Victorian-era European imperialism was facilitated by the thousands of missionaries, businessmen, soldiers, and private police forces employed by the religious, economic, and military institutions of “civilized” Europe, but there were also individuals that facilitated this process, such as Henry Morton Stanley, Joseph Conrad, and Roger Casement. These individuals were essential to the larger effort to normalize imperialism. They were seen as national heroes, adventurers, larger-than-life pinnacles of Europe’s “civilizing” mission in sub-Saharan Africa. All of these men treated sub-Saharan Africa as if it were theirs for the taking, where they could play and profit as they saw fit. All of these men were essential to European imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa: its rise, its fall, and its impact on the people it crushed along the way. So today we’re going to take a look at where Conrad, Casement, and Stanley’s stories intersect: in the Congo, or as Joseph Conrad called it, in the “Heart of Darkness.”

Listen, download, watch on YouTube, or scroll down for the transcript.

Related Posts:

Transcript for Hearts of Darkness: Victorian Imperialism and Travel of the African Continent

Research and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Averill: When I think of the so-called “Scramble for Africa” — the period when, in the 19th century, Europeans tricked, traded, and coerced their way across sub-Saharan Africa, laying claim to whatever land they could by whatever means necessary — there are a few iconic images that spring to mind. One is a political cartoon published in Punch in December 1892, and conveys the audacity of Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa. It depicts Cecil Rhodes, larger than life, standing with one foot in Egypt and the other in South Africa, holding up a telegraph wire. Titled “The Rhodes Colossus,” the artist rendered Rhodes in his safari adventuring outfit, complete with musket and ammunition satchel, with his head literally in the clouds. The cartoon ran alongside announcements of Rhodes’s plans to construct a transcontinental railroad and telegraph system to connect Africa from “Cairo to Cape Town,” and was widely reprinted thereafter. Today’s episode isn’t actually about Rhodes — although we will, at some point, have to come back to him, because jeez, what a mega imperialist — but among other things, this image conveys the significance of individuals in the European colonization of Africa. Of course this does not mean that Rhodes or men like Henry Morton Stanley or even German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck single-handedly brought Africa under European rule. That process was facilitated by the thousands of missionaries, businessmen, soldiers, and private police forces employed by the religious, economic, and military institutions of “civilized” Europe. But these individuals were essential to the larger effort to normalize imperialism. They were national heroes, adventurers, larger-than-life pinnacles of Europe’s “civilizing” mission in sub-Saharan Africa. To that point, too, there were also individuals who were essential to combatting some of the more devastating effects of imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Men like Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement revealed to Europe just how atrocious European imperialism could be. (And that’s just to name a few big names — there are half dozen or more, including Mark Twain and E Morley, that Adam Hochschild discusses at length in his account of the international effort to end abuses in the Belgian Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost). Which is not to say that Conrad and Casement were perfect saints who took their first breath and launched immediately on a career of anti-imperialism; nor did Stanley (in particular) set out on his “adventure” in the Congo intending to open it up to the horrors of King Leopold’s rubber extraction industry. Stanley, Casement, and Conrad were, in a lot of ways, as much tourists as arbiters of imperialism. All of these men treated sub-Saharan Africa as if it were theirs for the taking, where they could play and profit as they saw fit. All of these men were essential to European imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa: its rise, its fall, and its impact on the people it crushed along the way. So today we’re going to take a look at where Conrad, Casement, and Stanley’s stories intersect: in the Congo, or as Joseph Conrad called it, in the “Heart of Darkness.”

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG.

A etching of Cecil Rhodes standing with his body spanning the African continent. Victorian imperialism in 19th century

The Rhodes Colossus, Punch Magazine, December 10, 1892

Averill: Unlike coastal Africa, the Congo Basin, which occupies most of the interior of the sub-Saharan African continent, was largely impenetrable by Europeans until the 19th century. The Basin includes all the tributaries and drainage regions of the 2,920 mile long Congo River, totaling around 3.7 million square miles. Today it contains 8% of the world’s forest-based carbon, and contains the largest unmolested stand of tropical rainforest on the planet. The river itself was unnavigable by European ships in the early centuries of exploration, and the Basin’s sizable mosquito population and diseases deterred most Europeans from venturing too far into the rainforest. Those who did generally died or were greatly reduced by malarial fever. By the end of the 18th century, with the invention of steam powered boats, however, and the discovery of quinine as a malaria treatment and prophylactic, Europeans had the essential tools for their incursions into the interior of Africa.

