Summary of the Prologue: “The Traders are Kidnapping Our People”
The author backtracks five hundred years to when white Europeans first set foot in Africa. He points out the myths, superstitions, and assumptions whites had about Africa, a land of savages and wild beasts. Only in the age of navigation in the fifteenth century did expeditions systematically set out for Africa to explore and report what was actually there. In 1482, Portuguese navigator, Diogo C‚o, found the mouth of the Congo River on the west coast of Africa, which was part of the thriving Kingdom of the Kongo, three hundred miles square. The ManiKongo was the chosen ruler of this kingdom, welcoming the Portuguese explorers, who began to build churches and mission schools. Though Africans themselves had slaves, they were usually the captives taken in war. Nothing like the huge European market, which soon developed there, had been known before. The mouth of the Congo became a slave port where Africans were shipped out to European colonies.
While the slave trade was beginning to decimate the Congo in the sixteenth century, a ManiKongo named Nzinga Mbemba Affonso took the throne in 1506 and ruled for forty years. He converted to Christianity and studied with priests. Affonso I was a modernizer and tried to get European goods and weapons. He was fluent in Portuguese and wrote letters to the king of Portugal, complaining,
“‘Each day the traders are kidnapping our people” (13). In addition to the kidnappings, the chiefs were selling their own people, lured to trade them for European goods such as cloth, tools, and jewelry. Affonso even appealed to the Pope in Rome to abolish the slave trade. His final despair came as he sent off ten noble youths from his family to be educated in Portugal. The young boys never reached Portugal; they were taken to Brazil and sold as slaves. That was the start of the decline of the great Kingdom of Kongo.
Other than the letters of Affonso, there are few records of what the Africans thought of the white invaders. African myths, however, depicted the whites as vumbi, ancestral ghosts. They thought the Europeans came from the land of the dead to devour them, for the captive slaves never returned.
The Europeans at first did not venture far from Africa’s coast. They did not know where the great Congo River came from. It descended tumultuously from a plateau a thousand feet high through narrow gorges and cataracts to the ocean in a mere 220 miles. These rapids made it virtually impassable as a system of transportation until the steamboat and railway were introduced. When Captain Tuckey in 1816 led a British expedition upstream to find the source of the Congo, he ran into these gorges and perpendicular hills of quartz, called the Crystal Mountains, carrying the river downstream. Many explorers died trying to portage around those hills, including half of Tuckey’s men and Tuckey himself.
Commentary on the Prologue: “The Traders are Kidnapping our People”
Hochschild gives some historical background of European exploration in Africa. He claims the story of Leopold II starts five hundred years earlier in the beginning of the colonial period when Europeans began to roam the seas in their ships, looking for conquest and wealth. They immediately viewed Africa as a source of plunder.
Africa, however, had mystery about it. Few had ever seen the interior. It was a blank spot on the maps, and there were many fantastic stories about its people and wealth. The author mentions the medieval legend of Prester John, a supposed descendent of the Three Magi, who had a magic and hidden kingdom of great riches in India or Africa. This myth symbolizes the fantasy Europeans projected onto Africa, a place where they could fulfill dreams of power and riches.
The reality of the land surprised early explorers. The country was deadly with its diseases and unfriendly landscape. The native people horrified the European missionaries as primitive with their polygamy, paganism, nakedness, and some tribes even practiced cannibalism. Hochschild goes to some pains, however, to present a different picture in his attempt to include African voices and points of view. He tells of the Kingdom of Kongo, which the Portuguese had to admit was “a sophisticated and well-developed state” (9). It had no writing, but blacksmiths forged copper into jewelry and iron into weapons. People wove cloth from the raffia palm tree. They had crops and livestock and a currency. Through the letters and story of the ManiKongo, Affonso I, in the sixteenth century, Hochschild gives us an early tragedy, prophetic of Leopold’s later nineteenth century atrocity. Affonso tried to negotiate with the Europeans and to import their progressive ideas for his people, only to become a victim of their greed and cruelty.
The author confronts the charge that the Africans themselves practiced slavery and were willing to sell their own people to the whites. He explains that African slavery was limited and more benign than the system the Europeans introduced. The whites tempted the chiefs to trade their people for goods they could not get any other way. Affonso’s letter confirms that after a while, Europeans did not wait to buy the slaves from the tribes but rather kidnapped them directly. They took the Africans violently in larger and larger numbers.
Hochschild also gives a preview of the dangerous conditions for the African explorers with his description of the Congo River, the river that Leopold attempted to tame with the help of Henry Morton Stanley. If the Africans were beginning to get a proper horror of the white man, the whites also saw Africa as the “dark” continent, an amoral place that needed to be civilized. It was perceived by the Europeans as an “empty” land to be carved up by the adventurous for their own use. These colonial attitudes had been in place for hundreds of years before Leopold’s rape of the Congo.