History based RC in CAT 2015 was taken from London Review of Books
Book Review Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck
This full article was cut short into only 3 paragraphs.
Africa, it’s said, is the mother of modern civilisation, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Congo is. Consider your mobile phone. Before it was assembled in a Chinese factory, the coltan in its capacitors may have been dug by miners in the Eastern Congo, where millions have died in a series of wars over ‘conflict minerals’, though we give this no more thought than previous generations of Westerners gave to the Congolese origins of the ivory in their piano keys, the rubber in their tyres, the copper in their bullet casings or the uranium in their bombs. The mobile phones and computers that connect us to the world also conceal our relationship to it. Some would say that’s just as well. ‘The conquest of the earth,’ Conrad wrote, ‘is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’
Today Congo – which was described as a ‘geological scandal’ after copper was discovered in Katanga in 1892 – accounts for less than 1 per cent of the world’s minerals in terms of value. The Democratic Republic of Congo (its latest incarnation) suffers from Western indifference as much as from Western exploitation. Prospectors for minerals are more likely to be African – or Chinese – than European. Yet our image of Congo hasn’t evolved a great deal since Conrad’s time. The river itself is a flowing signifier for colonial greed, rapacity and, of course, horror. As Michela Wrong wrote in her memorable book about Mobutu, any Westerner who journeys to Congo follows ‘in the footsteps of Mr Kurtz’.
And not only Kurtz. After Conrad came Gide, Greene, Kapuściński, Mailer and Naipaul. Congo is endlessly fertile literary terrain. Seven years of war there – in a country the size of Western Europe with a population of almost seventy million – occupied fewer column inches in the Western press than seven weeks of war in the Gaza Strip, yet nowhere in Africa has inspired such an outpouring of accomplished writing, from Wrong to Gérard Prunier, from Howard French to Jason Stearns, to say nothing of Adam Hochschild’s study of the Free State, King Leopold’s Ghost, and Neal Ascherson’s The King Incorporated.
David Van Reybrouck’s enormous history is the latest addition to this literature. Van Reybrouck is a Dutch-speaking Belgian journalist whose father was working as an electrical engineer in Katanga at the time of Moïse Tshombe’s secessionist uprising in 1960. The one-word title of Van Reybrouck’s book is an indication of its singular ambition. The subtitle – ‘the epic history of a people’ – is equally important. The Congolese, he believes, have been written out of their own history, and he means to write them back in. He draws vividly on interviews with musicians, former child soldiers, political activists and people old enough to remember the days of the Belgian Congo, including a man who claimed (plausibly) to be 126 years old. Congo, Van Reybrouck insists, is more than the ‘world’s storehouse’: it has ‘played a crucially important role in the tentative definition of an international world order’.
In the process the Congolese have paid a high price. When Henry Morton Stanley arrived in 1876 the huge landmass, mostly covered in forest and coinciding with the drainage basin of the river, had been ravaged by the slave trade and the hunt for ivory; tribal chieftains had lost out to Portuguese merchants and African-Arab warlords, notably the slave trader known as Tippu Tip. After reading of Stanley’s adventures, King Leopold II invited him to come to Belgium and told him of his grand plan to break the power of the Muslim slave traders, and to spread free trade and Christianity. But what he really wanted was a slice of ‘ce magnifique gâteau africain’. When he and Stanley sat down in 1884 to decide on Congo’s borders, Leopold ‘simply doodled’ Katanga into the map: the Free State was assembled in a fit of imperial caprice. It was Leopold’s personal property, not Belgium’s. He never once set foot in it. He celebrated its establishment in 1885 at the Conference of Berlin by sitting on his throne while a group of Congolese children sang and danced for him.