Sarah: Most of the Congo Basin was organized in decentralized political systems, as one would expect of dense forested territory that discouraged conquering armies from moving quickly to maintain a kingdom. The most powerful centralized powers in the region prior to European invasion were the Kongo and Kuba, both located on the outskirts of the Basin itself. The Kongo kingdom was located in the southwesterly-most region of the Congo Basin, having been founded in the late 14th century and surviving in some capacity until 1914. At times the Kongo traded in ivory and slaves with the Europeans, whom they would have encountered early on, being on the coastal edge of the Basin. Though their king was defeated by the Portuguese in 1665, the kingdom continued to exist in name until finally being divided up by Portugal, Belgium, and France at the Berlin Conference.

Averill: The Kuba, on the other hand, were more a federation than a kingdom, made up of around 20 Bantu ethnic groups that had, by the 18th century, coalesced into several decentralized states. The Kuba lived deep and south enough in the Basin that they were not impacted by the slave trades on either side of the continent – the Arab slavers who sold to the Indian Ocean, and the European slavers who sold across the Atlantic. After the Belgians laid claims over the majority of the Basin at the Berlin Conference, King Leopold’s emissaries attempted to bribe the Kuba king with gifts in exchange for his people’s land, which the Kuba king refused. Eventually, particularly under the rule of King Kwet aPe of the Kuba, the Belgians were able to exert control over the Kuba federation, forcing them to work collecting wild rubber.

Sarah: The Kuba, however, resisted throughout Belgian domination. It was the Kuba, for example, who attacked Belgian company men and police during the Tongatonga rebellion of 1904, which we’ll get back to later in the episode. But the Kuba peoples’ prior unmolestation by the European slave system also left them largely ill-prepared when the Europeans finally showed up on their doorsteps. Most had never seen white people before, which instilled a healthy dose of fear, but also had no access to the modern weaponry that would have made resistance more effective. They combatted rifle-wielding missionaries with spears and arrows. While not all Europeans were murderous monsters, few took much stock in indigenous peoples’ efforts to maintain their sovereignty. In the 19th century European imperialists’ minds, their way was the right and better way, and the Kuba or Kongo or whoever else would see that in time, or they would suffer the consequences.

Averill: At the Berlin Conference of 1885, the negotiating European men had to prove “effective occupation” in order to draw their border around a particular territory. This meant that they had to have “proof” that they’d already established a solid foundation for their imperial hold there. Schools, churches, roads, courthouses, prisons, and other basic infrastructure were the building blocks of imperialism. It was rarely the British, French, or Belgian government itself that sent engineers and judges to these places to establish that infrastructure. The earliest incursions of European imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa were much like the rest of their empires: missionaries and stock companies took steamships and hits of quinine to bring Jesus to the heathens while taking their rubber, ivory, and labor.

A black and white image of several white men around a conference table. Victorian imperialism in the 19th century

The Berlin Conference, 1884 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Another iconic political cartoon depicting the “Scramble for Africa,” created in 1884 during the Berlin Conference, is a French-language critique of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who holds a knife over a large cake named “Africa,” which he has sliced up. The other white European men around the table look on with shock (though, quite obviously, will likely be getting their own slice of the cake soon enough). This critique was not because the French didn’t want a piece of the African pie; instead, they were unnerved that the newly-formed German state, led by Bismarck, was so brashly making demands and claims on land that the French, Belgians, British, Portuguese, and Dutch had been comfortably absorbing into their empires for decades. This image nicely sums up the callous, ethnocentrically imperialist way fourteen men stood around a map of Africa at the Congo Conference of 1885 (aka the Berlin Conference) and debated which parts ‘belonged’ to their respective nations, literally carving it up and drawing new lines on a map to delineate one European empire from another. Bismarck organized the conference, and with the implicit threat of “come to the table or my very powerful army will simply invade the places I want and take them,” the other Western powers showed up. But the Berlin Conference of 1885 merely formalized, through its political leaders, the longer process of colonization that Europeans had been imposing upon Africans for at least the 19th century, and arguably as far back as the 16th century. And, as one would expect by the carelessness of Europeans like Bismarck slicing up a continent as though it didn’t belong to the indigenous people, or drawing lines on a map with no regard for existing ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences and tensions, imperialism was devastating to the colonized people.

Sarah: Henry Morton Stanley probably didn’t know what horrors his adventuring would ultimately bring down on the people of the Congo. It’s hard to say if foreknowledge would have deterred him anyway. As biographer Tim Jeal suggests, he was not the unwitting dupe that he played when shit hit the fan. He was, however, an…interesting…guy. His impoverished Welsh mother abandoned him as an infant, and he lived in a workhouse from age 6 to 15. He hopped a transatlantic ship as soon as he was released, and ended up in New Orleans, where he changed his name and his accent, and started living as an American. He fought first for the Confederates in the Civil War, and then, briefly, for the Union. After he recovered from a illness discharge, he joined the Union Navy — which he quickly deserted, seeking more exciting adventures.

