The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


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Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck (2010) – 2

One reason van Reybrouck describes his history of the modern Congo as ‘epic’ is because so much happens that it becomes quite bewildering. Possibly you can break it down into two main parts:

Part one – pre-independence

Pre-history

The slow spread of Bantu tribes from central west Africa about 1,000 BC. The slow arrival of limited agriculture but without the pack animals or variety of farmed animals found in Eurasia resulting in subsistence farming. The permanent toll of fierce diseases carried by the tsetse fly killing humans and animals. The rise of the relatively small kingdom of Kongo around the mouth of the Congo River from the 14th to 19th centuries. It was this kingdom that the first Portuguese explorers encountered around 1500 and whose name came to be applied to the river and then the larger region.

European exploration 1850 to 1885

The tentative probing of David Livingstone into the region from the east, followed by the path-breaking expedition of Henry Morton Stanley which mapped virtually the entire length of the vast river. Followed by Stanley being commissioned by King Leopold of Belgium to open up the river by building a road, railway and importing steamships. And the rivalry with the French, represented by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who wanted the territory directly north of the river, which ended up becoming the neighbouring state of Republic of Congo.

King Leopold’s Free State 1885 to 1908

At the Berlin Conference King Leopold of Belgium managed to persuade Bismarck and the French to assign him the huge area of Congo as his own personal fiefdom. I’ve documented the abuses and atrocities carried out by the King Leopold’s Force Publique which terrorised the entire native population in order to extract the maximum ivory and then rubber in reviews of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999) and a review of the first part of this book. Eventually, Leopold was forced by public, political and international opinion to hand the Congo over to the Belgian state to run.

Colonial period 1908 to 1960

The long colonial period is interesting for what it says about European exploitation of its colonies in general, namely the continuation of the harvesting of raw materials by European companies, but the slow movement towards creating an educated native middle class, called the évolués, particularly after the Second World War (page 215 onwards).

Ironically, the creation of a very small educated class (numbering maybe 12,000 by 1954) went hand in hand with post-war affluence for the Belgian settlers. Between the wars it had still been a country for rough, tough male pioneers. After the war, new technological developments (in medicine and air conditioning) meant many more wives were brought over, affluent suburbs were created, gated communities with big houses, big lawns, big swimming pools, big chauffeur-driven cars. At just the moment that young educated Congolese began writing articles and books about their colonial status, a new kind of colour bar arose, whereby they were forbidden from entering whites only bars or swimming pools. Which created bitter resentment from the évolués who complained that they’d done everything the colonialists wanted, copied their clothes and manners but were still treated like second class citizens in their own country.

The rush to independence 1955 to 1960

Van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s rush to independence is riveting (but then every section of this brilliant book is riveting). A number of themes come over very clearly:

Spirit of the age: between 1945 and 1949 the Phillipines, India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and Indonesia won independence from their colonial masters. The wave of new thinking culminated in the 1955 Bandung Conference of free and wanting-to-be-free colonies in Indonesia. It was the same year that Belgian journalist Jef van Bilsen wrote an article demanding to know the precise steps which the Belgian government was going to put in place over the following decades for independence. In 1956 Sudan, Morocco and Tunisia gained independence.

Calls for independence were galvanised by riots, the most serious occurring on 4 January 1959, in which a mob murdered whites and trashed white property (p.248). The threat of mass violence heralded the end of trouble-free European superiority.

The Belgians, galvanised by van Bilsen’s article, agreed to independence in principle, eventually, but were thinking in timescales of 20 or 30 or 50 years; they were outflanked by new native political leaders who demanded it NOW.

As a result the authorities organised the first free democratic elections in the country’s history for 1957. The sudden arrival of the notion of independence, and the election, led to the creation of ad hoc political parties and the sudden emergence of spokesmen and leaders.

Almost immediately it became clear that these leaders came from and spoke for particular regions and ethnic groups; tribalism wasn’t a later addition, van Reybrouck shows how the politicisation of ethnic groups was intimately linked with the creation of political parties right from the start (p.252).

Thus the Alliance of Bakongo (ABAKO) headed by Joseph Kasavubu, which had established itself as the leading opponent of colonial rule was largely made up of people from the Bakongo ethnic group and openly denigrated the Lingala-speaking Bangala. The Centre du Regroupement Africain (CEREA) represented Kivu and Conakat. La Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT) represented the mineral-rich province of Kitanga and was led by Moïse Tshombe. Bolikango spoke up for the Bangala, Jason Sendwe spoke up for the Baluba from Katanga, Justin Bomboko for the Mongo people and so on (p.252).

Another central figure who emerged was Patrice Lumumba, a former beer salesman and journalist who led the Congolese National Movement (MNC) which aimed to rise above tribal and regional affiliations and represent the entire country.

These parties began a kind of race to the bottom by outdoing each other in their demands for independence NOW. Anyone who didn’t want it within five years could be portrayed as a colonialist stooge; then 2 years; then one year; then 6 months. The Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which was held from January to May 1960 to thrash out the handover, which included half Belgian colonialists and half new Congolese leaders, found itself railroaded into agreeing the date of independence for June 30, 1960, less than 2 months after it ended (pages 256 to 259).

Van Reybrouck speaks to contemporary Congolese and some players in the political manoeuvres who lament, to a man, the mad rush to independence, realising in retrospect that the country was in no way ready for it, and blaming much of their troubles on what the Belgian King Baudouin had warned about in his radio broadcast of January 13, 1959, as ‘thoughtless haste’.

The result was that the country was completely unprepared, at every possible level: political, administrative, financial, managerial, technological, educational, industrial, agricultural.

On the day of its independence, the country had sixteen university graduates. And although there were hundreds of well-trained nurses and policy advisers, the Force Publique did not have a single black officer. There was not one native physician, not one engineer, not one lawyer, agronomist, or economist. (p.266)

One last theme is that in the short months leading up to independence the European big businesses who dominated every aspect of the Belgian economy, particularly the lucrative mining industry, made a series of deals with the fledgling local politicians (p.263).

Lastly, van Reybrouck details the pathetically utopian hopes of many common Congolese and even the educated leaders. At every level of society they thought that simply by getting rid of the oppressing white man would herald a brave new world of freedom and wealth and equality. Van Reybrouck tells stories of the less educated Congolese who sincerely believed that on day one of independence they would all be given a big European mansion, some of the Congolese hoping it would come with a lovely European wife thrown in, not to mention the big European car. Peasants buried boxes of stones in the belief that, at independence, they would magically change into gold. Many believed the dead would rise from the grave (p.27.

To put it mildly, all these hopes were to be bitterly dashed.

Part two – post independence 1960 to 2021

The period since independence takes up two-thirds of van Reybrouck’s book and is immensely complicated.

During the colonial period we had only had to deal with a handful of names, let alone the relative simplicity of the Leopold or Stanley eras. Now there is a blizzard of names of Congolese politicians and cultural figures and the acronyms of numerous political parties. Just as an example, the parties which attended the round table included the Association Générale des Baluba du Katanga (BALUBAKAT), the Association des Ressortisants du Haut-Congo (ASSORECO), the Centre du Regroupement Africain (CEREA), the Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT),  the Federation Generale du Congo (FGC), the Mouvement National Congolais-Kalonji (MNC-K), the Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba (MNC-L) led by Patrice Lumumba, the Parti National du Progrès (PNP), the Parti du Peuple (PP), the Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA). In the coming decades there were to be many, many more where they came from.

Initial chaos June 1960 to January 1961

In May 1960 elections were held to create the government which would usher in independence. Kasavubu was elected president and the rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing Patrice Lumumba Prime Minister.

