; we had to smother our hatred and only on occasion, when we were alone, could we apply an enraged stomp and leave that mess in ruins. I hope that someday soon we may act more openly and in all of Oeroea, all its villages, along all its streets, replace these infernal signs and diabolical knickknacks with the True Cross. Oh my! So much work for so few champions of the Cross!”36

Some missionaries destroyed thousands of cult objects in this way.

In Boma I had the privilege of speaking with a few old inhabitants. Victor Masunda was eighty-seven and blind, but he remembered his father’s stories with startling clarity.37 “The first missionary my father saw,” he said as we sat together drinking Fanta in his darkened living room, “was Père Natalis de Cleene, a huge man from Ghent, a Scheutist. He was the one who set up the colonie scolaire at Boma; it replaced the mission established by the Fathers of the Sacred Heart. Leopold had asked the pope for Belgian missionaries, and the Scheutists arrived.”

He knew his history. What’s more, the name of the missionary in question was completely accurate: I found it later in registers kept by the Scheutists. De Cleene was a famous missionary.

“Four or five years later that priest left town on horseback and set up the Kango mission in the Mayombe jungle. My father and mother lived in the jungle as well. Papa was fifteen. He was baptized in December 1901. He belonged to the second batch of students. His number was 36B. My mother was baptized in 1903. They married three years later. They left their village and settled at the mission’s work camp.”

I asked Masunda why they did that.

With an outburst of laughter still intended to cover his shame, he said: “In the jungle there were no chairs to sit on, like at the mission, the people there still sat on tree trunks! All they ate was bananas, yams, and beans. But one of the priests gave my father a rifle! Then he could hunt antelope, wild swine, and beavers!” More than a century later, he still sang the mission’s praise: “In the jungle they wore rags and tatters, but at the mission my father was given a pair of short trousers and my mother a boubou, a little smock. He even learned to write a bit. There were children there from all over the place. His native tongue was Kiyombe, but that’s how he also learned Lingala, Swahili, and Tshiluba.”

A few days later, in the shade of a little mango tree, I spoke with seventy-three-year-old Camille Mananga. He was blind as well and came from Mayombe too. He told me not about his father, but about his grandfather. “He never wanted to be baptized. He climbed in his palm tree and made palm wine. He had four wives and a great many children. The missionaries felt that he should keep only one of them, but he felt responsible for all of them. And he never argued with them.”38 Converting adults was clearly a more difficult task.

The Protestant evangelists had looser ties with the state, but were not entirely independent of it either. In 1890, when the Free State requisitioned Grenfell’s steamboat for the war against the Afro-Arab traders to the east, he protested vehemently. How could they think that his Peace—the name alone said enough—might be used to wage war! One year later, however, he was all too pleased to accept a personal commission from King Leopold: he was charged with surveying the border between the Free State and the Portuguese colony of Angola. That area was not only subject to international conflicts, but was also the site of the most violent uprisings against the new regime. So he, Grenfell, a British cleric, set out with an escort of four hundred soldiers from the Force Publique to chart and pacify the region. He was given a mandate to sign treaties and establish borders. Disasi Makulo accompanied him on that exhausting trip overland through hostile territory, “the most painful and dangerous journey we had ever made.” He too noted the highly overt interweaving of mission and state: “The government provided our military equipment and porters.” Disasi Makulo wore the uniform, the plus fours and fez, of the Force Publique.39

THE FINAL WAY in which young people came in contact with the Free State was through the armed forces. The Force Publique, a colonial army under the firm leadership of white officers, was set up in 1885. Most of those officers were Belgian, but there were also any number of Italians, Swiss, and Swedes. Without exception, the most prominent and highly valued foot soldiers were the Zanzibaris, men who had accompanied the explorers on their journeys, and then mercenaries from Nigeria and Liberia. These West Africans had a reputation as trustworthy and courageous soldiers. The first group of ten Congolese was conscripted in late 1885. They had been recruited in the rain forest by the Bangala, who took them to Boma. The Bangala themselves were known as a warlike tribe, and a great many of them would also be recruited in the years to come. As a result, their language, Lingala, began spreading rapidly: it would one day become the most important in the west of the country.

As the Free State’s capital, Boma was also the country’s first garrison town. It was there that young people, previously unable to tell time, learned to live by the minute. The recruits arose at six o’clock and went to bed at nine. The bugle’s blare divided the day into drill, roll call, parade and rest. Military discipline was hammered in. The recruits learned to shoot, clean their rifles, march, and even play martial music. Yet even this stringent military discipline could not entirely disguise a large component of clumsiness. The cavalry had no horses, but donkeys—seventeen, to be exact. The artillery had a number of Krupp cannons, but no moving targets on which to practice. The soldiers had to make do with aiming at and firing upon herds of antelope.40 Nevertheless, the Force Publique would become a factor to reckon with. During the first few years of the Free State, King Leopold dedicated half his available budget to the army. For many young men it formed the most direct and drastic acquaintance with the state. In the year 1889 there were fifteen hundred recruits; by 1904 that number had risen to seventeen thousand. During the final days of the Free State, the Force Publique had twenty-five thousand Albini rifles with bayonet, four million rounds of ammunition, 150 cannons, and nineteen Maxim machine guns, making it the largest standing army in Central Africa.41 Unlike in Belgium, the young Congolese recruits were allowed to take their wives with them when they entered military service. The wives even received a modest stipend; an allowance was also paid for any child that might come along. In this way the army, like the missions, promoted monogamy and the nuclear family.42 True families of military careerists arose.

In Kinshasa in 2008 I met Eugène Yoka, who had been an air force colonel for decades, back when the national armed forces still had planes. In Mobutu’s day he had been part of the inner circle of pilots who flew French Mirage fighters in formation above the capital during national parades. His father, he told me, had been a professional military man as well and had experienced World War I. His grandfather, a Bangala tribesman from Équateur, was one the first recruits in the Force Publique. Colonel Yoka had two sons, one of whom had joined the army and worked his way up to major.43 Four generations of dedicated military men, serving the state for more than a century.

The Congo Free State’s first five years were the mildest by far. The administration was still quite scanty and there was as yet no widespread terror. But during this period a growing group of natives, mostly children and young people, became directly acquainted with the European way of life in Congo. As boy, as menagère, as Christian, or as recruit, they entered houses unlike any they had ever seen, wore clothing unknown to them till then, and tasted unfamiliar foods. They learned French and adopted new ideas. A handful of them even witnessed firsthand how things went in Europe. And some of them actually propagated this new lifestyle, or at least their interpretation of it. Young catechists tried to convince their family members and fellow villagers of the fact that they led heathen lives. Young recruits showed off their uniforms and soldier’s pay in their villages. Their wives went with them to the barracks, their children grew up there. A life outside the village began, just like with the chapel farms, where one no longer lived under the authority of the native chieftain, but under a strict European regime. The Free State brought about a deep change in the lives of many.

