Africa: A Biography of the Continent

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Africa: A Biography of the Continent

When the two tribes went to war over cattle grazing, German traders and missionaries persuaded their government to intervene and fill the political vacuum. A later Herero rebellion in , provoked by the brutality of the German settlers, was put down by General Lothar von Trotha with savage efficiency, and tens of thousands of Herero men, women and children fell victim to his infamous ' Vernichtungsbefehl ' extermination order.

The philanthropic 'spirit of Berlin', however, was not entirely hollow. Once it became known that slavery was alive and well in the Congo, which was run as a personal fiefdom of Leopold, King of Belgium, an international anti-slavery conference was held in Brussels in By taking the women of Congolese villages hostage, Leopold had turned the men into forced labourers.


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During a sermon at St Sulpice in Paris in , Lavigerie had shocked his audience by describing the horrors of the Congo slave trade: villages surrounded and burnt; men captured and yoked together; women and children penned like cattle in the slave markets. The upshot of the Brussels conference was that Leopold cynically agreed to stamp out Arab slavery in return for the right to tax imports. He thereby overturned one of the key resolutions of the Act of Berlin, which had guaranteed free trade for the region.

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But while Leopold made all the right noises, his agents in the Congo used forced labour slaves in all but name to extract rubber, his single most profitable export. By taking the women of Congolese villages hostage, Leopold had turned the men into forced labourers, with a monthly quota of wild rubber to collect from the rain forest. The system was harsh.


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  • Many hostages starved to death and many male forced labourers were worked to death. More people were killed as rebellions were brutally crushed. Demographers today estimate that the population of the Congo fell roughly by half over the year period beginning in around The truth behind the Congo's rubber trade - 'legalised robbery enforced by violence' - was finally exposed by Edmond Morel, an Anglo-French ex-shipping clerk, who wrote a series of accusatory articles in 'The Speaker' in By arguing that Leopold's illegal state monopoly was robbing British merchants as well as African peasants, Morel was able to enlist the support of both businessmen and humanitarians.

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    A British consul, Roger Casement, was sent to investigate, and the publication of his damning report in was, for Leopold, the beginning of the end. But even then, the forced labour system continued. It took a different form during World War One, when tens of thousands of Congolese were conscripted as porters for the Belgian army.

    The forced labour system significantly changed only in the early s, when Belgian colonial authorities realised the population was dropping so rapidly that they soon might have no labour force left. The signatories of the General Act of the Brussels Conference of had declared an intention to put an end to the traffic of African slaves. This was extended, by the Convention of St-Germain-en-Laye in , to include the complete suppression of slavery in all its forms and of the slave trade by land and sea.

    In September , the International Slavery Convention was signed at Geneva under the auspices of the League of Nations 'to find a means of giving practical effect throughout the world to such intentions'.

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    It defined a slave as a 'person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised', and undertook 'to bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms'. But this was never applied against the practice of forced labour in colonial Africa, for example, requiring a village to provide men to work on roads and other public works.

    Under all the colonial powers, forced labour of one kind or another remained in place into the s, and the imposition of taxes forced people into low-paid mining, industry or agribusiness jobs when they might otherwise have remained farmers. The first practical consequence of the convention was that Ethiopia became the last African state to abolish slavery in All colonial regimes had long since done the same. Yet even today slavery is not unknown in Africa, particularly in countries such as the Sudan where law and order are often absent.

    Lee on Iliffe, 'Africans: The History of a Continent' | H-SAfrica | H-Net

    Nor have the colonists ever really gone away. White-owned businesses still dominate the mining of Africa's most valuable natural resources - particularly gold and diamonds - and in the eyes of some the continent has never stopped being plundered. Search term:. Read more. This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets CSS enabled.

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    Geography of Africa

    We study it… to discover how we have come to be where we are. History, he seemed to say, is the story of the winners: and we have won. Hugh Trevor-Roper is an uncommon historian, but in his remarks on African history he was thinking with the crowd. Even the implicit exclusion from Africa of the great civilizations of the Nile is part of a long-entrenched European common attitude.

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    So Professor Trevor-Roper was echoing here in plain Anglo-Saxon the idea that Hegel had expressed in high Teutonic when he asserted that real history was the story of the Idea, the progressive unfolding of the meaning of Being. Then there is a vast quantity of Egyptian records, many of them older than any European texts.

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