The electoral map of Congo in 1960, therefore, was largely identical to the ethnographic maps drawn up by the scientists half a century before…The three strongest figures to come out of the elections were Kasavubu, Lumumba, and Tshombe. Kasavubu held sway over the western part of the country, Lumumba over the northwest and center, and Tshombe over the far south. That corresponded with the major cities: Léopoldville, Stanleyville, and Elisabethville. The smaller parties divided among themselves the countryside that lay between. (p.264)

The really striking thing about Congo’s independence is how it started to go wrong within days.

Congo’s First Republic was an apocalyptic era in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Both politically and militarily, the country was plunged into total, inextricable chaos…The period between 1960 and 1965 is known today as the First Republic, but at the time it seemed more like the Last Judgment. The country fell apart, was confronted with a civil war, ethnic pogroms, two coups d’état, three uprisings, and six government leaders (Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Ileo, Justin Bomboko, Cyrille Adoula, Moïse Tshombe, and Évariste Kimba), two—or perhaps even three—of whom were murdered: Lumumba, shot dead in 1961; Kimba, hanged in 1966; Tshombe, found dead in his cell in Algeria in 1969.

On 4 July, 4 days after the independence celebrations, troops in Leopoldville mutinied for higher pay and promotions. The mutiny spread to nearby Thysville where the troops went on a rampage across the town, murdering whites and gang-raping white women (p.287). Within weeks an estimated 30,000 Belgians fled the country, catching whatever flights they could, abandoning their houses, cars and other property, fearful for their lives. on 10 July units of the Belgian army were flown in to secure key assets in the mineral region of Katanga.

It was chaos within a week and, in one sense, the madness has never stopped since. As van Reybrouck puts it, within 1 week Congo lost its army, within 1 month it lost almost everyone who knew how to run everything, from commercial companies to the electricity and water systems.

The abrupt transition from a monolithic, colonial administration to a democratic, multiparty system had included no intermediate steps, which was precisely why it resulted in a fiasco. (p.342)

From the actual date of independence to the murder of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The events leading to Lumumba’s murder have, as van Reybrouck points out, something Shakespearian in scale and horrible inevitability.

The Katangan secession 1961 to 1963

On 11 July, Moise Tshombe leader of the local Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT), who had missed out on a senior position in the new independent administration, declared the Republic of Katanga a breakaway state, independent from the rest of Congo (p.294).

Initially supported by Belgian and the big mining corporations who thought Tshombe would protect their interests, ongoing internecine fighting within the province led to invasion by United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) forces, who Kusavubu and Lumumba called on for help the very next day after the declaration, and after a lot of bloodshed Katanga Province was reintegrated into Congo in January 1963.

Normally these kinds of interventions are viewed in isolation but van Reybrouck makes the good point that the Soviet Union was flying in supplies to the central government, America considered invoking NATO forces to reinforce Katanga. In other words, the situation could have become the flashpoint for superpower confrontation, possibly the cause of a nuclear war. Seen in that context it was a very real achievement of the UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskold in defusing confrontation and making the issue a peacekeeping one.

Kasai secedes August 1960

In August 1960 Albert Kalonji had himself crowned king of the province of Kisai. Kalonji was standing up for ‘his’ people, the Baluba, many of whom had migrated to Katanga for work and were heartily despised there. Back in Kisai, the Baluba faced off against the Lulua. There was violence, massacres, gang rapes, the usual behaviour (p.302).

Mobutu’s first coup September 1960

Lumumba was a rebel. He had given outspoken speeches criticising the colonial Belgians, within weeks of trouble kicking off he had appealed to the Soviet Union for help. The Americans came to think of him as a dangerous commie, but van Reybrouck shows that his behaviour was, in fact, erratic and difficult.

On 5 September 1960 President Kasavubu declared that he was dismissing Prime Minister Lumumba. An hour later Lumumba went on the radio and announced he was dismissing President Kasavubu. It was chaos (p.303). Into the fray stepped Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who was to emerge as the central figure of Congo’s modern history. On September 14, 1960, he carried out his first coup d’état, with the approval and support of the CIA.

The murder of Patrice Lumumba January 1961

All the forces aligned against Lumumba. He came to be seen as an agent of instability and potential commie stooge. US President Eisenhower authorised the CIA to assassinate him. Lumumba asked for UN protection and a troop of blue helmets surrounded his house protecting him. Nonetheless he realised he had to flee back to his tribal heartland and on 27 November, as a tropical rainstorm drew away his besiegers, he was smuggled into a chauffeur-driven car and driven east. However, he loitered too much at towns on the way to press the flesh and was captured by his enemies. On 1 December Mobutu’s troops captured him. He was taken to a barracks prison, tied up, thrown into a cell. He received various visitors. Van Reybrouck gives a detailed account of his last days. On 17 January 1961 he was bundled into a car with his two closest associates and driven into the countryside where, in the presence of Belgian officers, of rival Congolese politicians, President Tshombe, the ministers Munongo and Kibwe, and a few of their colleagues, a mix of Belgian officers and Congolese soldiers executed him and buried his body in a well (p.308).

Lumumba had been in power for less than two and a half months. News of his murder flashed round the world and he became a martyr for independence and anti-colonial movements everywhere. In modern accounts we can see he was a human being with plenty of human failings. But no-one deserves to die like that. And in political terms it was a failure because the anarchy continued. The country was falling apart into seceding provinces with local rulers who promptly set about massacring their ethnic enemies.

Mobutu’s second coup November 1965

The chaos continued. In elections held in March 1965, Prime Minister Moise Tshombe’s Congolese National Convention won a large majority but President Kasavubu appointed an anti-Tshombe leader, Évariste Kimba, as prime minister-designate. However, Parliament twice refused to confirm him and government ground to a halt.

Into this impasse stepped Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who carried out his second and more lasting coup on 24 November. He had turned 35 a month earlier. He was to rule Congo for the next 32 years.

Mobutu good guy 1965 to 1975

Mobutu banned all political parties and activities and declared himself leader of one, unified, national political party the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, or MPR. But in the context of Congo this was not a totally bad idea. Arguably, for the first ten years of his rule he was a good thing.

The first decade of Mobutu’s thirty-year reign was a time of hope, expectations, and revival. “Mobutu was electric,” the writer Vincent Lombume told me once. And not only because he brought in television and built hydroelectric power stations, but also because he himself delivered a moral jolt to a nation in disrepair. The period 1965–75 is remembered as the golden decade of an independent Congo (p.335).

One by one he neutralised his enemies. President Kasvubu retired to his native village, never to take part in politics again. Moise Tshombi was abducted and ended up dying in a prison cell in Algeria in 1969 (p.338).

Mobutu used white mercenaries to quell the various secessionist movements and from 1968 onwards was able to concentrate on improving Congo’s infrastructure and living conditions. He instituted a secret police, which was allowed to use torture. He promulgated a new constitution centring the nation on himself. Uprisings or protests were likely to be massacred. On the other hand, for the majority of the population, he brought peace and stability. He tried to stamp out tribalism: entrants in the Miss Congo contest had to come from all regions and ethnicities; the national football team had to include players from all groups.