After 1890, though, things got grimmer. From then on, contact with the Free State no longer meant making acquaintance with another way of living, but a confrontation with violence, horror, and death. What’s more, this new type of encounter took place on an exponentially greater scale. There where the Free State had at first impacted thousands or tens of thousands of Congolese, now millions were subjected to the (iron-fisted) presence of the state. To understand this radical turnabout, we must look again to the mastermind of the Free State himself, the one who devised, carried out, profited from and bore final responsibility for the whole enterprise: Leopold II.

The Belgian ruler had acquired his Congo in 1885 by dint of three promises. At the Berlin Conference he had promised both to safeguard free trade and to do away with the slave trade. To the Belgian state he had promised never to request funding for his personal project. And until 1890 he stuck to those promises: free trade flourished, the Belgian treasury was left untouched, and, although the fight against the slave trade had not yet been won, the missions did regularly receive “freed” children as a present. These were, quite literally, lavish promises. To facilitate free trade the king had to expand the necessary infrastructure and administration at his own cost. An expensive business, and one profited from largely by others. Leopold launched into all this in the hope of making serious profits of his own, but was ultimately disillusioned.

Between 1876 and 1885 he invested no less than 10 million Belgian francs, but the revenues in 1886 amounted to no more than seventy-five thousand francs.44 By 1890 he had already spent 19 million francs on Congo. The huge fortune inherited from his father had gone up in smoke. The king was virtually bankrupt.

It was at that point that he decided to break two of his promises. He solicited money from the Belgian state and set about obstructing free trade with a vengeance. Despite a growing number of “Congo-philes” among an elite of bankers and industrialists, however, the Belgian parliament was not at all inclined to take part in a colonial adventure. Yet it could not simply look on passively as the head of state went bust. Reluctantly, therefore, a loan was arranged: by way of capital injection the king was given 25 million gold francs, later supplemented with an additional 7 million.45 The country also invested heavily in the construction of a railroad. The agreement was that, in the event of continuing financial malaise, Belgium would take over Congo.

Much more dramatic for the situation in Congo itself was Leopold’s unscrupulous series of decrees rendering all lands neither cultivated nor inhabited—including all raw materials to be found there—the immediate property of the Free State. For the European ivory merchants this constituted an enormous setback and for the locals it was an unmitigated disaster. At one fell swoop the king nationalized some 99 percent of the country. A Pygmy who shot an elephant and sold its tusks was no longer supporting himself in legitimate fashion, but stealing from the state. A British trader who bought the tusks was no longer participating in free trade, but receiving unlawfully obtained goods. On paper, free trade continued to exist—of course, it had to—but in practice it was dead as a doornail: after all, there was nothing left to trade, for the state now kept everything for itself.

In bookkeeping terms, Leopold’s coup de théâtre was doubtlessly clever and sly, but in terms of culture and community it was a fiasco. He seemed to assume, for convenience’s sake, that his subjects in the villages made use only of the spot where their huts and fields were located. In reality, however, the local communities needed areas many times that size. Extensive farming forced them to clear new fields each year, in the rain forest or on the savanna. What’s more, entire villages often changed locations. And because no one lived from farming alone, they also made use of vast hunting and fishing grounds. Leopold’s decision literally robbed the people of what was dear to them: their land. He had no idea of the extremely complex land-use rights in the region, let alone of local views on collective property ownership. He simply transplanted the Western European concept of private property to the tropics, and with that sowed the seeds of deep discontent within the Free State.

But what about his third promise, the fight against the slave trade? That was the only one he kept and actually focused on more intensely. That struggle, after all, provided him with the perfect cover for his expansionist ambitions. After a major antislavery conference was held in Brussels in 1890, the king stepped up his efforts. The battle was waged largely in three areas: ranging from south to north, those were Katanga, East Congo, and South Sudan. Those regions coincided with the historical spheres of influence of the three most important Afro-Arab slave traders: Msiri, Tippo Tip, and al-Zubayr.

Msiri’s empire in Katanga was annexed between 1890 and 1892. Leopold wasted no time, in the knowledge that Cecil Rhodes was advancing on that same area from South Africa. Rhodes, a British imperialist whose megalomania was every bit Leopold’s equal, was attempting to link up Britain’s colonial holdings “from Cape to Cairo.” But Katanga became Leopold’s, and this time not merely on the map he had pored over on that Christmas Eve in 1884.

The struggle against the slave drivers in the eastern Congo was more problematic; they were well-armed and wealthy and had a great deal of experience with waging war in that area. In 1886 they had attacked the government post at Stanley Falls. To quiet things down, Stanley—with Leopold’s permission—appointed Tippo Tip, the most powerful man in the region, as that post’s new provincial governor. For Tippo Tip himself, this resulted in a conflict of loyalties. In a letter to King Leopold he wrote: “None of the Belgians in Congo like me and I see that they only wish me ill. I am starting to regret having entered the service of the Kingdom of Belgium. I see that they do not want me. And now I find myself at odds with all the Arabs as well. They are angry at me, because I deliver more ivory to Belgium than to them.”46 The economic interests of Europeans and Zanzibaris clashed so loudly that a confrontation could not be long in coming, especially as supplies of ivory began to dwindle. From 1891 to 1894, therefore, the Force Publique was sent out on the so-called Arab campaigns. Led by Lieutenant Francis Dhanis, those campaigns resulted in 1892 in the destruction of Nyangwe and Kasongo, the two major trading centers for Swahili-speaking Muslims in eastern Congo. The power of the Afro-Arab traders from Zanzibar was broken for good. Stronger both militarily and economically, their empire was nevertheless too politically divided. By that time, Tippo Tip had left Congo to retire on Zanzibar. In Maniema and Kisangani, however, Islam remains in place as minority religion to this day.

