Black Livingstone: Excerpt From the Book

March 1, 2002

"Leopold had gone deep into debt in order to build his African railroad. It had been a gamble, a huge investment that could ruin him and force him to sell off the Congo. But despite the considerable risks, he continued to pour money into the construction project, even as it fell further and further behind schedule and went far above budget.

Other men would have given up. But Leopold had guessed that within a few years the Congo would be worth more than anyone had dreamed. The reason could be summed up in one word: rubber.

By the 1890s, phone lines stretched between houses; telegraph cables snaked under the sea; electric lines, studded with glowing bulbs, crawled like creepers over Coney Island; telephone switchboards grew hairy with wire connections. Within only a few decades, the Western world had been stitched together. And what held together this new high-tech infrastructure, providing insulation from water and electricity, was a low-tech material that had been around for years. As the twentieth century dawned, rubber began to look like gold.

The Congo was full of it …

Leopold had spent thousands of francs to groom public opinion, bribing journalists and publishing books he passed off as scientific. Europeans believed in the Congo Leopold had invented, not in the atrocity stories generated by a few unknown missionaries like William Sheppard.

At just about the time Sheppard's report arrived in Europe, a group of businessmen gathered around a table at a London restaurant for a lunch. Two of the men, Dutch traders, had the gaunt and hollow-eyed look of men who'd survived tropical fever, their skin scorched by the sun. They dined across from two Englishmen with desk jobs at a shipping firm, pale hands with trimmed nails resting beside their plates, napkins tucked decorously into their starched collars.

E.D. Morel, the younger of the two Englishmen, might have grown bored and dreamy as the others discussed the shipping business. Perhaps he was only half listening when one of the Belgian traders veered from the ordinary topics of schedules and taxes and began to explain the grisly details of the rubber-harvesting operation in the Congo. The traders made it clear that the Congo Free State had turned into a hell far beyond the imagining of anyone in Europe; they themselves would speak out if they dared, but it would be the end of their careers. The revelation shocked Morel to his core: the "story [was] so appalling … that [I tossed] in sleeplessness that night, conjuring in mental vision burning villages, and … men and women quivering beneath the lash, chained and bleeding."

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