An Outpost of Progress Infobox

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One Language – Many Voices

Joseph Conrad: An Outpost of Progress
INfO-BOx
Cultural and historical background
The colonization of Central Africa did not set in until the very end of the 19th century, when ‘the scramble for Africa’ – the race of European powers to divide the continent among
themselves – got under way: In 1870 European countries owned only 10% of Africa, by 1900 it was 90%. For a long time access to the huge territories in the Congo River basin was considered impossible due to the impenetrable forests and the impassable rapids of the river itself, which served as a barrier to European exploitation. The adventurer and journalist Henry Morton

Stanley gained the interest and support of the Belgian King
Leopold II for his expeditions into the Congo basin ‘to prove that the Congo natives were susceptible of civilization and that the Congo basin was rich enough to repay exploitation’. In the name of Leopold II he appropriated land and labour for the

king’s newly founded ‘Association Internationale du Congo’. Leopold’s claim to the Congo was recognized at the International Africa Conference in Berlin in 1884–1885, presided over by Bismarck. The Congo Free State, as it was ironically called, was confirmed as the private property of King Leopold II in return for guarantees of neutrality, free trade and opposition to

slavery.
The Congo Free State, 1900

next to nothing, apart from small amounts of cloth, beads or brass rods.
The rubber boom started in the mid-1890s due to the
increasing industrial demand from Europe. While the rubber
trade made a fortune for Leopold II, it led to the extreme
brutalization of the local population. Under Leopold’s ownership approximately 10 million Congolese died as a consequence of
exploitation and disease. To enforce the rubber quotas, the
Force Publique (FP) was called in. The FP was an army, but its aim was not to defend the country, but to terrorize the
population, which it did by cutting off the limbs of the natives; this practice was disturbingly widespread. When news of these atrocities reached Europe, there was a public outcry; the British parliament asked Roger Casement to make an inquiry into the

situation in the country. The result of his enquiry was the
famous Congo Report (1904). Casement had been a British
diplomat in the Congo, where he met Conrad and whose Heart
of Darkness (1899) had deeply influenced him. In 1903 Conrad wrote to Casement saying, ‘there exists in Africa a Congo State, created by the act of European powers, where ruthless,
systematic cruelty towards the blacks is the basis of the
administration’. Conrad’s novel also contributed to a widespread knowledge of the colonial abuses and crimes taking place in
Africa.
In 1908 Leopold II was forced to sell
the Congo Free State to the Belgian
government, which annexed it as a Belgian
colony until its independence in 1960,
when it was named Zaire. Its history since
then has not been much happier.
Following the secessionist Katanga Civil
War, the country was brutalized under the
dictatorship of President Mobutu. In
1997, when Mobutu was overthrown by
the rebel leader Laurent Kabila, the
country was renamed The Democratic
Republic of the Congo. Torn between
ethnic strife and civil wars, involving
refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and
displacements from Sudan, the country is
still unstable.
Biographical aspects

Ivory and rubber were the main sources of income for King
Leopold’s company and its agents: they and their African
auxiliaries seized all the ivory that could be found, buying tusks from villages for a pittance, or simply confiscating them. They were working on a lucrative commission structure imposed by
the King in 1890, of which the African elephant hunters received

26

As captain of a steamship, Joseph Conrad
travelled up the Congo River to Central
Africa and the heart of the Congo in 1890,
and then went on an overland track...
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