The hardest fighting too place in the north. For years Leopold persisted in his dreams of annexing southern Sudan. Under the spell of Egyptomania ever since since his honeymoon journey to Cairo in 1855, Leopold was obsessed with the Nile. Snatching southern Sudan would also allow him to seize the upper reaches of that legendary river. What’s more, the area was said to be rich in ivory. As early as 1886 he sent Stanley there to free Emin Pasha, governor of the Egyptian province of Equatoria but in fact a German physician from Silesia, from a hostile Mahdist army. In truth, the mission was an early attempt to make southern Sudan a part of Congo. In 1890 Leopold offered Stanley the staggering sum of 2.5 million gold francs to finish the job for him and even to capture the city of Khartoum, but the explorer was no longer interested.47 The king therefore financed several expeditions of his own, led by Belgian officers: all of them failed miserably. In 1894 the British granted him a portion of southern Sudan in usufruct, but that did not satisfy him completely. One last time, he assembled an expeditionary force. In 1896 the Force Publique moved to northeastern Congo with the largest army Central Africa had ever seen, intending to advance from there to the Nile. But they never got that far. The soldiers mutinied en masse.

How could that have happened? Beginning in 1891, in the absence of enough volunteers to maintain a substantial army, the Free State had set up a draft system for the Force Publique. As they had for the mission posts, all village chieftains were now required to supply a few young men, one conscript for every twenty-five huts. The period of military service was seven years. It was an ideal way for village leaders to rid themselves of troublemakers, agitators, and prisoners. The Force Publique, therefore, was able to grow by virtue of the arrival of unruly characters with absolutely no desire to serve. That manifested itself as well during the expedition to Sudan. Such forays were no orderly march to the battlefield. Hundreds of women, children, and elderly people traipsed along with the soldiers through the jungle; uniformed men carrying Albini rifles fought side by side with traditional warriors who whooped and waved their spears. This was no regular, national army on the move, but a motley crew, a semi-organized gang reminiscent more of a messy eighteenth-century band of brigands than any tight Napoleonic infantry square. And the chaos was not limited to the margins and the camp followers, but extended into the very heart of the military apparatus. For such a huge group, victuals could not be carried along but had to be obtained by improvisation. The local population was sometimes willing to sell provisions, but more frequently refused. And so the army took what it needed. Plundering as they went, the troops blazed a trail toward the promised Sudan. Brussels chose to see things differently, but there was in fact little difference between the Force Publique and the Batambatamba, the Afro-Arab gangs of slave drivers described by Disasi Makulo. Unrest was inevitable.

In 1895 there had already been a barracks revolt in Kasai, with fatalities on the European side as well: several hundred mutineers there had thrown off the yoke of the state. But the fury unleashed by the troops on their way to Sudan was unparalleled. Ten Belgian officers were murdered. More than six thousand soldiers and auxiliaries turned on their commanders. Led by the Batetela, the mutiny became a rebellion that lasted four years. It was the first major, violent protest against the white presence in Congo. Military historians have often pointed out the troops’ low morale: ill and underfed, large numbers of soldiers died; many of them received almost no training; and the most recent additions were soldiers who had first fought on the side of the Afro-Arab slave drivers and now had little interest in doing battle for their conquerors. But the hardhandedness of the officers, in combination with their extreme incompetence when it came to logistics and strategy, also fed a deep-seated hatred. And that hatred rounded not only on the officers themselves, and not merely on the Belgians, but on whites in general.

A French missionary suffered a night of terror when he was taken prisoner by the mutineers. “All whites conspire together against the blacks,” he heard one of his captors argue against letting him live. “All the whites should be killed or chased away.” The heated discussion was finally decided in his favor, which was a stroke of good luck for historians as well. Later he described his ordeal in a letter to his bishop, giving us today a fairly precise view of the motives behind the mutiny. One rebel leader told him: “For three years now I have been choking back my anger against the Belgians, and especially against Fimbo Nyingi. Now we had the chance to avenge ourselves.” Fimbo Nyingi was the nickname of Baron Dhanis, the expedition’s commander, the same lieutenant who had led the troops in Eastern Congo. His nickname meant “many lashes.” The missionary resolved to listen to their grievances. “They even became friendly and offered me coffee—very nice coffee, in fact. What they told me about the Belgians was indeed shocking: sometimes they had to work hard for months without pay, and the wages for arriving too late were a sound beating with the kiboko. They were hanged or shot for the most minor offences. At least forty of their leaders, they told me, had been killed for trifling matters, and the number of fatalities among the foot soldiers was beyond count.” Belgian officers, they told him, sometimes had native chieftains buried alive. They cursed their troops and called them beasts and slaughtered them “as though they were goats.”48

I had never thought I would still be able to pick up echoes from that dark and distant period in the early years of this third millennium. But one day, in the Kinshasa working-class neighborhood of Bandalungwa, I found myself at the home of Martin Kabuya. Martin was ninety-two years old, a former Force Publique soldier and a World War II veteran. He lived in the capital but his family came from Aba, the most northeasterly village in Congo, on the border with Sudan. His grandfather was a chieftain at the time of the Force Publique expeditions to southern Sudan. “His name was Lukudu, and he was extremely mean. That’s why they buried him alive, with his head just above the ground,” he recounted. A common practice, as it turned out. To break their resistance, recalcitrant chieftains were buried up to their necks, preferably in the hot sun and preferably close to an anthill. Some of them were forced to stare directly into the sun for hours. Their families, too, were destroyed: under the guise of “liberation,” their children were taken away. “The Marist Brothers took all his children to the boarding school at Buta [six hundred kilometers, or about 370 miles, to the west]. Including my father. There he became a Catholic. He married at the mission post and had three children. I’m the youngest.”49

While King Leopold’s troops were combating the slave trade in the east, and trying out new methods of of subjugation as they went along, things in the west of the country were not much better. There were no full-out wars there, but there were daily forms of coercion and terror. To circumvent the unnavigable stretch of the Congo, the railroad between Matadi and Stanley Pool was built between 1890 and 1898. Without such a railroad, Stanley had noted earlier, Congo was not worth a red cent. The system of porters was simply too costly and too slow, especially now that the state was the prime exporter. It took a caravan eighteen days to cover that route, a steam train—even with frequent stops for water and wood—only two.50 With great difficulty, Leopold was finally able to scrape together the funding for that project (the money came from private investors and above all from the Belgian government): with even greater difficulty, the work commenced. During the first two years only eight of the total of four hundred kilometers (about five out of 250 miles) of rail were laid: the railroad had to wind its way through the desolate, mountainous countryside east of Matadi. Three years later the work was no further than kilometer marker 37 (milepost 23). Working conditions were extremely harsh. The crews were decimated by malaria, dysentery, beriberi, and smallpox. During the first eighteen months alone, nine hundred African workers and forty-two whites died; another three hundred whites had to be repatriated to Europe. Over the full nine years, the project claimed the lives of some two thousand workers.

