Authored by Leanne N. Manna
The Albert N’Yanza, or Lake Albert, lies on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is one of the great lakes of Africa. It has long been an object of fascination and exploration. The presence of books like The Albert N’Yanza: Great Basin of the Nile and Exploration of the Nile Sources serve to highlight how celebrated these explorers were. Throughout these narratives there is a common theme of seeking greatness and disregard for the indigenous people. For example, Baker names Lake Albert “in memory of the late illustrious and lamented Prince Consort”(Baker 1866, II). Naming “discovered” landmarks was quite common among explorers. In addition, Romolo Gessi remarked several times in his account of circumnavigating the Albert N’Yanza that people would flee their villages with their belongings as they approached (Gessi 1876, 51-54). This is most likely from fear of whom these new arrivals could be and what they planned on doing. There is a much darker history surrounding the history of exploration in Africa and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo specifically.
From 1885-1908 one man, King Leopold II of Belgium, privately owned all of the Congo Free State and during his reign about 10 million Congolese people were killed by his agents (Ankomah 1999, 1). Leopold was interested in the Congo for its large supply of rubber which could be shipped to Europe and exploited the local people in order to get it cheaply and efficiently. According to Adam Hochschild, many indigenous leaders were forced to give up their people as slaves or be killed themselves (Hochschild 1999, 220). Leopold purposely planned the subjection of the Congolese and even used Christian Missionaries to do it. In an 1883 letter he writes, “evangelize the n—–s so that they stay forever in submission to the white colonialists” (King Leopold II of Belgium 1883, 1). His tone and language throughout the whole letter indicates that he recognized the Congolese as humans with unique thoughts and feelings, but that he did not care.
Eventually, Leopold’s horrendous treatment of the Congolese would come to light. Leopold would attempt to sue Hamburg newspaper over “offensive statements concerning his Majesty” and the editor demanded Leopold stand trial (King Leopold Sues a Newspaper 1897). However, the massacre of the Congolese people even today is largely unknown. Hochschild remarked that while writing King Leopold’s Ghost it was “surprisingly hard to get anyone interested” (Hochschild 1999, 309). As members of a Vincentian community, and as citizens of the world, we need to recognize these atrocities and learn from them. We must come to the realization that this happened only a century ago and the effects of it still ripple across communities. As it says in the St. John’s mission we should seek “to further efforts toward global harmony…and embody the spirit of compassionate concern for others” (St. John’s University n.d). As Vincentians we should seek ways to engage with history and help repair its effects rather than glorifying actions that lead to hatred and violence.
Ankomah, Baffour. 1999. “The Butcher of Congo.” New African, 10, 14-18. https://jerome.stjohns.edu:81/login?url= ?url=https://search-proquest-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/docview/230219822?accountid=14068.
Baker, Samuel White. 1866. The Albert N’Yanza: Great Basin of the Nile and Exploration of the Nile Sources. London: MacMillian & Co.
Gessi, Romolo. 1876. “On the Circumnavigation of the Albert Nyanza.” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 21 (1): 50–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/1799914.
Hochschild, Adam. 1999. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. 1st Mariner Books ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
King Leopold II of Belgium. 1883. Letter to Colonial Missionaries. Faculdade de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas Departamento de História, Universidade Federal De Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. http://www.fafich.ufmg.br/luarnaut/Letter%20Leopold%20II%20to%20Colonial%20Missionaries.pdf
New York Times. 1897.“King Leopold Sues a Newspaper.” July 25, 1897. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1897/07/25/100428756.pdf
St. John’s University. n.d. “Our Mission.” Accessed March 17, 2019. https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission.