Fresh from finding Dr Livingstone in the Congo, newspaperman Henry Stanley sensed an opportunity and so, in 1877, returned to the Congo to travel through its interior and map its giant river. Despite the mouth to the river having been discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, until then no outsiders had ever attempted to travel further than the coast. Following the initial routes laid out by the slavers who virtually decimated its coastal communities, Stanley accomplished his mission, opening the interior up to the European powers who instantly claimed chunks of the country for themselves and set about systematically robbing the country blind of all of its natural resources, with the Belgian King claiming the Congo and making it the jewel of his burgeoning empire. Since then, the Congo has experienced an extremely tumultuous political landscape – once the Belgians finally gave up on their extremely brutal rule and the country was granted independence in 1960, it’s seen a run of home-grown dictators taking over, with the only constant in each of the various reigns being the siphoning of the country’s wealth into a very small pool of pockets alongside the extreme violence that has now become commonplace.
In 2004, newspaperman Tim Butcher decided to try and recreate Stanley’s trip – albeit via motorbikes, canoes and UN barges instead of being carried by native porters – and unarmed (unlike Stanley, who was apparently rather fond of opening fire on locals). What he found was that recreating the trip was near impossible – since the Belgian retreat, roads and buildings have been swallowed up once more by the jungle, and many of the routes that remain are rendered impassable by the various warring militias who frequently raid villages – raping, stealing and killing everything in their paths until disappearing back into the bush, leaving behind nothing but smoke, ashes, and human bones.
Tim’s journey is an incredibly gruelling one and, unlike other travelogues I’ve read, there’s no beauty or wonder to offset it, in a country where even those who were horribly oppressed by the Belgian regime look back on that time as something to be preferred to what’s in place now. It’s an incredibly wealthy country whose inhabitants nonetheless live in extreme poverty and fear, where people will press their children upon strangers in the hopes they will escape what passes for living in the Congo.
A mix of travelogue, politics and history, mostly this book made me feel quite depressed and incredibly ashamed of what countries like mine have done to others in our greed throughout history – those who voted for Brexit on the basis that they want to go back to the ‘good old’ days of the British Empire should read about the damage wrought by people like us in places like this, and then tell me again how wonderful the Empire was. One particular passage – a diary entry from a former British Army commander turned mercenary dubbed ‘Mad Mike’ – was absolutely sickening (I hope he died screaming), and should be tattooed across the foreheads of every UKIP’er desperate to return to the days of lording it over other peoples, so that the rest of us can see at a glance exactly what kind of monsters we’re dealing with.