The organization had a military feel to it: at the top of the chain was a Belgian elite, this time consisting of engineers, mining engineers, and geologists, led by Colonel Albert Thys, himself a military man and captain of industry. Working under them were the manual laborers from Zanzibar and West Africa, a crew of between two and eight thousand men. There were also a few dozen Italian miners. But as fewer and fewer Africans proved willing to work in the hell called Congo, the organizers began recruiting workers from the Antilles and had hundreds of Chinese laborers shipped in from Macao—almost all of whom succumbed to tropical diseases.

Just like in the army, the Congolese themselves barely took part at first. The argument given was they were still indispensible as porters. Only when the railroad had almost reached the halfway point at Tumba in 1895 were workers recruited from the local population. That was home ground to Étienne Nkasi, the old man I had met in Kinshasa. “I was twelve or fifteen at the time,” he told me during one of our conversations, “I was still a child, incapable of hard labor. Kinshasa and Mbanza-Ngungu didn’t exist yet.” Indeed, I reflected, Kinshasa was not yet a city at that time, at most only a cluster of settlements; Mbanza-Ngungu (the former Thysville) had yet to be built. It owed its existence to the railroad. At the highest point along the track, precisely halfway between Matadi and Kinshasa, there had once been a pleasantly cool and fertile hillside. It was there, between 1895 and 1898, that they built the town named after the project’s chief engineer. Travelers spent the night there during their two-day journey. It was a fresh and verdant spot, where European crops were raised on a large scale. Today it is marked by rusty boxcars on rusty tracks, beside rusty Art Nouveau–style colonial homes.

“I was there when they built Thysville,” Nkasi had remarked, amazing me for the umpteenth time with his memories of an incredibly distant past. “My father knew Albert Thys. He was the leader of a crew, my father was. Four black men pulled the white man’s cart over the rails. The white man wore one of those white helmets. I saw that.” He smiled, as though realizing only then how very long ago that was. “Papa worked at Tumba, at Mbanza-Ngungu, Kinshasa, Kintambo. I went with him everywhere.” Those were indeed the posts along the route under construction. The job was finished in 1898. At the festive opening, white people trundled along from Matadi to Kinshasa, a nineteen-hour journey, in tuxedo and décolleté. Along the way there were fireworks and here and there blacks in uniform stood and saluted. At some of the stations the travelers were treated to hymns sung by the choirs from the local mission posts, accompanied by a rickety harmonium.51 The celebrated narrow-gauge railway was in fact merely a a tramway with open carriages, yet the opening of it constituted a milestone in the opening up of Congo. For Nkasi, however, the grand opening meant it was time to go home. He had been gone for three years. “When the work was finished, Papa went back to the village, back to my mother. To make more children. I was still the only one they had. Two babies had died after I was born. When he came back from the railroad, he made five more.” I asked him about the trains back then. He remembered that too. “The engines, they ran on wood,” he explained. “And when they started moving . . .” He sat up a little straighter on his bed, clenched his old fists, and began rocking his thin arms back and forth. “It went: toooot . . . tacka, tacka, tacka.” Then he burst into noiseless laughter.52

Working on the railroad was not the worst that could overcome a Congolese, especially not after 1895. For at the moment when the first native laborers were taken on, a premium system came into effect. The white yard supervisor would agree with the black headman on a term within which a certain stretch of railroad was to be finished. If that goal was met, his team received a preestablished bonus. A company culture of incentives, avant la lettre. On top of his daily wages of fifteen centimes and his ration of rice, biscuits, and dried fish, the worker could in this way earn a little extra cash, valid albeit only at government shops, in the absence of a monetary economy in the rest of the country. Louis Goffin, the engineer who devised the premium system, spoke of “une cooperation du travail des noirs et du capital européen” (a working arrangement between black labor and European capital). The objective, according to him, was to instill the Congolese with enthusiasm for their work, purchasing power, and pride. The idea was “to create among the natives new needs, which would result in a love of work, a rapid development of commerce and, in that way, of civilization.”53 Once the railroad was finished a few Congolese remained employed as lathe operators in the machine shop, at stationmasters, or even as locomotive drivers. They were on the payroll, and therefore the first to be absorbed into the money economy. Each time I visited Nkasi, he spoke with great admiration of a man named Lema, his father’s cousin. Lema had served as boy-bateau on the ships to Antwerp, but went to work on the railroad in 1900. “He became stationmaster at Lukala.” “Where the cement factory is now?” “Yes, that’s right. Stationmaster! He knew the white people.”54

Elsewhere in the Free State, monetization was yet to arrive. Barter was still the norm. That, however, made it rather hard to collect taxes. The Free State needed revenues and considered it expedient that its subjects help pay for their country’s development; no money, however, could be expected from those who had none. The beads, copper ingots, and bales of cotton of the past were of no interest to them. And so an arrangement had to be made for payment in kind: in goods or in labor. That, after all, was how it used to go, when a hunter presented a tusk or a portion of the spoils to the village chieftain. That had been a solid system in the past, but now it would lead to the total disjunction of Congolese society. The refusal to introduce a money economy to the interior, too, had painful consequences.

Leopold II played a rather dirty trick on free trade. As owner of almost all the ground in Congo, he himself was nonetheless unable to develop it. His solution was to grant huge concessions to a few commercial concerns: to the north of the Congo River, the Anversoise, a new company, was allowed to exploit an area of 160,000 square kilometers (about 62,400 square miles), approximately twice the size of Ireland. To the south of that same river, the ABIR (Anglo-Belgian Indian Rubber Company) received a permit for a comparable area. The king treated himself to an extremely generous chunk of jungle largely south of the equator: the Kroondomein (Domaine de la Couronne), covering 250,000 square kilometers (about 97,500 square miles), approximately ten times the size of Belgium. In order not to displease all the people all the time, Kasai remained a sort of natural reserve where free trade was allowed to muddle on for a while (it was later monopolized by the king anyway). The Compagnie du Katanga and the Compagnie des Grands Lacs also received enormous territories; their very names show that they were set up especially for the occasion. The major economic exploitation of the Congolese interior, therefore, lay in the hands of the king and a few privileged concessionaries. Yet these were not watertight worlds; Leopold himself was usually the main shareholder in the new companies or at the very least had a right to a substantial share in their profits. The concessionaries’ management councils always included top administrative officials from the Free State. In Belgium, the king’s financial adviser, Browne de Tiège, was not only chairman of the Anversoise and the Société Générale Africaine, but also a member of the board of ABIR, as well as the Société Internationale Forestière et Minière, the Société Belge de Crédit Maritime in Antwerp, and a handful of other partnerships.

