Send more blondes

Bernard Porter

  • BuySpies in the Congo: The Race for the Ore that Built the Atomic Bomb by Susan Williams
    Hurst, 369 pp, £25.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 84904 638 1

Congo is a country that has been impoverished by its riches. First it was its human capital that suffered, its people brutally enslaved by Arabs and then Europeans. Then the Europeans took it over, or, to be precise, one European, King Leopold II of the Belgians, who presented himself – the old monster – as a humanitarian, and was given the Congo as a personal fiefdom to prevent his more powerful neighbours squabbling over it. (There’s still a statue of him, incidentally, in the Jardin du Roi in Brussels.) He then sublet it to capitalist ‘concessionaires’ whose exploitation of its rubber and palm oil gave rise to atrocities that are among the most notorious in colonial history. Eventually, after a British-led protest movement, it was transferred to the Belgian state as a formal colony. That hardly improved matters: the capitalists were still there – they were arguably more powerful than the Belgian colonial bureaucracy – and conditions for the Congolese people working for them were dire. There’s a sickening description in Susan Williams’s book, from an American observer in the 1940s, of the flogging of a Congolese man with a chicotte – ‘a whip made of leather thongs tipped with metal’ – for stealing a pack of cigarettes from a Belgian. ‘The black’s skin from neck to waist was a mass of blood with ribs shining through.’ All part of the mission civilisatrice.

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