Heart of Darkness

It was Anthony Bourdain in an episode of “Parts Unknown,” who led me to the Congo. Or should I say, led me back to the Congo. As a 17 year old college freshman in English class, I tried to grasp “Heart of Darkness” – Joseph Conrad’s novella that is a difficult read at any age, and as I understood then and even more so now, it drove home the horrors of the Congo Free State. Anthony, in what he described as, “the most difficult shoot of my life, but was also maybe the greatest adventure of my life,” reminded his viewers that the past miseries of the Congo have left indelible scarring. It is worth seeing the “Parts Unknown” episode (available on Netflix) to comprehend what the Congo has become.


Sir Henry Morton Stanley is integral to any historical review of the Congo.

“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”

So goes the legend. In 1871, Stanley, then a writer for The New York Herald, and with an order from the newspaper’s owner to “find Livingstone,” led an expedition into the “heart”of Africa to find the missing medical missionary, Dr. David Livingstone. And find him he did. Livingstone had been searching for the source of the Nile River since 1866.

Stanley trekked 700 miles through the jungle, with a company of 200 porters and Ndugu M’Hali, a six year old slave boy who had been gifted to Stanley. Stanley renamed the boy Kalulu and made him his manservant.

Three years later, Stanley departed from Zanzibar, heading towards West Africa, and after exploring Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika, followed the Lualaba River, with the intention of proving it to be a tributary of the Congo River. I will come back to Stanley, who is pictured here with Kalulu.

Lake Tanganyika

Just a few notes on Lake Tanganyika. Tanganyika is the longest freshwater lake in the world, and the deepest lake. It covers more than 12,000 square miles, an area slightly largely than the size of Vancouver Island. Yes, it is that big. It borders on Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Tanzania. Below, Tanganyika as it appears from space.

Lake Tanganyika is a main watershed for the Congo River. By way of various tributaries, water finds its way west to the Congo River and then on to the Atlantic Ocean. The Congo River is the second longest river in Africa after the Nile; and after the Amazon the second largest river by volume in the world. The Congo River system goes on of almost 3,000 miles. Were it not for waterfalls and cataracts (white water rapids) one could literally float the system from Lake Tanganyika to the ocean.

Europeans made their first contact with the “Congo” in 1482, ten years before Columbus sailed to North America. At the forefront were the Portuguese, who began a prolific trade in African slaves – slaves who would be sent either to Portugal or to its colony in Brazil. It is estimated that in 1535, as an example, four to five thousand slaves were sent from the Congo to Portugal. I will skip a lot of history here, but suffice it to say that European presence in the Congo was not a blessing. The Congo was exploited in so many ways, by slave traders, by missionaries (who seemed to more shocked by polygamous practices than by the enslavement of the native population) and by traders of ivory and minerals. It is worth noting that the Europeans were not alone in trading or keeping slaves. Wealthy members of the native Bakula tribe kept slaves. And we shall see later that Arabs were also very active slave traders. Below: slaves in shackles. Not a pretty picture.

In 1848, the Hungarian explorer, Laszlo Magyar, who led a two month expedition up the Congo River, estimated that 20,000 slaves were “exported” annually from Boma, which is close to the mouth of the river.

Stanley Continued

Sir Henry Morton Stanley was born in Wales in 1841, the son of Betsy Parry, an unmarried nineteen year old. The likely father was a barrister, who paid John Rowlands, “a wastrel and drunkard” to give the child his name. After living with the family of Betsy Parry, six year old John Rowlands ended up in a workhouse. At the age of sixteen, after leaving the workhouse, John joined the crew of a merchant ship headed for New Orleans. There he jumped ship and gained employment with a cotton broker named Stanley. Young John took to Stanley and also took his surname. With the Civil War raging, the newly self-named Henry Stanley joined the Confederate army and fought at the battle of Shiloh, where he was captured by Union troops. He was imprisoned outside of Chicago at Camp Douglas with 3,000 Confederate soldiers.

In the photo preceding are some of Stanley’s prisoners-of-war mates at the prison camp. Stanley not among them though, as he was astute enough to switch sides and join the Union army. Not for long however, as he was afflicted with dysentery severe enough to warrant his discharge from service.

Stanley returned to Wales to seek out his mother and was quickly rebuffed with her instruction to, “Never come back … unless you come better dressed and in better circumstances …” And we are not yet finished with Stanley.