Congo’s economic potential now no longer revolved solely around ivory. In 1888 a Scottish veterinarian, John Boyd Dunlop, had come up with an invention that would not only considerably improve the comfort of thousands of travelers in Europe and America, but also rule, or even end, the lives of millions of Congolese—the inflatable rubber tire. In an age in which new inventions like the car and the bicycle still had to make do with ironclad wooden wheels, the rubber tire was a godsend. The worldwide demand for rubber took off. For Leopold, it was nothing short of a miraculous deliverance. Fewer and fewer elephants roamed the Free State, but rubber trees abounded. The timing could not have been better. His Congo was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and Belgium was poised, however reluctantly, to take over. Suddenly, that turned out not to be necessary. In 1891 Congo was producing only a few hundred metric tons of rubber, but by 1896 that had grown to thirteen hundred tons (nearly 1,450 U.S. tons) and by 1901 to six thousand tons (6,600 U.S. tons).55 From a moribund project in Central Africa, the Free State had suddenly become a true economic wonder. Leopold raked in millions and, after a very long wait and years of reckless entrepreneurship, finally received his return on investment. At last he could demonstrate what a colony was good for: economic boom, imperial fame, and national pride. With the revenues from Congo he was able to spruce up Belgium on a major scale. Brussels saw the construction of the Jubelpark Museum and a new royal palace, at Tervuren an immense colonial museum and park, inspired by Versailles, and at Ostend the celebrated Venetian esplanade.

The flip side was seen only in Congo itself, where—except for the tins of foie gras and bottles of champagne sent to government officials from Belgium—there was little glamour and glitter to be found. Not only did Leopold refuse to invest the proceeds from his rubber empire in Congo itself, he set about supervising the harvesting of that rubber in an extremely troubling fashion. There were nothing like plantations in Congo, only wild rubber. The harvesting of it was a long and arduous task that required the involvement of many manual laborers. The ideal form of taxation, therefore, had been found: the rubber itself. Natives had to go into the jungle to tap the rubber trees, collect the latex, and process it crudely into sticky clumps. Whereas taxes had formerly been collected in the form of manioc loaves or ivory, or by the impressments of porters, now the local population had to deliver baskets of rubber at prearranged intervals. The quota varied from region to region, but the principle remained the same. In the Crown Domain, the regional governor would draw up an estimate and the soldiers of the Force Publique would see to the collection of the rubber tax. In those areas where concessionaires operated, the collection was done by armed guards, the so-called sentries. In both cases it involved Africans with limited military training and little discipline.

The abuses to which this system led were, in fact, a foregone conclusion. The men paid to collect the rubber were paid for the quantity of rubber they collected. No rubber, no pay. They therefore did all they could to maximize yield. In actual practice that meant a universal reign of terror. Because they were armed, they were able to mercilessly terrorize the local population. The situation in the territories allotted to the concessionaires was appalling, but in the areas controlled by the Free State things were hardly better. Disasi Makulo witnessed it himself, at the mission post he had founded at Yalemba. Trouble awaited him not only from the heathen villagers of his region, he had to concede, but also from the Congolese from other parts of the country, now in the service of the Free State.

They often profited from the absence of their superiors. They abused, tortured and sometimes even murdered people . . . . At the mission post at Bandu was a man whose nickname was Alio [the eagle], because of his cruelty. He was the general overseer for the rubber deliveries. That man was terribly cruel. He killed a great many people! One day he and his crew crossed the river to go to the Turumbu, a tribe that lived on the right bank. As usual, he demanded goats, chickens, ivory, et cetera et cetera from every village he went to. This time he caused very serious problems. He even killed a man.

When I heard that he was on his way to my village of Bandio . . . I took a few boys from the mission along and went looking for him. When we arrived, we found him just as he was busy beating people and torturing them and plundering the village! Without wasting a minute I went up to him and said: “You are in the service of the state only for the purpose of overseeing the deliveries of rubber, not to abuse, rob, and murder. Give back immediately all that you have confiscated, or else I will report these facts to the authorities in Basoko.”56

Disasi also witnessed the shooting of a girl from his village by the guardian of the rubber depot. His experiences were typical of all those who came in contact with the rubber policies of that day. The men were sent into the forest to collect rubber, the women were held hostage until enough rubber had been delivered. Human lives were not worth much, as several disturbing eyewitness reports show. “Two sentries, Bokombula and Bokusula, arrested my grandfather Iselunyako, because his rubber basket was not full enough. They put him in a well and trampled him underfoot. That is what killed him. When we showed his body to the white man, he said: ‘Good. He was finished with rubber and therefore finished living.’”57

Eluo, a man from Esanga, related the following: “We had to supply fifty baskets of rubber. One day, during the administration of the white man Intamba [Meneer Dineur], we came back with only forty-nine, and they declared war on us. The sentry Lomboto came to our village with a few others. Along the way, as they passed a swamp, he saw my sister fishing. For no reason at all, Lomboto shot her with his rifle and killed her.’”58

Sexual violence took place in those days as well. A married woman recounted: “To punish me, the sentries Nkusu Lomboto and Itokwa removed my pagne and stuffed clay into my genitals. That was very painful.”59 Cruelty had a function.

The village chieftain Isekifusa was killed in his hut. Two of his wives were murdered at the same time. A child was cut in two. One of the women was then disemboweled . . . . Boeringa’s people, who had come along with the sentries, ate the bodies. Then they killed ten men who had fled into the forest. When they left Bolima, they left a part of Lombutu’s behind, chopped into pieces and mixed with banana and manioc, in plain sight, to frighten the villagers. The child’s intestines were hung up around the village huts. The child’s body parts were impaled on sticks.60

HAD THE SYSTEM OF PREMIUMS applied during the construction of the railroad in Bas-Congo been introduced here as well, a very different set of dynamics would have been set in motion. People would have been rewarded for their efforts and motivated to continue producing. The Congolese, after all, were anxious for such rewards, but the authorities ignored this: “When we ask for mitakos [copper currency ingots], we get the chicotte [strop made of hippopotamus hide] instead,” someone said.61 The rubber had to flow freely to the state, at no cost. This was about taxation, not remuneration: in fact, what it boiled down to was pillaging.

