Land of Tears

The Exploration and Exploitation of Equatorial Africa


By Robert Harms

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A prizewinning historian’s epic account of the scramble to control equatorial Africa

In just three decades at the end of the nineteenth century, the heart of Africa was utterly transformed. Virtually closed to outsiders for centuries, by the early 1900s the rainforest of the Congo River basin was one of the most brutally exploited places on earth. In Land of Tears, historian Robert Harms reconstructs the chaotic process by which this happened. Beginning in the 1870s, traders, explorers, and empire builders from Arabia, Europe, and America moved rapidly into the region, where they pioneered a deadly trade in ivory and rubber for Western markets and in enslaved labor for the Indian Ocean rim. Imperial conquest followed close behind.

Ranging from remote African villages to European diplomatic meetings to Connecticut piano-key factories, Land of Tears reveals how equatorial Africa became fully, fatefully, and tragically enmeshed within our global world.


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FROM A SMALL AIRPLANE, THE Congo basin rainforest appears impenetrable, like a plush green carpet. A closer inspection reveals, however, that it is composed of three distinct layers of vegetation. The middle layer—known as the canopy—is made up of trees between 100 and 150 feet tall. Protruding above it are trees of the emergent layer that have broken through to reach sunlight, attaining heights of up to 200 feet. Below the canopy is the understory, which consists of smaller trees with large leaves to absorb whatever sunlight reaches them. So dense is the vegetation that a raindrop falling on the canopy can take up to ten minutes to reach the ground.

The view from the ground is very different. “The trees are so high that a good shotgun does no harm to parrots or guinea fowls on their tops, and they are often so closely planted that I have heard gorillas growling about fifty yards off without getting a glimpse of them,” wrote the missionary/explorer David Livingstone in 1870. The most noticeable feature of the rainforest, however, is the lack of sunlight. Upon entering the forest in 1876, the journalist/explorer Henry Morton Stanley wrote, “We drew nearer to the dreaded black and chill forest called Mitamba, and at last, bidding farewell to sunshine and brightness, entered it.… Overhead, the wide-spreading branches, in many interlaced strata, each branch heavy with broad thick leaves, absolutely shut out the daylight. We knew not whether it was a sunshiny day or a dull, foggy, gloomy day; for we marched in a feeble solemn twilight.”1

The French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza in the Congo Basin rainforest, 1888. Le Tour du Monde, 1888, second semester, p. 45.

The Congo basin rainforest forms a six-hundred-mile-wide belt that runs east and west along the equator between 4° north latitude and 5° south. Beginning at the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, it stretches eastward for nearly fifteen hundred miles to the mountains and lakes of the Albertine Rift, where it ends abruptly because the rain clouds coming from the Atlantic Ocean drop their remaining moisture as they rise over the mountains. Covering parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Central African Republic, the Congo basin rainforest occupies nearly eight hundred thousand square miles, making it almost as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. It is the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world, after the Amazon basin rainforest.2

The earliest inhabitants of the Congo basin rainforest were people of short stature and reddish-brown skin known generically as Pygmies (although they refer to themselves by specific ethnic labels such as Mbuti or Baka), who developed a hunting and gathering lifestyle in the forest twilight. About five thousand years ago, they were joined by taller black-skinned farmers coming from the northwest who originally settled in natural clearings but later spread out to construct their own clearings, especially after they acquired knowledge of iron smelting around 500 BCE. The earliest farmers who settled in the rainforest shared a common language and a common cultural tradition, but as they dispersed, their ancestral language splintered into roughly 150 distinct, though closely related, languages, and their sociocultural identity subdivided into about 450 separate ethnic groups. The diversity of languages and ethnic identities that the European explorers encountered when they first traversed the rainforest in the late nineteenth century can best be understood as historical variations on a common linguistic and cultural tradition.3

That common tradition was especially recognizable in the political organization of the forest peoples. In contrast to the great empires, kingdoms, and chiefdoms of Africa’s southern grasslands or the mountain kingdoms of its Great Lakes region, the forest societies were characterized by small-scale political units with flexible forms of leadership and authority. In many cases, the largest political unit was a single village, or even a segment of a village, and the leader was often a self-made “big man” rather than a hereditary chief. The historian/anthropologist Jan Vansina has argued that this distinctive style of political organization was the defining feature that set the forest peoples apart from their neighbors in the mountains and the grasslands.4

For centuries, geography conspired to keep strangers out of the Congo basin rainforest. Although European ships first visited the mouth of the Congo River on Africa’s west coast in the 1480s, some two hundred miles of rapids prevented them from following it upstream, and the rugged Crystal Mountains, which run parallel to the Atlantic coast, discouraged attempts to penetrate the interior by land. At the eastern edge of the rainforest, the mountains and lakes along the Albertine Rift sealed it off from the savanna that stretched eastward to the Indian Ocean. Yet the isolation was never complete. During the era of the Atlantic slave trade (1500–1870), an unknown number of forest dwellers who had been captured in local wars or enslaved because of crimes or debts arrived at the Atlantic coast after passing through several sets of African intermediaries along the trade routes. Guns, brass, and cloth entered the Congo rainforest by following the same routes in reverse. Throughout this period, the European slave traders never strayed far from their coastal enclaves.5

Equatorial Africa

In the late nineteenth century, however, the relative isolation of the Congo basin rainforest was shattered by intruders from both east and west. From the East African coast came Arab and Swahili traders—subjects of the sultan of Zanzibar—in search of ivory and slaves. They were followed closely by British explorers looking for the source of the Nile, a quest that led Henry Morton Stanley to follow the Congo River downstream to the Atlantic Ocean in 1877 after initially mistaking it for the Nile. The penetration from the west began when the Italian explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, with support from the government of France, crossed the Crystal Mountains in 1877 to enter the watershed of the Congo River, and when Stanley, who was by then working for the king of Belgium, returned to the mouth of the Congo River in 1879 to build a wagon road around the rapids.

Those explorations from east and west opened the floodgates to the pillage of the human and natural resources of the Congo rainforest. Merchants in search of ivory, captives, and rubber, who operated under the authority of the sultan of Zanzibar, the king of Belgium, or the government of France, entered the rainforest to strip it of its bounty. Ordinary people were flogged, enslaved, imprisoned, and shot; villages were abandoned; fields were left uncultivated; and common intestinal and respiratory diseases became lethal for lack of treatment. Social and political institutions disintegrated as individuals fled from the armed marauders and lived hidden in the forest. In 1905, separate commissions of inquiry sent out by Belgium and France discovered that the inhabitants of the Congo basin rainforest were among the most brutally exploited people on earth. In the short span of thirty years, the intruders had transformed the Congo basin rainforest from a region that they considered terra incognita to a place that reminded one observer of the “land of tears” in Dante’s Inferno.6

The colonial occupation of the Congo basin rainforest was part of a larger process that historians have called the Scramble for Africa, which took place roughly between 1880 and 1900. It was the final phase in a four-hundred-year process of European imperial expansion. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and French had seized territories all around the globe to monopolize markets or gain land for European settlements. Africa had largely been exempt from this process, in part because the tropical parts of Africa had disease environments that were deadly to Europeans and in part because the Europeans viewed tropical Africa as a reservoir for captives to fill their slave ships.7

In the early nineteenth century, the British and French seized territory at the northern and southern extremities of Africa, both of which had familiar Mediterranean climates, but they avoided the tropical regions, where they were content to conduct trade from small coastal enclaves. In 1870, Europeans controlled only 10 percent of the continent. The European Scramble for Africa in the 1880s was made possible by three developments during the nineteenth century. One was the end of the Atlantic slave trade, a development that prompted Europeans to focus on more legitimate forms of commerce; the second was the European Industrial Revolution, which inspired a search for new sources of raw materials and new markets; and the third was medical advances that made it easier for Europeans to survive in the tropical African environment. In their subsequent partition of the African continent, the Europeans were competing with Arab subjects of the sultan of Zanzibar and Turkish subjects of the Ottoman Empire.8

Although boundary adjustments and military expeditions to remote regions of Africa continued until the eve of World War I, most of the European claims on African territory were made during the six-year period between 1885 and 1890. The spark that set off the scramble was the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, which met to partition the Congo River basin among the French, the Portuguese, and the Congo Free State (a private entity headed by King Leopold II of Belgium). The conference did not accomplish the “paper partition” of the African continent, as some have claimed, but it succeeded in its more limited objectives of dividing the Congo River basin among the European claimants and defining the conditions for making future colonial claims.

