ON JUNE 10, 1878, a steamer carried Henry Morton Stanley across the English Channel to his first meeting with the King of the Belgians. We do not know what Leopold was doing as he waited for the explorer in his office at the Royal Palace, his patient months of wooing about to bear fruit. But it would not be unreasonable to imagine that this geographer-king once again looked at his maps.
Such a look would have confirmed that only in Africa could Leopold hope to achieve his dream of seizing a colony, especially one immensely larger than Belgium. There was no more unclaimed territory in the Americas, and Maximilian and Carlota's disastrous adventure in Mexico was a reminder of what could happen if one tried to take control of an independent country there. Nor were there blank spaces in Asia: the Russian Empire stretched all the way to the Pacific, the French had taken Indochina, the Dutch the East Indies, and most of the rest of southern Asia, from Aden to Singapore, was colored with the British Empire's pink. Only Africa remained.
Stanley had followed the Congo River for some fifteen hundred miles. He had obviously not seen all of it, though, because when he first reached it, far upstream, it was already nearly a mile wide. Full exploration would take many years, but after eagerly devouring Stanley's newspaper articles, Leopold had a rough idea of what the explorer had found.
Eventually the statistics would be known. The Congo River drains more than 1.3 million square miles, an area larger than India. It has an estimated one sixth of the world's hydroelectric potential. Most important of all, for a nineteenth-century empire-builder, the river and its fan-shaped web of tributaries constitute more than seven thousand miles of interconnecting waterways, a built-in transportation grid rivaled by few places on earth. Once disassembled steamboats could be transported around the great rapids and onto that network, they would find wood to burn in their boilers growing right at dockside; most of the navigable rivers ran through the fast-growing rain forest that covered half the basin.
Of the people who lived in the Congo basin, Europeans still knew little. When not drawing a bead on them through his gun sights, Stanley had been interested in them mainly as a source of supplies, people with whom he could trade trinkets or cloth for food. But he had made two important discoveries about the area's inhabitants. One was that they were no military threat: his nearly three dozen battles showed their spears and arrows and decrepit muskets to be no match for his new, breech-loading Snider rifles. His other discovery was that, along the crucial transportation artery of the Congo River, there was no single all-powerful state that had to be subdued. Further exploring along the river's tributaries would find several large kingdoms, but centuries of slave-hunting raids from both the east and west African coasts had severely weakened most of them. Many of the peoples of the Congo basin were small in population. As the next round of exploration would soon show, there were more than two hundred different ethnic groups speaking more than four hundred languages and dialects. With the potential opposition so fragmented, conquest would be relatively easy.
On the day in 1878 when he sat down for his long-anticipated meeting with Stanley, Leopold was forty-three. With the pedantic awkwardness of his youth far behind him, he had learned to play the royal role superbly. Although the thirty-seven-year-old Stanley was a head shorter than the king and uneasy about his rudimentary French, he too had come into his own. The ne'er-do-well naval deserter of a mere thirteen years earlier was now a best-selling author, recognized as one of the greatest of living explorers. His stern, mustachioed face appeared in magazines everywhere beneath a Stanley Cap, his own invention. It had a high crown surrounded by ventilation holes, a brim over the eyes, and a havelock, a cloth to keep the sun off ears and neck. To our eyes the cap looks like a cross between that of a Foreign Legionnaire and a doorman—which, in a way, summed up Stanley's personality: one part titan of rugged force and mountain-moving confidence; the other a vulnerable, illegitimate son of the working class, anxiously struggling for the approval of the powerful. In photographs each part seems visible: the explorer's eyes carry both a fierce determination and a woundedness.
At this first meeting, Leopold immediately put Stanley at ease in fluent English. The men who met each other that June day at the Royal Palace each represented a class type that would become familiar. The commanders of the ground troops in the great African land grab, the whites who led soldiers into the bush, directed the rifle and machine-gun fire and wielded the surveyors' instruments, who braved malaria, dysentery, and typhoid, were often, like Stanley, from the lower or lower middle class in their home countries. For them, Africa was a chance to gain upward mobility toward wealth and glory. But those who made the greatest fortunes from the Scramble for Africa, like Leopold, were often men who had fortunes to begin with.
Although he had lived a pampered life in yachts and palaces, Leopold was, of the two, the wiser in the ways of the world. He had taken the measure of Stanley's ambition, of his immense capacity for hard work, of his craving for constant flattery, and of his need for a sponsor. Stanley, still smarting from British lack of interest in the Congo, was delighted to meet a monarch who admired what he had done and wanted him to do more.