After the total debacle of the First Republic, he put Congo back on the map. He won respect and gave the country new élan. Had the Americans landed on the moon? He invited the crew of Apollo 11, making Congo the only African country to welcome the moon travelers. Were the Europeans organising a Miss Europe contest? He convinced the organisers to hold the finals in Kinshasa, and to give them a native twist. The winner, including in the category ‘African Costume,’ was a ravishing blonde from Finland. Were Congolese women still seen as the most beautiful on the continent? He backed Maître Taureau in organizing the first national Miss Congo contest…In short, Mobutu made good on the promises that independence had awakened but been unable to keep. (

Recours a l’authenticité

Aided by political strategist Dominique Sakombi, Mobutu embarked on a policy they called the Recours a l’authenticité (p.351). In 1966 he renamed Congo’s cities, replacing their European names with African ones: Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, Stanleyville became Kisangani. In October 1971, he renamed the entire country the Republic of Zaire.

Mobutu disapproved of Christianity as a European imposition. Churches were shut down and Christmas was banned, while he encouraged the uniquely Congolese variant of Kimbanguism (p.355).

Every citizen was ordered to replace their European names with African ones. Priests were threatened with five years’ imprisonment if they were caught baptising a Zairian child with a European name. Western clothes were banned: men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost (shorthand for à bas le costume, or ‘down with the suit’), women had to lock away their 60s mini-skirts and wear the traditional pagne (p.352).

In 1972 Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (meaning ‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.’). And he started wearing what became his trademark look: a tall man carrying a walking stick while wearing an abacost, thick-framed glasses and a leopard-skin toque.

Mobutu bad guy 1975 to 1990

But modern states rely on economic and financial realities. In 1967 Mobutu nationalised the huge mining company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga and the state began to benefit, for the first time, from the huge mineral resources it owned (p.345). Van Reybrouck makes the striking point that the global market for the many raw materials Congo could supply (copper, tin) was sky high because of the Vietnam War. As with the two world wars, war was good for Congo, or at least the people who mulcted the profits.

As the 1970s progressed it became more and more obvious that this meant Mobutu and his cronies. Examples slowly increased of the multiple ways he, his family and associates milked money from the state at every level. They set an example which ended up permeating Congo with corruption at every level. New words were invented to describe it. Clientelism. Kleptocracy.

In 1973 he announced a policy of Zairianisation, namely the expropriation of all small and medium sized businesses from non-African owners e.g. Greeks, Portuguese, Pakistanis. They were handed to cronies who didn’t have a clue how to run them and so this sector of the economy, also, collapsed (p.357). Unemployment rose. Everyone had to moonlight with second or third jobs. People began selling their belongings on the street.

The end of the Vietnam war in 1974 heralded a collapse in copper prices and the oil crisis also hit the country. Inflation soared. Food rotted in the fields for lack of infrastructure. The country became a basket case. His rule became more repressive. More arrests, secret police, clever new innovations in torture (p.386). Opponents disappeared. In 1970 and 1977 he was re-elected president with 98% of the vote; there were no other candidates.

He built classic vanity projects: a huge hydroelectric dam, the Inga Dam on the Congo, a vast steel foundry at Maluku. During the commissioning and building Mobutu and his cronies siphoned off huge sums. But after the European contractors had pocketed the last payments they walked away and the projects, lacking a workforce educated enough to run or maintain them, and lacking the infrastructure to move electricity or steel products around, lapsed into crumbling white elephants.

Van Reybrouck describes it as the rise of a state bourgeoisie, a new middle class which owed nothing to entrepreneurism, initiative or innovation, but was entirely based on family or tribal connections to the boss. As the general population displayed more poverty, as the official economy lagged and declined, Mobutu was able to ask the IMF or foreign governments for aid and loans which he then liberally dispensed to his extended ‘tribe’ of cronies and supporters. It was a kind of pyramid scheme. Between 1977 and 1979 alone Mobutu is calculated to have creamed off $200 million of state funds (p.375).

Meanwhile inflation soared to an annual rate of 60%. Most people struggled to feed themselves. Repeated reissuings of the currency did nothing to address the underlying failure of the economy. And yet Mobutu continued to be supported by the West: by France, as the largest Francophone nation in Africa, by America as a huge territorial bulwark against the prolonged communist insurgency in neighbouring Angola and an actual communist government in neighbouring Republic of Congo.

All the time he used the loans from the IMF and international banks to buy multiple properties in Belgium, the South of France, Switzerland, and the huge city-sized complex he built for himself at Gbadolite (p.380). In genuine monster mode, he had a big sexual appetite: he slept with the wives of his cabinet ministers, partly for fun, partly to humiliate them; wherever he travelled in the country he was offered the prettiest virgins to deflower (p.385). It was part of the cult of the supreme tribal chieftain and everyone else in the hierarchy followed his example. Schools became ‘sexual fishponds’ where local governors and administrators picked the prettiest girls (p.389).

Congo’s roads decayed and reverted back to tracks in the jungle. Soldiers sold their equipment. The air force sold off bits of planes as spare parts. The armed forces became a joke. The economy collapsed. Congo’s 15 million people tried to make a living any way they could amid the rubble.

Mobutu clings on 1990 to 1997

The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. As it happened within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall Mobutu crushed some student protests with unnecessary violence which was reported around the world. This was the last straw for his western supporters. Suddenly Mobutu was no longer seen as a bulwark against communism (such as the communist forces in neighbouring Angola and French Congo) and no longer as welcome as he had been in the White House of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. In 1990 he was forced to appoint a transitional government with a promise of elections to come. There was an explosion of political parties and a newly freed press went mad.

In August 1991 the Sovereign National Conference opened but was immediately swamped in the kind of tribal and ethnic and political rivalries which had bedevilled the first republic. Things weren’t helped when soldiers in Ndjili mutinied then went on the rampage through the town, sparking universal looting.

In January 1992 Mobutu closed the conference and went on to cannily appoint then sack a series of Prime Ministers, playing individuals and parties off against each other. On 16 February a March of Hope was held through Kinshasa which was met by soldiers and ended in a bloodbath (p.403). The conference refused to shut down and issued messages of defiance at Mobutu the dictator. A decade or more of fear was coming to an end. Mobutu agreed to step back and accept a more ceremonial role. A genuine Prime Minister was elected.

But the country was still a basket, with a destroyed infrastructure incapable of distributing its rich agricultural produce, entirely reliant on its mineral exports most of whose profit was raked off by the kleptocracy. In 1994 inflation reached 9,769%.

In January 1993 soldiers who hadn’t been paid for months mutinied again and went on the rampage in every city and town where they were stationed. The Ndjili rampage became known as the First Plundering. This one was called the Second Plundering.

The Rwanda genocide 1994

Rwanda was mapped and defined by German colonisers. It contained three tribes, the Hutus who made up 85% of the population, the Tutsis 14% and the Twa 1%. The Tutsis had traditionally been the better educated elite of the country, a tribal division crystallised by the Belgians who assumed responsibility for Rwanda from the Germans after World War One (p.413).

In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. A group of Tutsi exiles formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990. Fighting continued until a 1993 peace deal was agreed. An estimated 20,000 were killed and 1.5 million civilians displaced (p.414). Bad blood and a fragile peace.

On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down, killing everyone on board. Both were Hutus and Hutu extremists immediately claimed the downing was an assassination preliminary to an uprising of Tutsis. They sent out instructions via press and radio to a bewildered nation of Hutus to kill the Tutsis before it was too late. Lists of government opponents were handed out to militias who went and killed them, along with all of their families, chief among them the youth wing of the governing party, the the Interahamwe, which was turned into a militia to carry out the slaughter. Machetes were cheaper and more available than guns (p.414).