The dirty work of collecting these revenues was left to subordinates with rifles. Because their white bosses wanted to be sure that they did not misuse their weapons to hunt for game, they had to account for every round of ammunition. At various places, therefore, there arose the custom of cutting off the right hand of those they had shot and taking it along as proof of what the bullet had been used for. To keep the hands from rotting they were smoked over an open fire, in the same way that food is preserved to this day. The tax collector, after all, saw his boss only once every few weeks. During the debriefing he was expected to present the hands as pièces justificatives, as “receipts” for expenses incurred.

Beginning in 1900 voices began to be raised in Europe against this Belgian ruler who had his employees cut off people’s hands. A few photographs of Congolese with stumps for arms made their way around the world. This resulted in the widespread misconception that living persons were having their hands cut off in Congo on a major scale. That did happen, but much less systematically than most people thought. The greatest ignominy of Leopold’s rubber policies was not that dead people’s hands were cut off, but that the murdering took place so casually. The mutilation of corpses was a secondary effect. That does nothing, however, to detract from the fact that, in a number of cases, the atrocities truly knew no bounds. “When I was still a child,” said Matuli, a fifteen-year-old female student at the Ikoko mission, “the sentries shot at the people in my village because of the rubber. My father was murdered: they tied him to a tree and shot and killed him, and when the sentries untied him they gave him to their boys, who ate him. My mother and I were taken prisoner. The sentries cut off my mother’s hands while she was still alive. Two days later, they cut off her head. There were no white men present.”62

By severing the limbs of living victims, the sentries not only saved on bullets, but were also able to steal the broad copper bracelets that women often had forged around their wrists or ankles. Boali’s story is quite telling in that regard: “One day, when my husband was in the forest tapping rubber, the sentry Ikelonda came to my hut and asked me to give myself to him. I refused. Enraged, he shot me with his rifle; you can still see the wound. I fell to the ground and Ikelonda thought I was dead. To get the copper ring I wore around my ankle, he chopped off my right foot.”63 Had Boali shown any sign of life at that point, she would have been killed immediately.

But violence by Africans against other Africans was not the whole story: it was not only at the base of the pyramid of power that blood flowed. Many Belgians also took part in this. Physical violence was more widely tolerated in those days—Belgian cafés were the scene of weekly brawls, free-for-alls were a part of youth culture, corporal punishment was the standard at schools—yet some of the offences in Congo far exceeded the boundaries of custom. Floggings with the chicotte were an official disciplinary measure. The Belgian civil servant in charge established the number of lashes to be administered, his black aide-de-camp dealt them out during the morning or evening roll call, while the flag of the Free State waved over the proceedings. The strop had to be flat, the number of lashes was not to exceed fifty (to be administered in two series of twenty-five each), only the buttocks and lower back were to be lashed, and the whipping was to cease at the first show of blood. Some white people, however, did not abide so closely by the rules: they preferred a nonregulation strop, which was twisted and angular and therefore much more painful. They also included the stomach, loins, and sex organs in the flogging. Sometimes they prescribed punishments of up to four hundred lashes, and paid no heed to any bleeding or physical collapse. Pregnant woman, who officially were not to be punished in this way, still received a beating.64

Mokolo, a married woman, testified:

My husband’s name was Wisu and every two weeks, along with Ebobondo and Ebote, he brought the rubber from our village to the trading post at Boyeka. We always supplied twenty baskets full, but then the whites began demanding twenty-five. Our people refused, and pointed out that our village was only a small one. But the next time they showed up with only twenty baskets, the white men became angry. One of them, Nkoi [the nickname used for Ablay], threw my husband to the ground and held onto his head. The other, Ekotolongo [the nickname of Félicien Molle], began beating him with nkekeles [canes], three of which even broke. Almost dead, Wisu was dragged by Ebobondo and Ebote to a dugout in which they traveled to Bokotola. But before they could go ashore there, he died. I saw Wisu’s body, and you can still see the traces of my tears.65

The Free State administration contained out-and-out racists and sadists. Torture, abuses of power, and massacres occurred. A person like René de Permentier, an officer in the Force Publique, reveled in completely pointless bloodbaths. He had the brousse(jungle brush) cleared around his house so that he could shoot at passers-by from his veranda. Domestic personnel who made a mistake were slaughtered without mercy. Executions were a daily occurrence.66 Léon Fiévez, a farmer’s son from Wallonia who became a district commissioner in Équateur, indulged in bloody punitive expeditions. After only four months in public service, he had murdered 572 people.67 During one of those expeditions, within a few days, he saw to the looting and torching of 162 villages, the destruction of the local fields, and the killing of 1,346 people. He was, however, also able to claim the greatest volume of incoming rubber in all the Free State.68

The lion’s share of those Belgians who arrived to try their luck in Congo came from small provincial towns and the lower middle class. Many of them had served in the army and looked forward to adventure, fame, and fortune. But once in Congo they often found themselves alone at remote trading posts in a killing climate. The heat and humidity were relentless, the attacks of fever frequent. No one knew yet that malaria was transferred by mosquitoes. A young man like that, in the flower of his youth, might awake at night for no good reason, soaked in sweat, delirious, shivering, thinking about all those other white people who had suffered and died. He heard a jungle full of strange noises, recalled snippets of a brusque conversation with a village chieftain earlier that day, and thought back on the skittish glances of the people charged with collecting rubber, on the sinister hissing of their incomprehensible language. In his feverish visions between sleep and wakefulness he saw gleaming eyes full of suspicion, broad, shiny backs covered in tattoos, and the budding breasts of a young native girl who had smiled at him.

George Grenfell, the British Baptist who had cared for Disasi Makulo, was a keen observer of all this. For a long time he had been one of Leopold’s fervent supporters, he had even taken upon himself the task of chairing the king’s Commission for Native Welfare, in fact nothing but a paper attempt to spread oil on troubled waters. But Grenfeld’s disaffection grew rapidly: “In view of the number of solitary posts manned by unmarried white men, with only a handful of native soldiers amid semi-docile and often cruel and superstitious peoples, it should come as no surprise if more madness comes to light. But it is the system that is to be condemned, more than the poor individual who, overpowered by fever and fear, loses control over himself and indulges in forms of intimidation in order to maintain his authority.”69 The Free State’s administration prided itself on punctuality, state officials feigned a certain equanimity, the appearance of control was held high. But writhing beneath all this were feelings of fear, depression, melancholy, lethargy, despair, and total madness. People lost their heads.