Sarah: Still in his early 20s, he traveled far and wide as a correspondent for the New York Herald. He traveled to the Ottoman empire (and was kidnapped), and then witnessed the British massacre of Ethiopians at Magdala in 1868. Then, in 1871, he convinced his editor at the Herald to fund an expedition in which he’d traverse the Congo in search of the missing Scottish “missionary”/adventurer Dr. David Livingstone. Though he never actually uttered the words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” when he reached the man’s hut on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, his success made him an international sensation. The world–and Africa in particular, it would seem–was his oyster. After he found Dr. Livingstone, he got funding from both the Herald and the London Daily Telegraph to head back out into central Africa to search for the source of the Nile. In addition to supposedly being a missionary (he only succeeded in converting one person in all of Africa, and that person lapsed after a few years of trying out Christianity), Dr. Livingstone had sought to map the rivers and lakes of central Africa, including the source of the mighty Nile. He died shortly after Stanley found him. It seemed to the editors of the Telegraph and Herald that sending Stanley, the golden boy of American-Welsh adventurers, to finish Livingstone’s work would be worth the expense.

Averill: In 1874, Stanley set out with over 228 men, including three other Europeans. He chronicled his journey in Through the Dark Continent, starting at the island of Zanzibar, in east Africa, and cut straight through the Congo Basin to just beyond the Atlantic coast in 999 days. He first confirmed Livingstone’s suspicions about the source of the Nile (Lake Victoria), and then followed what Livingstone called the Lualaba River, only to discover that it was a headsource of the Congo River. Around half of his expedition force died while traversing the continent, most drowning when attempting to navigate the rapids of the Lualaba. Still, in a region of the world danger to any strangers, it was a pretty resounding success. When he got home, Stanley wrote of his adventure in Through the Dark Continent. Somewhat bizarrely, he exaggerated aspects of the journey needlessly. In the long run, those erroneous elements opened him to up to ridicule and mistrust. Because he’d also fabricated so much of his earlier life — he made up an adopted father, claimed he was born in New Orleans, etc — he was really pushed the boundaries of Victorian respectability. His fallacious travel narrative undermined his otherwise, by 19th century British standards, extraordinary journey. Still, despite some PR problems, Stanley stood out as the foremost European adventurer of his time.

Sarah: In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium founded his self-proclaimed philanthropic association, the “International African Association.” In reality, this was a front for a company, of which Leopold was proprietor. He used his position and company’s disguise to hide his true intentions for the Congo — namely the brutal extraction of its seemingly abundant rubber and ivory resources. Because of his experience in the Congo, King Leopold II approached Stanley about returning to the jungle in the name of the IAA. At first Stanley refused, but Leopold did not give up easily. In the end, Stanley agreed, and signed a super secret five year contract for an exorbitant £1,000/year. He would carve out a caravan path across the jungle, and set up strategically placed trade stations. Nominally, Leopold’s goal was to “open the Congo up to international trade.” With Leopold’s private police force and other company men in his expedition, however, Stanley quickly realized that his mission was less than philanthropic. When Leopold admitted what he really had in mind, he was explicit: “It is a question of creating a new State, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the negros. That would be absurd.”[1] According to biographer Tim Jeal, Stanley was shocked. “On the contrary,” he told the man who shuttled messages between him and the King, “[the Congolese] will retain their own tribal chiefs and be as jealous as ever of every tribal right.”[2]

Averill: Despite his compunctions about the sanity of attempting to create a Belgian state in the Congo, Stanley did not stop or cancel his contract. He did, according to Jeal, try to treat the indigenous peoples he negotiated with fairly. In October 1882, Leopold wrote angrily to Colonel Strauch, who shuttled messages back and forth between Stanley and the King: “The terms of the treaties Stanley has made with native chiefs do not satisfy me. There must at least be an added article to the effect that they delegate to us their sovereign rights … the treaties must be as brief as possible and in a couple of articles must grant us everything.”[3] Stanley made treaties that agreed upon rent prices and lease lengths, rather than outright claiming that land for Belgium. Leopold sent secondary “negotiators” in to overwrite Stanley’s agreements, or just forged new ones to lay claim to the Congolese jungle.

A sketch of Swahili-Zanzibari leader Tippu Tip

Tippu Tip | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Leopold’s agents, Stanley included, were not the only imperial actors seeking dominion over the natural resources of the Congo. French and British missionaries and ‘explorers’ were crawling their way through the Basin, and in the north, Tippu Tip, the most powerful Zanzibari slave trader, was pushing west in search of potential slaves to sell in the Middle East and Arabia. Stanley’s initial survival of the Congo in the 1874-77 venture prompted Tippu Tip, who’d previously thought the Congo impassable, to strike quickly, razing villages, killing men, and enslaving women and children. In order to protect the other Congolese interests that he’d secured for Leopold up to that point, Stanley negotiated an agreement with Tip, granting the Zanzibari a river station just above Stanley Falls, which would temporarily halt European navigation of the Congo River any further upstream.