After that meeting, Stanley traveled about Europe for the rest of 1878, promoting Through the Dark Continent, meeting members of the new Stanley Club in Paris, and receiving honors everywhere. Leopold sent messages and emissaries after him, to keep his man on the hook. Before the year was out, the two had agreed on the terms of Stanley's return to the Congo, this time working for the king. Stanley's contract ran for five years; he would be paid 25,000 francs a year for time spent in Europe and 50,000 francs (roughly $250,000 in today's dollars) a year for time spent in Africa. And, of course, Leopold would fund the expeditionary force to accompany him.
They agreed that Stanley would first set up a base near the river's mouth and then construct a road around the rapids, through the rugged Crystal Mountains—a precursor to a railway. Over this road porters would carry several steamboats broken down into small pieces, which Stanley would later assemble and use to travel upstream, building a chain of trading stations along the thousand-mile navigable main stretch of the Congo River. Afterward, he could write a book about his experiences—but Leopold would have the right to edit it.
Of the riches Leopold hoped to find in the Congo, the one that gleamed most brightly in his imagination was ivory. European and American merchants were already eagerly buying African ivory in the markets of Zanzibar. Because it could be easily carved, ivory in the nineteenth century was a more rare and expensive version of what plastic is today, with the added cachet of having an exotic origin—a cachet that grew greater with the public idolization of African explorers. Ivory from elephant tusks was shaped into knife handles, billiard balls, combs, fans, napkin rings, piano and organ keys, chess pieces, crucifixes, snuffboxes, brooches, and statuettes. In a faint echo of its original use to the elephant, it was made into false teeth. Despite the long distances ivory had to be carried from the elephant ranges far inland, it was attractive to dealers all the way along the line because, like drugs or precious metals, it had high value and low bulk. The hundred pounds of ivory in an average pair of African elephant tusks could make hundreds of piano keys or thousands of false teeth. Ivory dealers preferred African elephant tusks to Indian, and the elephants of equatorial Africa, which included the Congo basin, tended to have the largest tusks of all. Stanley had found ivory so plentiful that it was used for doorposts in African homes.
For the moment, such riches lay at least several years in Leopold's future, for first Stanley had to build his road. He left nothing out of the detailed budget he prepared for the king: small boats, wooden buildings in pieces, rope, tools, African porters, and European supervisors. Among the latter were two young Englishmen who, in the tradition of Stanley's inept subordinates, had never been out of the country. Having hired neophytes, he could later rail about their inexperience: "I have had no friend on any expedition, no one who could possibly be my companion, on an equal footing, except while with Livingstone.... How can he who has witnessed many wars hope to be understood by one whose most shocking sight has been a nose-bleed?"
Stanley was savvy enough to demand his money from Leopold in advance because, despite a plethora of contracts, whom he was working for remained foggy: was it the king himself, the king's International African Association, which seemed to be withering away, or a new and somewhat secretive body called the Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo? The committee's stockholders officially were a small group of Dutch and British businessmen and a Belgian banker—who, in fact, was quietly holding a large block of shares as Leopold's proxy. A trusted henchman of the king's, Colonel Maximilien Strauch, was the committee's president.
Ambitious as his and Stanley's plans were, Leopold was intent that they be seen as nothing more than philanthropy. The contracts Stanley made his European staff sign forbade them to divulge anything about the real purpose of their work. "Only scientific explorations are intended," Leopold assured a journalist. To anyone who questioned further, he could point to a clause in the committee's charter that explicitly prohibited it from pursuing political ends. The king wanted to protect himself against the widespread feeling in Belgium that, for a small country, a colony would be a money-losing extravagance. He also wanted to do nothing to alert any potential rivals for this appetizing slice of the African cake, especially France, which was starting to show interest.
In February 1879, slipping on board a steamship under the name M. Henri, Stanley set off again for Africa. Behind him in Europe, another story was unfolding. A Dutch company that had been a key shareholder in the Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo went bankrupt, its chief reportedly fleeing to New York and going to work as a horse-cab driver. Leopold did not mind; he used the shock of the Dutch company's collapse to offer, in effect, a buy-out of the committee's other stockholders. They gratefully accepted, and the committee legally ceased to exist before the end of the year. But as a smokescreen it was still useful, and the king continued to refer to the committee as if it were functioning and as if its former shareholders, and not he alone, were funding Stanley and making decisions. Stanley himself did not find out about the committee's demise until more than a year after the fact.