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it seems inevitable that the industrializing states of Europe would eventually conquer and colonize the equatorial regions of Africa, but it did not necessarily appear that way to the people who were there at the time. In January 1885, when the great powers of Europe (plus the United States and the Ottoman Empire) were meeting in Berlin, two expansionist movements based in Africa seemed to be winning on the ground. In Sudan, an Islamic revolution led by a prophet who called himself the Mahdi was driving out the Egyptians and the Ottoman Turks. In the Congo basin, the Afro-Arab trader and state builder known as Tippu Tip (because of the sound of his guns) threatened to conquer the Congo River Valley down to the Atlantic, and the Europeans understood that there was nobody who could stop him. He backed off, but his threat nevertheless revealed a potential tipping point that could have substantially altered the trajectory of events. To the protagonists of this book, the late nineteenth century was a time when anything seemed possible and no particular outcome was assured.

By the early 1890s, the Congo basin rainforest was being exploited by three different regimes of colonial resource extraction. The eastern third—known as Manyema—was controlled by a coalition of Arab and Swahili traders from the East African coast whose armed caravans scoured the countryside for ivory and captives. It was governed by a loose and ever-changing coalition of the major traders, each claiming his own exclusive trading and raiding territory. The western third—known as the French Congo—was controlled by the government of France, which gave it low priority in the larger scheme of French imperial interests. As a result, the French were loath to make investments in the colony and were largely content with protecting the trade routes and conducting military campaigns to extend the borders.

In between Manyema in the east and the French Congo in the west was an odd entity called the Congo Free State, which was founded in 1885 by King Leopold II of Belgium. After initially experimenting with free trade, Leopold developed a system of granting vast territories (usually much larger than Belgium itself) to Belgian and Anglo-Belgian companies with private armies that forced the inhabitants to strip the forest of its most valuable resources. When the people revolted against the impositions, the Congo Free State’s army would step in to support the companies.

The three distinct styles of colonization and exploitation were embodied in their major protagonists, three men whose actions and interactions shaped the earliest structures of colonial rule in equatorial Africa. Henry Morton Stanley laid the groundwork for the Congo Free State, Hamid bin Muhammad (known as Tippu Tip) created the Manyema Empire, and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza almost single-handedly created the French Congo. All three men had ambiguous identities and shifting loyalties. Stanley was a Welsh-born journalist and explorer who claimed to be an American and later worked for the king of the Belgians. Tippu Tip was a Zanzibari caravan trader of mixed African and Arab descent who proclaimed his allegiance to the sultan of Zanzibar and later to the king of the Belgians. Brazza was an Italian from the Papal States who carved out an empire for France and later converted to Islam and lived in Algeria.9

Those three men had divergent agendas and very different ways of relating to the Africans in whose lands they traveled. Tippu Tip moved slowly across the landscape, integrating himself into the local political structures by guile and force. Stanley was always in a hurry, driven to produce results for his European and American patrons, no matter what the cost. Brazza, in contrast, traveled slowly and tried to get to know the people whose lands he crossed. After those three founders departed from equatorial Africa in the 1890s, the fate of its inhabitants was left in the hands of the colonial bureaucrats, rapacious concession companies, and armed trading parties who followed in their footsteps.