Averill: Shortly after Stanley concluded his first five years in Leopold’s employment, the European powers met in Berlin to carve up Africa. Leopold, with his fistful of forged and real treaties with the peoples of the Congo, and evidence of his extensive trading stations and roads throughout the territory, successfully laid claim to most of the Congo. According to friend of the show and my doktor-brother!! Dean Pavlakis, “All lands not actively cultivated or inhabited by Africans became Leopold’s property, in some places granted to a concession company in exchange for fees and an ownership stake. In remote districts, away from prying eyes, a few Europeans backed by an impressed African army terrorized villages to deliver rubber, provisions, and men.”[4] Though Leopold himself would never set foot in the Congo before his death in 1909, his company would ravage its natural and human resources with impunity.

Sarah: As we’ve already noted, the primary resources the Belgians and other Europeans wanted out of the Congo was rubber and ivory. With the formal slave trade long since abolished, and slavery itself technically “ended” in most European empires, slaves were no longer a trade commodity among the Europeans. For those living in the Congo Basin, as we just said, the Arab slavers like Tip continued to be a threat. But life under Belgian rule, it turned out, was little better than enslavement. The indigenous men and women who could not fight back were forced to harvest wild rubber for the Compangie du Kasai, King Leopold’s private company. The company employed its own police force, which enforced the set quotas that the ‘workers’ were required to meet every week. The police were granted license to use whatever means they deemed necessary to cow the laborers into submission. By the time Joseph Conrad, a young Polish-British writer seeking thrill and adventure himself, sailed up the Congo in 1890, there were already rumors flying around European ports about the extreme lengths employed by the Compangie enforcers. In addition to hefty fines and public beatings, there were tales — and ultimately, evidence of — the more sadistic enforcers cutting off the limbs of the children of workers who did not meet quotas. These rumors were ultimately confirmed by Roger Casement in his 1904 report for the British foreign office, which documented the horrors of Belgian imperialism in the Congo.

Averill: Henry Morton Stanley was absolutely a facilitator of empire. Like so many men who left Europe and ventured into Africa, he believed in the rightness of what he was doing, in the opportunity to “civilize” the savages of the “Dark Continent.” As he wrote in 1878 in Through the Dark Continent, “the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision.”[5] While Jeal argues that he attempted to approach his work for Leopold with a bit more diplomacy than Stanley’s own blustering suggests, ultimately he ushered in an era of utter horror for the so-called “savages” of the Congo. But he also imposed upon the people of the Congo with the nonchalance of any other tourist, careless of the mess he would leave behind, thinking only of his own gain and gratification. It’s bizarre to me how much of the stories of men like Stanley start out as these sort of carefree, adventure-seeking lads, up for anything, unaware of the destruction they would leave in their wake.

Sarah: Joseph Conrad made his writing career on tourist/imperialist adventures as a merchant marine, first for the French empire, and then the British empire. He also spent several years in the Congo aboard a Belgian trading steamer — just like the protagonist of The Heart of Darkness. Almost all of his writing takes place in settings he encountered while traveling for “work”. Though the son of a radical Polish nationalist, Conrad fell in love the Britain, and seemed, for much of his young life, enthralled with the British imperial system. Whatever Conrad believed about the greatness of British imperialism, however, was eventually discoloured by his experiences on that Congo steamship.

Averill: Unlike Stanley, Conrad’s writing reveals some self-reflexiveness about the injustices and horrors of imperialism. Heart of Darkness, though also critiqued for racialized characterization of the indigenous peoples of the Congo, has long been heralded as an anti-imperialism novel. Conrad effectively critiques the callousness of the tourist/imperialist in his narrator’s observations of the Europeans–Belgians, but also Britons, Germans, and Frenchmen–who they encounter in the Congo. In the book the protagonist, Charles Marlow, epitomizes the thoughtlessness of the naive adventurer. Harkening back to that 1884 cartoon of Bismarck slicing up Africa, of the European delegates drawing lines on a map of Africa, in the first part of the novel, Marlow talks again and again about maps.

