Book review: Land of Tears

Robert Harms’ new book chronicles the brutal story of the European conquest of Equatorial Africa. Review by Stephen Williams


Robert Harms’ new book chronicles the brutal story of the European conquest of Equatorial Africa. Review by Stephen Williams

This historical study takes as its subject the bloody and contested history of Equatorial Africa, a vast region with huge tracts of rainforest intersected by the mighty Congo and its tributaries, which fell prey to the European Scramble for Africa.

In just three decades at the end of the nineteenth century, the region was utterly transformed. Virtually closed to outsiders for centuries, by the early 1900s the Congo River basin was one of the most brutally exploited places on earth.

In Land of Tears, the chaotic process by which this happened is recalled. Beginning in the 1870s, traders, explorers, and empire builders from Arabia, Europe, and America moved rapidly into the region, where they pioneered a deadly trade in ivory and rubber for Western markets and enslaved labour for the Indian Ocean rim. Imperial conquest followed close behind.

Three major figures

Robert Harms, a Yale University professor, divides the region into three parts, holding three men as instrumental in its colonial exploitation.

The eastern third, known as Manyema, was controlled by a coalition of Arab and Swahili traders from the East African coast whose armed caravans scoured the countryside for ivory and slaves. Afro-Arab trader Hammad bin Muhammad – known as Tippu Tip (on account of the sound of his guns) – dominated this region. 

In the west, the French-Italian explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza established a claim for the French state. In between was what became the Congo Free State, essentially a private fiefdom controlled by Belgium’s King Leopold II. To this trio of disparate characters was added the Welsh journalist John Rowlands, who reinvented himself as an infamous Anglo-American explorer by the name of Henry Morton Stanley.

Stanley shares much of the Manyema narrative along with occasional travelling companion Tippu Tip. The explorer was able to overlook the trader’s slaving activities by concentrating on the opportunity to make the kind of epic geographical discoveries that interested newspaper editors in Europe and in the USA.

A former soldier and war correspondent who had covered the American frontier wars, the British Abyssinian campaign in Ethiopia, and the British Ashanti campaign in the Gold Coast, Stanley understood how to win skirmishes against larger forces using modern firepower and tactics, turning his expeditions into military campaigns in which casualties and collateral damage were taken for granted.

But Stanley’s brutal methods were one of several reasons that British interest in the Congo River basin waned, much to the ambitious explorer’s disappointment.  “Stanley’s reputation for violent encounters,” Harms writes, ”had made him toxic in England where he was viewed as a product of the American Wild West.”

Instead, the British government favoured a free trade arrangement rather than territorial conquest. 

As a result, Stanley pivoted to new sponsors, travelling to Brussels, where he met King Leopold, a Belgian monarch with his own ambitions of muscling in on European colonial expansion. 

The pair worked on a plan to begin a “philanthropic and scientific” organisation that would initially build stations, survey territories and sign treaties with local chiefs.

While Leopold insisted that the Upper Congo Study Committee was for the “propagation of civilization among the peoples of Central Africa” and presented the scheme as a humanitarian initiative, it was in fact used to brutally extend Belgian sovereignty in the Congo Basin.

A lust for ivory and rubber

The purpose was to exploit the lucrative commercial markets for commodities such as ivory and rubber, soon the colony’s most profitable industry. 

Stanley travelled first to Zanzibar to hire porters and then back to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal to Africa’s west coast and the Congo’s estuary. There he met up with his supply ship loaded with the expedition’s supplies and huge amounts of trade goods plus five steamships to lead the best equipped expedition ever to set foot in tropical Africa.

Far from being a scientific or philanthropic venture, the resulting Congo Free State became a byword for colonial cruelty and avarice. Leopold developed a system of granting vast territories to Belgian and Anglo-Belgian companies with private armies that forced the inhabitants to strip the forest of its most valuable resources. When the people revolted against the impositions, the Congo Free State’s army would step in to support the companies. Workers who did not meet strict rubber quotas were subjected to increasingly depraved punishments, including amputation. The dystopia became the setting for Joseph Conrad’s seminal Heart of Darkness.   

Whatever the various modes of exploitation, this book sees all three colonial conquests as aspects of a single process spurred by new demands in the global economy and new iterations of Great Power rivalries. 


After Harms’ trio of key characters departed from Equatorial Africa in the 1890s, the fate of the region’s inhabitants was left in the hands of the colonial bureaucrats, rapacious concession companies, and armed trading parties who followed in their footsteps.

By 1900, all three zones of the Congo basin rainforest had adopted variants of King Leopold’s system of resource exploitation. In Manyema, the Congo Free State had driven out the principal Arab traders, but instead of bringing in European concession companies, it employed Arab and Swahili agents to collect ivory and rubber for the state while preserving certain aspects of the former Arab system of exploitation.

In the French Congo, French concession companies tried to emulate those in the Congo Free State, but lower levels of investment and military support thwarted them. Yet the similarities with the exploitative Free State regime are compelling.

The brutality of the colonial states of central Africa directly filtered into the violent and contested post-colonial history of the region, and ensured that large parts of Equatorial Africa remain virtually ungovernable today. 

“Because so many people profited from the exploitation of the Congo basin rainforest, this book has many villains and very few heroes,” Harms rues.


Land of Tears:The Exploration and Exploitation of Equatorial Africa, by Robert Harms, $35 Basic Books (US) ISBN: 978-0-465-02863-4

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