Africa’s Dark Heart

There are few place names as darkly tantalising as The Congo. It’s not just that the name wears an aura of mystery. It is much more portentous than that.

The challenge is to work out why a region in the centre of Africa that does not appear markedly different from other equatorial parts of the continent should have such mystique.

The mystery has a long history beginning with the first white outsiders – Portuguese mariners – discovering the mouth of the Congo River in 1482.

They marked on their primitive charts a vast river estuary and a local tribe calling themselves the Congo people but that was pretty much all the outside world would know about the place for 400 years.

The Congo guarded its geographical secrets well. Mariners who came to chart the river found their way blocked by impassable cataracts less than 100 miles upriver from the ocean.

Parties who dared to explore on foot rarely made it out alive, killed by disease or hostile tribes.
If you look at maps of Africa from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries they all accurately mark the mouth of the Congo river just south of the equator but where the river comes from is back-of-the-envelope stuff.

Some chart a vast inland sea that drains through the rapids. Others show a lake system not unlike the Great Lakes of North America discharging through a canyon of waterfalls. Others have no lakes at all but a web of rivers.

No accurate map would be made until the arrival of a Daily Telegraph journalist in 1877.
The hack’s name was Henry Morton Stanley and while he remains best known for his earlier stunt of tracking down David Livingstone – and the sound bite of the century `Dr Livingstone, I presume’ – his trip to chart the Congo was to have a much greater impact.

Stanley set off from Zanzibar on the other side of Africa and while he was not, technically, the first white man to reach the upper Congo River (that honour had been taken by Livingstone although geography was not his strong suit and he thought he was on the Nile) he was the first to follow its 2,000 mile course downriver, crossing the equator twice in a vast sweeping arc before passing the cataracts and reaching the Atlantic.

He returned to Europe with sinister accounts and stories of cannibalistic river tribes and pygmies (or `dwarves’ as he put it) using poison-tipped arrows.

But this was pretty much standard fare for what white outsiders found in many parts of Africa. What really gave the Congo its dark mystique was not so much what the African tribes got up to there as what the white man did in the name of colonialism.

The Belgian king, Leopold II, hired Stanley to go back and stake on his behalf the entire river basin – all one million square miles of it.

What Stanley and those early Belgian colonial agents then did, the cruelties they inflicted on the Congolese, the wanton grabbing of land and the subjugation of the area’s indigenous people are the root cause of the Congo’s dark associations.

Leopold ordered a total blackout on news from his Congolese fiefdom but glimpses of the horror nevertheless leaked out.

A young Polish sailor was hired by Leopold’s agents to crew a steam boat upriver and what he saw festered in his soul until 1899 when, under the pen name of Joseph Conrad, he wrote `Heart of Darkness’.

I still find the book more historical than metaphysical, describing how the white outsiders in the Congo lost their moral compass in their maltreatment of natives.

From this, and a few other written accounts, we know about the first genocide of the modern era, when millions of Congolese were put to death around 1900 by profiteering outsiders.

The Congolese learnt cruelty well from their white overlords. When independence came in 1960, the mainly Belgian colonial community felt a backlash like no other in Africa.

It became a much derided journalistic cliché in the Congo of the early 1960s for reporters to go in search of nuns who had been raped, adding a fresh veneer of horror to the crimes perpetrated under white rule.

While such horrors took place elsewhere in Africa too, the colossal scale of the Congo somehow makes it stand out.

Throw in a few ghoulish details like the Congo’s uniquely horrible diseases (such as ebola), add three decades of misrule by the  kleptocratic dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, during which time he oversaw the utter collapse of the rule of law, have the country invaded at one time or other by the armies of almost all of its nine neighbours.

The result is the world’s most failed of failed states, an anarchic vacuum onto which outsiders are only too willing to graft their own prejudices and fears.

Much of the Congo’s mystique starts within ourselves and that is where its de-mystifying must begin.