‘Land of Tears’ offers a chilling look at European colonization of Africa

Yale University history professor Robert Harms expertly weaves together the strands of history in “Land of Tears.”

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“Land of Tears: The Exploration and Exploitation of Equatorial Africa” by Robert Harms, Basic Books, 544 pp.

The long era of European imperialism started in the 15th century but it was roughly 400 years before the land grab turned to Africa. As late as 1870, outsiders controlled only about 10 percent of the continent. But then a confluence of forces opened the door: The need for raw materials, the demand for new markets for finished goods, and medical advances that made it possible for Europeans to survive in the tropics. By the 1880s, the “Scramble for Africa” had begun.

At the heart of this rapacious quest was the Congo River in equatorial Africa and its enormous, almost impenetrable, rain forest. Today, this part of Africa includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Central African Republic.

In “Land of Tears: The Exploration and Exploitation of Equatorial Africa,” Yale University Professor Robert Harms deftly and authoritatively recounts the region’s compelling, fascinating, appalling, and tragic history.

He organizes the story around three colorful men working for three different rulers. The first was Hamid bin Muhammad (known as Tippu Tip after the sound made by his guns) who swore allegiance to the sultan of Zanzibar, created the Manyema Empire (also described in the book as the Arab Zone) and later transferred his allegiance to the Belgians.

Then there was Henry Morton Stanley, a professional adventurer and journalist who went to Africa on behalf of the New York Herald to search for the British explorer David Livingstone. He quickly found Livingstone and then followed the Congo River downstream until he reached the Atlantic, a journey that took roughly eight months and included more than 30 violent encounters with the inhabitants.

Finally, the Italian Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, working for the French, crossed the Crystal Mountains on Africa’s east coast, worked his way east toward the Congo River’s watershed and established a large French foothold in the region.

All three had the vision, energy and financial support to explore the densest part of the African continent. Sadly, they also placed a low value on the lives and well-being of the indigenous populations they encountered – a legacy that would have tragic and lasting effects. Fueled by the huge amounts of mineral-rich, untamed land, and visions of nationalistic glory, the explorers had little difficulty convincing their European backers to colonize the region.

No one was more eager to invest in these ventures than King Leopold II, King of the Belgians. Leopold was so committed that he personally directed and financed the explorations and colonization so that the entire project was independent of the Belgian government. At the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, Leopold persuaded other Western governments, including Britain and the United States, to give his private project the authority to act as an independent state. In return, he agreed that the so-called Congo Free State would be a free-trade zone for all nations while also promising to end East Africa’s still flourishing slave trade. The conference also gave the French control of a large portion of equatorial Africa that was known as the French Congo. No Africans were invited to the meeting.

This conference was hailed as a victory for civilizing forces. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Leopold turned day-to-day control over to a small number of private companies who systematically stripped the Congo of its natural resources, ivory, and natural rubber. The global demand for both products appeared insatiable – indeed Ivorytown, Connecticut, and Akron, Ohio, both feature in Harms’ story.

The indigenous people proved a reluctant labor force, which is unsurprising given that they were enslaved. To improve motivation, unimaginable violence – imprisonment, mutilation, and death – became the order of the day. As the natural resources were depleted, the violence meted out by the Europeans was increased. As many as 10 million people died. Meanwhile, Harms makes clear that the investors made a fortune. 

The French also pillaged the Congo. Initially they were less successful than the Belgians because they invested less and constructed little infrastructure. Eventually, they adopted the Belgian model of resource exploitation, but Harms portrays the French as less interested, or at least less competent, than the Belgians.

Within a few years, anti-slavery groups and Congo Reform activists – especially from Britain – exposed the manifold abuses. Late in the first decade of the 20th century, both the Belgian and the French governments stepped in and took formal control of operations.

This is a thoughtful and deeply researched book that makes for gripping, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading. This is history at its best: authoritative, insightful, and engaging.

Most studies of the conquest of the Congo treat the Arab Zone, the French Congo, and the Congo Free State as separate and largely autonomous entities with individual histories. Harms treats all three as part of a whole and renders a more comprehensive picture of the colonization of Africa than other books. He makes clear that the Western powers all had a major blind spot in the Congo. But if there is an overarching villain in the story, it is Belgium and especially Leopold II.

Unfortunately, the book ends just as the French and Belgian governments began to exercise direct control over their colonies. Harms implies that the governmental overseers were less brutal than the privately run companies that preceded them. However, even as the violence ebbed, new and lasting damage was inflicted by the colonial powers. By imposing a centralized and hierarchical governing structure, they obliterated the hundreds of small, localized governmental units that had ruled the vast landmass for centuries. With the local power structures destroyed, the people of the Congo lacked the basis for forming an effective and lasting governmental structure of their own when the French and Belgians finally left in the 1960s.

History usually casts a long shadow. The legacy of the roughly 80 years of colonial rule still haunts equatorial Africa. One can only hope that Professor Harms will tell the next part of the story as vividly and effectively as he has told the first.

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