How did they get away with it ?

December 3, 2007

1887, in Congo Free State, King of the Belgians Leopold II’s private propriety, a company was created to build and mantain a railway which would bypass the fierce (videos) 350 kilometers rapids cutting off the huge naviguable Congo River basin from the ocean.
Lasting from 1890 to 1898, the works on the 366 kilometers railway ended up costing 1,932 lives and were mentionned in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness“.

In the early twenties, on the other side of the river, in French Congo, colonial concession companies are getting tired of using the belgian railroad and demand their own railroad bypassing the rapids. Built from 1924 to 1934, the 502 kilometers Congo-Ocean costed the lives of 17,000 people by conservative estimates and was mentionned in nobel-prize winner André Gide’s “Travels in the Congo“.

In short, a project conducted at the end of the 19th century by a colonial regime that managed to horrify and disgust fellow colonial nations by its brutality and greed only caused a fraction of the human loss caused by a similar project implimented 30 years later by a colonial regime generally viewed as benign who also had, because of progress, access to better technology and knowledge about the difficulties. (to be fair, on the belgian side, alteration works on the railroad in the 20’s caused 7,000 deaths)

So how is that possible ?

The story is simple: costs.
For a few reasons, the Congo Free State was able to attract far more capital than the neighbouring french colony and therefore, at least for that project, used more machinery and less (forced) labor. Albert Londres who visited the Congo-Ocean site wrote:

“I’ve seen railways built, you usually see machinery. Here, only negros. Negros replace machines, trucks, crane; why not dynamite too ?
To carry 103 kilograms loads of cement, “Les Batignolles” (the contractor) only used a stick and the head of two negroes !”

Furthermore, local labour being already used by Concession Companies, most of the workers were “imported” from what is nowadays Chad and C.A.R. to remedy the shortage. Congo being hot and wet was (and still is) a high malaria risk area, while the workers being from dry regions had little immunity caused even more deaths than the brutality of the work.
And several other “low-cost” decisions were made: making the workers walk from Brazzaville to Pointe-Noire with the loads instead of using the belgian train, a completly inadequate food supply, choosing the hardest possible route because it was shorter and ended in a natural deep-water harbour..

My question however is how did the french get away with that ? Why isn’t that cited as often as the Leopold attrocities as example of the horrors of colonialism ?


One Response to “How did they get away with it ?”

  1. Akili Says:

    The French obviously had a good PR person.

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