In the space of just 100 days around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. The UN had forces in Rwanda but its troops were not given orders to stop the killing. America was well aware of events but it was only 6 months since the ‘black hawk down’ events in Somalia in October 1993, when a mission to intervene and capture a Somali warlord went disastrously wrong and led to 19 American soldiers being killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. There was no appetite to put more American soldiers in harm’s way (p.417).

The French, predictably enough, were on the side of the genocidal government at least in part, van Reybrouck says, because the Tutsi rebels were based in the former British colony Uganda. It was these Tutsis in exile, the well-organised RPF, backed by Uganda’s army, which, in response to the genocide, did indeed invade Rwanda and fight their way to the capital, Kigali, which they seized on 4 July 1994.

The French forces helped the Hutu government which had organised the genocide, and hundreds of thousands of terrified Hutus to escape into neighbouring Congo, where huge refugee camps were established. Up to 2 million Hutus fled the conquering RPF. Some of the RPF followed them into Congo looking for the genocidaires, fighting spilled over in all directions.

The Rwandan invasion and the first Congo War, the fall of Mobutu

Van Reybrouck prepares us for all this with a detailed examination of the numerous tribal antagonisms which existed all over the eastern Congo, with low level massacres carried out by one side or another on an annual basis. He describes the rise of the Mai-Mai, Bantu nationalists, fierce Zairian patriots, who enforced a strict code of conduct and were merciless to all perceived outsiders, immigrants and refugees.

Tutsis who emigrated to Zaire before Congolese independence in 1960 were known as Banyamulenge, meaning ‘from Mulenge’ and had the right to citizenship under Zairian law. Tutsis who emigrated to Zaire following independence were known as Banyarwanda. The RPF in Kigali knew that most of the organisers of the genocide had escaped to the refugee camps in Congo where they were planning a counter-attack, and knew they had to strike first. In 1996 Mobutu signed an order expelling Tutsis from eastern Congo and this was the trigger for a general uprising.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwandan Minister of Defense Paul Kagame organised various Tutsis and anti-Hutu groups into a force designed to overthrow Mobutu in order to end his support for the Hutu.

Knowing their project would look like the invasion of a sovereign state Kagame and Museveni looked for a Congo citizen to front it and settled on the convenient figure of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, long term guerrilla leader and opponent of Mobutu. The army they assembled was named the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL).

The first step in the plan, and the key objective of the RPF government in Rwanda, was to eliminate the Hutu refugee camps where extremist elements were plotting to overthrow the Tutsi government.  This resulted in ‘massive carnage’ (p.423). Hutu refugees who had fled the initial attacks were gathered into further refugee camps, sometimes with the help of aid organisations, who were then banned from the area and ‘the ethnic cleansing could continue with impunity’. Ammunition is expensive, so the favoured weapons were machetes and hammers. The old, the sick, women and children and babies. No-one was spared.

As many as between 300,000 Hutu refugees were massacred by the AFDL and the Rwandan Defence Forces. In other words about a quarter as many Hutus massacred, as Tutsis in the original genocide. The more you read on, the more Congo ceases to sound like a country and more like a vast open air abattoir.

The Rwanda-Uganda-rebel Congo forces undertook the 2,000 mile trek all the way to Kinshasa, killing all the Hutus they could find along the way and massacring villages which held out. The gruelling trek lasted seven months and the invading forces were supported by the West, especially Bill Clinton’s America, which wanted to visibly sever links with the cynical old support for Mobutu, and also bought into Paul Kagame’s narrative of the Tutsis as victims of a terrible genocide (p.426).

Van Reybrouck includes a very useful map.

images

On 16 May 1997 peace talks chaired by South Africa Nelson Mandela failed and Mobutu fled into exile. Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory the next day. On 23 May 1997, Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mobutu went into exile in Rabat, Morocco, where he died on 7 September 1997 of prostate cancer. On the day he fled, Kabila became the new president of Congo. The campaign to overthrow Mobutu became known as the First Congo War 24 October 1996 to 16 May 1997.

Rule of Laurent Kabila 1997 to 2001

We had in fact met Kabila back in the 1960s when he lurked in the forest of eastern Congo ineffectually organising rebellion and secession. When Katanga had seceded under the leadership of Moïse Tshombe, Kabila organised the Baluba people in an anti-secessionist rebellion in Manono and established a new province, North Katanga, in September 1962. In other words he had been a political player as long as Mobutu. But he lacked real commitment. When his rebellion fizzled out, he took to smuggling gold and timber on Lake Tanganyika, then ran a bar and brothel in Tanzania. Now Kabila brought the same half-assed approach to being president and soon alienated most of his backers. Che Guevara of all people had been sent to the Congo to foment communist revolution and spent months in the east Congo rainforest with Kabila and his men, and we have his diary entries which record that Kabila was certainly charismatic and a natural leader but lacked commitment to the cause.

Second Rwandan invasion and Second Congo War

Congolese rivals and political commentators came to resent the swaggering presence of Rwandan and Uganda soldiers in the capital. To avert a coup, Kabila expelled all Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian military units from the Congo on 26 July 1998.

Now the whole reason Rwanda and Uganda had supported Kabila was to have a biddable puppet in charge in Kinshasa. When the worm turned they launched a second invasion, but this time commandeered commercial jetliners to carry troops to an airport not far from Kinshasa.

The Second Congo War began in August 1998, little more than a year after the First Congo War (p.439). It lasted till July 2003, when the Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo took power. But violence continues in many parts of the country, particularly in the east, to this day.

Ultimately, nine African countries and around twenty-five armed groups became involved in the war. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had caused 5.4 million deaths, principally through disease and starvation. Another 2 million were displaced by the conflict.

Van Reybrouck divides it into 4 phases:

  1. The invasion August 1998
  2. The stalemate September 1998 to July 1999
  3. The dissension August 1999 to July 2000
  4. The anarchy July 2000 to December 2002

In the middle of it, on 16 January 2001, Kabila was shot and killed by a bodyguard, former child soldier Rashidi Mizele, at the presidential palace in Kinshasa. Typically, van Reybrouck speaks to an eye witness, an aide to the president, who was in the office next door when he heard the fatal shots and goes some way to explaining the disillusion and then enmity of the many child soldiers or kadogos who had made up a significant percentage of the AFDL forces (p.419)

Thoughts

It is a bombardment of facts, countless figures large and small, and a blizzard of complex alliances and conflicts. It made me realise that one reason authors write about the Victorian era of exploration is that it was soooooo much simpler: you had half a dozen named European heroes, a handful of named Congolese porters or slave traders, and all the other humans were faceless extras. Whereas from the 1950s onwards you are dealing with a ‘real’ country, with ever-increasing numbers of politicians,  political parties, ethnic groups, provinces, rebellions, wars and massacres to try and understand.

Also, it’s really easy to assign blame if you stick to the colonial period. White man bad exploiter, black man helpless victim. Simple enough to put on a t-shirt. By contrast, the modern period, beginning with the run-up to independence, is bewilderingly complicated, and although the woke can persist with the overall conclusion that the West and white people are still the wicked exploiters, the reality is far more complicated. You can blame Mobutu’s long rule on his western political and commercial backers but he was, in the end, an African man ruling an African nation and free to choose his methods and policies: and the ones he chose were rule by violence and fear, and the deployment of corruption and larceny on an epic scale. He was, in fact, applying traditional tribal chieftain tactics (something he consciously promoted) but to a country the size of western Europe.

And when the Rwandans invaded and triggered the first Congo War, the situation doesn’t only become complex and messy but the wish to assign praise and blame is nullified. In my opinion these are just people peopling, human beings doing what they have done throughout history, fight, kill, conquer, enslave, rape and loot.