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The voices of Leopold’s ‘children’ have been inaudible in even the most scathing histories of Belgian rule, but Van Reybrouck has unearthed the memoirs of Disasi Makulo, who dictated his story to his son just before he died in 1941. Born around 1870, Makulo was enslaved as a little boy by Tippu Tip, then purchased at 13 by Stanley. Instead of returning him to his parents, Stanley took him to Europe and placed him in the care of a missionary. Back in Congo, Makulo attended a missionary school ‘run like a Belgian military academy’: four out of every five male students at these schools were obliged to enter the Free State’s army, the Force Publique. Slave, servant boy, missionary pupil, soldier: not an unusual trajectory, and by Congolese standards a lucky one.
Kidnapping and then converting liberated slaves was state policy. Many were educated in isolated ‘chapel farms’ in order to prevent ‘backsliding’. Leopold hoped to transform children like Makulo into mindele ndombe, ‘black white men’. Church and Force Publique worked hand in hand to produce mindele ndombe and to ensure that Congo’s resources were extracted to Leopold’s satisfaction. The king was a shareholder in the companies that were given mining concessions, and benefited greatly from the fin-de-siècle rubber boom.
Leopold’s claim to enlightened leadership rested on the defeat of the Muslim slave traders, but the forced labour system in the Free State was far more brutal than the slavery it replaced. Millions of Congolese were forced to abandon their native crafts and gather rubber under the supervision of black soldiers in the Force Publique and their white officers. Indiscipline was punished with the chicotte, a sharp-edged whip made of dried hippopotamus skin. Summary execution was common; so were rape and forced concubinage. In one rubber expedition, 162 villages were torched, and 1346 people killed. Between five and eight million died during Leopold’s 23-year rule.
In the first few years of the Free State, Leopold’s ‘burning noble words’ (as Conrad wrote of Kurtz) seduced most Europeans, and even got him elected honorary president of the Aborigines Protection Society, but by the early 1890s the atrocities could no longer be hidden. Eventually the Belgian parliament forced him to hand the territory over: it was annexed as a Belgian colony in 1908. Most people in Congo found little reason to rejoice. Labour conditions were hardly less oppressive, though there were fewer deaths; a new regime of ‘scientific colonisation’ emerged, based on the control of African bodies in the name of public safety. Victims of sleeping sickness were confined in remote laboratories where the Belgians tested possible cures on them, such as atoxyl, a derivative of arsenic that sometimes resulted in blindness. For the colonised inhabitants the state was, as Van Reybrouck writes, ‘the gleaming, sterile hypodermic needle that slid into your arm and injected some kind of mysterious poison. The state literally got under your skin.’
It also kept you in your place. If you wanted to travel from your region of birth for more than a month, you needed to carry a medical passport. Restrictions on movement fixed people in their regional, ‘tribal’ identities, which were in turn theorised by Belgian ethnographers and promoted in mission schools – Van Reybrouck calls them ‘factories for tribal prejudice’. Congolese children learned to be grateful that ‘the Belgians set us free.’ But the Belgians wanted to lift their subjects only so high: education never went beyond primary instruction. A tiny group of évolués was permitted to emerge, but they were never allowed to assume positions of authority in the civil service or the army; at the time of independence only 17 Congolese had university degrees. Congo’s human potential was deliberately underdeveloped, on the assumption that white rule would last for ever.
Colonial rule, however, had its contradictions. As Congo industrialised, people left their villages to take jobs in factories and in white homes. Though crowded into slums and forced to leave white neighbourhoods after dark, they were exposed to a standard of living they could scarcely have imagined. Their horizons were widened further by Belgium’s wars. The First World War gave soldiers in the Force Publique their first opportunity to fight, not just to police other blacks. In 1916 they helped defeat the Germans at the Battle of Lake Tanganyika. In the Second World War they restored Haile Selassie to the throne, and defeated the Italians at Saio in Abyssinia, near the Sudanese border. ‘We shot only at white people,’ one veteran told Van Reybrouck.
