Clipping: Leopold Draws Up the Congo Free State

On December 24, 1884, the king pulled out his pencil once again.  He was on the verge of losing to the French the area of the north of the Congo’s mouth, a region for which he had entertained great hopes and that he would surrender only with pain in his heart.  As compensation, on that dark day before Christmas, he set about annexing another area: Katanga.  Quite literally, annexation in this case meant poring over a map and thinking, like that mythical first landowner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s: “Ceci est à moi.” (This belongs to me). Not a single soldier was involved. It was a game of Risk, not of Blitz. So Katanaga it was, Katanga it would have to be. Leopold was not particularly delighted. Katanga consisted of savanna, with less ivory to be found than in the rain forest. Only decades later would it become clear that the earth there abounded in ores and minerals. But Leopold simply doodled it into the picture.

— Van Reybrouck, David. Congo: The Epic History of a People.  New York: Ecco, 2015, p. 59. (Translation by Sam Garrett, 2013.)

One reason this is historically noteworthy:  Katanga was the region from which the Allies got the uranium for the Manhattan Project.  What if Katanga’s uranium had wound up in British hands?  Or in those of the Portuguese?  Katanga also proved to be a volatile region in post-independence Congo-Kinshasa.

For more on the Congo Free State, check out my review of Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost.


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