The job of any government is to create enough security and rule of law so that countries or regions don’t collapse back into the barbarism which is always lurking in the human psyche. In this respect the modern history of the Congo is a kind of showcase example of the complete failure to achieve that security and peace. Shorn of the thousand and one details specific to the Congo, van Reybrouck’s epic account shows, at a more abstract level, just how difficult the precious state of peace and security is to achieve, and how easily it can be overthrown with cataclysmic results.

Credit

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.

Surprisingly for a contemporary book, Congo: The Epic History of a People is available online in its entirety.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck (2010)

In Africa an archaic social organisation collides with the supremacy of a technical civilisation that causes the former to fall apart without replacing it…simply by being ourselves , we destroy traditions that were sometimes hard but venerable, and we offer as a replacement only white trousers and dark glasses, in addition to a little knowledge and a vast longing.
(from the diary of Vladimir Drachoussoff, a Russo-Belgian agriculture engineer in the 1940s)

Kimbanguism

Simon Kimbangu was born the son of a traditional Congolese healer in 1899. Taken in by British Baptist missionaries, he became a catechist i.e. highly instructed in the faith, before, in 1921, having a revelation that he himself had miraculous powers, given directly by Jesus Christ. Simon healed a dying woman (named Kintondo, p.146) and stories about his healing powers spread like wildfire, that he healed the deaf and blind, that he even raised a woman from the dead. From all over the region people abandoned their fields and markets and flocked to behold the saviour.

The authorities in the shape of district commissioner Léon Morel quickly became alarmed, van Reybrouck saying the Protestant missionaries (who had trained Simon) took a moderate and sympathetic view of his teachings, but the Catholics lined up with the colonial authorities to find Kimbangu a threat to order and conformity (p.149).

Kimbagu was arrested and put through a show trial, without the benefit of a defence lawyer. Van Reybrouck gives us extensive quotes from the transcript of the trial and points out its similarities to the trial of Jesus Christ, another religious zealot shopped by the religious establishment who the prosecuting authorities found difficult to convict of any particular crime. The part of Pilate was played by commander Amadeo De Rossi (p.149). The result was a foregone conclusion and Kimbagu was sentenced to death when, to everyone’s surprise, he was given a personal reprieve by the Belgian monarch, King Albert, the sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and he did indeed spend the rest of his life in a Belgian prison, most of it in solitary confinement, 30 years in a small cell, longer than Nelson Mandela.

The authorities tries to suppress Kimbagu’s followers, arresting them, sending them to remote parts of the Congo, outlawing his sect, sending his chief followers to camps fenced with barbed wire where they were subjected to forced labour, as many as one in five dying in the process (p.152). But this policy had the perverse result of spreading the faith throughout the country, with witnesses appearing all over to testify to miracles and healings performed by the imprisoned master. The result is that Kimbaguism has become a solidly established religion, a spinoff from Christianity in the style of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. Today around 10% of the population of the Congo are followers, with devotees and churches established in many other countries.

Van Reybrouck not only devotes an extended passage to Kimbagu’s biography and trial but makes a personal pilgrimage to what has become the Kimbanguists’ holy city, Nkamba, where he describes the peaceful atmosphere, and then interviews a leading figure in the church, Papa Wanzungasa, one hundred years old and still going strong. Indeed Kimbanguism is now a recognised religion. Some 10% of the population of Congo are followers. Papa Wanzungasa tells van Raybrouck about the early days of the movement, and describes how his own family members were forced to convert to Catholicism or sent to labour camps in the 20s and 30s, how the true believers held secret conventicles in the jungle, using coded messages to rendezvous at safe spots like the early Christians meeting underground in ancient Rome (p.153).

Van Reybrouck broadens the story out to place the Kimbanguists in context among a number of other charismatic religions which broke out in the Congo between the wars: Ngunzism, a spinoff from Kimbanguism which was overtly anti-colonial; Mpadism, founded by Simon-Pierre Mpadi, whose followers engaged in ecstatic dances; Matswanism, founded by First World War veteran André Matdwa; the Kitawala, the name a corruption of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine, the Watchtower; and many more.

And then van Reybrouck gives a brilliant sociological explanation for all this, explaining that the new charismatic sects arose in precisely the parts of Congo where traditional life and beliefs had been most disrupted by European intervention, Kimbanguism in the coastal region of Bas (or Lower) Congo, the Kitawala (which grew to become the second largest indigenous religion after Kimbanguism), in the highly developed mining region of Katanga, in the far south-east of the country.

In all instances, then, it was a response to the disruption or destruction of the old tribal beliefs and social systems, their very imperfect replacement by zealous but thin Christianity, and maybe most important of all, to the simple fact that most Congolese, after half a century of promises, remained second rate citizens in their own country, most of them caught up in conditions of semi-forced labour to vast European mining and agricultural businesses, which ruthlessly exploited them and their entire families, uprooting villages, relocating entire populations, with no hope of any end in sight.

All these charismatic native religions offered hope to their adherents that a new and better life, one the colonial authorities had completely failed to deliver, was at hand. The Tupelepele (meaning the Floaters) followed Matemu a Kelenge (known to his followers as Mundele Funji, or ‘White Storm’) who hoped for a return to the time of the ancestors who would restore balance and prosperity for all. Its followers threw their identity papers, tax receipts, bank notes and all the other symbols of the European capitalist system which had ensnared them into the river in anticipation of a Great Liberation (p.162).

David Van Reybrouck’s history of the Congo is a brilliant and stunning achievement, a history like no other, and his extended treatment of Kimbanguism (pages 142 to 154) exemplifies many of its many strong points.

1. Van Reybrouck is not British

Van Reybrouck is not British. Much of the writing about the nineteenth century explorers is by British chaps about British chaps and, despite its best intentions, can’t help falling back into the gravitational pull of admiration for the plucky epic exploits of someone like Livingstone or Burton or Stanley. Van Reybrouck is completely clean of all this cricket and tiffin cultural baggage. He is Belgian. It’s quite a relief to read a book about colonial Africa in which the British are barely mentioned. In this book the European power which takes centre stage are the Belgians, their kings, parliaments and civil service, with walk-on parts for the French, Germans and Portuguese.

(I was pleased to read the first hand account of a Congolese who fought in the Second World War describing his initial transfer to British-run Nigeria where he found that local Africans were treated hugely better than they were in the Congo – properly fed, treated with respect, and he was amazed to discover that black Africans held senior posts in the Nigerian army, something still unthinkable in the segregated Belgian Congo of the 1940s).

2. Van Reybrouck is not a historian

Van Reybrouck is not a historian, at least not by training. He trained as an archaeologist and his first publication was of his doctoral dissertation, From Primitives to Primates. A history of ethnographic and primatological analogies in the study of prehistory, in 2010. Since then he has gone on to write historical fiction, literary non-fiction, novels, poetry and plays, but somehow this archaeological background helps or might explain why his book feels open to a far wider range of influences and sources than a more narrow and conventional history by a professional historian would.

For example, it explains the brilliant and illuminating passage in the Introduction where he imagines five slides, each depicting the life of a 12-year-old boy in the Congo at widely separated moments of time, namely:

  1. 90,000 years ago on the shore of Lake Edward (the time and place where the bones of a group of prehistoric humans have indeed been found)
  2. a Pygmy boy in the rainforest two and a half thousand years before Christ
  3. AD 500 as the slow spread of agriculture (specifically, the fast growing ‘new’ crop, the plaintain) as well as basic iron tools arrive at the village where our 12-year-old lives
  4. 1560, when the 12-year-old lives in a society where small isolated villages have given way to clans of villages, themselves building up, especially on the savannah, into complex societies which can be called kingdoms, like those of the Kongo, the Lunda, the Luba and the Kuba
  5. 1780, when there’s a fair chance our village 12-year-old will have been trafficked by enemy tribes down to the coast and bought by European slavers who ship him off under terrible conditions to Brazil, the Caribbean or the American South

So by just page 23 van Reybrouck has already given us a breath-taking sense of the historical and geographic scope of his account, that it will be a wide-ranging and, above all, beautifully imaginative and creative history.