To obfuscate things still further and give his African operations a name that could serve for a political entity, the master impresario created another new cover organization, the International Association of the Congo. This was calculated to sound confusingly similar to the moribund "philanthropic" International African Association of crown princes and explorers. "Care must be taken not to let it be obvious that the Association of the Congo and the African Association are two different things," Leopold instructed one of his aides. "The public doesn't grasp that." Adding to the public's confusion, the new International Association of the Congo, like the defunct Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo, used the flag of the International African Association, which had been adopted with much fanfare at that group's first and last meeting—a gold star on a blue background, intended to symbolize a blaze of hope in the proverbial African darkness.
Even before making his deal with Stanley, Leopold had begun reaching for his slice of the African cake from the other side of the table, by financing an attempt to reach the Congo basin from Africa's east coast. Three more such expeditions, all well-publicized but inept, followed. One of them included four baggage-carrying Indian elephants with the suitably exotic names Sundergrund, Naderbux, Sosankalli, and Pulmalla. The elephants, it turned out, required fifty laborers with axes and machetes to precede them, clearing trees and branches so that they and their loads could pass through. * But before dropping heavily and prematurely dead of various ailments, the elephants proved a journalist's dream. The European readers who followed each stage of the animals' unhappy journey failed to realize that the real story lay on Africa's other coast, where Stanley was quietly working on his road around the Congo River rapids.
Almost imperceptibly, the name Congo now began to refer not just to a river but to an entire territory. When the public finally did start paying attention to the new colony-in-the-making, the king reached new heights as an illusionist. He or one of his stagehands managed to open the curtains on a completely different set each time, depending on the audience. Henry Shelton Sanford, a board member of Leopold's venture in its incarnation as the International African Association, made it sound almost like Travelers Aid. In New York, on a 1879 trip to tend to his money-losing investments, Sanford gave a speech saying that the king's aim was "to found a chain of posts or hospices, both hospitable and scientific, which should serve as means of information and aid to travellers ... and ultimately, by their humanizing influences, to secure the abolition of the traffic in slaves." His new International Association of the Congo, Leopold insisted in a piece he wrote and managed to get published, over the byline "from a Belgian correspondent," in the London Times, was a sort of "Society of the Red Cross; it has been formed with the noble aim of rendering lasting and disinterested services to the cause of progress." When talking to the more military-minded Germans, Leopold nimbly changed the scenery and likened his men in the Congo to the knights of the Crusades. Almost everyone was fooled. Baroness Burdett-Coutts, the British patron of missionaries, gave him a donation of 50,000 francs for his humanitarian endeavors. In the United States, one writer declared Leopold's great work "enough to make an American believe in Kings forever."
Meanwhile, Leopold sent word that Stanley was to lay the groundwork in the Congo for a "confederation of free negro republics" black tribes whose president would live in Europe and rule under the guidance of the Belgian king. This particular illusion, echoing the idea of a union of states, was likely to appeal to an American audience. To Europeans, on the other hand, the king talked about free cities. "Bremen, Lübeck, Hamburg were free cities for a long time," one of his aides wrote. "Why would there not be some in the Congo?" Those backstage, however, knew that in either case the free was merely a prop to be removed as soon as the curtains closed. As one of Leopold's subordinates bluntly wrote to Stanley: "There is no question of granting the slightest political power to negroes. That would be absurd. The white men, heads of the stations, retain all the powers"
For five years, Stanley was Leopold's man in the Congo. The explorer's combative energy was now directed mainly against the territory's forbidding landscape, not its people. His crews of workmen carved a rough track, more a trail than a road, around the big rapids, using existing paths in some areas, in others cutting through brush and forest, filling in gullies, and throwing log bridges over ravines. Then they moved more than fifty tons of supplies and equipment up the trail. Draft animals like horses and oxen could not survive the Congo's climate and diseases, so supplies traveled mostly on porters' heads.
After two years of trail building, pulling, and hauling, two small steamboats were reassembled at the top of the rapids and puffed their way up the river to land parties that set up more bases on its banks. Names left no doubt whose colony this would be. The station established at the top of the big rapids, within earshot of their thunder, and featuring a heavily fortified blockhouse and a vegetable garden, was christened Leopoldville. Above it rose Leopold Hill. Soon maps showed Lake Leopold II and the Leopold River. One of the later-arriving steamboats, which would briefly be piloted by the Congo's most famous ship's officer, would be the Roi des Belges (King of the Belgians).