Sarah: “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’ … But there was one yet—the biggest, the most blank, so to speak—that I had a hankering after…. True, by [the] time [I was an adult,] it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”[6]

Averill: When Conrad has his character, Charles Marlow, describe his fascination with the “unexplored” Congo, he reveals a great deal about the entitlement and ethnocentrism of white European men in the Victorian era. From his boyhood to adulthood, Marlow thought nothing of the people who lived in that “blank space” represented on the map. For Marlow, when that place on the map was empty, it represented promise. When his predecessors–men like Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone–filled in the details of the map with rivers and lakes and the dense vegetation of the Congolese jungle, the childlike possibility was replaced with the danger and darkness of the “untamed,” “wild” unknown. Still, it was someplace he wanted to go, and so go he would. It was his right, his privilege. And so when the opportunity presented itself, he went.

Sarah: [drama] “Then I remembered there was a big concern, a Company for trade on that river. Dash it all! I thought to myself, they can’t trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water—steamboats! Why shouldn’t I try to get charge of one? I went on along Fleet Street, but could not shake off the idea. The snake had charmed me. ….I flew around like mad to get ready, and before forty-eight hours I was crossing the Channel to show myself to my employers, and sign the contract…. I had no difficulty in finding the Company’s offices. It was the biggest thing in the town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade. … I gave my name, and looked about. Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there—fascinating—deadly—like a snake.”[7]

Averill: Marlow presented himself to the Company. Though there were numerous British ventures exploiting the labor and resources of sub-Saharan Africa, Marlow crossed the channel to Belgium to apply for a position in King Leopold’s private Belgian Compangie du Kasai, which, by 1890, ran the rubber and ivory markets in the Congo. As he gives his name to the secretary, his eye is draw again by a map — this time displaying the “rainbow” of European imperialism around the globe. As a British citizen, he is satisfied to see his home empire well represented in red, (blue = France, green = Portuguese, orange = Dutch, purple = German), but has his eyes set on Belgium’s yellow, “dead in the center,” taking up a territory some 76 times larger than Belgium itself.

A black and white photograph of Joseph Conrad. Victorian imperialism in the 19th century

A 1916 photo of Joseph Conrad | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: In the 19th century, European men saw the “empty spaces” on maps of Africa as an invitation. Of course, the maps they were looking at were literal fabrications of European dominion. They drew lines on these renderings to carve up places like East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East into spheres of influence and claimed territories. Conrad surely recognized the high-handedness of this European tendency, writing that thoughtlessness into Marlow.

Averill: Throughout the novel, Marlow (or Conrad, through Marlow) describes colonists as “The flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil(s) of a rapacious and pitiless folly.” The mission itself, of “civilizing savages,” was the rapacious and pitiless folly. That was obvious to Conrad no more so than in the Congo in 1890. In 1903, Conrad, writing a letter to his friend Roger Casement, would described Heart of Darkness as an “awful fudge.” Though he was probably just being modest, because Marlow’s adventure was a bit more glamorized that Conrad’s own Congo experience, Casement would have known just how realistically Heart of Darkness depicted the Congo in 1890. The violence his characters witnessed, the fear and death that awaited colonist and colonizer alike, haunted Conrad, and are woven through the novel in vivid, unsettling detail.

A black and white photograph of Roger Casement. Victorian imperialism in the 19th century

Roger Casement | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: On that venture in 1890, Conrad first meet Roger Casement, the dynamic young Irish man who worked as a consul for the British foreign service for nearly 20 years. Like these other agents of the British empire, Casement got his start in commercial interests, working in the Congo 1884, for example,, for Henry Morton Stanley, recruiting and supervising workers to build 220 miles of transcontinental railroad to bypass the Congo River. When they met in 1890, Conrad and Casement still both believed in the civilizing mission of European imperialism. By the time the two left the Congo, Casement in 1891, Conrad in 1893, both lost their rose-colored glasses.

Averill: According to Dean Pavlakis, British efforts for reform in the Congo started with the Aborigines’ Protection Society, led by H.R. Fox Bourne and Sir Charles W. Dilke, who’d sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in 1896. The British government ignored the plea for action. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Lansdowne, “was reluctant to interfere in another country’s business and felt that no colonial power’s hands – even Britain’s – were altogether clean.” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which revealed the atrocities of European imperialism in the Congo, was initially serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. It was wildly successful and popular, and published as a book in 1902. It was the first piece of writing exposing the conditions in the Congo to create buzz in the UK, and coupled with various editorials and reports from men like ED Morel in British papers, pressured the British Foreign Office to act.

Sarah: E.D. Morel, who was a shipping clerk at the time, lent his expertise to the movement, comparing the official reports that Leopold’s Free State published regarding shipping and rubber sales. Leopold had been complaining for years about exorbitant losses he was taking in the Congo, all in the name of his philanthropy and the IAA. Morel revealed that, in fact, the Free State was, in Dean’s words: “reaping a hidden fortune for its proprietor on the scale of £500,000 in a single two-year period (1899-1900), or over £40,000,000 ($70,000,000) in today’s money.” The reports the Free State published were quite evidently falsified.

