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The colonization of Central Africa did not set in until the very end of the 19th century, when ‘the scramble for Africa’ – the race of European powers to divide the continent among themselves – got under way: In 1870 European countries owned only 10% of Africa, by 1900 it was 90%. For a long time access to the huge territories in the Congo River basin was considered impossible due to the impenetrable forests and the impassable rapids of the river itself, which served as a barrier to European exploitation.
The adventurer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley gained the interest and support of the Belgian King Leopold II for his expeditions into the Congo basin ‘to prove that the Congo natives were susceptible of civilization and that the Congo basin was rich enough to repay exploitation’. In the name of Leopold II he appropriated land and labour for the king’s newly founded ‘Association Internationale du Congo’. Leopold’s claim to the Congo was recognized at the International Africa Conference in Berlin in 1884–1885, presided over by Bismarck.
The Congo Free State, as it was ironically called, was confirmed as the private property of King Leopold II in return for guarantees of neutrality, free trade and opposition to slavery. The Congo Free State, 1900 next to nothing, apart from small amounts of cloth, beads or brass rods. The rubber boom started in the mid-1890s due to the increasing industrial demand from Europe. While the rubber trade made a fortune for Leopold II, it led to the extreme brutalization of the local population.
Under Leopold’s ownership approximately 10 million Congolese died as a consequence of exploitation and disease.
To enforce the rubber quotas, the Force Publique (FP) was called in. The FP was an army, but its aim was not to defend the country, but to terrorize the population, which it did by cutting off the limbs of the natives; this practice was disturbingly widespread. When news of these atrocities reached Europe, there was a public outcry; the British parliament asked Roger Casement to make an inquiry into the situation in the country. The result of his enquiry was the famous Congo Report (1904). Casement had been a British diplomat in the Congo, where he met Conrad and whose Heart of Darkness (1899) had deeply influenced him.
In 1903 Conrad wrote to Casement saying, ‘there exists in Africa a Congo State, created by the act of European powers, where ruthless, systematic cruelty towards the blacks is the basis of the administration’. Conrad’s novel also contributed to a widespread knowledge of the colonial abuses and crimes taking place in Africa. In 1908 Leopold II was forced to sell the Congo Free State to the Belgian government, which annexed it as a Belgian colony until its independence in 1960, when it was named Zaire. Its history since then has not been much happier. Following the secessionist Katanga Civil War, the country was brutalized under the dictatorship of President Mobutu. In 1997, when Mobutu was overthrown by the rebel leader Laurent Kabila, the country was renamed The Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Torn between ethnic strife and civil wars, involving refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and displacements from Sudan, the country is still unstable. Biographical aspects Ivory and rubber were the main sources of income for King Leopold’s company and its agents: they and their African auxiliaries seized all the ivory that could be found, buying tusks from villages for a pittance, or simply confiscating them.
They were working on a lucrative commission structure imposed by the King in 1890, of which the African elephant hunters received 26 As captain of a steamship, Joseph Conrad travelled up the Congo River to Central Africa and the heart of the Congo in 1890, and then went on an overland track to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). As we know from his diaries and letters, which he wrote in English, he was deeply concerned with the greed of Belgian (and other European) merchants, the abuses of colonial powers and atrocities committed by white managers and their black auxiliaries, always in the name of a missionary and rogressive spirit to ‘enlighten the dark continent’. But he also met with what he thought to be cannibalism, and was confused Notes for the Teachers by the natives’ drums and ‘wild savagery’. His decision to resign from his post as captain was as much caused by his ill health as by his desire to become a writer. It has been said that ‘Africa killed Conrad the sailor and strengthened Conrad the writer’. In his extensive writings (over 40 works of fiction of various length) the themes of travel and the pursuit of material and idealistic goals as well as isolation, ambition and failure can be said to be drawn from his own experiences.
His deep-rooted scepticism of imperialism can be linked to his Polish background: born into a nation which had vanished from the map after being annexed by Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1795, and into a family which had opposed Russian oppression and been exiled to Ukraine, Conrad had good reason to question the right of stronger powers to impose their wills on smaller nations.
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