Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Conrad, Hottot and the Congo

One hundred years ago today (19 August), the Belgian government finally approved the annexation of Congo Free State - the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo - from Leopold II, the king of Belgium. During the previous 20 years or so, some 10 million Congolese had died because of ruthless exploitation for rubber production. The international outrage, which had led to the annexation, was partly stoked by Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, Heart of Darkness, based on a journey he took in 1890. Conrad kept a diary of that trip. There are also diaries by a French explorer, Robert Hottot, travelling in the Congo Free State in 1908. Much more recently, of course, Che Guevara kept a diary of his exploits in the country.

In 1876, a few years after his famous search for Dr Livingstone (see online diary text at Project Gutenberg), Henry Morton Stanley undertook some exploration for Belgium’s king Leopold II who was keen to colonise an area of Africa which would become the Congo. Professing humanitarian objectives, Leopold then managed to play off various European rivals against each other and formally acquire the territory for himself at the Conference of Berlin in 1885. Thereafter, it was a corporate state - he called it Congo Free State - privately controlled by him through a dummy non-governmental organisation, Association Internationale Africaine. For the next two decades, the state was mercilessly exploited for rubber production to meet a growing demand for car tyres. Wikipedia’s history, of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explains that an army called the Force Publique (FP) would cut off the limbs of the Congolese to help enforce rubber quotas.

The appalling situation in Congo Free State began to attract international criticism, not least from writers such as Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad, and eventually led to an important report in 1904 by the Irish/British diplomat Roger Casement. He estimated that the population had been decimated by three million because of indiscriminate war, starvation, reduction of births and tropical diseases, (while other estimates suggest that around 10 million Congolese died in this period). Casement’s report also led to the arrest and punishment of white officials, and ultimately - on 19 August 1908, one hundred years ago - to the Belgian government agreeing to annex the territory. A treaty to that effect was signed the following November. The territory was renamed Belgian Congo and administered by the Belgian parliament until independence in 1960.

Conrad went to Congo Free State in 1890, and used his experiences there for a novella, Heart of Darkness, first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 as a three part serial. However, earlier he had published The Congo Diary, which in modern editions is often coupled with Heart of Darkness. Although the novella is freely available online at several sites (such as Ria Press), The Congo Diary is not. Some pages are available at Googlebooks, but thanks to Rod McLaren and his Rodcorp blog for providing a few extracts and relating them to Heart of Darkness. He says that stylistically, the staccato sentences of The Congo Diary are ‘the opposite of the elliptic, questing prose’ of Conrad’s later Heart of Darkness , but that it’s ‘an important precursor in content and emotion’.

A French explorer, A. Robert Hottot, also a diarist, travelled to Congo Free State three times in 1906, 1907 and 1908, the year Belgium finally acted to annex the territory from its king. Hottot died young in 1939, but had moved to Oxford in 1932 and had become a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. His papers, including diaries, and many fabulous photographs are held by Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which has an online exhibition about the man. One of the online photographs shows two pages from his 1908 diary, in which Hottot describes the measurement of the local Kango people (pygmies) at Lake Tumba and lists objects he’s collected: three women’s belts, nine units of the local copper currency, and forty poisoned arrows.

Sixty years later, a diarist of a very different ilk would head for Belgian Congo - Che Guevara. His Bolivian diary was in the news a few weeks ago (see Che’s Last Days), and The Motorcycle Diaries were made famous by a recent film. But he also wrote a diary about his time in Africa - The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo. There’s quite a lot about Che’s time in the Congo on Wikipedia; The Guardian provided some extracts prior to the book’s belated publication in 2001; a few pages are viewable on Amazon; and etext.org has a longish review. Also, BBC world affairs correspondent Mark Doyle followed in Che’s footsteps and made a programme about his trip.

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