Averill: Morel published his findings, eliciting public dismay. With information from the Aborigines’ Protection Society, and Conrad’s popular and disturbing accounts in Heart of Darkness, the UK Parliament passed a “unanimous resolution protesting mistreatment of the Congolese as well as Leopold’s trading monopoly.” This forced Landsdowne to permit Roger Casement to return to the Congo to launch his investigation, and when he got home, he colluded with Morel, FoxBourne, and others to form the Congo Reform Association in 1903. The campaign spread to include reformers in Belgium, auxiliaries in other countries, and the American Congo Reform Association, founded in 1890 by George Washington Williams, who famously wrote an open letter in 1890 to Leopold condemning the atrocities in the Congo. If you’re interested in the longer and much more involved history of the Congo Reform Association and British humanitarianism in the Congo, please go check out Dean’s book, British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913. Obviously we’re just scratching the surface of this far-reaching, truly international movement — because I got a little ambitious with my goals for this episode, but that’s ok, because everyone should read Dean’s book anyway! And Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.

Sarah: Casement’s report delivered the disturbing goods needed to exert formal pressure on Leopold and the Belgian government. Casement exposed a variety of horrific official and unofficial Belgian tactics in the Congo, such as a policy established in 1892 in which the Congo State started requiring severed human hands to be delivered for every cartridge expended in the enforcement of “Free State” law. This, apparently, was to prevent the wastage of cartridges.[8] Anticipating that imperialism-apologists would come back and say this was merely “the way of things among the savages of the Congo,” Roger Casement asked Conrad if he remembered this practice among the natives when he was there in 1890. “During my sojourn in the interior,” Conrad wrote, “I’ve never heard of the alleged custom of cutting off hands amongst the natives; and I am convinced that no such custom every existed along the whole course of the main river to which my experience is limited.”[9] With Conrad’s corroboration, Casement made that assertion in his final report to the Foreign Office.

Averill: In the rubber collection industry Leopold’s company oversaw, the workers, like the Kuba peoples forced to work in the south of the colony, were paid in Belgian money – francs – and then, in turn, were taxed by the Belgian government. When rubber prices plummeted in 1903, and Kuba people were paid a fraction of what they were then required to pay in taxes each year. What had initially been a transaction in which the Kuba gather the rubber and sold it to the Europeans in a fairly equitable exchange was, by the turn of the century, an exploitative and cyclical hell facilitated by the Europeans from which the only escape for the Kuba was death.

Sarah: Even as the Britons hemmed and hawwed and debated how much they could interfere in the affairs of another sovereign European nation, the indigenous peoples of the Congo continued to suffer — and, as they had from the first incursions of Europeans into their territories — to resist. By 1904, the same year of Casement’s Foreign Office report, a religious movement led by a medicine man named Ekpili kpiili, grew popular in the northern regions of the Kuba lands. Ekpili kpiili promised the people who joined his cult that the tongatonga charm he gave to them would protect them from Belgian bullets, as long as they didn’t eat European salt, wear European textiles, or eat pygmy antelope. (The European products make sense… but I have no idea why the pygmy antelope. All I can think is that they are really cute, and he felt bad for them, because people were hunting them for food — most had been forced to stop their basic subsistence farming, and turned to non-traditional edibles to survive.) Social tensions were high, Tongatonga was popular, but the tide did not turn until the Kuba King, Kwet aPe, added his support to the movement.

Averill: King Kwet aPe, who’d largely supported Belgian company men during his rule, grew frustrated with the way the Belgians treated him as a subordinate. In September of 1904, he had been arrested and detained for being “late” to a meeting with a state official. Up to that point, he had been attempting to prevent the spread of Tonga tonga in the north to the center of the kingdom. After his detainment—he was only released on the word of the Belgian official— he invited Ekpillinkipilli to the capital. He refused to pay any more taxes to the Europeans, ordered all Europeans out of his realm, and paid the medicine man to spread the Tongatonga charm to all of his people.

Sarah: A well-organized general revolt, led by King Kwet aPe, broke out in November of 1904. Groups of Kuba attached and overran European stations all along the Kasai river. The Kuba had no guns, and the Congolese military and armed missionaries and merchants easily defeated the Kuba whenever they clashed. Initial defeats, however did not always deter the Kuba – some came back again and again to the attack – in the end the rebellion was crushed.

