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“Colonial Congo was seen from the outside as a place of great economic success in the trade of ivory, rubber, and minerals. At the time of legal and successful ivory trade, King Leopold II was the sole, self-appointed representative of the Congo Free State. In simpler words, he owned Congo and everyone or thing within it. The Congo and Belgian trade was a mighty business but had a negative impact on the country. The ivory trade during Colonial Congo caused a destructive impact on literature, economy, and the human impact of the Congo state.
The harvesting and trading of ivory was a booming business during the late 19th century. The Northern border of Central Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century was suddenly opened to the impact of the intense new ivory trade. Rapid success in both the European continent and the North American continent led to an increase in demand for ivory, which was then used to make billiard balls, piano keys, ornamental carvings, and knife handles (?Birmingham). In order to keep the business running smoothly for the western ivory trade systems, regulations and enforcement were put in place. In 1888, a labor contract system was installed in connection with the establishment of an armed force called the Force Publique. This armed force made up of local troops, who were commanded by European officers, was King Leopold II’s main weapon in his campaign of terror in the African state. In two years, the labor system became a system of repression that was less about a matter of the extraction of rubber, and more of international operation of unimaginable brutality (Sliwinski 334). This trade turned from being about achieving a product for selling; into an area of darkness in the western world of control, brutality, and destruction, which is eventually revealed to the unknown world through the writers who traveled the Congo river.
How it works
One of the writers during the late 19th century that went in-depth on the reality of the state of the Congo under the control of the Belgians, was the writer of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. Conrad was a Russian born English writer who actually traveled the Congo river, then later explained what his trip was like through his book. Joseph Conrad was one of the first European outsiders that witnessed and later wrote about the horrors King Leopold II’s regime committed in its greedy ivory pursuit (Costly). “Conrad attempted to show that the “”heart of darkness”” lay deep within the Europeans who exploited the land and people of the Congo. But the full story of the Congo Free State not only involves the evil acts committed there, but also the campaign to expose them to world public opinion” (Costly). Conrad uses his voice in writing as a way to reveal to the world the true depth of pain and destruction that was caused by the ivory trade in the Congo:
“By implicating his narrator in this fashion, Conrad, in the same way, he never explicitly identifies the company as Belgian, suggests that all of Europe has contributed to the ruin of Central Africa. For the author of ‘Heart of Darkness,’ turning a deaf ear to the truths of procurement does not absolve one of guilt; the willfully ignorant remain complicit also” (Murphy 3). Conrad uses his narrator as his voice in the experiences of his adventures. Conrad’s story explicitly reveals the economic and human impact that the ivory trade has on the Congo.
Like any form of extraction of goods, the ivory trade had many devastating economic impacts: harming the earth, the animals, and the humans as well. “From 1875 to 1905, Europeans extracted 70,000 tons of ivory from the Congo every year” (McCarthy 620). As explained in a national geographic video excerpt, “the ivory trade resulted in the devastation of Africa’s elephant population—going from 26 million elephants in 1800, to being fewer than one million elephants today” (National). The impact of ivory trade caused a whole species to go nearly extinct, which not only affects the animal species, but also the environment itself. This impact was also observed back when ivory trade was rampant by Joseph Conrad’s narrator Marlow:
“[He] describes an economy whose fructifying power is extinct and thereby renders an environment tipping toward collapse […] Marlow’s economic setting is focused on ivory, and just as the land has become “”a vast artificial hole”” under this European regime, the Congo basin’s ecology has been disrupted by the compounded exploitation” (McCarthy 622). The ivory trade was literally throwing the natural balance of the Congo off, creating an economic problem. It not only affected the animals, but also the people of Congo.
Being in a business or trade to extract and sell things takes a lot of hard work and manpower. However, this work was never done by the Europeans themselves, but by the native people of Congo, whom they either enlisted, bought off, or captured to do the work for them. By 1890, King Leopold II’s regime was paying Chiefs in the Congo to supply “”volunteer”” workers. The Congo Free State would also buy or forcibly take slaves from Muslim slave traders to work as either laborers or soldiers (Costly). Villagers were often rounded up into work camps, with many people killed in the process and then ransomed by neighbors, then sent out on dangerous elephant-trapping expeditions (Birmingham). The victims of these trading/ hunting raids were not only used in the fortified ivory camps but were also taken to be sold as either slave girls in the Constantinople harems or as water carriers in Cairo (Birmingham). King Leopold II not only used his own army to control and ransack Congo but also its own native people to cause harm. “By 1905, the Force Publique (a native army of Congo) had grown to a fearsome but poorly disciplined army of 16,000 African mercenary soldiers led by some 350 European officers. They burned villages, cut off the heads of uncooperative chiefs, and slaughtered the women and children of men refusing to collect rubber or ivory”(Costly). Many people were either killed or mangled during the Colonial Congo period, leaving an impact on the human population. Many tribes within the Congo were extinguished or decimated; the ones that did survive are still struggling to revive today.
King Leopold II entered a land of prosperity and lusciousness and left it as a land of death and struggle. The impact of the ivory trade left the Congo in a state of constant war and deprived of the necessary interactions with other countries to sustain its own economy. It destroyed the economy, its people, and changed the way authors wrote about the Congo and its dark nightmares. After the Colonial age of Congo, the land and its people have never been the same. Ivory may now be outlawed, but the damage on the land of darkness has already been done.”
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