[This review was published in the Winter 2004 issue of The Mankind Quarterly, pp. 249-252.]  


Book Review 


The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo

Robert B. Edgerton

St. Martin’s Press, 2002 


            Ethnologists will be familiar with the cultures of the Congo, but many may have only a scanty knowledge of the history of the Congo since it came into contact with the West. The Congo is Africa’s richest country in mineral wealth.  It has more than 250 ethnic groups, whose languages are for the most part not mutually understandable.  Geographically, it stretches eastward from swampland through dense tropical forest to finally the Mountains of the Moon, volcanic peaks taller than the Alps, and wracked with problems as post-Colonial Congo remains, Edgerton’s book The Troubled Heart of Africa serves a useful purpose in carrying the reader chronologically through the Congo’s history from before European contact to the present day.  From the first Portuguese explorations, he traces the ensuing history of the Congo, the slave trade among and by the Congolese, the Arab and European slave trades, Belgian King Leopold II’sCongo Free State,” the Belgian Congo that succeeded it, and the chaos and tyranny that has followed the Congo’s political independence in 1960.

            Slavery within the tribes themselves was “common although not universal.”  At the time of the first contact by the Portuguese, Bakongo’s King Afonso I had a “host of slaves” and a “harem of wives.”  Edgerton refers to the “large numbers of Bakongo slaves.”  Much later, one of Henry Stanley’s officers, E. J. Glave, lived along the Congo River for six years starting in 1883, and in 1890 authored a lucid account of the horrors of indigenous slavery for Century Magazine (Vol. 39, pp. 824-838).  He said that there was an “enormous traffic” in slaves, most of whom stayed as slaves in Africa although a few were transported to Turkey and elsewhere.  Village chieftains counted their wealth in slaves, who were largely acquired through tribal warfare.  A few of the slaves were used as warriors, and a few of the women as wives; but by far the greatest number were kept either to be eaten or to be killed in ritual executions after an important person had died.  It is surprising that Edgerton does not tell of Glave’s account, which is one of the more comprehensive and revealing.  He does, however, quote Glave’s statement in 1893 that Arab slave traders would sometimes sell slaves to tribes for ceremonial killing or to be eaten.  From all this, we find that the blacks of the Congo did not simply participate in the European and Arab slave trades, which is an impression we may have entertained based upon a superficial understanding that blacks were incidental to the process, but had quite an enormous (and horrifying) slave culture of their own.   It is true, of course, that they did play a substantial role in the slave trades to both West and East, as we see when Edgerton tells us that “slavery had become so profitable by the 1530s that some Bakongo were actually selling members of their own family into slavery.”

Like slavery, Edgerton says, cannibalism has existed in much of the Congo, but not everywhere.  The Bakongo people, for example, were “horrified by the idea” of it.  But early in the 1600s, an Englishman lived for 16 months among the Jaga people near the Atlantic coast and found that “they preferred human flesh to their own cattle.”  Edgerton describes vividly the cannibalism among the Basongye and Baluba peoples, and tells us that possibly a majority of the peoples of the Congo “ate human flesh whenever they could” in the late nineteenth century, “saying that it was far tastier than other meat.”  He reports that “persons to be eaten often had both of their arms and legs broken and were made to sit up to their necks in a stream for three days, a practice said to make their flesh more tender, before they were killed and cooked.”  Nor did cannibalism disappear in the twentieth century; Edgerton cites reports from 1950, 1961 and 1964.  In 1950, “a Belgian administrator was served a meal of ‘porcupine meat’ that he found remarkably delicious.  Not until he had finished was he told that the meat came from a young girl.”

            In the United States, there is a preoccupation with the slave trade that carried blacks to the Americas until Great Britain suppressed that trade in the first half of the nineteenth century.  What is almost totally unknown is the Arab slave trade that took blacks out of central and eastern Africa by the millions.  Early in the twentieth century, 50 to 100 thousand slaves reached Zanzibar (the island terminal for shipment elsewhere) every year – and this was after four times that number died en route to the island.  Even today, Edgerton asserts, “Arab raiders still carry away Africans as slaves in Mauritania and Sudan.”

            Much of the history that Edgerton recounts relates to Europeans’ role in the Congo.  Portugal took out so many slaves in the sixteenth century that “in several parts of Portugal, Africans made up more than 50 percent of the population.”  By consent of the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, Belgium’s King Leopold II was awarded the Congo south of the river to administer as his own private “Congo Free State” (rather than as a colony of Belgium). Perhaps ten million Congolese were killed, Edgerton says, through the use of black troops to collect rubber and ivory, and in the Arab War by which Arab slavers were driven out in 1892-3.   Public opinion in Europe forced Leopold to turn the Congo over to the Belgian government in 1908, at which time the Belgian Congo came into existence.  Many abuses are said to have continued under that government, but there was also much that was done to introduce modern civilization to the region: three thousand miles of railroad track was laid by the time of World War II, and by 1950 there were 100,000 miles of roads.  The phenomenon of what some call “peasant pressure” began, with the  movement of large numbers of people into cities, so that Elisabethville grew to 325,000 people in 1955 and now has over four million.  Nevertheless, most of the population still lives in tribal villages.

            Belgium granted the Congo its independence in 1960 almost immediately after an independence movement started.  Edgerton says independence thus came “to a population wholly unprepared to rule themselves.”  The result has been 45 years of continual brutality, tyranny, corruption and chaos, all of which Edgerton recounts in some detail.  The intervals between internecine warfare have been filled by despotism.  Most recently, “since 1997, the Congo has been the site of a brutal international war… [with an] estimated death toll of 3 million men, women, and children, many of them the victims of disease and famine.”  Everything Belgium had put into place is falling to pieces – the economy, the educational system, the health care system, the network of roads.  Famine and AIDS are rampant.  The upshot? – “For the Congolese people, independence has meant tyranny, corruption, police brutality, hunger, malnutrition, and an ever-shorter life expectancy.”

            Toward the end of the book, Edgerton tells the reader that the most recent four centuries of horror in the Congo has largely been the fault of the Portuguese: “As I have tried to show, Portuguese slavery began the horror in the west of the Congo, and it spread inland bringing with it warfare, famine, and cannibalism.”  But he has, of course, made no such demonstration.  Nothing in the book preceding this comment makes any effort, for example, to establish a causal connection between the early Portuguese slave trade and canniballism – or between that slave trade and the custom of the ritual execution of slaves.   Nor is there any attempt to show how the Arab slave trade (many centuries old) came into being because of the Portuguese.  But to dwell upon such ideological conventionality would be to detract unduly from a book that otherwise is valuable and informative.


                                                                                         Dwight D. Murphey