Stanley was a harsh taskmaster. "The best punishment is that of irons," he explained in one of his letters to Brussels, "because without wounding, disfiguring, or torturing the body, it inflicts shame and discomfort." (Whites were not put in irons, of course; only blacks.) Illness and other dangers were even more deadly than Stanley's wrath. In the first year alone, six Europeans and twenty-two Africans under his command died, including one eaten by a crocodile.
For the first time we are at last able to see Stanley in Africa through eyes not his own. A steamboat engineer named Paul Nève fell sick and wrote home:
Mr. Stanley has taken great care of me during these bad days ... the sort of care a blacksmith applies to repair an implement that is most essential and that has broken down through too rough usage ... teeth clenched in anger, he smites it again and again on the anvil, wondering whether he will have to scrap it or whether he will yet be able to use it as before.
Nève died several weeks later.
Stanley himself might not have minded the blacksmith analogy. "Every cordial-faced aborigine whom I meet..." he wrote, "I look upon ... with much of the same regard that an agriculturist views his strong-limbed child; he is a future recruit to the ranks of soldier-laborers." It was during this period, when he was pushing his men so hard, that Stanley became known by the Africans who worked for him as Bula Matadi or Bula Matari, "Breakstones." Stanley himself preferred the grander translation "Breaker of Rocks," and claimed that it was bestowed on him when he taught awed Africans how to use a sledgehammer and when they saw giant boulders dynamited as he built the trail through the Crystal Mountains
In Stanley's account of his labors, he snorts at Africans, who are lazy by definition, and at whites who are "weak-minded." He preaches "the gospel of enterprise," declaring that "the European middleman who has his home in Europe but has his heart in Africa is the man who is wanted.... They are the missionaries of commerce, adapted for nowhere so well as for the Congo basin, where are so many idle hands." And nowhere does he wax as passionate as when his moneymaking instincts and his Victorian prudery intersect. Getting the "clothesless and overtattooed" Africans out of their "unabashed nudity" and into European clothes is his continuing obsession:
I foresaw a brilliant future of Africa, if by any miracle of good fortune I could persuade the dark millions of the interior to cast off their fabrics of grass clothing and don ... second-hand costumes.... See what a ready market lies here for old clothes! The garments shed by the military heroes of Europe, of the club lackeys, of the liveried servants of modern Pharaohs, the frockcoats of a lawyer, merchant, or a Rothschild; or perhaps the grave garb of these my publishers, might find people of the rank of Congo chieftainship to wear them.
As Stanley shuttled back and forth on foot through the rugged, humid countryside, supervising construction, he carefully kept up his personal appearance, shaving and putting blacking on his mustache each day. During this sojourn, as during all his time in Africa, his sturdy, compact frame survived the diseases that sent so many European visitors to early graves. Several times he was delirious with fever and twice came near death. One bout of malaria, he wrote, reduced his weight to a hundred pounds, and he grew too weak to speak or raise his arms. For two weeks he lay in his tent, convinced that the end was near, then summoned his sun-helmeted European officers and African workers to give his last instructions, to say goodbye, and to make—so he claimed—one last profession of loyalty: "Tell the King ... that I am sorry not to have been able to carry out to a finish the mission he entrusted to me."
He recovered, but some months later fell sick again and, brought downriver, was carried ashore at Leopoldville unconscious. In 1882, barely able to walk, he went back to Europe to recuperate, traveling on a slow Portuguese steamer. On this ship, he fulminated, "underbred" second-class passengers were allowed onto the first-class deck, where they "expectorated, smoked, and sprawled in the most socialistic manner." Worse yet was an invasion by third-class "females, and half a score of half-naked white children."
At last he was rescued from these indignities by the ship's arrival in Europe. Doctors warned Stanley that it might be fatal for him to return to the Congo, but Leopold insisted: there was still much to be done. Not only did the king want his colony secured; he also wanted the explorer out of the way for a few more years because, always a loose cannon in public, Stanley continued to talk openly about his hopes for a British Congo. Leopold turned on the royal charm. "Surely, Mr. Stanley," he said, "you cannot think of leaving me now, just when I most need you?" Simultaneously fighting a painful relapse of illness and firing off orders for an array of new equipment and supplies, Stanley returned to the Congo after only two months.
With the great prize almost within his grasp, Leopold wanted as much land in the Congo as possible, and he wanted it now. His instructions and letters to Stanley all through these years pulsate with his lust for territory.