3. Van Reybrouck is interested in byways

A conventional historian might mention the rise of charismatic sects and religious leaders in the 1920s and 30s as a result of the ongoing deracination of the Congolese population, but it is distinctive of van Reybrouck that he finds the story or angle which brings such a theoretical topic to vivid life. He not only gives us transcripts of the trial of Simon Kimbangu but then travels to the Kimbanguists’ holy city to interview leading adherents for himself.

What I’m driving at is that van Reybrouck’s account not only covers the conventional history and dates and events, but turns over all kinds of odds and ends and details and fragments and insights which bring the country, the Congo, and its people, really vividly to life.

He stumbles across the huge statue of Stanley which used to dominate the main square in Leopoldville, now taken down and dumped inside one of Stanley’s own early steamers in a junk yard in Kinshasa (p.99).

He explains the origins of the pop music and jazz which took Kinshasa by storm between the wars, and its mix of African languages and American jazz with the (rather surprising) importation of Cuban rhythms and sounds to create what is called Congo rumba. He tells us about Camille Feruzi, the great accordion virtuoso of Congolese music, and Wendo Kolosoyi whose guitar playing laid the basis of Congo rumba ‘the most influential musical style in the sub-Saharan Africa of the twentieth century’ (p.168). African Jazz ‘the most popular band in the Congo on the 1950s’ led by Joseph Kabasele.

He mentions the godfather of Congolese literature, Paul Lomami-Tshibamba, who published elegant essays immediately after the Second World War questioning colonialism and was arrested and beaten in prison for his trouble before fleeing into exile in the (French-controlled) Republic of Congo, across the river (p.170). I immediately went looking for his first novel, Ngando, and am very irked to discover it has never been translated into English.

His book is studded with scores of other facts and byways and insights about Congo and its social and cultural and musical and artistic and social life which combine to build up a much more vivid and colourful portrait of the country than any purely ‘historical’ account could do.

4. Van Reybrouck has carried our many interviews

Van Reybrouck makes the commonly made observation that so many histories of Africa omit the voices of actual Africans – the difference is that he has done something about it. From his first trip to Congo in 2003, van Reybrouck sought out and interviewed the oldest people he could find, eye witnesses who saw at first hand the events they describe, or had them from parents or grandparents.

It is typical of van Reybrouck that he travelled to the Kimbanguist holy city to see for himself. Historians working from colonial records in libraries and archives don’t do that. Van Reybrouck combines history with the vivid sense of journey and place of a good travel writer. And then, the qualities of a good journalist who knows how to make an interviewee at ease and extract the good stuff from a wide range of old timers.

So there are two types of Congolese testimony, written and oral.

a) People van Reybrouck spoke to

One had informants who had seen a lot but had little to say, and one had informants who had little to say but talked a lot anyway. (p.220)

‘Étienne’ Nkasi (introduced page 6), over a hundred years old, who remembered the name of Stanley as a living presence, who knew Simon Kimbangu when he was a boy, who remembered the building of the first railway from Matadi to Stanley Pool, and much more. His story weaves in and out of the main narrative so he appears on page 117, witnessing the early development of Kinshasa.

Victor Masundi (introduced page 75), aged 87 and blind, grew up in the Scheutist mission in Boma, and Camille Mananga (page 76) aged 73 recounted his grandfather’s memories of first being taken into a Christian mission.

Colonel Eugène Yoka, a former air force colonel, tells van Reybrouck about his father who had been a soldier who served in World War 1, and that his grandfather, a Bangal tribesman from Équateur province, had been one of the first recruits to the Force Publique (p.77).

Albert Kudjabo and Paul Panda Farnana, two Congolese who volunteered to fight in the Great War to defend the ‘motherland’ Belgium and were promptly captured by the Germans and spent four long years in a prisoner of war camp. Liberated after the war, Farnana lived for a while in Brussels where he eloquently made the case for the Congolese being treated as adults in their own country (pages 138 and 178).

André Kitardi, veteran of the First World War (pp.129 onwards) and again on pages 185 and 199 where he ends up serving in Palestine. Libert Otenga, the Congolese medic who was transported north into Egypt, then the Middle East, to India and ended up serving in Burma (p.188). Louis Ngumbi who fought for the Allies during World War Two (p.185).

Martin Kabuya, 92, whose grandfather took part in the Sudan campaign, who enrolled in the Congo army, describes his rgandfather’s experiences in the Great War (p.135) and his own role as a Morse code operator in the Second War (p.187).

Hélène Nzimbu Diluzeti, mother of Colonel Yoka, 94-year-old widow of Thomas Masamba Lumoso, a Great War veteran who served for only a few weeks short of the entire duration of the war (pp.135 onwards).

Père Henri de  la Kéthulle de Ryhove, a Jesuit missionary in his 80s, nephew of the most famous Belgian missionary to the Congo, Raphaël de la Kéthulle who shares memories of his famous uncle who, alongside schools, built soccer stadiums, swimming pools and the huge Stade Roi Baudouin (pages 172 to 175).

Longin Ngwadi, aged 80 when van Reybrouck speaks to him in Kikwit, largest city of Kwilu Province, in the southwestern part of Congo, born in 1928, baptised by Jesuits, who wanted to become a priest but was rejected by the church hierarchy, so drifted to Kinshasa like so many young men in the 1930s and went on to become one of the first black professional footballers (pages 207 to 211).

Sister Apolline, also 80, a mixed race Congolese nun who started her career as a schoolteacher (p.211). Victoria Ndjoli, the first Congolese woman to get a driving licence (p.212).

Jamais Kolonga subject of a famous Congo rumba song, who’d had a long and varied life, who worked on the docks at Kinshasa as a young man, how his grandfather was converted to Catholicism and sent away two of his three wives, how his father was sent to Catholic school, taught to read and write and got a job with the Belgian company Otraco as manager of the housing district for the native workers, inspected their homes, made speeches to visiting directors and dignitaries and, once, even the king! Appointed to the Otraco works council and then the local council he was one of the first Congolese to have even a slight say in the administration (p.222). Jamais was born in 1935. At home he spoke French with his father, Kikongo with his mother, and Lingala with everyone else (p.223). Jamais went to work for Otraco in 1953 (pages 219 to 224).

b) Written texts recording African testimony and voices

Disasi Makuli (introduced page 29) was born in the early 1870s, son of tribalpeople, grew up in the tribal world and, aged ten, first heard rumours of outsiders raiding into their territory, who they nicknamed the Batambatamba, meaning the slave traders (p.41). Disasi was kidnapped by a gang led by the famous slave trader Tippu Tip. Then he is purchased by Stanley and set free, handed over to the case of the Englishman Anthony Swinburne who managed the small early settlement at Leopoldville. When Swinburne died he aged just 30 in 1889, Disasi found a new home with the British Baptist missionary Anthony Grenfell (p.68). In 1902 he set up one of the first black-run missions in Congo, at Yalemba (p.71). He witnessed at first hand atrocities caused by the Red Rubber Terror (p.89) and had many more adventures before dictating his life story to one of his sons before his death in 1941.

