King Leopold ll of Belgium managed to convince the world that he had the best interests of the African people in his heart as he sponsored exploration of the Congo Basin. Whilst projecting a virtuous image he carved out not a Belgian colony but a personal fiefdom in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The local people were enslaved and treated most brutally. As mighty as the river Congo is, it is not navigable from its mouth. Having staked his claim, Leopold’s first objective was to make a route from the coast, around the rapids that hindered exploitation. This was initially a foot slog with humans forced to be the beasts of burden, it ultimately became a railway.
With that achieved lucky Leo began enriching himself by extracting as much ivory as he could. When Mr Dunlop working in Belfast in 1887 reinvented the pneumatic tyre in a form that would become a commercial success the new commodity was rubber. Initially this was harvested from wild growing vines. Until plantations of rubber trees took over the natives could be persuaded, usually by holding their wives and children hostage, or by killing the reluctant, to get out there and bring in an increasingly burdensome quota of rubber.
To ensure that bullets weren’t going to waste in Leopold’s Congo an ingenious accounting method was devised. For each bullet issued a human right hand had to be returned. If you wanted to shoot something other than a human, say for the pot, the problem could be solved by amputating the right hand of someone not yet dead. If you want to learn more on this grisly subject I recommend the book King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild.
The Belgian Government did eventually take over the colony but continued in the same style.
Leopold’s ambitions on the north bank of the Congo were checked by the French. In 1880 Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, a naturalised Frenchman of Italian origin, reached the river from Gabon and persuaded the local king to accept the protection of France. Thus the modern day Republic of Congo was once part of French Equatorial Africa.
De Brazza returned in 1886 as Governor-General but lacked the capacity or rapacity to deliver the sort of profits his masters desired. He was replaced in 1897. By 1905 the civilised world was waking up to the realities of colonial excess. De Brazza was sent back to investigate the goings on. His report was scathing and quickly buried. Conveniently, he died soon after. And was also buried. Given a state funeral but little recognition, his widow had his remains exhumed and reinterred in Algiers.
The Congo became independent of France in 1960. The city founded by de Brazza and named Brazzaville by the colonisers managed to keep its name. In fact further honour was heaped on de Brazza in the form of a splendid mausoleum, his remains and the remains of his wife and children were brought from Algiers and treated to a state funeral again.
Brazzaville is an unpretentious city. A few notable buildings stand out …
The old religions of Christianity and Islam are represented and also the new religion of Association Football …
The stadium is going up for the 2015 African Games. The architects are PTW, an Australian firm. It is being built by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation.
The Nabemba Tower is the tallest building on the skyline. It is named after the Congo’s highest mountain. It is 106 metres or 30 floors high and supposedly costs £3,000,000 a year to maintain, in a city that struggles to provide garbage removal, dumps its sewage in the river and has only rudimentary hospital facilities.
I walked around the city by day and after dark, I was never pestered or fearful for my safety. Poto Poto market and the nearby Cathedral are well worth a visit. Razor wire and private security suggest that burglary might be a problem. Expat South Africans that I spoke to uniformly said it was safer than South Africa. Almost every vehicle on the road is a taxi, price is fixed for the central area of the city and very reasonable. Negotiate the fee for longer journeys before getting in … the vehicle behind is also likely to be a taxi, if your French is up to it you can conduct an auction from the footpath!
Sadly there is little opportunity to access and enjoy the river frontage.