I take advantage of a safe opportunity to send you a few lines in my bad English.... It is indispensable you should purchase ... as much land as you will be able to obtain, and that you should place successively under ... suzerainty ... as soon as possible and without losing one minute, all the chiefs from the mouth of the Congo to the Stanley Falls.... If you let me know you are going to execute these instructions without delay I will send you more people and more material. Perhaps Chinese coolies.
Although piously assuring the British minister in Brussels that his venture in Africa "had no commercial character; it did not carry on trade," Leopold had already written to Stanley, "I am desirous to see you purchase all the ivory which is to be found on the Congo, and let Colonel Strauch know the goods which he has to forward you in order to pay for it and when. I also recommend you to establish barriers and tolls on the parts of the road you have opened. It is but fair and in accordance with the custom of every country."
Leopold and Stanley knew that other Europeans were beginning to nose around the basin. Their chief worry was the French explorer and naval officer Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who had landed on the coast north of the Congo River and headed inland. One day while he was still building his trail around the rapids, Stanley was startled to have the courtly Frenchman, in a white helmet and blue navy coat, show up at his tent. A still greater shock awaited him at Stanley Pool, where he found that de Brazza had signed a treaty with a chief ceding to France a strip of the northern shoreline. De Brazza had left a sergeant in command of an outpost there, flying the French flag.
Stanley was a man who brooked no rivals, and over the next few years he and de Brazza carried on a loud feud. Stanley claimed the French explorer's treaty was based on trickery; his rival called Stanley a warrior who was no friend to the Africans. The Paris press loved it. While Leopold schemed with Stanley about how to outfox de Brazza, behind Stanley's back the king invited the Frenchman to Brussels, gave him the Order of Leopold, and tried unsuccessfully to hire him.
The comings and goings of Stanley and de Brazza began to arouse interest elsewhere. Doddering Portugal resurrected its old claim to the land surrounding the Congo River's mouth. Britain, worried by French interest in the Congo, backed the Portuguese. Leopold felt he had no time to waste.
Stanley, under pressure, drove his men harder. He exploded at white subordinates who were drinking too much or who had let weeds grow around their river stations. "These people had already given me more trouble than all the African tribes put together. They had inspired such disgust in me that I would rather be condemned to be a boot-black all my life than to be a dry-nurse to beings who had no ... claim to manhood." Despite his own brief and inglorious career on opposite sides of the American Civil War, Stanley was at heart a military man. He liked order and discipline and was a terrifying but effective commander. By now he had amassed a powerful private army, equipped with a thousand quick-firing rifles, a dozen small Krupp cannon, and four machine guns. Among his Zanzibari soldiers there was a Swahili saying: Bunduki sultani ya bara bara (The gun is the sultan of the hinterland).
Meanwhile, Leopold had hired an Oxford scholar, Sir Travers Twiss, to provide a learned legal opinion backing the right of private companies to act as if they were sovereign countries when making treaties with native chiefs. Stanley was under instructions to lead his well-armed forces up and down the river and do just that. "The treaties must be as brief as possible," Leopold ordered, "and in a couple of articles must grant us everything."
They did. By the time Stanley and his officers were done, the blue flag with the gold star fluttered over the villages and territories, Stanley claimed, of more than 450 Congo basin chiefs. The texts varied, but many of the treaties gave the king a complete trading monopoly, even as he placated European and American questioners by insisting that he was opening up Africa to free trade. More important, chiefs signed over their land to Leopold, and they did so for almost nothing. At Isangila, near the big rapids, Stanley recorded, he was able to buy land for a station by paying some chiefs with "an ample supply of fine clothes, flunkey coats, and tinsel-braided uniforms, with a rich assortment of divers marketable wares ... not omitting a couple of bottles of gin." The conquerors of Africa, like those of the American West, were finding alcohol as effective as the machine gun.
The very word treaty is a euphemism, for many chiefs had no idea what they were signing. Few had seen the written word before, and they were being asked to mark their X's to documents in a foreign language and in legalese. The idea of a treaty of friendship between two clans or villages was familiar; the idea of signing over one's land to someone on the other side of the ocean was inconceivable. Did the chiefs of Ngombi and Mafela, for example, have any idea of what they agreed to on April 1, 1884? In return for "one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand," they promised to "freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever ... give up to the said Association the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories ... and to assist by labour or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories.... All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association."
By labour or otherwise. Stanley's pieces of cloth bought not just land, but manpower. It was an even worse trade than the Indians made for Manhattan.
