Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Strange how some things intersect. I was reading Petrona this morning: in particular a piece she has written about the books most commonly held by libraries around the world. Naturally, this raises issues about stock libraries keep because they think they should, rather than because the books are necessarily read (a very good thing, because tastes do change; and holdings should also be about access). What made me perk up was the fact that two Twains are on the list - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the top 10, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the top 20.

Twain has reappeared on my radar screen recently because of our current non-fiction reading group title, KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST: A STORY OF GREED, TERROR AND HEROISM IN COLONIAL AFRICA by Adam Hochschild. I think it would not be an understatement to say that most people nowadays (including many Africans living on the continent) know very little about the Congo, and I include myself in this category. Appalling really given current direct foreign involvement there. A recent Human Rights Watch report on the DRC, THE CURSE OF GOLD, reports that 2003 saw in excess of 60 000 civilians dead in the gold mining areas of Mongbwalu and Durba, with more people raped and injured, and tainted gold worth an estimated USD$60 million smuggled out to the West. Blood diamonds from the region also appear on the market and are funding military action there. This all sounds horribly familiar when you open Hochschild's book and read about the millions of Congolese people sucked into the slave trade.

Hochschild first encounters the DRC in 1961:
In a Leopoldville apartment, I heard a CIA man, who had had too much to drink, describe with satisfaction exactly how and where the newly independent country's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, had been killed a few months earlier. He assumed that any American, even a visiting student like me, would share his relief at the assassination of a man the United States government considered a dangerous leftist troublemaker.
He describes how he came to write the book years later:
I knew almost nothing about the history of the Congo until a few years ago, when I noticed a footnote in a book I happened to be reading. Often when you come across something particularly striking, you remember where you were when you read it. On this occasion I was sitting, stiff and tired, late at night, in one of the far rear seats of an airliner crossing the United States from east to west.
The footnote was to a quotation by Mark Twain, written, the note said, when he was part of the worldwide movement against slave labor in the Congo, a practice that had taken five to eight million lives. Worldwide movement? Five to eight million lives? I was startled.
Statistics about mass murder are often hard to prove. But if this number turned out to be even half as high, I thought, the Congo would have been one of the major killing grounds of modern times. (Hochschild p.3)
The book is moving, engaging and (sadly) extremely topical. Where we now pursue expanding markets and source fuel, then empires were brutally expanded and slaves became the fuel which ran economies. Hochschild writes fluidly, and although non-fiction, the book has the ebb and flow of good novels which demand compulsive reading. His latest book (recently out in paperback is BURY THE CHAINS: THE BRITISH STRUGGLE TO ABOLISH SLAVERY. On the strength of KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST, I shall have to read it very soon.

And, oh yes, Mark Twain's anti-slavery writing? You can still buy his KING LEOPOLD'S SOLILOQUY, written for the Congo Reform Association and published in 1904. The Africa Book Centre sells a reprinted 1961 edition. Strange connections...

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Blogger Maxine said...

Thank you for the link to Petrona, I am touched. I'm very pleased you are reading it and commenting, thanks.

I also find your post about Twain and the Congo fascinating. I too know little about the region. The Hochschild book sounds very interesting, if harrowing.

7:45 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

You are very welcome Maxine. Our mutual friend is Giles G-B, which is how I came across your blog, which I enjoy for your wide-ranging subject matter (who is only ever interested in one thing, I ask you?!).

Hochschild is a deceptively easy read, because he is a very good writer.

7:25 am  

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