First it was the traffic in human beings. Then, under the rule of the King of the Belgians, it was the coerced trade in ivory followed by gathering of rubber, under the penalty of amputation or death, for the manufacture of automobile tires. Between 1910 and June 30, 1960, a colonial administration overseen by the Belgian Parliament found recompense in the mineral wealth of the Congo. While copper took precedence as the leading export, the Begian Congo gained renown as an incomparable reservoir of a variety of rare minerals and metals.
U.S. mining interests took note of the quality and size of the reserves and supplied uranium from the Belgian colony for the first atomic bombs. It was widely known when I lived in the newly independent Demorcratic Republic of the Congo from 1969 that the country was, next to the Soviet Union, the leading producer of industrial diamonds in the world and that at least half of the gemstones were exported illegally. Today, it is the neighboring countries of Uganda and Rwanda whose official exports of gold and coltan respectively fuel their development with minerals extracted from the Congo.
One of the first Congolese Christians, King Affonso I of the Kingdom of Kongo, made an eloquent plea in the early 1500s for a more humane treatment of the subjects of his realm. In response, the King of Portugal did little to nothing to restrain the slave traders. The greed and depravity of the European slave traders modeled what was to come later and turned a relatively benign traditional practice of slavery into a brutal decimation of the continent’s people.
Five hundred years later it now seems apparent that the pillaging of Congo’s incredible wealth will not be ended by today’s traders or their fellow citizens in Europe, North America, and increasingly, Asia. It rests with the Congolese themselves to reclaim their patrimony, stand up for their rights as an independent nation, and, in so doing, help all of humanity take a giant step toward the day of true independence for us all.
That that day will come might be seen every morning in the valiant struggle of the pirogue fishermen on the Congo River. After a night or several nights of fishing they paddle their canoes against the powerful current to their homes on the other side of the River. The parable of their struggle takes shape in the retreating progress that follows. The spectator on the bank is despairing, but then notes that in their retreat downstream they are closer to the island in the middle, the island whose bulk will impede or reverse the current and enable the eventual crossing. Unremitting, constant, the fishermen plunge their paddles, matching their force and their wisdom against that of the river as they make their way home.