The railway was the idea of Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazza, an Italian-born French explorer who conquered much of central Africa for France “by exclusively peaceful means”. The French state imagined itself as a bringer of civilisation to Africa, and the railway was to provide a way for the Congolese to take part in world trade. Yet Mr Daughton shows how the colonial administration in Congo had little capacity to build a railway without violence: it claimed to be recruiting paid volunteers while its agents forced Africans to work at gunpoint. Many were marched hundreds of kilometres to the tracks chained at the neck, as slaves had been a century before. Whatever work had to be done, reported Albert Londres, a French journalist, “it’s captives who do it.”
The evil caused by perverse incentives recurs throughout the book. The Societe de Construction des Batignolles, a contractor, was assigned the job of producing the railway and paid a fixed fee. But whereas it had to provide machinery and skilled labour itself, the unskilled labour of Africans was given to it by the colonial state, practically free. It was cheaper to replace workers who died with new ones than to keep them healthy. In 1925 one doctor estimated nearly a quarter of new workers would not survive a year.
Surprisingly, the French state documented these abuses diligently (the archives provide the source of much of Mr Daughton’s information). In 1926 one inspector, Jean-Noel-Paul Pegourier, compared the treatment of workers on the railway to the German genocide of the Herero in Namibia before the first world war. Yet unlike the reports of Leopold’s abuses, these observations had little effect, not least because orders issued from Paris or even Brazzaville were simply ignored. Raphael Antonetti, the colonial governor, fought back with an avalanche of legalese.
The railway was a masterpiece of engineering, as Mr Daughton readily admits. For decades it provided the only means of transporting goods within Congo. The wealth of Brazzaville, still so named, was built on it. In Britain and France, the infrastructure bequeathed to former colonies is often cited as an argument for its benefits. But to build it, a weak and stingy state had to rely on brutality. As Mr Daughton reports, “the Congo-Ocean provides an all-too-useful case in point for how the language of humanity could be invoked to explain the deaths of thousands.”