An Outpost of Progress

A favourite board game of mine as a teenager was Diplomacy. This was a sort of highbrow Monopoly. The board was a map of Belle Epoque Europe and each of the seven players represented one of the Powers vying for continental supremacy. You had armies and fleets to move around, a bit like a conventional board game, but Diplomacy was ultimately a game of psychology. You negotiated with fellow players, formed alliances, double crossed them. This was the heart of the game. The throw of the dice, the randomness of other games, was absent.

Of course, smaller countries, Belgium say, or Serbia, could be occupied at will, and, the people of Europe don’t feature at all. This was a game of high strategy of a kind that Metternich or Kissinger would have loved. It inspired one of my friends to make his own version, based on the 1815 Congress of Vienna. It inspired me to design a game based on the Scramble for Africa of 1884-85. Real Africans and their right not to have their countries occupied by Europeans played no part in my game. In that respect I suppose I was nearer the truth of colonialism than I realised. I have to say that the game was not a success and Waddingtons and Spears failed to call. Designing the board did, however, give me a deep knowledge of the geography of Africa.

One part of Africa came to fascinate me and this was its dark heart, the Congo. I knew by heart the names of the towns along that mighty river. There was, for example, Kisangani formerly Stanleyville at the great bend in the river where it turns East for the Atlantic, there was Lubumbashi in the South, at the heart of the copper producing region of Katanga.

In those days both country and river were officially called Zaire at the behest of the ruling kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko. Zaire was in the sports pages too, with its football team becoming, in 1974,  the first sub-Saharan African country to reach the World Cup finals, while, a few months later, Ali met Foreman in Kinshasa in a brutal fight for the world heavyweight boxing championship, the so-called Rumble in the Jungle. Mobutu was flavour of the month in the West, he was one of ours unlike the regime in Brazzaville just across the river from Kinshasa which was backed by the Soviet Union.

Then, in 1978, there was a further uprising in Katanga which culminated in the brutal murder of Europeans, copper mining company employees and their families, in Kolwezi. There was a harrowing picture of this massacre on the front of Paris Match, to which I subscribed at the time, and press coverage in the UK essentially amounted to the view that Africans were brutes who needed the white man to keep them in check. In this case the French intervened to keep Mobutu’s brutal kleptocracy in place.

It was Joseph Conrad who first suggested to me a different picture. At school one day we read a short story with the savagely ironic title of An Outpost of Progress. In this story, a forerunner of the rather better known Heart of Darkness, Conrad asks the question, who exactly are the savages, who are the civilised people?

This was the spur to dig deeper into the Congo’s troubled history, from which Europeans do not come out well. There is the appalling story of the Congo Free State, the private colony of King Leopold of the Belgians, which was, in effect, a giant labour camp, followed by the Belgian colonial period when active racism mixed with brutal indifference to the welfare of the Congolese. Following independence in 1960, for which the Belgians had done nothing to prepare the country, the Congo collapsed into civil war. Collapsed is possibly not quite the right word. The Belgians incited the Katangan secessionist rebels and were themselves responsible  for the bestial murder of Patrice Lumumba whose only crime was to want to run the country for the benefit of its people and not do as the former colonial masters told him. There followed a brutal and rapacious 32 years of rule by Mobutu which has left a country with a vast wealth of natural resources with one of the lowest average per capita incomes in Africa. Such are the fruits of progress as Conrad noted so presciently over a century ago. .

The British were there too. Somewhere deep in the jungle are the remains of the villa of a rubber merchant who tried to plant a piece of the Home Counties in the heart of Africa. The rain forest’s tentacles have now all but reclaimed this most curious monument to European hubris. The Congo was never a British colony in the formal sense but the British played a full part in the ransacking of the wealth of somebody else’s land. Reflections on matters like these should be as much as part of Mr. Gove’s National Curriculum as the jingoistic drum beating he likes so much. I doubt it ever will be. Maybe a new board game would help people to understand?

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