By 1900, all three zones of the Congo basin rainforest had adopted variants of King Leopold’s system of resource exploitation. In Manyema, the Congo Free State had driven out the principal Arab traders, but instead of bringing in European concession companies, it employed Arab and Swahili agents who collected ivory and rubber for the state while preserving certain aspects of the former Arab system of exploitation. In the French Congo, French concession companies tried to emulate those in the Congo Free State, but they were less successful because of lower levels of investment and military support. The French government claimed that its system of rubber collection was completely different from that in the Congo Free State, but the similarities were too obvious to ignore.

In contrast to the extensive historical literature that treats the Arab zone, the French Congo, and the Congo Free State as isolated entities with separate histories, this book sees all three colonial conquests as aspects of a single process that was spurred by new demands in the global economy and new iterations of Great Power rivalries. The intertwined careers of Stanley, Brazza, and Tippu Tip illustrate this phenomenon. Stanley could not have succeeded without considerable help from Tippu Tip, and the fierce public rivalry between Stanley and Brazza heavily influenced the nature and timing of French colonial claims in equatorial Africa as well as the format of the Berlin Conference. Tippu Tip never met Brazza, but his reluctance to antagonize the French lay behind his decision to refrain from leading his Manyema army down the Congo River to the Atlantic. By taking the entire Congo basin rainforest as the basic unit of analysis rather than a particular colony or imperial power, one can see how the different imperial interests and styles interacted with and influenced one another.10

The narrative of imperial exploitation in this book is set in two very different contexts, both of which defy the boundaries of national histories. One is the global context of the world economy and Great Power rivalries. In contrast to recent accounts that focus on forced rubber collection, this one places equal emphasis on the search for ivory. It was ivory, not rubber, that lured Arab and European traders into the Congo basin rainforest, and it was only after the ivory stock was becoming depleted that the search for rubber began in earnest. In the diplomatic arena, the machinations of the British, French, Portuguese, Germans, and Americans were aimed more at positioning themselves in relation to world markets and each other than at building relations with Africa.

The second context is defined by the rainforest ecosystem and the cultures of its inhabitants. The people of the Congo basin rainforest had to make difficult choices of whether to welcome or oppose the intruders and whether to acquiesce to or resist their demands. Their unique form of small-scale political organization had endured for centuries because conflicts had usually involved political units of roughly equal size, and the goal was usually resolution and restitution rather than conquest and pillage. The whole system was threatened when the forest people confronted strangers who made unlimited demands backed by enough firepower to wipe them out. David Livingstone, who traveled in the Congo basin rainforest with an Arab/Swahili ivory caravan in 1870, compared them to “little dogs in the presence of lions.”11

Embedded in the narrative are three themes that have often been overlooked in the histories of early colonialism in the Congo River basin. The first is the impact of the internal slave trades in Africa and the anti-slavery movements in Europe. Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade was over by 1870, slave trades within Africa that were oriented toward the Nile Valley and the Indian Ocean continued to supply enslaved laborers to clove plantations in Zanzibar, wealthy households of Cairo, date plantations in the Arabian Peninsula, and various places in the Ottoman Empire. The fight against those slave trades mobilized British and European humanitarians, who lobbied for naval blockades on the East African coast, sponsored a relief expedition to southern Sudan, and created a private crusader army to fight the Arab slavers in the African interior. At the same time, the anti-slavery forces in Britain and Belgium became unwitting allies of King Leopold’s imperialistic schemes, which were often justified as anti-slavery projects. Slavery and anti-slavery were thus woven into the discourses of imperialism.12

The second theme is resource depletion. The outsiders came primarily to strip the rainforest of its most valuable and accessible resources. The slaughter of the elephants in East Africa created a constantly moving ivory frontier that lured the Arab and Swahili merchants from Zanzibar into the Congo basin rainforest and later attracted European ivory traders who moved in from the west. In a similar way, the depletion of the rubber vines in the rainforest lay behind many of the atrocities of the European rubber concession companies. Because the ivory and rubber frontiers were always moving during this period, the region was constantly in turmoil.

The third theme is local African resistance to the Arab ivory-hunting caravans and the European rubber concession companies. The Arab ivory and slave traders were driven out of Manyema only after one of Tippu Tip’s top lieutenants mobilized local forces against them. In the Congo Free State and the French Congo, the humanitarian reformers in Europe were ultimately successful in their fight for administrative reform, but their efforts had little immediate effect on conditions on the ground. The African villagers were left to liberate themselves through flight, rebellion, or destruction of the rubber vines, all of which cut into the profits of the rubber companies. One can only speculate as to whether the reform efforts based in Europe would have succeeded without the fierce and sustained resistance of the African villagers.

To tell the story of the pillage of the rainforest and the devastation of its people in its many facets, the narrative relies on a variety of eyewitnesses who left descriptions of one aspect or another of the larger process. They were a diverse group that included David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary/explorer who entered the Congo rainforest along with the first wave of Arab and Swahili caravans; Alphonse Vangele, a Belgian ivory buyer working for the Congo Free State; John and Alice Harris, British missionaries who exposed the crimes of the Abir rubber company; and André Gide, the French novelist who witnessed the continuing abuses in the French Congo. Figures such as Cardinal Lavigerie, who founded the Anti-Slavery Movement in Europe, and Roger Casement, who cofounded the Congo Reform Movement in Britain, provide perspectives on the humanitarian movements in Europe that sought to influence developments in equatorial Africa.

Insights into the global economic forces that influenced events in equatorial Africa are provided by participant observers such as George Cheney, an ivory trader from Rhode Island who invested his profits in a piano key factory in Connecticut, and Henry Shelton Sanford, an American entrepreneur who lived mostly in Belgium. Hovering behind them all was King Leopold II of Belgium. He never set foot in the Congo River basin, but he engineered the creation of the Congo Free State, a privately held entity more than seventy-five times larger than Belgium itself. Some historians have portrayed King Leopold as a singularly evil genius, but his Congo project could not have succeeded without help from adventurers, commercial interests, national governments, and anti-slavery humanitarians from a variety of nations.13

The testimony of the witnesses comes in a variety of forms, including diaries, letters, official reports, public lectures, travel books, and autobiographies. Aside from a few oral accounts by African villagers and a few documents written by Arab traders, the sources are mainly from Europeans who participated in the colonization of the Congo basin rainforest. The overwhelming majority of the European travelers shared an implicit sense of racial superiority and a belief in social Darwinism, but they applied these assumptions in different ways and to different degrees. Father Prosper Philippe Augouard, for example, exhibited a crude racism when he characterized the Bateke people as “cannibals” who looked like “veritable savages,” but other travelers had views that were more complex. Henry Morton Stanley, who claimed to be “free of prejudices of caste, color, race, or nationality,” nevertheless described the inhabitants of a village on the border of Manyema as “debased specimens of humanity.” By the time he left the village, however, he had changed his mind and expressed regret for his “former haughty feelings.” In a similar way, David Livingstone acknowledged his struggle with racial prejudice when he wrote, “Anyone who lives long among them forgets they are black and feels that they are just fellow men.” Given the wide variation in authorship and context, each text must be evaluated on its own merits.14

Because the travelers’ accounts are simultaneously repositories of historical data and self-consciously constructed representations of peoples, places, and events, historians of Africa have developed two different approaches to using them. The first is reading “against the grain,” a reference to the practice of mining European sources for data on what Africans were doing and seeking to uncover the African voices embedded in information recorded by Europeans. Whereas biographers read the explorers’ accounts to discover what they did and what those actions reveal about their character and accomplishments, historians of Africa might read the same accounts to learn what the travelers saw and what they were told by their African hosts and companions. What the travelers observed while moving across the African landscape is often more significant than what they were doing.15

The other approach is literary—to interpret the writings of travelers as acts of representation in a specific historical context. The Danish literary critic Frits Andersen has argued that the common theme in the diverse body of travelers’ writings on the Congo basin rainforest is the image of “darkness,” which stigmatizes the region as an exceptional place where norms, laws, and rules do not apply. That image was highlighted in the titles of books such as Henry Morton Stanley’s travelogue In Darkest Africa and Joseph Conrad’s autobiographical novel Heart of Darkness, and it was reinforced by unverified tales of African cannibalism and authenticated accounts of gruesome atrocities carried out by Europeans. In 1906, a popular Magic Lantern slideshow entitled Congo Atrocities shocked and titillated British audiences with a narrative that included claims of African cannibalism along with examples of European terrorism. To people in Europe, they were all manifestations of the existential “darkness” that permeated the Congo basin rainforest.16

The analysis presented here seeks to glean information from the rich trove of travelers’ accounts without getting drawn into their dominant motifs. The terrors described in these pages were instigated by Arab and European enterprises for the purpose of augmenting their profits in an increasingly globalized world economy. If there were unseen forces operating in the rainforest, they were the universal vices of greed and lust for power. The special characteristics of the forest societies were the result of their relative historical isolation from global markets and their decentralized forms of political organization, which left them vulnerable to exploitation by outsiders with guns.

In his innovative and often underappreciated book Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa, the late ethnographer/historian Jan Vansina argued that the shared cultural tradition of the rainforest dwellers, with its myriad variations, flourished for millennia in equatorial Africa, only to disintegrate in an astonishingly brief period under the pressures of colonial occupation. Vansina provided only a brief summary of that destruction, but the process, as he saw it, unfolded in two phases. First came the shattering of the forest societies under the pressure of colonial conquest and commercial exploitation, and then came the forced reconstruction of those societies according to European ideas about how African societies should be organized and governed.17

This book explores the first phase of that process. The breakdown of the forest societies proceeded step-by-step through the actions and interactions of a variety of individuals, enterprises, organizations, and governments, all pursuing their own interests. It examines the global forces at work, the major figures involved, and the interlinked processes that led to this outcome. Above all, it explores the complex interplay of humanitarianism and rapaciousness, of development and destruction, and of global demands and local interests, all of which resulted in unspeakable tragedy for the people of the Congo basin rainforest.





  • "In this unwaveringly detailed account of the colonization of central Africa, Robert Harms draws on four decades of scholarly expertise to write a history at once regional and truly global. A tale of soldiers, slave-traders, captives and kings, of principles betrayed and societies destroyed-for anyone interested in capitalism and empire, this book is as devastating as it is important."—Maya Jasanoff, author of The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World
  • "Land of Tears confirms that Robert Harms is African history's most thrilling narrator. The book is compulsively readable and dramatic history, as well as a critical intervention in the historiography of the Congo River basin at the turn of the twentieth century. In vivid prose, Harms demonstrates what the onset of European rule in Equatorial Africa meant then, and what it still means in our own calamitous era. He reads new archives in exciting ways and teases novel interpretations from classic texts. Land of Tears is engrossing, disturbing, revelatory, infuriating, and never, ever boring. It is history as it should be written and a worthy addition to an estimable scholar's oeuvre."—Daniel Magaziner, Yale University
  • "Land of Tears provides a vivid account of the period before the 'Scramble for Africa,' when European explorers frantically created beachheads for imperial expansion and the carving up of equatorial Africa. In this major contribution, Robert Harms reveals the intertwined interests of global trading networks that plundered and wreaked havoc in the Congo Basin."Ch. Didier Gondola, author of The History ofthe Congo
  • "Land of Tears is a brilliant and beautifully written book on a crucial moment in the colonial history of Central Africa. Robert Harms reveals the global and local contexts of the complex transformations of African societies in the last decades of the nineteenth century, with a special focus on the rainforest ecosystem and the strong local African resistance. An erudite, balanced, and timely book, and an engaging read."—Frits Andersen, Aarhus University

On Sale
Dec 3, 2019
Page Count
544 pages
Basic Books

Robert Harms

About the Author

Robert Harms is Henry J. Heinz Professor of History and African Studies at Yale University. He is the author of several books on African history, including The Diligent, winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Frederick Douglass Prize, and the J. Russell Major Prize. He lives in Guilford, Connecticut.

Learn more about this author