In 1895 a young man named Butungu left for England with a Baptist missionary, John Weeks. A year later he returned home with tall tales of sailing ships and salt water and the miracles he’d seen in London and wrote his stories down in Boloki. ‘It is the only known text by a Congolese from the nineteenth century’ (p.65).

Testimony recorded in official reports about the rubber terror: for example given by Eluo, a man from Esanga, about red rubber atrocities (p.89).

The long and colourful life of Lutunu, born at the end of the nineteenth century, as recorded by Belgian artist Jeanne Maquiet-Tombeau (The Life of the Congolese Chief Lutunu, 1952), given as a slave by chief Makitu to Stanley (p.102).

The memories of Joseph Njoli, a man from Équateur province, as recorded by a missionary and describing the imposition of the heavy tax burden on native workers levied from after the Great War (p.128).

Excerpts from the articles of Paul Lomami-Tshibamba (pages 170 and 216). An editorial from one of the colony’s most popular papers, L’Avenir Colonial (p.177).

The memoirs of André Yav, who worked all his life as a ‘boy’ in Elizabethville and wrote his recollections in the 1960s (p.123). He is quoted remembering the big miners strike during the war, which was violently suppressed by the authorities in December 1941 and the long and bitter legacy it left (p.192).

The wonderfully insightful diaries of wartime Congo kept by Vladi Souchard, pen name of Vladimir Drachoussoff, ‘a young Belgian agricultural engineer of Russian extraction’, pages 194 to 199.

Chapters

The quickest way to convey the structure of the book is to list its chapters. Each one has a ‘colourful’ title, such as a quote, and then a factual sub-title indicating the period covered. Here are the factual sub-titles and dates covered:

  1. Central Africa draws the attention of the East and West 1870 to 1885
  2. Congo under Leopold II 1885 to 1908
  3. The early years of the colonial regime 1908 to 1921
  4. Growing unrest and mutual suspicion in peacetime 1921 to 1940
  5. The war and the deceptive calm that followed 1940 to 1955
  6. A belated colonisation, a sudden independence 1955 to 1960
  7. [Assassination of Patrice Lumumba 1960]
  8. The turbulent years of the first republic 1960 to 1965
  9. Mobutu gets down to business 1965 to 1975
  10. A marshal’s madness 1975 to 1990
  11. Democratic opposition and military confrontation 1990 to 1997
  12. The Great War of Africa 1997 to 2002
  13. New players in a wasted land 2002 to 2006
  14. Hope and despair in a newborn democracy 2006 to 2010

Between the wars

All the books I’ve read recently were about the Victorian explorers of central Africa and ended around 1910 with the death of King Leopold and his handing over the Congo to the Belgian state to become a proper colony. It’s the period after that which interests me, from the Edwardians to independence and van Reybrouck’s does a wonderful job of explaining that period, both in terms of conventional history, but also with his extensive use of individual biographies, memories, interviews and anecdotes.

The period saw the real entrenchment of colonialism but also the development and changing phases of that colonialism. Much happened but the key strands were:

Incorporation into global capitalist economy

In the 1890s the economy was a barter one. Even King Leopold’s rapacious Force Publique in effect bartered for rubber or paid forced labour exclusively with rations. The period through and after the First World War saw the introduction of money, Congo was incorporated into the global capitalist economy, with the introduction of contracts and wages (pages 127 and 157).

The budding industrialisation of Congo led not only to an initial form of urbanisation and proletarianisation, but also to a far-reaching process of monetisation. (p.127)

And once you have money i.e. once you have transitioned a population from barter and traditional forms of exchange, to money, the state can control huge aspects of life, starting with contracts for wages, all kinds of laws about commercial dealings. Previously individuals worked out their own forms of exchange; now the state intervened in everything. Most of all, the state can now introduce and collect taxes. Taxes for what? Why, to pay for the state.

These economic, trade, financial practices had been introduced across Europe over centuries (think of the evolution of money and banking) and so, like the frog in the slowly heating up saucepan, everyone in the West had not only got used to them but regarded them as ‘natural’.

It’s only when you see all these instruments of state and social control being imposed on a completely virgin society that you realise how exploitative and controlling they were.

Industrialisation and proletarianisation

Industralisation and ‘development’ all sound fine until you realise their inevitable concomitant, which is the creation of a proletariat. Again, since many of the workers in the new factories or in the huge mines being created in the east of the country or on the vast new plantations growing coffee, cotton, tobacco and other export crops were only one generation removed from illiterate tribal villagers living on subsistence agriculture, the process was all the more dramatic and defined (p.125).

Between 1908 and 1921…Congo experienced its first wave of industrialisation, thereby prompting the proletarianisation of its inhabitants. (p.125)

You can see why Marxist ideology gained such traction in the developing world or Third World as it came up to independence. In Europe and America capitalism had developed a very large middle and lower middle class which benefited from it, which enjoyed a standard of living to which the more skilled workers aspired. These acted as a kind of social ballast, meaning that the industrial proletariat or working class, whatever you call it, even at their most radicalised, were never in a majority, never had the potential to overthrow the state.

Whereas in most countries coming up to independence, the clear majority of the population was treated as second class citizens and the great majority of them exploited by European employers and screwed for ever higher taxes by a state biased entirely to protecting Europeans and maximising their wealth.

When you add in the race aspect, the notion that whites exploited blacks, so that when the whites were overthrown and blacks were in power, paradise would come – and you have a very heady mix of ideas and ideologies and hopes.

Population explosion

Schools, hospitals, better nutrition, a more varied diet and medical advances such as inoculation against the worst tropical diseases, meant that the 1930s and 40s saw a population explosion (p.164). This took a very particular form, namely the explosive growth of cities. Word spread there were jobs, decent housing, money and all the excitements of modern urban life just a hundred miles from the traditional village where you lived. The village denoted crushing poverty, a corrupt chieftain and wizened elders who married all the young women. Farming was back breaking work and the crops grown were specified by the state according to unknown plans or you might be dragooned into one of the mandatory road building schemes.

So you upped sticks and hitched to the city to take your chances. Between 1920 and 1940 the population of Kinshasa doubled to 50,000. (Remember that Stanley founded it from nothing and named it Léopoldville just 40 years earlier, in 1881.) Elizabethville (named after the wife of King Albert of Belgium), centre of the mining industry in the south-east of the country, double in size between 1923 and 1929, from 16,000 to 23,000. Huge investments in the 1920s in both the mining industry and in transport infrastructure  led to Katanga province becoming one of the world’s major copper ore producers.

In 1919 the big Union Minière de Haut-Katanga corporation based in Katanga employed 8,500 workers; by 1928 it was 17,000. In 1920 there were 123,000 salaried black in the country; in 1929 there were 450,000 (p.127). By 1945, what with the huge demand for metals and foodstuffs generated by the war, the number of payrolled workers had risen to 800,000, possibly as many as 1 million (p.191).

Van Reybrouck uses the decision of Union Minière to allow workers to bring their wives to the workers’ accommodation as a symbolic moment when many black employees stopped being transitory single men on short term contracts and began to become families with careers. Black men acquired the skills required by a modern urban economy, carpenters, masons, woodworkers, as well as white collar roles such as nurses, clerks, warehouse foremen. And bar and music hall owners and the new jazz musicians who played in them. In the late 1930s the first pensions were introduced by some of the corporations. It was during the 30s, 40s and 50s that a Congolese society was created. The Boy Scouts were introduced. Football. Music.