The Free State condemned misconduct in word, but in deed it could not control its subordinates. There were almost no convictions. News of what was happening in Brussels reached Boma quicker than news from the rain forest. King Leopold too sounded dismayed when initial reports of atrocities began trickling in. He said: “The abuses must stop, or I shall withdraw from Congo. I will not let myself be sullied with blood or muck. This shameful behavior must stop.”70 That did not keep him, however, from reappointing infamous brutes like Fiévez, even though the king was well aware of the man’s shameful deeds. Neither he nor his advisers nor his top officials in Boma wished to admit that the atrocities were inherent to the system employed. And yet, with profit maximization as the alpha and omega of the entire enterprise, people at all levels of the administration were pressured to collect more taxes, bring in more rubber, tighten the thumbscrews even further. The Free State system was a pyramid with Leopold II at its pinnacle, and under him the governor general at Boma and the various administrative levels, followed by the black soldiers of the Force Publique, and, at the very base, the native in his village. The physical violence may have been limited to the lowest rungs (on the part of rapacious soldiers and bugged-out officials in the interior, on the part of brutal sentries and completely deranged minds in the jungle), but the structural violence permeated all the way to the top, even unto the king’s palace at Laeken. The official rule may have been that a native was to work no more than forty hours a month for the state, but as rubber became scarcer the natives had to go farther and farther into the jungle to collect their quota. No time was left for other forms of work. People became the state’s bondsmen. Leopold II had, at least nominally, set out to eradicate Afro-Arabic slave trading, but had replaced it with an even more horrendous system. For while an owner took care of his slave (he had, after all, paid for him), Leopold’s rubber policies by definition had no regard for the individual. One would be hard-pressed to choose between contracting the bubonic plague or cholera, but from a distance it would seem that the life of a Congolese domestic slave in Saudi Arabia or India was to be preferred to that of a rubber harvester in Équateur.

The consequences were horrendous. The fields lay fallow. Agriculture dwindled to the raising of only the most basic staples. Native commerce came to a standstill. Crafts in the process of refinement for centuries, such as iron smithing or woodcarving, were lost. The native population became listless, enfeebled, and malnourished. And so extremely susceptible to illnesses. Around the turn of the century, sleeping sickness became rampant. This illness, carried by the tsetse fly, had been known in the region for a long time, but the death rate had never been so high. It assumed truly pandemic proportions. In 1904 George Grenfell wrote: “In many districts, the current death rate is nothing less than alarming. Along the thousand miles of river (two thousand miles of shoreline) between Léopoldville and Stanleyville, after having counted the houses and made a rough estimate, I would strongly doubt whether if one hundred thousand souls still live in all of the town and villages along the way.”71 This, it should be remembered, was once the most populous stretch of the interior. In some villages, between 60 and 90 percent of population vanished. In 1891 Lukolela, one of the oldest trading posts along the banks of the Congo, had some six thousand inhabitants; by 1903 there were fewer than four hundred.72 It is impossible to say how many people died as a direct or indirect result of Leopold’s rubber policies. There are simply no reliable figures. What’s more, there was another reason for the depopulation; many people simply went away, away from the river, away from the banks. They went to live deep in the jungle or crossed the border to remain beyond reach of the state. They too became invisible. A rare eyewitness to that first historic stream of refugees was interviewed about this in 1903:

How long ago was it that you left your houses? Was it when the big problems began, the ones you told us about?

Three years ago. This is the fourth year after we fled and came to live in this region.

How many days must one walk to reach your own country?

Six days of brisk walking. We ran away because we could no longer live with the things they did to us. Our village chieftains were hanged, we were murdered and starved. And we worked ourselves to death in order to find rubber.73

It would be absurd in this context to speak of an act of “genocide” or a “holocaust”; genocide implies the conscious, planned annihilation of a specific population, and that was never the intention here, or the result. And the term Holocaust is reserved for the persecution and annihilation of the Jews during World War II. But it was definitely a hecatomb, a slaughter on a staggering scale that was not intentional, but that could have been recognized much earlier as the collateral damage of a perfidious, rapacious policy of exploitation, a living sacrifice on the altar of the pathological pursuit of profit. When sleeping sickness ravaged the population, Leopold II called in the assistance of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the most famous center for tropical medicine of its day. He would never have done that if his intention had been to commit genocide. But that does not mean that he immediately acknowledged his responsibility in the matter. That, in fact, was something he never did.

The bloodstained rubber policy, nicknamed “red rubber,” did not have the same impact everywhere. Équateur, Bandundu, and Kasai—the western part of the Congolese rain forest—were the hardest hit. That was where the exploitation was easiest to achieve, because of the big rivers. When I once asked old Nkasi, who came from Bas-Congo, about the days of the rubber quotas, he was unable to tell me anything. “That wasn’t where we were,” he said. “That was in the Mayombe.” He may very well have been right. The Mayombe was a stretch of equatorial forest north of Boma, close to the ocean and the Portuguese enclave of Cabinda. It was one of the few places in Bas-Congo where rubber was harvested. Nkasi knew about it only by word of mouth. “The Portuguese there cut off people’s hands,” he added, but he wasn’t completely sure about that. When I went on to ask whether he had witnessed the rapid spread of sleeping sickness, however, his nod was much more confident. “Yes, I saw that. Many young people died. A nasty disease.” He repeated that final sentence again in his simple French. “C’est mauvaise maladie” (It’s a bad disease).

FROM 1900 ON increasingly clear indications began coming in concerning the atrocities in the Free State. They were not immediately given credence. Protestant missionaries expressed their abhorrence in no uncertain terms, but in Belgium it was felt that they were simply frustrated about the influx of Catholic missionaries and the power they had lost. In Antwerp, Edward Morel, the employee of a British shipping company, began to realize that something was very wrong in Congo: he saw ships leave without cargo (except perhaps for guns and ammunition) and return full of rubber. That seemed more like plundering than bilateral trade, didn’t it? His objections, however, were dismissed lightly, as the typical moaning of those Liverpudlian traders who never stopped whinging about the decline of free trade. Did little Belgium really stand to learn anything from the British? That’s what they wanted to know. Weren’t those imperial browbeaters in fact the worst malefactors of all, now that they had made mincemeat out of the defenseless Boers down in South Africa? The Boer War, after all, had met with disapproval in Belgium as well.

