David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People is a longwinded narrative that attempts to avoid the pitfalls of “Eurocentrism” in conventional historical accounts by telling the story of the Democratic Republic of Congo through “living witnesses” to its history.
Reybrouck traveled to DRC on ten occasions to interview various Congolese whose memories stretch all the way back to the arrival of the Europeans with British explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition famously crossed Africa from 1874 to 1877.
The first Europeans to arrive in the Congo were the Portuguese under Captain Diogo Cão who discovered and sailed up the Congo River in 1482. On his second voyage, Cão made it to Yellala Falls in 1485 – 175 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, just up the river from Matadi – the first in a series of cataracts that make the Lower Congo River unnavigable. These cataracts stretch on for another 220 miles until they reach the Stanley Pool where Kinshasa is located. The Congo River is navigable from the Atlantic Ocean to Yellala Falls and from Kinshasa for 1,200 miles into the interior.
Reybrouck glosses over this geographic obstacle. In a country the size of Western Europe, which would stretch from Paris to Moscow, no European made it beyond that point until Henry Morton Stanley crossed Africa from east to west in 1877. In other words, European exploration of the vast majority of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo was blocked for nearly 400 years by the cataracts on the Lower Congo River and devastating African diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and river blindness.
Consider the significance of this: by the 1880s, Australia and New Zealand had been settled, California had been a state for over thirty years, Canada had achieved dominion status, and Argentina was a thriving independent country. Meanwhile, Central Africa was still a blank spot on the map of the world. Aside from Antarctica, the interior of Central Africa was the most unfamiliar place in the world to Europeans.
This is not to say there was no European impact during these centuries: in the era of the transatlantic slave trade, around 4 million slaves were brought to the New World from West Central Africa (an area that stretches from Cape Lopez in Gabon to Benguela in Angola), some 38 percent of all slaves and by far more than any other region. Most of the slaves that were brought to the American South (and Haiti and Brazil, too) can trace their origins back to West Central Africa.
Because of the diseases and the geographic obstacles, the slave trade in the Congo Basin was done on African terms. It was Africans who enslaved other Africans deep in the interior, transported them down rivers no European had ever seen to Stanley Pool, marched them around the 220 miles of cataracts, and finally brought them to the coast where they were sold to the Portuguese and later the French at Matadi and Cabinda. In addition to this, the Columbian Exchange introduced New World crops such as cassava, manioc, and corn to the Congo where they quickly became staples in areas deep in the interior which were unknown for centuries to Europeans.
The White man (as he is still known in the Congo today) finally arrived in the interior of Central Africa in the 1870s in the age of the telegraph, railroad, and the Maxim gun. Stanley’s account of his exploration of the Congo, Through The Dark Continent, which was first published in 1878, was an international bestseller. In case you are wondering, Africa was called the “Dark Continent” because, even in the late nineteenth century, it was still so savage and backward and poorly known to the rest of the world.
The first Europeans who arrived in the interior of the Congo found illiterate tribes of spearchunking cannibals who practiced agriculture, a voodoo-like religion, and who had some iron tools. Central Africa’s relative backwardness to Western Europe (and much of the rest of the world) long predated the start of European colonialism in 1885. In fact, the Congo Basin hadn’t even been settled that long by the Bantus who lived there, who had expanded out of the highlands of southern Cameroon only within the last millennium or so and conquered and displaced the indigenous Pygmy tribes.
From 1885 until 1908, the Congo Free State was the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium. The horror stories about King Leopold II and “red rubber” – export of which began in 1890 – are fairly well known thanks to Adam Hochshild’s King Leopold’s Ghost which is most popular book on Amazon about Africa. To his credit, Reybrouck is rightly dismissive of Hochschild’s exaggerations, although he accepts his core argument that millions of Congolese perished under Leopold’s brutal regime. This allegedly took place in a country the size of Western Europe, most of which was still an unexplored impenetrable jungle, which at that time had hardly any roads, where there were at max a thousand or so Europeans, most of whom were sickened by malaria.
As was the case with slavery, the atrocities of the Leopold era were largely inflicted by Africans on other Africans, but the international outcry was so great that the Belgian government took over the Congo in 1908. Thus began the era of Belgian colonialism, which was relatively uneventful and lasted until 1960. During a mere 42 years (the Roman Empire held onto Dacia for 164 years), the Belgians introduced every aspect of the modern world from cities with sewers and running water to electricity and factories. They built roads, railroads, airports, schools, hospitals, etc. The leap forward in terms of science, technology, and living standards introduced by the Belgians was staggering.
The early twentieth century under Belgian colonialism was a Golden Age for the Congo and many elderly Congolese still today look back at it in awe in light of the nightmare that followed. While Europe and Asia were torn apart by World War I and World War II, Central Africa was relatively prosperous and peaceful. It was truly an era of economic growth, rising living standards, and advances in education. Slavery was extinguished. Cannibalism was outlawed. Christianity was introduced. Trade was booming. Even diseases like malaria were rolled back.
The Congolese were granted their independence in 1960 without a fight. Compared to the wars in Algeria or Vietnam, it was handed to them on a silver platter. The inept leadership of Patrice Lumumba soon embroiled the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Cold War and the country broke apart and descended into chaos. Europeans abandoned the country and the economy nosedived. The “Congo Crisis” lasted until 1965 when Mobutu Sese Seko took over a reunified Congo as president/dictator in 1965.
From 1965 until 1997, Mobutu presided over the rotting corpse of the Congo, which entered a period of long term economic decline. Mobutu’s Congo was propped up by the US and the World Bank because it was pro-Western and surrounded by Soviet satellites in the Cold War like Tanzania, Angola, and Congo-Brazzaville. This was an era of absurdities where Mobutu would appear on television descending from the clouds and where Congolese were required to were the abacost costume and abandon their Christian names in the great return to pre-European “authentic” Congolese culture.
The First Congo War and Second Congo War of the late 1990s and early 2000s left millions of people dead. In “Africa’s World War,” child soldiers devastated the eastern region of the country. It was all started by the Rwandan genocide and the flight of millions of Hutu refugees to Congo after 1994. By the end of this period, the Democratic Republic of Congo had sunk to the absolute bottom of failed states on the UN Human Development Index. Today, Congo is a fourth world country after fifty years of independence, and probably the worst place on earth to be a woman.
Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People ends on a tour of Guangzhou in China which has become the manufacturing capital of the world. As the West declines, Congo is being drawn into the economic orbit of China, which has taken over and revived the mining industry in Katanga and which is rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. The Chinese don’t care about “human rights abuses” and Congo’s future is likely to be one of long term economic domination by East Asia.
My favorite line of the book comes from one of the Congolese who pestered Reybrouck, “when is this independence thing gonna end?”