Repression

As the colonial state extended its grasp out across all regions of the country, it faced two kinds of revolt: one the old traditional, rural one from the country and the other a new, urban one, fomented by workers and unions. This explains why ‘almost all the prisons in Congo were built between 1930 and 1935 (p.160).

When a young Belgian named Maximilien Balot, visiting a village in Pende country to collect taxes, mishandled the situation, was murdered and his body hacked to pieces, the colonial government sent in soldiers who killed at least 400 natives, probably more (p.163).

Elsewhere, strikes among mine workers or dockers were put down with force, although actual unions weren’t very active. Most were set up by the white employers and so were another symbol of repression rather than vehicles of protest and negotiation. As late as 1955, of about 1.2 million Congolese on payrolls, only 6,160 belonged to a union (p.214).

What is an évolué?

Against this background of industrialisation and modernisation, the rapid growth of urban centres with all the features of urban life i.e. modern jobs, modern accommodation, electricity, telephones and entertainment in the form of clubs and bars and cinemas, it’s no surprise that an educated black bourgeoisie emerged. The Belgian authorities used the French term ‘évolué’ meaning, literally, people who had evolved from their primitive illiterate tribal culture to become well educated, assimilated urbanites, people who dressed, walked and talked like Europeans.

An évolué had benefited from post-primary school education, had a good income, was serious about his work, monogamous (polygamy was one of the great indicators of the tribal mindset), dressed, walked and talked in the European manner. He was proud of owning Western consumer goods like a bicycle or record player (p.215).

Like any other class rising up into one above, they were very conscious of their new status and formed groups, clubs and circles to protect it. They read and they wrote. The first Congolese writers come from this caste such as Paul Lomami-Tshibamba. But they were in the classic piggy-in-the-middle position. After the Second World War they wrote the first tentative essays about greater equality and autonomy for blacks but deep down they wanted to live like whites and be treated like whites. The irony was that, after the war, more white women came and settled in the Congo, a new white middle class came into being, more consumer orientated, with big villas and chauffeur-driven cars and children at private school.

And at exactly the historic moment when a new black middle class and intelligentsia reached out to them, van Reybrouck portrays white bourgeoisie as withdrawing into its gated communities and enforcing a new, more unbreakable colour bar. If a white journalist took a black colleague into a European bar, conversation stopped. Trains were segregated into black and white. If a black man dived into a swimming pool at a European club, the whites got out (p.216).

They had done everything asked of them, but still the évolués were treated as second class citizens. Van Reybrouck quotes a plaintive petition from the évolués of the small town of Lulabourg, who describe themselves as ‘a new social class…which constitutes a new sort of native middle class’ and concludes plaintively: ‘It is painful to be received as a savage, when one is full of good will’ (p.217).

The authorities made what, in retrospect seem like pitiful attempts to mollify these pleas. In 1948 they declared the évolués could apply for a ‘certificate of civil merit’. Holders of this grand certificate would no longer be administered corporal punishment and, if charged with an offence, be tried before a European judge. They had access to white wards in hospitals and were allowed to walk through white neighbourhoods after 6pm (!).

Unsurprisingly this was met with resentment and so the authorities introduced the carte d’immatriculation in 1952 which gave the évolué exactly the same civil rights as Europeans, most notably the ability to send their children to European schools. However, in order to qualify you had to submit to a humiliating inspection of your home life, which scrutinised every aspect of your home from the sleeping arrangements right down to the state of the cutlery and the kitchen.

Very few évolués volunteered to undergo this humiliation and even fewer passed the stringent criteria with the result that, in 1958, from a population of 14 million, only 1,557 civil merits were handed out and only 217 registration cards (p.219).

All of which explains why so many of the early leaders of the African nationalist parties in the Belgian Congo were members of the frustrated évolué class.

A succession of raw materials

Congo was victim of a kind of ironic curse: the conquering Europeans discovered the country possessed a whole series of raw materials which brought the exploiting whites vast wealth but very little benefit and a lot of forced labour and misery for the native population. Van Reybrouck points out these raw materials formed a kind of relay race: just as one material ran dry or ceased to be needed by Western countries, another took its place (p.119).

Thus ivory was the commodity which attracted traders to Congo in the 1870s and 80s. But just as supplies of ivory were being exhausted in the 1890s, there was a sudden explosion of demand for rubber sparked by the invention of pneumatic tyres for bicycles and cars and Congo turned out to be home to millions of wild rubber vines, which the population was terrorised into milking throughout the 1890s and 1900s.

Then the rubber boom collapsed because so many rubber tree plantations were opening in the Far East. In 1901 rubber had accounted for 87% of Congo’s exports, by 1928 just 1% (p.119). But just as the bottom fell out of the rubber market, Congo was discovered to be one of the world’s great sources of precious metals and minerals, chiefly copper, which underwent an explosion of demand during the First World War.

The British and American shells fired at Passendale, Ypres, Verdun and on the Somme had brass casings made from 75% copper mined in the east Congo region of Katanga. The bullet shells were made of nickel, which is 80% copper (p.137). There was steady demand between the wars, and then another huge spike 1939 to 1945.

And then, just when demand for copper dropped following WW2, its extensive supplies of uranium made Congo’s mines out east of permanent interest to the Americans (p.191). And when demand for this fell with the end of the Cold War in 1990, a new demand was opened up with the spread of personal computers and then mobile phones, which require cobalt and other rare metals which are found in the eastern part of the country.

Conclusion

My reading of Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the industrial revolution and the age of capital is that the industrial revolution was a kind of catastrophe. Contemporaries marvelled at the power and size of the new machines, especially the new railway engines unleashed on the world in the 1840s, but were puzzled and horrified at how such incredible ingenuity and engineering prowess seemed to make a large part of the population poorer than it had been before, the puzzle Karl Marx set out to solve and which his devotee Hobsbawm echoed 100 years later.

Nobody knew then what we know now about the cyclical nature of capitalist boom and bust, about successive waves of technological, consumer and marketing innovation. After the second industrial revolution provided a cornucopia of new inventions into the 1870s and 80s it was possible to believe that the new sciences of economics and sociology would guide society towards a technological utopia.

What is quite obvious is that nobody at the time understood the forces driving Western societies and the entire world forward with such relentless energy to a series of disasters: from the prolonged depression of the 1870s and 1880s which nobody understood, through to the gathering rivalries of the 1900s which led to the unprecedented cataclysm of the Great War and then to the thirty years of chaos which followed – the instability in Europe, America and Asia crystallised by the collapse of the entire financial system in 1929 followed by the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe and Asia which ten stricken years later plunged the world into an even greater cataclysm.

My point is that Stanley and Leopold and the sadists in the Force Publique and then much of the colonial administration and the white Belgian masters certainly made countless mistakes, indulged in lies, extortion, torture and murder, or the relentless humiliation of colonial racism. And I’m not suggesting we ‘forgive’ them or let them off the hook. But at the same time this epic account, for me, brings out how humans in all areas, at all levels of society, don’t really know what’s going on. How could we? We can’t see the future from whose perspective the general trends of things even begin to make some sort of sense.

Who today can really predict the long-term impact of the digital revolution, of COVID-19 or global warming? After all the colour and vibrancy of van Reybrouck’s brilliant account I was left with a profound sense of humanity’s helplessness, a blinkered inability to understand the situation or manage ourselves which the next sections of the book – about the rush to independence, followed by civil war, military coups, corrupt dictatorship, political chaos, catastrophic war and social collapse are not, I suspect, going to do anything to disabuse me of.

Credit

Congo: the epic history of a people by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.


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