The tenor of the discussion changed a bit, however, after Roger Casement, the British consul in Boma, wrote a thoughtful but damning report in 1904. Casement was a highly respected diplomat. This was no British dockworker, but an official envoy of Great Britain, a man of great moral authority and long acquainted with the Congolese interior. His objections could no longer be dismissed; they led to major protests in the British House of Commons. Authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, and Mark Twain publicly voiced their disapproval. One year after the report appeared, King Leopold found himself compelled to send an international, independent investigative committee to Congo. Three magistrates, one Belgian, one Swiss, and an Italian, were allowed to travel around Congo for months and carry out interviews in his Free State. They would surely absolve him of all blame. But that is not how it went. The investigative committee went to work as a sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission avant la lettre. They listened to hundreds of witnesses, compiled plaints, and wrote a down-to-earth report in which the Free State’s policies were quite accurately dissected. It was a dry but devastating text, stating that the “taking hostage and abduction of women, the subjugation of chieftains to forced labor, the humiliations to which they are subjected, the chicotte used by harvest overseers, the violent actions on the part of blacks ostensibly occupied in ‘guarding’ the prisoners” were the rule rather than the exception.74 The Brussels lawyer and professor Félicien Cattier followed the reasoning through to its most extreme conclusion: “The clearest and most incontrovertible truth arising from this report is that the state of Congo is no colonized state, barely a state at all, but a financial enterprise . . . . The colony is not administered in the best interests of the natives, nor even in the economic interests of Belgium: to provide the sovereign with the greatest possible financial gain, that was the motivation.”75

The international pressure on King Leopold II was mounting. Something had to give, and the only option was for Leopold to part with his overseas territory and for Belgium to take over Congo. In December 1906 the knot was cut, but Leopold loitered over the modalities of the transfer for almost two more years. He wondered whether he might perhaps still be able to keep a piece of Congo for himself, the Crown Domain for example. It was with clear reluctance that he handed over his lifework. Shortly before the transfer he even ordered the Free State archives to be burned. But on November 15, 1908, the day finally arrived: on the occasion of the annual National Celebration of the Dynasty, the dynasty handed over Congo. The term free state itself had meanwhile become rather outmoded for a state without free trade, free employment, or free citizens. In its stead there had come a regime that revolved around a monopolistic economy, forced labor and bondage. From then on the region was to be called the Belgian Congo.

During the term of the Free State, the local population had had its first encounter with various aspects of the European presence. By the year 1908 some sixteen thousand children were attending missions schools, an estimated thirty thousand people had learned to read and write, sixty-six thousand had served in the army, and some two hundred thousand had been baptized.76 Directly or indirectly, hundreds of thousands of locals had been effected by the rubber policies. Millions had been struck down by sleeping sickness and other infectious diseases.

And Disasi Makulo had seen it all from close by. He had been involved in the ivory trade when it was still free, he had served as boy to a celebrated British missionary, he had made countless journeys on the man’s steamboat, he had literally experienced the interweaving of mission and state firsthand when—during one of his travels with Grenfell—he was conscripted into the Force Publique. He had been baptized, married a girl from a distant region, he swore by monogamy and the nuclear family, criticized traditional village life, and in the end became a catechist in order to Christianize his own region. And it was precisely at that point that he had personally witnessed the violence of the rubber policies.

But at his mission post, even more sorrow lay in store for him. His great mentor George Grenfell came to visit there in mid-1906. Grenfell looked like a man of eighty, but had still to turn fifty-seven. His years in the tropics had been long and grueling. He was worn out. Grenfell asked his former pupil and his converts to sing a hymn for him in their own language, Bobangi. Afterward he explicitly stated his desire to be buried at Yalemba, the mission post Disasi had founded himself. Disasi called him “he who remained our father until his death.”77

TODAY, IN KINSHASA, one sees very little that hearkens back to those early years, but during my very first trip to Congo in December 2003 I was granted access to the former garage for city buses in the borough of Limete. Buses had been absent from the capital’s streets for quite a few years already; the few broken-down examples that still existed had been converted into houses in which several families lived. The windshield wipers were used as clotheslines. The residents slept on the old seats, their arms draped over the aluminum bars. From the shadow of a hubcap or hood one heard the bleating of an unseen goat. It was an abandoned industrial estate, where nature was regaining its grip. After walking on a bit I saw, in the grass, a highly remarkable work of postmodern art. Never had I seen a more peculiar installation invested with such historical reminiscences. Lying on its stomach in a rusty steel boat was the bronze figure of a man at least twelve feet tall. I recognized the statue right away: it was the triumphant image of Stanley that had stood looking out boldly across the river for decades, atop the hill at Ngaliema. Designed and cast in Molenbeek, outside Brussels, it had been shipped here during the colonial period, but was pulled from its pedestal after independence. And now here he lay, old Stanley. The broad sweep of that arm with which he had once taken the Congo’s measure was now pointing nowhere and at nothing. The fingers touched only the boat’s rusty boiler. Power had become a cramp, courage something laughable. On the hull, close to the bow, I saw three letters: AIA, the abbreviation for Association Internationale Africaine. This was one of the three boats with which Stanley had braved the current between 1879 and 1884, for the purpose of establishing the odd trading post. It was in one of those boats that he taken aboard Disasi Makulo after buying him from a slave trader. Now Stanley lay felled in his own boat. The fleet with which he placed Congo under a new authority had become his mausoleum. Who knows what civil servant had come up with this ingenious bit of bricolage; it was probably a wrecking company that had improvised on the spot this scrap heap of history, but seldom had I seen a more ironic settling of accounts with colonialism than in Stanley’s official monument lying flat on its belly in his own old tub.

The next day, in the tranquil, green district of Ngombe on the other side of town, I found the Baptists’ old mission post. It lay along the riverbank in what is now the most exclusive neighborhood in Kinshasa. Their original building was still there, a simple construction on cast-iron stilts, just like in Boma. Around each individual stilt was a sort of vase: these had once been kept filled with petroleum, to ward off the termites. It must be, I think the oldest building in Kinshasa. I walked on a few steps to get a better view of the river. Kinshasa lies on one of the world’s largest rivers, but with all the walls and barriers (it remains, after all, a national border) there are few places where one can truly see the water. On the slope down to the river, in the tall grass, there lay something that looked like a huge insect, or the ribcage of bronze giant. It was the cooler of an enormous engine. Dozens of parallel brass tubes found their confluence in a sturdy steel rod. One of the Baptists’ students told me that this was the engine of the Peace, the steamboat on which Grenfell had made all his journeys of discovery. When the ship itself was finally salvaged, this showpiece of industrial archaeology had been hoisted ashore. It seemed too good to be true. Not only do we possess the details of Disasi Makulo’s formidable life story, but the two boats in which he plied the Congo are today still lying, rusting away, in the tall, silent grass of Kinshasa.

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