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Customer Review

21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Pseudo-academic history with many flaws, February 19, 2006
This review is from: The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo (Hardcover)
Touted as "the first book to give a complete history of the Congo", Edgerton's Troubled Heart of Africa leaves much to be desired.

The book starts promising enough, providing interesting facts on Congo's pre-colonial history. Soon, however, Edgerton gets carried away by the boys' book tales of 19th century white explorers cutting their way across the jungle and along the Congo river. In a book of hardly 240 pages that purports to give a complete history of the Congo, endless pages are devoted to the biographies of these early adventurers (Stanley's mistress gets a full biographical treatment AND a picture in the small photo section, although she never set foot in the Congo and is utterly irrelevant to its history).

Edgerton writes well enough, but his book basically recounts - often quite uncritically - facts and - preferably - spectacular stories picked up left and right from a selection of mostly second-hand literature. No archival sources were consulted. What is really annoying is Edgerton's habit to generalize on the basis of relatively weakly documented specific facts and cases. This seems particularly disturbing for a scholar teaching in psychiatry and anthropology. The chapter dealing with King Leopold II's Congo Free State offers plenty of examples of what I would term sensationalist pseudo-science. First of all there is not the slightest attempt to understand the motivations of Leopold II, who was no doubt an extremely stubborn, devious and selfish man, but who basically did what he did because he had the burning ambition to bestow on his little kingdom the status of a great power. In Edgerton's narrow view Leopold II is nothing more than a brutal tyrant exclusively interested in amassing private wealth; and that's that.

There is also a very careless use of numbers: at one point an estimated population of 50 million Congolese around 1875 drops to barely 15 million by 1890 (p. 124), but only 30 pages on (p. 156) we learn of a population of some 20 million around 1880, dropping to 6 million in 1908. Precise figures are of course impossible to come by, but uncritically quoting a variety of impossible figures is a serious matter in this context: the author does imply at different stages that the dramatic drop in population was the sole work of Leopold II's henchmen's brutality and murderous misbehaviour. While nobody will deny that the Congo Free State was appalingly brutal and responsible for inhuman suffering, it is obvious that the less than thousand Europeans who were stationed in the Congo by the end of the 19th century (most of them near the coast and river) cannot possibly have committed a genocide on the suggested scale even if they had planned to (which was, of course, not the case). No doubt countless thousands of Congolese died under terrible conditions directly because of the intervention of Free State officials (or, more often: representatives from the commercial concession-holders), but the real tragedy in terms of population decline was caused by deadly diseases carried by the Europeans and spread throughout the vast territory by the sudden and dramatic increase in mobility along the Congo river. The greed and cruelty exercised by quite a few of the Free State officials is undeniable. But it is not enough to simply (over)state the facts, a really serious book should also try to look for context and explanations.

The infamous case of the cut hands is a point in case. Congolese forced labourers who did not collect the prescribed quantity of rubber from the forests supposedly had their right hand cut off routinely by Free State officials as reprisal - this is another story that Edgerton uncritically blows out of proportion. Let's be clear: the practice did exist and is documented (also photographically). But there is no evidence that this hideous crime was practised "en masse", and certainly not, as a rule, on living labourers (that would in any case have been truly counter-productive: cutting of the hands of rubber collectors who did not meet their quota was not exactly going to help them meet the quota at the time of the next harvest...). The documented cases - appaling as they are - are of hands cut off from dead bodies of labourers who were shot for deserting forced labour and running away. The hands were cut off and collected as proof of the exact number of bullets that had been used by the officials in question, as their ammunition was rationed by the State... This is all quite dreadful and deserving of genuine indignation, but I believe that it is actually much more effective to place such episodes, as serenely as possible, in their proper context rather than time and again overstating them.

The chapters dealing - rather percursory - with the Belgian Congo (1908-1960) and independence are somewhat better and provide a lot of interesting detail. But even so there is, throughout the book, hardly any attempt at serious analysis, at delving deeper into causes and effects. So, in the end, we learn surprisingly little about why happened what happened and what it has meant and means for the Congolese population.

All in all, a disappointing book that certainly is NOT "a complete history of the Congo".
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Location: Duggingen, Switzerland

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