That experience gave the Congolese a forbidden taste of their own power. In the 1920s, Congolese intellectuals began to write about the ‘Congolese nation’ and to imagine a post-colonial future. In 1931 the Pende tribe launched a violent rebellion; in the 1940s there were strikes in Léopoldville and a mutiny by soldiers refusing vaccination (they were afraid of being poisoned). The Belgians responded brutally to such challenges, using the soldiers of the Force Publique. The Congolese expressed their resilience in culture and religion, creating parallel worlds insulated from their persecutors.
Secular and messianic time converged only once in Congo’s history, during the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, the country’s charismatic first prime minister. Lumumba, a beer salesman in Stanleyville who came from a small village in Kasai, was not a Kimbanguist; but he resembled Kimbangu, Van Reybrouck writes, in his prophetic manner of expressing Congolese longings for freedom. Born in 1925, a member of the small Batela tribe, he emerged as a leader in the late 1950s, calling for a unified nation free of Belgian colonialism and of the tribalism that the Belgians had done their best to foment. His closest ally was his secretary, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, a former Force Publique soldier. Van Reybrouck imagines the two of them on a scooter in January 1959 just after Lumumba’s return from a meeting with Nkrumah in Accra: ‘They ride together in the muggy afternoon air … Two years later, one of them will help to murder the other.’
Mobutu couldn’t have eliminated Lumumba without the Belgians, who didn’t want to see their assets fall into Congolese hands, and the Americans, who were keen to protect their access to the Shinkolobwe mine, which had supplied the Manhattan Project with uranium. An electrifying speaker but a poor tactician, Lumumba did little to calm Western fears. At the Independence Day ceremony on 30 June 1960, King Baudouin paid fulsome tribute to Leopold’s work and implored the Congolese to prove ‘we were right to have confidence in you.’ Lumumba replied with a withering denunciation of Belgian rule that was right on every count except its timing. Such impertinence wouldn’t go unpunished.
Van Reybrouck provides a wrenching account of the plot against Lumumba, a conspiracy that involved the Belgians, the CIA, white mercenaries and Western-backed secessionists in the mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and southern Kasai. Two weeks after he took office, as the Belgians responded to the killing of five Europeans in Léopoldville by shelling the strategic port city of Matadi, Lumumba pleaded for assistance from the UN, then from the Americans, before going to the Soviets. He was a middle-class nationalist, not a communist, but the spectre of Soviet penetration alarmed Washington. In August, Allen Dulles cabled Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in Léopoldville, to say that Lumumba’s removal was ‘an urgent and prime objective’. A month later, Mobutu staged his first coup. Lumumba came under UN protection but he was a dead man walking: Eisenhower had already authorised the CIA to kill him. Arrested by Mobutu’s men in December, he was taken to Katanga, where Tshombe’s secessionist rebels wanted his head. On 17 January 1961, he was shot dead and dumped in a well; four Belgians took part in the murder.
You might expect the Congolese to express anger at this state of affairs. Yet, Van Reybrouck writes, if you ask them how their country is doing, most will say, ‘ça va un peu,’ the verbal equivalent of a shrug. He’s not the first visitor to be impressed by Congolese stoicism. Norman Mailer claimed to see in the Congolese ‘some African dignity’ he had never seen elsewhere, ‘some tragic magnetic sense of self as if each alone and all were carrying the continent like a halo of sorrow about their head’. This apparent fatalism has exasperated some visitors. Writing about La Sape, Michela Wrong wondered why ‘the generation holding out hope for the future was busy fussing about the colour of their socks.’ But the channelling of energy into rumba, Kimbanguism and La Sape reflects a shrewd grasp of the ‘reverse Midas principle’ of Congolese politics: everything you touch turns to shit. Those who have defied this law have usually ended up in an unmarked grave, like Lumumba. Congo’s history has been ‘epic’, except in the one respect that might have lent a redemptive cast to its many troubles: the heart of Africa is still very far from seizing control of its destiny.