Averill: While defeated, though, it turned out that the Tongatonga rebellion came at a relatively fortuitous time. Kwet aPe, at least in part because of the external pressure on Leopold from other Western powers, was able to negotiate with the Belgian government to shift the control of the colony out of the hands of the privately owned company to the Belgian government, which would, at least in part address the mistreatment of the Kuba and other Congolese peoples. Leopold sold the Congo Free State to Belgium in 1908. The new British Liberal Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who had committed to reform in 1906, along with the Congo Reform Association, persisted in their effort to convince Belgium to fix Leopold’s system. “Finally,” notes Pavlakis, “in 1913, Grey and the association concluded that Belgium had reformed the administration sufficiently to justify ending the campaign.” Thereafter the rubber company was owned by the Belgian government, and the Kuba “kings”–though divested of any real power, as the Congo was a colony of Belgium–cooperated with the Belgian state until Congolese independence in the 1960s.

Sarah: The long term and devastating effects of European imperialism in places like the Congo cannot be exaggerated. Historians estimate that between 1885 and 1907 the Congo’s population declined by 50 percent or more. That’s probably a conservative estimate, but even if we say that its an overestimation, it still changed the socio-cultural, political, and economic structure of the Congo Basin forever. As noted by historian Barry Morton, “The cause of this catastrophe is simple: Leopold sought to extract the maximum amount of wealth out of the Congo as quickly as possible.” He did so with no regard for the life, land, and livelihood of the people who lived there, people he never actually met, land he never actually visited. The people of the Congo, forced to labor in rubber extraction and ivory collection ventures, were forced to neglect subsistence activities. Those who resisted were executed. Entire communities starved or fled, disease spread, and mortality increased rapidly while life expectancy and birth rates plunged.[10] Here, again, is the unreasonable high price for the cruel, thoughtless self-indulgence of a single man.

Averill: Henry Morton Stanley died before Roger Casement published his findings on the Congo, and actually spent the last decade of his life sort of middling his way to oblivion as a parliamentarian and husband in London. Joseph Conrad, despite his clear misgivings about colonialism, declined joining the Congo Reform Association and efforts to pressure the Belgians to change, because he grew so disaffected by the entire imperialism thing that he thought there was no coming back from it, and no point in trying. Roger Casement, dedicated his life to exposing the injustices of imperialism, first in the Congo, then in British rubber exploitation in Peru, and finally as a member of the Irish Republican Army responsible for the Easter Rising in 1916. Ultimately he was arrested for treason; he was a British hero though, and initially a wave of supporters calling for his release. After the British government leaked his personal travel journals, which recorded all of his sexual encounters with other men, the letters of support stopped, and even his old friend Joseph Conrad didn’t speak up when they sent him to the gallows, executed as a traitor.

Discussion points:

  • This is sort of tangential, but the Tongatonga is something that I love teaching students about. I actually usually pair it with the Boxer Rebellion, where the rebels used martial arts movements to prepare their bodies to be bullet proof, same as the Tongatonga — and there’s another resistance movement in German East Africa 1905-07 that has a similar magic charm to protect from bullets. All of these movements happen at this really particular moment, when European ‘modernity’ has crushed so much out of the bodies and souls of colonized peoples, that I love engaging students in this discussion of magic and belief and religion, and how powerful hope can be — in whatever form it takes, whether doing the rosary beads before facing an opposing army, or ingesting a charm to protect you from bullets
  • Adventure/tourism of “exotic” places — problematic, belittling, and, in the Congo, devastating.

Averill: To that point, Paul Theroux, who reviewed a biography of Henry Morton Stanley in 2007, put it best: “Poor Africa, the happy hunting ground of the mythomaniac, the rock star buffing up his or her image, the missionary with a faith to sell, the child buyer, the retailer of dirty drugs or toxic cigarettes, the editor in search of a scoop, the empire builder, the aid worker, the tycoon wishing to rid himself of his millions, the school builder with a bucket of patronage, the experimenting economist, the diamond merchant, the oil executive, the explorer, the slave trader, the eco-tourist, the adventure traveler, the bird watcher, the travel writer, the escapee, the colonial and his crapulosities, the banker, the busybody, the Mandela-sniffer, the political fantasist, the buccaneer and your cousin the Peace Corps Volunteer. Oh, and the atoner, of whom Thoreau observed in a skeptical essay: “Now, if anything ail a man so that he does not perform his functions … if he has committed some heinous sin and partially repents, what does he do? He sets about reforming the world.” Thoreau, who had Africa specifically in mind, added, “Do you hear it, ye Wolofs?””[11]

Sarah: If this podcast has piqued your interest I encourage you to check out the show notes on where you’ll find all of the sources used for this episode. We appreciate your listens and for your support.

Averill: Make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. And if you’re so include, contribute to our Patreon account so that we can keep this podcast going.

