Congo’s ‘Heart’ isn’t revealed

Special to The Times

‘The Troubled Heart of Africa’

A History of the Congo

Robert B. Edgerton

St. Martin’s: 288 pp., $26.95



“The Troubled Heart of Africa,” by Robert Edgerton, is a deeply disappointing book about the part of the world that the narrator in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella “Heart of Darkness” characterized succinctly in the phrase: “The horror! The horror!”

That part is the Congo, the vast area of equatorial Africa that contains great mountains, immense jungles, the mighty Congo River, huge deposits of valuable minerals and people of numerous ethnic groups and languages who have been enslaved, tortured and exploited by European imperialists and their own rulers from the 15th century to the present day.

The disabling flaw in the book is that it is written solely from the outsider’s point of view. It is a history of the Congo that fails to bring to life the people of the Congo themselves. Edgerton, a professor of psychiatry and anthropology at UCLA and the author of “Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military” and “The End of the Asante Empire,” conveys little insight into the history or the society of the Congolese peoples.


They are merely unknown and unknowable “natives,” victims at the hands of others: the Portuguese slave-traders of the 16th century, Arab slavers in the 19th, the Belgian King Leopold II in the 19th and 20th centuries and, after independence in 1960, Congolese rulers.

In Edgerton’s book, the Congolese are as obscure to our view as to the eyes of the Europeans steaming upriver into the jungle in Conrad’s story. “The Troubled Heart of Africa” draws upon the published work of others in a repetitive fashion, piling detail upon detail, jumbling the significant with the obscure in a style that is pedestrian and pedantic (phrases like “as we have seen” and “as we shall see in the next chapter” are used too much).

Intrigued by the subject of cannibalism, which so fascinated and so horrified Europeans who heard of it and encountered it, Edgerton argues that the Portuguese exploiters and the Arab slave-traders so disrupted the country that they made the practice more widespread. But on cannibalism’s origins and possible anthropological meaning, he is mum.

After recounting the arrival of various sorts of Christian missionaries, Edgerton quickly brings us to the world-famous 19th century explorer and entrepreneur, Henry M. Stanley, who, he writes, brought the Congo to the world’s attention. His 1878 book, “Through the Dark Continent,” made Stanley a rich man.

In 1884-85 the nations gathered at the Berlin Conference, which partitioned those parts of Africa not already taken by colonial powers, and awarded the Congo to Leopold II. Here began the darkest years of that region’s torment. Leopold sent his forces on relentless hunts for ivory that greatly increased the number of slaves taken by Arab and Congolese traders (who could then barter them for elephant tusks). As Edgerton acknowledges, he relies in this section on Adam Hochschild’s 1998 “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa.” After these abuses became known to an outraged world, the Congo was taken out of Leopold’s personal control and put more securely under Belgian governance.

Conditions for the Congolese became a bit better; some African American missionaries helped in this amelioration. But in the breakup of the colonial empires after World War II, Belgium had left the Congo scandalously unready for independence. Despite UN intervention, it quickly sank into armed conflict between contending leaders and simultaneously fell, hapless, headlong into the Cold War. The Soviet-backed Patrice Lumumba was murdered by forces close to Joseph Mobutu, backed by the United States through the CIA. After 32 years of increasingly tyrannical and rapaciously corrupt rule, the dying Mobutu fell to Laurent Kabila.

The Congo fared no better. Battered by the consequences of the genocide in Rwanda, invaded by Rwanda and Uganda, the country continued, and continues, to be roiled by conflict. Kabila was assassinated; his son, Joseph, succeeded him; but the sought-for peace has not been achieved.

“For the Congolese people, independence has meant tyranny, corruptions, police brutality, hunger, malnutrition and an ever-shorter life expectancy,” Edgerton writes. “That a people should suffer so terribly for so long is truly tragic, and no end is in sight.”