In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism
“a contextual backdrop for an overall lesson in the tragedy of France’s imperial incursion into Equatorial Africa. It was never a pretty picture no matter where French or European footsteps tread on the continent.”
Massive construction projects have always been inherently dangerous, from the pyramids, the Suez and Panama Canals, and the American and Russian transcontinental railroads to the various huge dams built around the world and others. Exacerbating the danger is the failure of overseers to provide the necessary protective equipment, pay, food, shelter, and health care. At this point, it becomes nothing more than rank exploitation.
This publication is, in effect, a convergence of the worst colonialism has to offer in the way of a dangerous construction project and the exploitation of native workers, mostly forced to labor in inhumane conditions for low pay, if paid at all, in a part of Africa known for its rugged terrain and inhospitable physical environment.
The late 19th century rush by European nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy to slice up the African “pie” to enlarge or establish their empires left many of that continent’s native homelands as just so much fodder for imperial mills in the competition for hegemony.
Of course, imperialism and colonialism go hand in hand and make no pretenses to benevolence. The wealth and natural resources of Africa were there for the taking with the native population making a handy labor force to be supervised by white men in their starched whites and pith helmets. Unfortunately, many times that supervision included verbal abuse, beatings, and other punishments in an effort to correct and motivate the presumed ignorant native “savages” in their work.
Certainly, it was bad enough to the point where the native peoples were coerced or required to provide their labor as part of the wider effort to improve and modernize their countries to the extent that they would benefit from European “enlightenment.” Not surprisingly, many were the initial refusals and resistance to the heavy-handed tactics and the desertions from the construction site itself over time, particularly considering the lack of nutritious food, water, and health care.
Although the Congo-Ocean Railroad was not the biggest or longest such project, built over a period of 12 years, at little more than 300 miles from Brazzaville to Pointe Noir on the Atlantic coast, its path took it through mountains and jungles and over rivers where malaria from mosquitoes and sleeping sickness from the tsetse fly was endemic and the danger from wild animals and construction accidents ever present.
The railroad would permit the aforesaid riches of the interior to be delivered to the coast for export to the world. The profits would largely reach only the pockets of the company and its investors and mean tax revenue for the government in Paris. Meanwhile, the workers would be lucky just to survive, and unknown thousands would not as no mortality totals were kept and only estimates can be made.
Indeed, the back cover points out the greatest irony, and sheer hypocrisy, in that the workers were subjects of a so-called democratic nation whose ideals include “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” yet their concerns and complaints were invariably ignored and, at best, treated indifferently by both the immediate administrative state on scene and the national government.
The format includes an introduction and twelve chapters, acknowledgements, extensive notes, a list of abbreviations for archival sources (almost all of which are French) and a map of the overall French Equatorial Africa area but also shows the relatively short path of the Congo-Ocean Railroad within its context.
The list of illustrations contains depictions of the railroad at various stages and places during the construction, personages, the terrain, workers, contemporary cartoons, and journal covers issued during the course of the project. Those of the workers naturally show their subservient position, relative to whites, and the effects of the conditions and environment on their bodies, an indictment in itself.
Author J. P. Daughton, an academic of European history and its colonialism, has not only provided the historical background of and told the story behind this railroad but has used it as a contextual backdrop for an overall lesson in the tragedy of France’s imperial incursion into Equatorial Africa. It was never a pretty picture no matter where French or European footsteps tread on the continent.