The writings of the men:

Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness (1899)

Henry Morton Stanley, Through the Dark Continent(London: Sampson Low, 1890) digitized by the National Library of Uganda

“In His Own Words: the writings of David Livingstone,” Livingstone Online

Roger Casement, The Black Diaries, ed. Jeffrey Dudgeon (Belfast Press, 2016)

Some good podcasts about the Scramble for Africa and the Berlin Conference:

The Scramble for Africa,” 15 Minute History

The Berlin Conference,” BBC In Our Time

Reference books and articles:

Jane Achan, et al, “Quinine, an old anti-malarial drug in a modern world: role in the treatment of malaria,” Malar J. 2011

Edward Berenson, Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa. (University of California Press, 2011).

Calvin C. Kolar, “Resistance in the Congo Free State: 1885-1908,” Honors Thesis Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Peter Edgerly Firchow, Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (University of Kentucky Press, 1999) → NOTE: I read this, but I don’t agree with his arguments about race/racism in Heart of Darkness. Firchow tries to say that critics like Achebe and Said, who have lambasted Conrad for his callous racism in the otherwise “anti-imperalism” Heart of Darkness, are wrong because the concept of race as we know it today did not exist in Conrad’s time. Rather, people thought in “racialism” terms, where race, ethnicity, and nationality were conflated, so one would speak of “barbaric Germans” and “primitive pygmys” in the same sentence, and that those sentiments were equal. But just because Conrad himself didn’t have a word for his and social/systemic oppression of people of color doesn’t mean it isn’t evident throughout the book.

Hunt Hawkins, “Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement,” Journal of Modern Literature (1982), 65-80.

Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Houghton Miffling, 1999).

Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (Yale University Press, 2007).

Agata Szczeszak-Brewer, Critical Approaches to Joseph Conrad (University of South Carolina Press, 2015)

Dean Pavlakis, “The Development of British Overseas Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Campaign,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 11:1 (2010)

Dean Pavlakis, British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913(Routledge, 2015)

Paul Therouz, “Stanley, I Presume,” The New York Times (30 Sep 2007).

Just for fun:

The poem that accompanied the “Rhodes Colossus” cartoon in Punch.

THE World’s Seven Wonders are surely outshone!
On Marvel World’s billows ’twill toss us—’twill toss us,
To watch him, Director and Statesman in one,
This Seven-League-Booted Colossus—Colossus!
Combining in one supernatural blend
Plain Commerce and Imagination—gination;
O’er Africa striding from dark end to end,
To forward black emancipation—cipation.

Brobdingnagian Bagman, big Dreamer of Dreams.
A Titan of tact and shrewd trader—shrewd trader!
A diplomat full of finesse and sharp schemes,
With a touch of the pious Crusader—Crusader!
A “Dealer” with despots, a “Squarer” of Kings,
A jumper of mountain, lake, wilderness, wady,
And manager ‘cute of such troublesome things
As Lobengula or the Mahdi—the Mahdi.

Well may Abercorn wonder and Fife tootle praise,
His two thousand hearers raise cheering—raise cheering.
Of wild would-be Scuttlers he proves the mad craze,
And of Governments prone to small-beering—small-beering.
Sullen Boers may prove bores to a man of less tact,
A duffer funk wiles Portuguesy—tuguesy;
But Dutchmen, black potentates, all sorts, in fact,
To Rhodes the astute come quite easy—quite easy.

The British South-African Company’s shares
May be at a discount—(Trade-martyrs!—trade-martyrs!)—
But he, our Colossus, strides on, he declares,
Whether with or without chums or charters—or charters.
Hooray! We brave Britons are right now to the front—
Provided we’ve someone to boss us—to boss us;
And Scuttlers will have their work cut out to shunt
This stalwart, far-striding Colossus—Colossus![12]

[1] Quoted in Ch. Didier Gondola, The History of Congo (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002).

[2] Jeal, 282.

[3] Albert Maurice, H.M. Stanley Unpublished Letters. (London, 1957), 161.

[4] Pavlakis, “The Development of British Overseas Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Campaign.”

[5] Henry Morton Stanley, Through the Dark Continent; Or, The Sources of the Nile: Around the Great Lakes of Equatorial Africa and Down the Livingstone River to the Atlantic Ocean (Rivington, 1878), 214.

[6] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Project Gutenberg)

[7] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Project Gutenberg)

[8] Hunt Hawkins, “Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement,” Journal of Modern Literature (1982), 69.

[9] Hawkins, “Joseph Conrad,” 69.

[10] Barry Morton, “Historical and Cultural Contexts,” Critical Approaches to Joseph Conrad, 24.


[12]Punch, Volume 103, 10 December 1892

Victorian Imperialism in the 19th century. Heart of Darkness: Imperialism and Travel of the African Continent.


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.