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The Traders are Kidnapping Our People-5-King Leopold's Ghost

Our fathers were living comfortably, They had cattle and crops: they had salt marshes and banana trees.

Suddenly they saw a big boat rising out of the great ocean. The boat had wings all of white, sparkling like knives.

White men came out of the water and spoke words which no one understood.

Our ancestors took fright; they said that these were, vumbi spirits returned from the dead.

They pushed them back into the ocean with volleys of arrows.

But the vumbi spat fire with a noise of thunder. many men were killed. Our ancestors fled. The chief and wise men said that these vumbi were the former possessors of the land.

From that time to our days now, the whites have brought us nothing but wars and miseries.


The tatlantic slave trade seemed further confirmation that Europeans had come from the land of the dead, for after they took their shiploads of slaves out to sea, the captives never returned. Just as Europeans would be long obsessed with African cannibalism, so Africans imagined Europeans practising the same thing.

The whites were thought to turn their captives' fleshin to salt meat, their brains into cheese, and their blood into the red wine that Europeans drank. African bones were burned, and the grey ash became gunpowder. The huge, smoking cooper cooking kettles that could be seen on sailing vessels were, it was believed, where all the deadly transformations began.

The death tolls on the packed slave ships that sailed west from the Congo coast rose higher stil, when some slaves refused to eat the food they were given, believing that they would be eating those who had sailed before them.


As the years passed, new myths arose to explain the mysterious ojects the strangers brought from the land of the dead. A nineteenth-century missionary recorded, for example, an African explanation of what happend when captain descended into the holds of their ships to fetch trading goods like cloth.

The Africans believed that these goods came not from the ship itself but from a hole that led into the ocean. Sea sprites weave this cloth in an "oceanic factory, and, whenever we need cloth,the captain.....goes to this hole and rings a bell". The sea sprites hand him up their cloth, and the captain "then throws in, as payment, a few dead bodies of black people he has bought from those bad native traders who have bewitchged their people and sold them to the white men".

The myth was not so far from reality.For what was slavery in the American South, after all, but a system of transforming the labor of black bodies, via cotton plantations, into cloth.?


Because African middlemen brought captives directly to their ships, Portugues traders seldom ventured far from the coast. For nearly four centuries, in fact, after Diogo Cao came upon the Congo River, Europeans did not know where the river came from. It pours some 1.4 million cubic feet of water per second into the ocean; only Amazon carries more water.

Besides its enormous size and unknown course, the Congo posed another puzzle. Seamen noticed that its flow, compared with that of other tropical rivers, fluctuated relatively litle during the year.

Rivers such as the Amazon and the Ganges had phases of extremely high water and low water, depending on whether the land they drained was experiencing the rainy or the dry season. What made the Congo different?

The reason several canturies' worth of visitors failed to explore the Congo's source was thet they couldn't sail upstream. Anyone who tried found that the river turned into a gorge, at the head of which were impassable rapids.


Much of the Congo river basin, we know, lies on a plateau in the African interior. From the western rim of this plateau, nearly a thousand feet high, the river descends to sea level in a mere 220 miles. During the tumultuous descent, the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves 40 feet high, and tumbles over 32 separate cataracts,. So great is the drop and the volume of water that these 220 miles have as much hydroelectric potential as all the lakes and rivers of the United States combined.

For any sailor bold enough to get out of his ship and walk the land route around the rapids wound uphill through rough, rocky country feared for the treacherous cliffs and ravines and for malaria and the other diseases to which Europeans had no immunity.

Only with enormous difficulty did some Capuchin missionaries twice manage to get briefly inland as far as the top of the great rapids. A Portuguese expedition that tried to repeat this treck never returned. By the beggining of the nineteen th century, Europeans still knew nothing about the interior of central Africa or about where the river began.


In 1816, a British expedition, led by Captain James K. Tuckey of the Royal Navy, set off to find the Congo's origins. His two ships carried a wonderfully odd assortment of people: Royal Marines, carpenters, blacksmiths, a surgeon, a gardener from the royal gardens at Kew, a botanist, and an anatomist.

The anatomist was directed, among other things, to make a creful study of the hippopotamus and to "preserve in spirits and if possible in triplicate, the organ of hearing of this animal."A Mr Cranch was entered on the ship's log as Collector of objects of Natural History; another expedition member was simply listed as Volunteer and Observant Gentleman.


When he arrived at the Congo's mouth, Tuckey counted eight slave ships from various nations at anchor, awaiting their cargoes. He sailed his own ships as far up the river as he could and then set off to skirt the thunderous rapids overland.

But he and his exhausted men grew discouraged by endless "scrambling up the sides of almost perpendiculat hills, and even great masses of quartz."

These came to be called the Crystal Mountains. The river was a mass of foaming rapids and enormous whirlpools.



At a rare calm stretch Tuckey, observed , rather, provincially, that the scenery was beautiful and not inferior to any other banks of the Thames." One by one, the Englishmen began to suffer from an unknown illness, most likely yellow fever, and after about 150 miles. Tuckey lost heart. His party turned around, and he died shortly after getting to his ship.


By the time the shaken survivors of the expedition made their way back to England, twenty-0ne of the fifty-four men who had set out were dead. The source of the Congo River and the secret of its steady flow was still amystery.

For Europeans, Africa remained the supplier of valuable raw materials-human bodies and elephant tusks.But otherwise they saw the continent as faceless, blank, empty, a place on the map waiting to be explored, one even more frequently described by the phrase that says more about the seer than the seen: the Dark Continent.


Reference: King Leopold's Ghost:Adam Hochschild

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