You may ask, “Why has Freddie Mercury been injected into these proceedings?” First of all, this is very heavy going – and it won’t get any easier, so the image of Freddy offers a bit of a respite. Second, Freddie (then Farrockh Bulsara) was born in Zanzibar.

Here is where Zanzibar fits into this blog posting. Zanzibar is an archipelago lying off the east coast of Africa, and is a protectorate of Tanzania. It was a jumping-off point for Stanley in 1871 as he headed towards west Africa. And Zanzibar, in pre-colonial and colonial times, was the hub of the slave trade, especially for Arab slave traders. Chief among them was Tippu Tip, real name, Hamad bin Muhammad bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi. Tippu Tip (below), apart from trading in slaves, worked the ivory market and his own plantations. He was prolific in the slave trade, raiding villages in east Africa, taking men, women and children, many of whom ended up in middle eastern countries in perpetual servitude.

Seems harmless enough, but do not be fooled. A ruthless businessman (if you can call his business a “business”), Tippu Tip, got one thing right; his opinion of Stanley, who he referred to as “a congenital liar, a man without honour, one who could not keep his word, and a worse slave driver to his own men than any Arab slave driver.”

King Leopold II

While the rest of Europe sat on the sidelines, Belgium’s King Leopold in 1879 began to move to exert his influence in the Congo. Apparently intrigued with the explorations and writings of Stanley (Stanley’s book “Through the Dark Continent” was a great success) Leopold hired Stanley to “modernize” the Congo. The real mission, as it turned out, was to exploit the Congo for its wealth of resources. Over a five year period, Stanley would oversee the construction of roads, the creation of ports for steamboats while persuading the native population to forfeit their lands.

In short order Stanley had established the foundations for what was now the “Congo Free State” – essentially a slave state whose economy was driven primarily by the production of rubber (for export to Europe), but also trade in ivory and minerals.

That is Leopold in the foregoing, with examples of the atrocities he fomented. Workers (read “slaves”) failing to deliver on their proscribed quotas of rubber and/or ivory, were deprived of a hand; or killed by the “Force Publique,” a paramilitary organization of largely non-Congolese Africans led by European officers. Members of the Force Publique were obliged to provide officers with a severed hand for every bullet expended.

The Congo Free State, which was formally established in 1885 at a pan-European conference in Berlin, became the personal fiefdom of Leopold, and remained under his control until 1908. Although never setting foot in the Congo, Leopold extracted great riches, albeit through the suffering of millions of Congolese. It is estimated that some 10 million Africans died during Leopold’s reign over the Congo – death coming through exertion, starvation, torture, outright murder – to the extent that some have called this the “first Holocaust.” It was through the efforts of a handful of people that Leopold lost his grip on the Congo. Edward Morel, a Liverpool accountant, realized that for all the wealth coming out of the Congo Free State, that only guns and ammunition were returned to Africa. Morel teamed with Roger Casement, an Ulsterman and British consul to the Congo, to publicize the atrocities being committed under Leopold’s rule. So it was in 1908 that Belgium annexed the Congo Free State, and the Belgian Congo came into being. At that time, the population of Belgium was 7.5 million. There were 8 million Congolese living in an area 80 times the size of Belgium. Incidentally, the population of the Congo in 1880 was estimated to be 20 million.

Stanley, for his part, was knighted in 1899.

Joseph Conrad

In his synopsis of “Heart of Darkness” my English professor said that the story was one of “restraint.” I was mystified by his comment. But re-reading the novella I gained the understanding that he was talking of the lack of restraint; that the white man, when he was freed from “European” restraint, was transformed into a man characterized by greed, cruelty and no regard for human life. Francis Ford Coppola used “Heart of Darkness” as the basis for his film “Apocalypse Now,” that was set during the Vietnam War. While “Heart of Darkness” is challenging, the film is also tough to get through. But both are worth your time.

The Congo Today

There is much more to tell about the Congo, including its emergence as the Belgian Congo (where life for Congolese for a while actually got better) to its independence from colonial masters. But perhaps another time.
Briefly, the modern day Congo, known now as The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a mess. That point is driven home in Bourdain’s programme. There are almost 80 million Congolese today, most living in abject poverty. If you played a word association game using “Congo,” the responses might include, “Ebola,” “child soldiers,” “blood diamonds,” “tribal conflict” – certainly nothing positive. What was potentially the richest (culturally and economically) country on the African continent, is a country of warring factions and rotting infrastructure.