What kind of societies existed in this land that, unknown to most of its inhabitants, Stanley was busily staking out for the King of the Belgians? There is no simple answer, for what would turn out to be the Congo's borders, if superimposed on the map of Europe, would stretch from Zürich to Moscow to central Turkey. It was as large as the entire United States east of the Mississippi. Although mostly rain forest and savanna, it also embraced volcanic hills and mountains covered with snow and glaciers, some of whose peaks reached higher than the Alps.
The peoples of this vast territory were as diverse as the land. They ranged from citizens of large, organizationally sophisticated kingdoms to the Pygmies of the Ituri rain forest, who lived in small bands with no chiefs and no formal structure of government. The kingdoms, with large towns as their capitals, tended to be in the savanna, where long-distance travel was easier. In the rain forest, where paths had to be hacked through thick, rapidly growing foliage, communities were generally far smaller. These forest-dwellers were sometimes seminomads: if a group of Pygmies, for instance, killed an elephant, that site became a temporary settlement for a week or two of feasting, since it was easier to move a village than a dead elephant.
Although some Congo peoples, like the Pygmies, were admirably peaceful, it would be a mistake to see most of them as paragons of primeval innocence. Many practiced slavery and a few ritual cannibalism, and they were as likely to make war on other clans or ethnic groups as people anywhere on earth. And traditional warfare in this part of Africa, where a severed head or hand was sometimes proof of an enemy killed in battle, was as harsh as warfare elsewhere. In the far northern Congo some women were maimed, as still happens today, by forced clitoridectomies, a practice no less brutal for being a cultural initiation rite.
Like many indigenous peoples, inhabitants of the Congo basin had learned to live in balance with their environment. Some groups practiced what was, in effect, birth control, where couples had to abstain from sex before the men left on a hunting expedition, for example, or as long as the woman was breast-feeding a baby. Substances found in certain leaves and bark could induce miscarriages or had contraceptive properties. All these means of population control, incidentally, were strikingly similar to those which had evolved in another great rain forest an ocean away, the Amazon basin.
Most striking about the traditional societies of the Congo was their remarkable artwork: baskets, mats, pottery, copper and ironwork, and, above all, woodcarving. It would be two decades before Europeans really noticed this art. Its discovery then had a strong influence on Braque, Matisse, and Picasso—who subsequently kept African art objects in his studio until his death. Cubism was new only for Europeans, for it was partly inspired by specific pieces of African art, some of them from the Pende and Songye peoples, who live in the basin of the Kasai River, one of the Congo's major tributaries.
It is easy to see the distinctive brilliance that so entranced Picasso and his colleagues at their first encounter with this art at an exhibit in Paris in 1907. In these central African sculptures some body parts are exaggerated, some shrunken; eyes project, cheeks sink, mouths disappear, torsos become elongated; eye sockets expand to cover almost the entire face; the human face and figure are broken apart and formed again in new ways and proportions that had previously lain beyond the sight of traditional European realism.
The art sprang from cultures that had, among other things, a looser sense than Islam or Christianity of the boundaries between our world and the next, as well as of those between the world of humans and the world of beasts. Among the Bolia people of the Congo, for example, a king was chosen by a council of elders; by ancestors, who appeared to him in a dream; and finally by wild animals, who signaled their assent by roaring during a night when the royal candidate was left at a particular spot in the rain forest. Perhaps it was the fluidity of these boundaries that granted central Africa's artists a freedom those in Europe had not yet discovered.
In June 1884, his work for Leopold done and a sheaf of treaties in his baggage, Stanley sailed home to Europe. He grumbled a bit about his employer's greed; the king, he complained, had the "enormous voracity to swallow a million of square miles with a gullet that will not take in a herring." But it was Stanley who made the big swallow possible.
As he settled in England to write his usual thousand-page two-volume account of his travels, Stanley found around him a Europe that had awakened to Africa. The Scramble had begun. The treaty de Brazza had made at Stanley Pool would soon lead to a French colony on the northwest bank of the Congo River. In Germany, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck wanted colonies in Africa. The British, the outsiders with the most substantial foothold on the continent, were beginning to worry about competitors.
Leopold was certain that none of these larger powers would be eager to recognize the one-man colony Stanley had staked out for him. Diplomatic recognition, however, is partly a matter of precedent. Once one major country recognizes another's existence, other nations are likely to fall into line. If no major European country would take this crucial first step, Leopold decided, he would look elsewhere. Unnoticed on his home continent, the king had already quietly begun making a dazzling end-run around Europe entirely.